Those in my profession like to argue that the due diligence associated with journalism’s formalisms is what sets our work apart, gives it its credibility and substance. Which is why I reserve special outrage for what George Will did this week.
In a column published Thursday, Will repeated a theme he has touched on before – the allegation that scientists in the 1970s were predicting global cooling, and that therefore one should approach their current assertions about global warming with caution. Here is what he said:
Because of restrictions on hunting, polar bears might be more numerous today than ever and might be twice as numerous as they were three decades ago — when the media were fanning frenzy about global cooling. (Science magazine, March 1975, reported “the approach of a full-blown 10,000-year ice age.”)
If you Google the phrase, you’ll find that same alleged “Science magazine quote” repeated frequently, but at first I had a hard time tracking it down. A look through Science’s archives yielded nothing. That, it turns out, is because it did not appear in Science magazine. It appeared in Science News. But that’s as maybe, as my British friends might say. It may be evidence that Will didn’t really do his homework, and hadn’t read the original piece. But Science News is a reputable news source, right?
But if Will had done his journalistic due diligence and actually tracked down the original source, he would have found that it contained a very different message than the one he was pitching in Thursday’s column.
The article is entitled “Climate Change: Chilling Possibilities,” by John H. Douglas, in the March 1, 1975 issue of Science News. I can’t find a free copy on line, but it took me about half an hour and a helpful family member with university library privileges to obtain a copy. (One assumes the Post’s librarians could have done the same for Will had he asked.)
What we find is a nice overview of the state of climate science at the time, building on a 1975 report of the National Academy of Science. For those like Will who would cherry-pick quotes to support the argument that scientists at the time were predicting cooling, there is this:
The cooling trend observed since 1940 is real enough, he (C.C. Wallen, WMO) says, but not enough is known about the underlying causes to justify any sort of extrapolation.
Douglas then goes on to discuss a number of possible climate scenarios, arguing that more study is needed to distinguish which future our climate might hold. One such scenario (the source of the cherry-picked quote) involves a “full-blown 10,000-year ice age”. Another involves the offsetting influence of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere:
Stephen H. Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says that by the turn of the century, enough carbon dioxide will have been put into the atmosphere to raise the temperature of earth half a degree.
Douglas’s bottom line: not enough was known at the time to make any predictions whatsoever. More study was needed. That’s a far cry from the implication of Will’s egregiously cherry-picked quote.