« Made Good | Main | How to Disappear Completely »

February 20, 2009

Comments

Are you going to send a copy of this post to Andy Alexander? Please do. If you don't want to, is it OK if I do?

I don't read WaPo. Decadent, insular, arrogant, unprofessional. Phooey on them.

Nine blog
http://www.gaypedia.com>Gay

Based on an extended correspondence I had with the editor of the Detroit Free Press years ago, concerning that paper's frequent uncorrected mistakes in the teeth of a corrections 'policy' that said they corrected all errors of fact, I'm not surprised.

The gist of it is that newspapers have a literally insane notion of what constitutes "opinion", essentially encompassing anything people might conceivably disagree about. The sort of "facts" that they're concerned with getting right are restricted to how names are spelled, dates of birth, addresses, and similar UTTERLY uncontroversial matters. If Will had called the joint the "Antarctic" Climate Research Center, you may be assured that the paper's fact checking would have either caught it, or issued a correction after the fact.

Don't take this, by the way, as agreement with the global warming people. I think they've got severe falsifiability issues, theoretically resolvable. But not resolved yet.

The weird thing in all of this, to me, is why George Will is opining for the public record on the topic of large scale climatological change.

Smart guy, good writer, thoughtful commentator. Not, however, a scientist, and apparently not a careful reader of the work of actual scientists.

It's a really fast and easy way to turn yourself into a hack.

Thanks hilzoy for holding him and the WaPo to account.

He's been a hack for quite some time, too late to worry about getting turned into one.

Although I've done a fair amount of copyediting in my day, and supervising of copyediting, I've never worked for a newspaper, which is a different environment and has different methodologies than that of either book publishing or magazine publishing.

Having made that caveat, and added that "a multi-layer editing process" can indeed be a very good thing that helps catch errors and problems at different stops along the way, I will say that the description Andy Alexander gives of the version of a "a multi-layer editing process" used for WaPo columnists makes me rather suspicious that their's is more a case of "everyone is responsible so no one is responsible."

It's awfully easy to suspect -- and this may not be remotely true, of course! -- that the "people he [George Will] personally employs" aren't inclined to question Will's facts, and they exist mainly to be Will's personal assistants in mundane tasks such as using a fax machine, or email, or doing a back-up proofread; that the "two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will" exist primarily to receive Will's column (and those of the other folks they syndicate), do a light check to make sure it reads coherently in English, and otherwise make sure there's nothing libelous in it, and to pass it through; that the WaPo opinion page editor exists to formally approve another George Will column; and that the "two copy editors" exist to do a final blue-pencil check for any typos, or basic punctuational/grammatical questions that might have slipped through, and possibly to check really basic questions of fact, such as the spelling of a name -- but not to go anywhere near what looks like opinion or content, which is presumed to have been done earlier in the "editing process," and which would be above their pay scale.

This guess, and that's all it is, may be, as I said, wildly and completely wrong. Maybe their process is rigorous and thorough at all, or at least most, levels, and I'm being entirely unfair to the WaPo editorial process for columns in making such a guess.

But it is my guess.

" All those people who supposedly fact-checked Will's article as part of the Post's 'multi-layer editing process' -- 'people [George Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors' -- should be fired, either for not doing their job or for doing it utterly incompetently."

In light of my previous comment, I have to say that I'm inclined to think this is entirely unfair; the responsibility for such pass-throughs almost certainly is not incompetence on the part of any of these people -- certainly not of either Will's assistants, or the copyeditors, though blame might perhaps lie with Fred Hiatt, the WaPo editorial page editor -- but with the instructions they're given from on high, whether at Hiatt's level, or higher. I have little doubt that everyone else is merely doing what they're told as regards not pressing Will or other columnists on such matters, and they'd be fired if they disobeyed. Copyeditors, particularly, do what they're told; it's not their mandate to force writers to do anything. Blaming the people who carry out their orders, rather than those who are responsible for setting up this process, and mandating it, seems to me to misplace the responsiblity and blame for the problem.

Note that Alexander is correct that the Center said (about global sea ice area) what Will said they did--but avoids any discussion of the inference Will made or implied. Will was certainly being dishonest and/or indulging in cherry-picking. And I agree that the WaPo "process" was unlikely to contain anyone who could say no, not least because the inference to be drawn could be said to edge away from a fact to an opinion.

Might the most effective way to get a correction be to start asking for them from papers that run the syndicated column? They don't have the same vested interest in Will's stature, and should be annoyed that they are paying for something so slip shod. It may even be reason for a struggling paper to dump Will's column and still maintain credibility.

I think that's an important point, DCA. Assuming one accepts that "near or slightly lower" levels of global sea ice is functionally equivalent to "equal" levels of global sea ice, the real error is in implying that this fact has any significance in a discussion of global warming.

The same could be said for the rate of sea ice change since September. It might be useful in studying the volatility of fluctuations in global conditions, but a few months of data tell us nothing about decades-long trends.

DCA,

That's why the oath in court is: "the trurth, the WHOLE truth, and nothing but the truth."

DCA: yes. That's why the point seemed to me to be the dishonesty of taking that claim, which is clearly part of an argument about why global levels of sea ice is just the wrong thing to look at when you're looking for evidence for or against global warming -- and use that quote as evidence against global warming.

I mean, when I checked cites, Will did not make quotes up. But he absolutely disregarded context, qualifiers, etc., in ways that utterly distort what was said.

"Might the most effective way to get a correction be to start asking for them from papers that run the syndicated column?"

Nah, that was one of the things the editor at the "Freep" told me: If they didn't originate it, you could completely forget about corrections.

So he was using Richilieu's maxim against global warming?

The weird thing in all of this, to me, is why George Will is opining for the public record on the topic of large scale climatological change.

Smart guy, good writer, thoughtful commentator. Not, however, a scientist, and apparently not a careful reader of the work of actual scientists.

This is my problem with all these pundits, whether newspaper or TV. They seem ready to talk expertly about whatever the issue of the day is. Climate change, North Korea, Mideast peace prospects, economic policy, education, Constitutional law - you name it.

What makes them such universal experts? Nothing. They mostly bloviate superficially about all this stuff, passing on talking points from whoever on their side provides them. That's clearly what Will did here. I think the status they enjoy is unwarranted, yet they do seem to have a huge following. If the blogosphere reduces the pundits' influence, by pointing out their ignorance amiong other things, that will be very useful.

In my view, it's fine to interpret data or arguments differently than the author intends, especially if you quote the source . However, you do have to use an argument to explain your difference from the author on these matters.

The problem here is that Will is using the Argument From Authority. In other words, to strengthen his point, he's quoting the testimony of experts. In using the Argument From Authority, you do have to quote the authority in a way that shows clearly what he/she believes. If you don't do that, you're being dishonest.

The editor should be capable of assessing what kind of argument Will is using, and then seeing if he is using it correctly. My experience is that editors don't do this, since basic logical fallacies are epidemic in opinion columns nowadays.


I think the status they enjoy is unwarranted, yet they do seem to have a huge following. If the blogosphere reduces the pundits' influence, by pointing out their ignorance amiong other things, that will be very useful.

Yes to all that.

A minor but irritating irony is that the term "pundit" originally applied to The Great Game era surveyors and explorers (many of them ethnically South Asian rather than British) on the northern fringe of the British Raj who were experts regarding their subject matter, which they mapped in great detail and often at considerable personal risk. The contrast could not possibly be any greater with the lazy and ignorant (and for the most part pasty-white) bloviators of today who aren't at risk of losing anything, not even their undeserved reputations for knowing anything about, well, anything.

The contrast could not possibly be any greater with the lazy and ignorant (and for the most part pasty-white) bloviators of today who aren't at risk of losing anything, not even their undeserved reputations for knowing anything about, well, anything.

THIS.

Also:

The problem here is that Will is using the Argument From Authority. In other words, to strengthen his point, he's quoting the testimony of experts. In using the Argument From Authority, you do have to quote the authority in a way that shows clearly what he/she believes. If you don't do that, you're being dishonest.

Will is arguing from his own authority as much as anyone else's, which, as pointed out above, is nil on this subject (and many others). But this explains, as several people pointed out above, how the editors simply don't question.

From my experience fact-checking, I've had to argue with the editors above me about very simple errors that were easily verifiable. If I, a low-level employee, took on George Will, I could only imagine what the results would be. It's the culture of newspapers and how they train their employees not to rock the boat--and how not only things like this, but Jayson Blair happen.

I agree with Don the Libertarian Democrat's view, although I don't think that's different than what Hilzoy wrote.

(Yes, Hilzoy literally wrote "Where I come from, when someone writes something of the form: 'P is not evidence for Q, and here's why', it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q." But her clear implication is "it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q [without explanation"].)

Smart guy, good writer, thoughtful commentator.

I just don't get this. This episode demonstrates that Will is not a smart guy (trying to deceive your readers in such an obvious way is stupid), he's not a good writer (rule number 1 of good writing: do not actively deceive your readers), and he's not very thoughtful.

Andy Alexander might as well quit the job he just started because he's not doing his job. His job as ombudsman is not to run interference for careless editors or self-absorbed columnists who try to make their own facts to fit their erroneous opinions.

Frankly, they didn't do the fact checking they allege. If they had, they would have noticed that Will was misrepresenting what was written. We know that Will's own staff isn't going to call him on his claim, not in those circumstances. The rest was just window dressing.

George Will has amused me over the years with his apparently inexhaustible supply of pithy quotes. One that readily comes to mind: "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." That is, if something is really worth doing, it is worth doing even if badly. This maxim is certainly valuable in some cases, e.g. singing Happy Birthday to your child, or dancing at a friend's wedding. I would not extend it to writing opinion columns, myself, but Will apparently does.

--TP

"Smart guy, good writer, thoughtful commentator.

I just don't get this."

He's a hack with a smart, thoughtful shtick going. He's very good at putting out "thoughtful" vibes. Plus, how difficult is it to appear thoughtful when you're paired with some of the idiots he's been on TV with?

You can add this to your list of refutations. It shows the actual data, which is really quite noisy. Comparing two specific data points is worse than meaningless.

In part I have to defend Will from some comments here on the basis of his work: simply, he has written a lot of arguments which are well-phrased, pertinent, important to consider, and not merely facile illusions impressive to the credulous. If you look at his essays, you might disagree with a lot of them, or find this or that factor less crucial or less convincing than Will does, but a net that would fish out a very large number of opinion-writers on the sort of basis above would in general have to be made much finer mesh before it would screen out Will.

Hilzoy's summary of the business in question here is entirely right. Condemnation of this particular garbage is completely justified. This was beyond a lapse. But extension of it to "this is all that George Will has ever done, he's always just been a peddler of dishonest nonsense" - that's sailing past the merits here. The emphasis on closing the book on George Will - is this really what we're supposed to be doing? I have no idea of what hilzoy's worst or most flawed bit of argument or polemic would or could ever have been, but would it be right or accurate, in correctly showing how Homer nodded or was actually drunk there, to then paint hilzoy and everything she has ever done with the correct description of that one bit, such that she clearly should globally never be read?

He flagrantly strayed into the wrong here, but we should keep the discussion to that, on its merits. To go beyond that so completely - it's ugly, and is not what we're supposed to be doing, and I don't like it.


The emphasis on closing the book on George Will - is this really what we're supposed to be doing?

Damm straight, that's what we're supposed to be doing. A fair chunk of our so-called pundit class deserves (in a fairer and more just world than this one) to go to the guillotine for what they've done to us and the rest of the world over the last couple of decades. They have blood on their hands.

In my book Will has been a dishonest, partisan hack ever since he coached Ronald Reagan in advance of the 1980 campaign presidential debate and then afterwards pretended to be a neutral observer evaluating Reagan's performance and exclaiming how impressive it was. And it hasn't gone uphill from there.

Will's schtick is to be a conservative partisan and water carrier, while pretending to be a disinterested observer and umpire of the American political scene. He and his brethren (like David Brooks) have been eating away at the foundations of our Republic like termites for their entire careers. The time is long past due when these folks should be held responsible for their failures, their ignorance, stupidity, vanity, venality and corruption by most royally being given the sack. Or, what he said:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!

Alex,

I agree with your general point, but will does have a habit of this. It doesn't render everything he's ever written rubbish, but it is revealing in a sense. Here's another such example:

http://thismodernworld.com/4689

"...he's not a good writer (rule number 1 of good writing: do not actively deceive your readers)"

I've never heard of such a rule. There are endless numbers of good fiction writers.

Alex Russell: He flagrantly strayed into the wrong here, but we should keep the discussion to that, on its merits. To go beyond that so completely - it's ugly, and is not what we're supposed to be doing, and I don't like it.

I'm sorry you don't like it, but 1 - the fact is that George Will has a history of resisting being called to account for blatant misrepresentation and 2 - on what basis are you asserting that something is "not what we're supposed to be doing" here? If you want more support for a commenter's point, request it.

Please save accusations of ugliness and related pearl-clutching maneuvers for situations that actually warrant them.

I've never heard of such a rule. There are endless numbers of good fiction writers.

Fiction != deception, Gary, as you should really be the first to know.

"Fiction != deception, Gary, as you should really be the first to know."

Do you know how many people I've met who are convinced that, say, William Goldman abridged The Princess Bride from S. Morgenstern?

Then there's the Coen Brothers approach, for instance, that Fargo is "based on a true story."

But more seriously, whether writing is good or not is, by most definitions and usages, a matter of technique, and not a matter of the purpose the writing is put to. Whether it's honest, or not, or accurate, or not, really isn't a matter of how well written, or not, a piece of writing is.

I don't think it's particularly useful to conflate the two things, but obviously some people will disagree, and life will go on.

Nell - You're right, "not what we're supposed to be doing" was pretty wide open and unspecified. And I am reading the additional stuff I've been given, and I am not at all happy about it.

Here's what I think, though, and about it I can't regret using the word "ugly": I think the essence of ideological thinking in the bad sense is, not merely to disagree with something or someone, but to simply say that there is no need to read or look at someone or something at all, and to disregard and reason any reasons to the contrary. And the temptation to do this is something I worry about, because, to the extent that it will be sincere, it casts aside any reason to worry about the full justice of doing it. Even or especially in the presence of good reasons.

If Will's behavior here turns out to be even worse, now and in the past, than I am now suspecting - I would say that he has been worth reading in many respects, because of his ideas and because of the way he has dealt with them - not all of which can have been fraudulent. And I have difficulty thinking that even people who have strongly disagreed with him would entirely disagree with that description on the merits.

In objecting this way, I mean to be defending something not just for Will but for everyone here and for any writer we look at. "What we are supposed to be doing", and something that here has been very frequently done, is to at aim for accuracy and fairness when accounting for everything. If what's said here in connection with this is that Will has always been a misleading fraud and nothing but - I have difficulty finding that, not just accurate, but greatly concerned with complete accuracy. And that's not the sort of thing we should be trying to do with anyone. If a writer does have any merits, he or she has them. Along with flaws and villainies which are completely fair to describe and nail down on their merits.

I may not come off as doing anything more than nit-picking (my faith that I'm even making myself clear is shaky), but ... it may say something that in other places I wouldn't even bother trying to make this point. But from what I've seen of this place, it can live up to the point and the point belongs here. "Situations that actually warrant" this... I think all situations warrant it.

I'm done, anyway, and feel slightly ridiculous moralizing, and won't clutter the very sound discussion of how Will has plainly distorted his sources.

Do you know how many people I've met who are convinced that, say, William Goldman abridged The Princess Bride from S. Morgenstern?

Many, I'm sure. [I would've actually gone with the Blair Witch Project, but that's an even better example.*] That's why I rephrased the issue slightly: whether such people are deceived is less pertinent than whether the author intended for them to be deceived.

All of which is moot, btw, because I think you're conflating two other things: fiction and punditry. [Although, now that I've written that... wow, given our current punditry... yikes.] I'm oversimplifying considerably, but the intent of an author of non-fiction should be, well, to be non-fictional: to not make things up and to give to their readers an accurate picture of their subject. Deliberately attempting to deceive your audience when you're ostensibly informing them about the truth is a far cry from the author of a work of fiction not letting the readers see all of the man behind the curtain.

To put it another way, when I sit in a theater I expect to hear things that aren't factually true; that's part of the experience of art. When I sit in a classroom, I don't expect my teacher to brazenly deceive or lie, and I have every right to be angry if they do. The distinction isn't perfect, true; on the other hand, there's no way you can credibly claim that Will is portraying himself not as an authority but a mere raconteur.

* Actually, the best examples I know are the Renaissance Italians who thought the Divine Comedy was an affidavit.

Fair enough, Alex.

Let me rephrase in less emotive language the point I was making with more snarkiness than necessary:

It is both more effective and less disruptive to quote specific comments that seem to you to unfairly or inaccurately go beyond the facts, and to ask those who made them either to back them up or qualify them.

Condemning or moralizing about overstatements, particularly when it's not at all clear which particular overstatements you're responding to, has the effect of raising the emotional temperature and makes it less likely that the response will be reasonable and nuanced.

*smiles* Yeah, you're absolutely right. My head of steam took me past that sensible step. My apologies.

"All of which is moot, btw, because I think you're conflating two other things: fiction and punditry."

No, I'm not. Turbulence did, with his "(rule number 1 of good writing: do not actively deceive your readers)."

I'm trying to separate punditry from other kinds of writing. I agree that punditry calls for not deceiving readers.

Punditry, and political writing, and any sincere reportage of any kind, calls for not deceiving readers.

Those are specific kinds of writing. It's not "writing," per se, that calls for accuracy and truthfulness.

It's not a point worth going on about further, now that I've made it, and it wasn't that large a point in the first place, but I'm fussy about statements about writing, among many other topics.

… it’s hard to see how he's not being deliberately deceptive by citing them as he did.

One word rebuttal: Hansen.

Crap. I gave this up a long time ago as fruitless and did not mean to hit post. I was amusing myself. I hear you can go blind from that so I’ll stop now…

"when someone writes something of the form: "P is not evidence for Q, and here's why", it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q."

It is not dishonest to use the quote if the person the speakers qualification is irrelevant.

Global-warming cultists had no problem citing declining Antarctic ice as proof of global warming for years. Now that it's growing, we learn that some model we ignored before says global warming will cause us to have MORE ice. There is not anything that could happen weather-wise that will not be shown by some quickly tweaked-up model to be caused by global warming.

SO if the prophets of doom cite something as being a proof, and THEN, when the opposite happens, they claim THAT is proof, THEN the reasonable person ignores their rationalization merely points out that they predicted one thing and the other occurred.

Anyway, the fact is that global cooling of the oceans has been going on for the last 8 years. The Earth is cooler today than when GWB took office. Trying to distract from this point is dishonest.

Wow. Now I see why people hate professors. Because when they disagree, right or wrong, their dicks. And everyone knows it.

No wonder the world doesn't pay attention to intelligent people.

Makes me want to go watch Family Guy.

Now that it's growing,

A single measurement at a single point in time that yields result X is very different from a general trend.

There is not anything that could happen weather-wise that will not be shown by some quickly tweaked-up model to be caused by global warming.

Weather and climate aren't the same thing, Einstein.

Yeah, weather and climate aren't the same thing, but it's not like we're talking about the planet being cooler on a particular given day. We're talking about YEARS of this warming trend being interrupted.

Are you aware that the beginning of the new sun spot cycle is now a couple years overdue? Heard of the "Maunder minimum", and it's connection to the little ice age? If we're going into a new one, we need that CO2 for a while.

If we're going into a new one, we need that CO2 for a while.

The truth is C02 causes global warming in the same way that getting in a bathing suit and going to the beach causes Summer. They are related but in the opposite direction. According to core-drillings, a rise in so-called global-warming gasses follows global warming by a couple centuries.

We can't control climate (or the weather, Einstein) with any kind of gasses. And if we could, it would go up for a while and then descend for a while just as it always has since the planet was formed.

Yeah, weather and climate aren't the same thing, but it's not like we're talking about the planet being cooler on a particular given day. We're talking about YEARS of this warming trend being interrupted.

Yeah, not so much.

Are you aware that the beginning of the new sun spot cycle is now a couple years overdue? Heard of the "Maunder minimum", and it's connection to the little ice age? If we're going into a new one, we need that CO2 for a while.

Surprisingly, climate scientists are aware of both the sun and the Maunder Minimum (which corresponded to a period of increased volcanic activity as well as reduced sunspots, you know). Strangely enough, these well known factors have already been taken into account!

The truth is C02 causes global warming in the same way that getting in a bathing suit and going to the beach causes Summer. They are related but in the opposite direction. According to core-drillings, a rise in so-called global-warming gasses follows global warming by a couple centuries.

You're partially right about (some) parts of the long term geological record, but that doesn't change the fact that CO2 IS a greenhouse gas, that WE have put way more in the air than there's been in more than half a million years, and that the geological record isn't relevant on historical timescales where we have clear records of warming following CO2.

You have to look at the whole picture, not just whatever Instapundit is linking to this week.

It is both more effective and less disruptive to quote specific comments that seem to you to unfairly or inaccurately go beyond the facts, and to ask those who made them either to back them up or qualify them.
yarismak

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad