We have written something like 155 posts on George Will, most of them criticisms of his arguments. “Why him?” people ask (they really do). If you follow the links to blogs discussing his articles and read the rarely published letters to the editor regarding them, you’ll find three basic types: (1) people who copy the whole op-ed to their web page, as if in some kind of sign of cyber approval; (2) people who talk about how they sometimes just have to disagree with him, despite their finding him a very intelligent and compelling writer; (3) people like me, who find his air of scholarship hollow, his premises too frequently dishonest or just wrong, and his conclusions weakly drawn when not just plain fallacious. That’s why we write about him.
But there is another reason. It’s still the reason we write about newspaper op-eds, and comparatively rarely about blogs. Detection of logical fallacies involves context. What is a straw man in one context, for instance, may not be a straw man in another context. In order to make a pedagogical point, for instance, a coach or a teacher may exaggerate the weakness of a particular course of action or point of view (Thanks to Scott for this example). In a similar fashion, poorly informed individuals may entertain lots of straw men concerning alternative views without knowing it. What’s wrong in their case is their ignorance of better arguments, not their malicious attempt to deceive. Whether that global ignorance is purposeful or not is another matter for another time.
The context of a high-caliber newspaper op-ed page, we maintain, ought to be another. We’d presume, I think fairly, that a newspaper such as the Washington Post aims to inform its readers. It has an interest therefore in the truth of the claims being alleged as true on its pages. Most of the newspaper aims to inform in a straightforward way. It does this so people can avoid the global ignorance about points of view, places, people, positions and postulations. This simple feature of the newspaper implies another one: the informative function of a newspaper ought to carry over on to its op-ed page. The op-ed page is worthless if it merely becomes a forum for the over-eager polemicist. It ought to be founded on the well-established facts of the world of honest reporting (not, for instance, the “scholars” of the American Enterprise Institute).
But we ask too much. In the context of an article gloating about how fewer Americans believe in anthropogenic climate change, he writes:
In their new book, “SuperFreakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist, worry about global warming but revive some inconvenient memories of 30 years ago. Then intelligent people agreed (see above) that global cooling threatened human survival. It had, Newsweek reported, “taken the planet about a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average.” Some scientists proposed radical measures to cause global warming — for example, covering the arctic ice cap with black soot that would absorb heat and cause melting.
Levitt and Dubner also spoil some of the fun of the sort of the “think globally, act locally” gestures that are liturgically important in the church of climate change. For example, they say the “locavore” movement — people eating locally grown foods from small farms — actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. They cite research showing that only 11 percent of such emissions associated with food are in the transportation of it; 80 percent are in the production phase and, regarding emissions, big farms are much more efficient.
Newsweek is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Levitt and Dubner have been roundly criticized for their hacking it up (today’s theme!) on global warming (links later, still dealing with format issues). And that point, by the way, of locavoring it misses it widely–it’s not the transportation only, it’s the method of monoculture and petroleum-intensive production that people are trying to avoid.
Such countervailing facts should be obvious to anyone who has read the Post (I should hope). Alas.