George Will: climate criminal or brave but sloppy iconoclast?
Summary: Pundit George Will published a sloppily researched and composed column about global warming in the Washington Post. The response was a deafening call for his execution (i.e., of his career). Through a stroke of luck so great it must be intervention of the Blue Fairy, he may have accidentally stated the situation correctly. This episode, esp the reaction of his critics, illustrates important aspects of decision-making in 21 century America.
The subtitle for this post: Tonight’s prayer is ”let me be so lucky as George Will.”
- About “Dark Green Doomsayers“, George F. Will, Washington Post, 15 February 2009
- “Off with his head” scream the green defenders of the faith
- The Blue Fairy intervenes, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center confesses
- About Will’s other errors
- What have we learned from this?
This post is a follow-up to The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation (18 February), about Michael Asher’s article which kicked off this debate.
(1) George Will, the sloppy pundit
The critics focused on this paragraph:
As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.
There are several things wrong with this text. First and worst, he is using without attribution the work of another: “Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979“, Michael Asher, Daily Tech, 9 January 2009 (per the WaPo ombudsman here). Second, Will inaccurately repeats Asher’s conclusion.
Asher’s says “now” in an article published 1 January — meaning December data. A relevant authority confirmed this: Cryosphere Today, published by the Dept of Atmospheric Sciences at the U of IL (see here for an analysis of this article). Will says “now” in an article published 15 February, without determining if the data has changed. It had. Cryosphere today posted a rebuttal on the same day (it was here, but since has been erased).
In an opinion piece by George Will published on February 15, 2009, in the Washington Post, George Will states, “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”
We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data show that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.
It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.
(2) “Off with his head” scream the green defenders of the faith
Retribution was swift.
“All those people who supposedly fact-checked Will’s article as part of the Post’s “multi-layer editing process” — “people [George Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors” — should be fired, either for not doing their job or for doing it utterly incompetently.”
From Brad Delong (Professor of Economics at Berkeley), “Washington Post Crashed-and-Burned Watch“, at his website Grasping Reality with Both Hand, 20 February 2009 — About the WaPo’s ombudsman, who dared to provide evidence supporting George Will:
“Can you provide me with any reason why Mr. Alexander should not be immediately fired from the Washington Post for not doing his job to speak truth to editors, reporters, and readers?”
In case anyone missed his message, later that day he posted “Fire Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander This Morning“
“The latest Washington Post employee to show that he has no business at all in journalism is ‘ombudsman’ Andy Alexander–who should be run out of town this morning, if not sooner.”
This is vintage Delong. Like a medieval religious fanatic yelling for heretics to be burnt, he urges punishment of heterodox thoughts or deeds. That same day he writes another post saying that Berkeley should be “Firing John Yoo” (Professor of Law, worked in the Dept of Justice 2001-2003; see Wikipedia).
(3) The Blue Fairy intervenes; the National Snow and Ice Data Center confesses
Right as George Will was stepping into the furnace, non-credentialed scientists noticed oddities in the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s (NSIDC) daily record of arctic sea ice.
- NSIDC makes a big sea ice extent jump – but why?, Anthony Watts, at Watts Up with That, 16 February 2009
Once told about the problem the NSIDC quickly acted. Walt Meier (Research Scientist at NSIDC) courteously replied to Anthony Watt.
“We’re looking into it. For the moment, we’ve removed the data from the time series plot. … I’m not sure why you think things like this are worth blogging about. Data is not perfect, especially near real-time data. That’s not news.”
Watt thought that this was important, as described in Errors in publicly presented data – Worth blogging about?, 16 February. He was rapidly proven correct.
- Satellite sensor errors cause data outage, NSIDC, 18 February 2009 — Excerpt:
“As some of our readers have already noticed, there was a significant problem with the daily sea ice data images on February 16. The problem arose from a malfunction of the satellite sensor we use for our daily sea ice products. Upon further investigation, we discovered that starting around early January, an error known as sensor drift caused a slowly growing underestimation of Arctic sea ice extent. The underestimation reached approximately 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) by mid-February.”
This refers to one channel of the F13 Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I) of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), one of the two satellites used to track polar sea ice. Astonishingly, even the mainstream media picked up the story.
- “Arctic Sea Ice Underestimated for Weeks Due to Faulty Sensor“, Bloomberg, 20 February 2009 — The media picks up the story.
On 17 February The Cryosphere Today posted an enigmatic acknowledgement of the problem.
“The SSMI sensor seems to be acting up and dropping data swaths from time to time in recent days. Missing swaths will appear on these images as a missing data in the southern latitudes. If this persists for more than a few weeks, we will start to fill in these missing data swaths with the ice concentration from the previous day. Note – these missing swaths do not affect the timeseries or any other plots on the Cryosphere Today as they are comprised of moving averages of at least 3 days.”
Eventually they will provide more specific information. They have, however, removed from their home page the notes about the Michael Asher and George Will articles.
As yet we do not know the end of the story. The Cryosphere Today rebuttal to Will’s column specifically used the February 15 data on sea ice extent. It seems likely that this estimate will be revised downward, perhaps sufficiently to make Will’s statement (accidentally) close. Using the NSIDC est error of 500,000 kilometers, Feb 2009 is aprox 5% less than Feb 1979 (an annual decrease of 0.16% point to point, statistically zero).
If so, will all these people apologize for their their harsh words? More importantly, will they tell their readers that in fact global sea ice was unchanged as George Will said?
(4) About Will’s other errors: sloppy writing attacked by sloppy critics
As usual when attacking global warming heretics, the critics give vicious rebuttals to Will’s errors, both real and imagined. Some of them are just made up, attributing to him things he never said. Sloppy, just like George Will. Look at Delong‘s comment:
Will claimed the note (here, from Cryosphere Today} said that sea ice changes since 1979 do not provide evidence of global warming. The note says the opposite: that the shrinkage of arctic and (smaller) expansion of antarctic sea ice is evidence of global warming.
That’s incorrect on two levels. Will said that “global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” The Cryosphere Today note says:
- “Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979″.
- “Recent decreases of N. Hemisphere summer sea ice extent are consistent with” global climate model projections.
The first is discussed above. Delong’s re-statement of the second is bizarre: that a model accurately match the past (aka back tests) “proves” nothing (unlike Delong, Cryophere Today carefully avoids saying “prove”, or comparing current sea ice data with model projections made 10 or more years ago).
Moving on, most of this (like Delong’s agitprop) is too tedious to rebut (another example here). But IMO one is worth discussion. Pundits write short articles (750 words in this case) about big things. That’s more difficult than the usual drill on this site, long articles (1000 – 2000 words) with a tight focus. So he compresses things, which allows critics to deliberately misinterpret him — and makes sloppy mistakes too easy. Here Will does both.
In the 1970s, “a major cooling of the planet” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950″ (New York Times, May 21, 1975). Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), 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 first part is a simple statement of fact, that there was considerable debate about climate change trends in the 1970′s (as there is today), as shown by his quotes from major media. Critics misread this (like here; ask in the comments if you would like additional discussion). The second, “others anticipated a full-blown 10,000 year ice age’”, is a gross error about a classic Science article “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages” J. D. Hays, John Imbrie, N. J. Shackleton, 10 December 1976.
(5) What have we learned from this?
(a) Science data, esp real-time data, is subject to big revisions.
We this that here with the recent global sea ice data. At some point IMO the surface temperature records will be “audited” and substantially revised on all levels. The sampling, adjustments for changes in sites and the urban heat island effect, and data quality. The result might look very different than it does today. For more about this see “United States and Global Data Integrity Issues“, Joseph D’Aleo, Science and Public Policy Institute, 29 January 2009 (28 pages).
(b) Be careful when criticizing the green religion
Saying terrible things about Jesus is OK (“Piss Christ” was in part funded by us), but be careful when questioning green orthodoxy. The true believers will not only mis-represent what you say in their rebuttals, but also try and get you fired. They have no respect for truth or logic. That’s how the game is played in 21st Century America.
(c) The public climate change debate is mostly dueling hacks
It would take only a few hours for a competent statistician to determine the trend(s) - if any - in the global sea ice record, with an estimate of statistical significance. Given the number of long cycles in the Earth’s climate (e.g., the Pacific decadal oscillation), the 30 years of satellite data tell us little. But a competent statistical analysis would tell us more than anything seen in the current debate about sea ice.
There is probably some relevant analysis in the climate science literature. If so, it would be nice to see that cited rather than the nonsense described above that clogs the mainstream media and Internet.
(1) “Near-real-time data now available“, National Snow and Ice Data Center, 26 February 2009 — This is consistent with both their preliminary analysis and the comments above. Excerpt:
Near-real-time sea ice data updates are again available from Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis. We have switched to the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I) sensor on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) F13 satellite following the sensor drift problem described in our February 18 post.
The temporary error in the near-real-time data does not change the conclusion that Arctic sea ice extent has been declining for the past three decades. This conclusion is based on peer reviewed analysis of quality-controlled data products, not near-real-time data.
On February 18, we reported that the F15 sensor malfunction started out having a negligible impact on computed ice extent, which gradually increased as the sensor degraded further. At the end of January, the F15 sensor underestimated ice extent by 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) compared to F13. That is still within the margin of error for daily data. By mid-February, the difference had grown to 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles), which is outside of expected error. However, that amount represents less than 4% of Arctic sea ice extent at this time of year. When the computed daily extent dropped sharply on February 16, the sensor failure became obvious.
NSIDC stopped displaying the problematic data, and recalculated sea ice extent using data from the DMSP F13 satellite, an older sensor in the same series of satellites. The recalculation changed the January monthly average ice extent by less than the margin of error for the sensor. As we reported in our February 3 post, growth of Arctic sea ice did indeed slow in January because of unusual atmospheric conditions. Using F13 data instead of F15, the September daily minimum that we reported on September 16, 2008, changed from 4.52 million square kilometers (1.74 million square miles) to 4.54 million square kilometers (1.75 million square miles), within the margin of error for daily data.
(2) “Climate Science in A Tornado“, George Will, op-ed in the Washington Post, 27 February 2009 — A brief defense of his column.
(3) Best of all, evidence that attacks on Will are becoming farce: “Ombudsman: Flaw in Will’s Ice Assertions“, Andrew C. Revkin, blogging at the New York Times, 27 February 2009 — Excerpt:
Here is what he wrote: “As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming.” The flaws? The first is timescale. … The second flaw in that sentence, many experts told me, is geographic scale. …
This is idiotic. Will is accurately repeating what experts said ( here, in section 3, are 4 examples). Revkin says the experts were wrong, and considers that a rebuttal to what Will said.
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:
Posts on the FM site about the debate over climate science:
- A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
- Is anthropogenic global warming a scientific debate, or a matter of religious belief?, 22 November 2008
- Another pro-global warming comment, effective PR at work!, 1 December 2008
- Mystery solved, providing an important insight about the global warming debate., 2 December 2008
- The definitive rebuttal to skepticism about global warming!, 10 December 2008
- High school science facts prove global warming! Skeptical scientists humiliated by this revelation!, 31 December 2008
- A puzzle – can you find a solution?, 16 January 2009
Posts about the sociology and politics of climate science:
- A look at the science and politics of global warming, 12 June 2008
- “Aliens cause global warming”: wise words from the late Michael Crichton, 15 November 2008
- My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
- Apostasy against core leftist doctrine at the Huffington Post!, 13 January 2009
- Peer review of scientific work – another example of a flawed basis for public policy, 22 January 2009
- Obamaopens his Administration with a powerful act that will echo for many years, 4 February 2009
- Science in action, a confused and often nasty debate among scientists, 5 February 2009
- Richard Feynmann, one of the 20th centuries greatest scientists, talks to us about climate science, 12 February 2009
- President Kennedy speaks to us about global warming and Climate Science, 7 August 2008