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Will Omitted Key Context in Ice Age Quote

Although George F. Will’s article today on the supposed global cooling scare of the 1970s was fundamtentally dishonest, it turns out that Will has brushed up against the ethical boundaries a little more strongly than that. Specifically, one of his money quotes may have been taken out of context.

As a biology professor at an Eastern college wrote in to me this morning:

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The intellectual dishonesty of Will’s article on the alleged global cooling scare of the 1970s is made stark by actually going and looking at the publications he cites. Will asserts that although there were skeptics of the global cooling scenario, ….”others anticipated ‘a full-blown 10,000-year ice age’ involving ‘extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation’ (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively).”
The Science magazine article he cites is a famous study of the correlation between variations in Earth’s orbit and long-term fluctuations in climate, titled “Variations in the Earth’s orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages“. Here’s the final paragraph of that article, and the source of Will’s quotation:
“A model of future climate based on the observed orbital-climate relationships, but ignoring anthropogenic effects, predicts that the long-term trend over the next several thousand years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.”

Isn’t it odd how Will left out the phrase “ignoring anthropogenic effects”? A non-Republican might interpret that phrase to mean that even way back in 1976, the authors of the article considered it possible that anthropogenic warming could potentially be strong enough to stave off an entire Ice Age.

I would add that in addition to ignoring the article’s caveat about anthropogenic [man-made] effects, Will also failed to disclose that the article was describing long-term trends “over the next several thousand years”. To the extent there were concerns about global cooling in the 1970s, they were about relatively near-term effects stemming from man-made particle pollutants — quite different from what the Science article was talking about.

Talking Points Memo has a rundown of several other claims of questionable veracity in Will’s article. His batting average on this piece seems to have been a bit lower than that of his beloved Washington Nationals.

But let’s not lay all the blame at Will’s feet. Why is it that claims that would never have been tolerated by a competent fact-checker on the news page are okay on the editorial page? The Washington Post owes its readers an explanation — and an apology.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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