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THE DOG THAT DIDN’T HOWL! Steve Benen marveled at one machine, but averted his gaze from another: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 1, 2010

Climate change, the Post and dream logic: “Man [sic] is the rational animal,” we western-worlders keep telling ourselves. Alas! A look at the way we actually “reason” appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post.

The news report in question (click here) dealt with climate change.

According to the AP’s Seth Borenstein, the UN’s climate science panel (the IPCC) “is seeking independent outside review for how it makes major reports.” This raises an obvious question: Why would the IPCC do that?

Borenstein is a perfectly capable science reporter. But a peculiar dream logic invades his report in just its second paragraph, as he addresses that question. According to Borenstein, critics of the IPCC have found a few errors in the body’s reports. To our taste, the logic on display in this passage seems to be that of the dream:

BORENSTEIN (2/28/10): Critics have found a few unsettling errors—including incorrect projections of retreats in Himalayan glaciers—in the thousands of pages of the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [the IPCC].

Scientists say the problems, ranging from typos in key dates to sloppy sourcing, are minor and have nothing to do with the major conclusions about man-made global warming and how it will harm people and ecosystems. But researchers acknowledge that they have been slow to respond to criticisms in the past three months. And those criticisms seem to have resonated in poll results and news media coverage that have put climate scientists on the defensive.

Strange. According to Borenstein, critics have found “a few” errors in the IPCC’s reports. But these reports run “thousands of pages,” he goes out of his way to note. This raises another fairly obvious question: Why would anyone be surprised (or unsettled) if they found “a few” errors in such a large body of detailed work? Wouldn’t a sensible person expect to find a few errors?

In our view, the puzzle grows stronger as Borenstein continues. In the second paragraph we’ve quoted, he reports that scientists say the errors in question “are minor”—that they “range from typos in key dates to sloppy sourcing.” (By the way: If we’re talking about “a few” errors, have these critics really found “typos in key dates?” Typos? In the plural?)

Further questions from inside this dream: Why would a few errors “resonate in poll results and news media coverage?” Why would a few errors “put climate scientists on the defensive?” Borenstein never speaks to these basic questions. Sadly, the process he describes, and largely accepts, typifies the broken way our public discourse routinely works:

Routinely, interest groups seek out trivial errors, or trivial misstatements, by some person or group they oppose. (If they can’t find any actual misstatements, they may just make a few up.) They will then screech, howl, rend their garments and wail, claiming that these trivial errors discredit some very large body of work. (Interests groups may even seize upon a few snowstorms, proceeding to screech about them!) And alas! If the interest group is backed by sufficient power, journalists and news organizations may defer to their screeching and wailing. Instead of questioning the basic idea that a few errors could undermine a large body of work, they may advance this peculiar dream logic—even where, as in this case, the writer seems to see that the “logic” may not be real strong.

Should these few errors be “unsettling?” Borenstein makes no attempt to say. He quotes one critic, Roger Pielke, who hits the IPCC fairly hard. But he doesn’t ask Pielke an obvious question: Why exactly should “a few errors” leave us rubes “unsettled?”

There may be an answer, but Borenstein doesn’t ask. We have our own question: Why is that?

Background on a few errors: If you want more detail about a few errors, just click this trio of links:

For Borenstein’s original report (January 20), just click this.

For a subsequent front-page report in the Washington Post (February 16), just click here.

For a letter complaining about that report, click this link.

Should those few errors be “resonating in media coverage?” We link, you decide.

Fred Hiatt wouldn’t name names: After that ludicrous screeching about a few snowstorms, the Washington Post semi-pushed back in a scientifically strong editorial. But even here, the Post failed to name the three Republican senators who had so loudly played the fool about those meaningless storms. Sean Hannity didn’t get mentioned either. Instead, the Post bravely attacked the “know-nothingism” of a no-name Virginia state official. To see power eat Fred Hiatt’s board for lunch, you know what to do: Click this.

THE DOG THAT DIDN’T HOWL (permalink): Oof. In yesterday’s Washington Post, David Broder adapted an old suggestion. Let’s take took a look at the numbers, The Dean of All Pundits said.

The Dean had attended a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Granted, the featured guests at the breakfast were both Republicans; one was Bill McInturff, a well-known Republican pollster. But McInturff’s data seemed fairly standard. In this passage, Broder rattled a few numbers off:

BRODER (2/28/10): McInturff came armed with his latest poll. The numbers are striking. By 52 percent to 40 percent, the voters he surveyed oppose the health-care bills the administration and congressional Democrats developed, with more than twice as many strongly opposed as are strongly supportive.

By a similar margin, 54 percent to 42 percent, they support the Republican argument for starting over and focusing on smaller pieces of legislation embodying areas of bipartisan agreement, rather than merging the more comprehensive reform bills passed by the House and Senate and sending a measure to the president soon.

If you support the congressional bills, those are gruesome numbers. But they seem to track the Washington Post’s own recent poll, in which 38 percent strongly opposed the health reform bills, with only 22 percent strongly in favor.

A bit later, Broder discussed some basic differences in the ways the two parties approach health reform. At one point, he cited more McInturff data:

BRODER: Another basic difference was highlighted by Obama when he contrasted the 3 million uninsured Americans who might get coverage from the main Republican alternative bill with the 31 million made eligible for insurance by the Democrats.

This contrast, which looks to be the biggest vulnerability in the Republican position in this debate, may be an eroding advantage for the Democrats. McInturff's poll found twice as many people saying that making health care more affordable is an important goal, as opposed to giving priority to providing health-care coverage for more Americans.

Oof. If McInturff’s polling can be believed, the public isn’t clamoring for the extension of coverage we liberals tend to talk about. According to Broder, twice as many people said that making health care more affordable is an important goal.

Warning! Polling can be tricky in matters like this, where voters are asked to state a vew about something they may not have considered in depth. That said, let’s return to the basics: The Washington Post’s poll, like McInturff’s, found beaucoup people “strongly opposed” to the existing plans. This follows a year of discussion about health reform, our side’s top domestic goal.

Simple story: Within those basic polling numbers, our side is getting mangled. Again.

Yesterday, Steve Benen marveled at this general syndrome. He cited this front-page report in the New York Times, written by reporter Reed Abelson. In Steve’s view, Abelson “did a great job today exploring the real-world consequences if Democrats fail to follow through” by passing their health reform plan. “If reform comes up short,” Steve wrote, “costs will soar, budgets will be pushed towards bankruptcy, the ranks of the uninsured will grow, those lacking coverage will die, premiums will get even more unaffordable, and our economic growth and workers' wages will be stunted.” As he closed his post, he stated his general reaction:

BENEN (2/28/10): When I read pieces like this, I sometimes just shake my head at public opposition to reform. We know the system is broken; we know we pay too much and get too little. We know the Republican attacks against reform proposals are wrong. Given the mess we're in, the demand for comprehensive reform should be overwhelming.

And yet, the resistance to sound ideas is fairly intense.

The efficacy of the right-wing noise machine is really a sight to behold.

Steve marveled at the public’s opposition—the opposition reflected in McInturff’s poll. As he closed, he stated his own reaction: “The efficacy of the right-wing noise machine is really a sight to behold.”

We don’t disagree with Steve about that. But we were struck by the dog which didn’t howl. Is the ineptitude of the liberal machine also perhaps “a sight to behold?”

Despite our own acknowledged brilliance, we liberals rarely ask that question. We would suggest that it really is, a point we’ll discuss all week.

Tomorrow: Sean Hannity “clearly explains.”