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The Progressive Truth Squad

This is getting a little ridiculous.

For those who haven't been paying attention, conservative pundit George F. Will wrote a column for the Washington Post on February 15 in which he argued that contemporary concerns about global warming are greatly exaggerated. Will quoted several articles from the 1970s in order to demonstrate that at the time there was widespread concern about impending "global cooling" that never materialized. He also cited data from the University of Illinois's Arctic Climate Research Center, supposedly showing that the effect of global warming on sea ice in our own time is less dramatic than it is sometimes claimed to be. 

In the hours and days immediately following the publication of the column, several progressive bloggers mercilessly attacked Will and the Post, demanding a retraction of the column or at least a substantial correction of its numerous inaccuracies and "fabrications." The Post refused to do so and then published a second column in which Will failed to back down. This further inflamed the bloggers, inspiring some, like Matthew Yglesias, to broaden their attack. Now it was not just Will and Fred Hiatt (the Post's editorial page editor) who were guilty of journalistic malfeasance but also reporters at the paper, whose future work would be tarnished by its link with an organization that actively and unapologetically acts as "a vehicle for transmitting right-wing propaganda" and "lies." In Yglesias's view, "people who work at, or care about, The Washington Post need to complain to Fred Hiatt and ensure that" the paper stops throwing "its institutional weight behind a defense of lying."

Now, I have no interest in defending the substance of either of Will's columns. His denialist position on global warming deserves to be engaged and criticized. But is Will guilty of "lying"? I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. In his original column, Will quoted (and provided precise citations to) articles originally published during the mid-1970s in The New York Times, Science News, Global Ecology, International Wildlife, Science Digest, Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor, all of them discussing the now-discredited threat of "global cooling." Yglesias and other progressives claim that these quotations are misleading because the evidence for global cooling three decades ago was far less scientifically established and accepted than is evidence for global warming today. I agree. Yet this doesn't make Will a liar. Call his argument misleading, as I have, or say that it displays ignorance of the scientific facts, which it seems to. But to call it a lie is to imply that Will knows these facts, concedes their truth, and then deliberately says something different, which he knows to be untrue, presumably because he wants to convince as many people as possible of these lies. And for all the blogospheric bluster, I see no evidence of that.

The extent of global warming over recent decades can be established with something close to factual accuracy. But how we (as individuals, as a society, and as a species) should respond to this fact -- with panic, or alarm, or measured concern, or ambivalence, or indifference -- is a matter of opinion and judgment, not truth or falsehood. And when it comes to proposing policies in response to the fact of global warming -- proposals that require us to weigh a nearly endless series of social and economic costs and benefits -- things get even muddier, because they become political.

It seems to me that Will is making a political argument in his columns, asserting that the evidence in favor of global warming is nowhere near strong enough to justify the enormous social changes and economic regulations advocated by many committed environmentalists. By all means, reject that argument and mount one on the other side. But calling Will a liar for making the argument -- let alone denouncing Fred Hiatt for publishing it and for defending the decision to publish it, let alone sliming all Washington Post reporters because they work for a newspaper that published it and defended the decision to publish it -- is to make the same category error as doctrinaire Marxist-Leninists who treat political dissent as a betrayal of the indisputable Truth that they alone possess and should be empowered to enforce.

Politics is not a hard science. And those who treat it as one end up sounding more like commissars out to impose a party line than thoughtful citizens contributing to an intellectually vibrant national conversation (or argument).