Recycling in a digital world
The observation that most of the falsehoods in George Will’s notorious Washington Post column on global warming have appeared in many previous columns, some going back as far as 1992, raises some interesting questions. The obvious ones like “How does this guy justify getting paid” and “Why is this paper still being published” have already been asked, so I thought I’d look a bit more at the question of recycling.
As an opinion columnist, I certainly repeat arguments from time to time, and make no apology for doing so. There’s a lot of noise out there and if you want to be heard, you have to push your viewpoint reasonably hard. At the same time, I try pretty hard not to say the same thing in the same way more than once (at least without acknowledging that I’m doing so), and to update my arguments in the light of new evidence. I may not always succeed, but I don’t think I’ve ever sent the Fin anything as thoroughly dog-eared as Will’s piece (and this is only one of a dozen or more iterations).
To repeat the same tired collection of second-hand talking points decade after decade displays not only intellectual dishonesty but a basic lack of craft values. As an academic, I’m of course more upset about the first, but as an opinion columnist I’m almost as annoyed about the second. As Chris Mooney says, this guy isn’t even phoning it in, and yet he’s regarded as a star.
Will’s talking point “they were predicting an ice age in the 1970s” might have been reasonable back in 1992, considered as a suggestion that we should not jump to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence and analysis. But the factual basis of the claim has long since been shown to be worse than dubious, and after four IPCC reports and thousands of scientific papers, the case for anthropogenic global warming rests on much more evidence than some tentative papers and a few shock headlines in newsmagazines.
Moreover, the switch from newsprint to digital publication has changed things in a couple of important ways. On the one hand, self-plagiarism is now much easier to detect. Anyone with Google can check you it. On the other hand, the justification for repetition is much more limited. When yesterdays brilliant insights lined today’s bird cage, you could be forgiven for repeating them a few months later, for readers who might have missed them the first time. But now that every column is preserved for ever, there’s much less need. And when your column consists largely of a string of tattered talking points that anyone who wants to can already find on the Internet, it has very little justification for existing.