Sunday, March 22, 2009

A mea culpa by the Washington Post, or not

The Washington Post has published Chris Mooney's intelligent critique of the mistaken claims about climate science in recent columns by the paper's own George Will. Here's the take home message:

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists -- following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be -- now more than ever.

Many online voices including Joe Romm and Mooney himself are applauding the Post for publishing an opinion piece that criticizes its own opinion columnist. While we applaud the implicit mea culpa, let's not forget that original fault here lies with the newspaper. A real victory will be an assurance from the Post that the editorial board will fact-check and properly vet opinion pieces, even those written by a star syndicated columnist.

Mooney's right that scientists apply critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. Guess what? We still make mistakes and misinterpret results. That's why we are required to state our methods. And that's why we have peer review.

The same should be true of the editorial page. Surely, we should expect better of a columnist like Will, that he will follow up on sources, properly weigh evidence and double check all his sources and facts. But incorrect claims about climate science or whatever subject are bound to happen, intentional or not. That's why you have editors. That's why you have an editorial process.

Don't get me wrong. George Will should be criticized for the content of his columns. As should Lorne Gunter for the unsubstantiated drivel in his climate-related columns that appear in Canada's National Post. The thing is, even if Will or Gunter changes their ways, there will be some other columnist willing to cherry-pick misleading bits of information. It's great to see an opinion piece that defines good science journalism. Now let's see an editorial policy that does the same.

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