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.”

Contents

  1. About “Dark Green Doomsayers“, George F. Will, Washington Post, 15 February 2009
  2. “Off with his head” scream the green defenders of the faith
  3. The Blue Fairy intervenes, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center confesses
  4. About Will’s other errors
  5. What have we learned from this?
  6. Updates

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 in About “Dark Green Doomsayers“, George F. Will, op-ed in the Washington Post, 15 February 2009:

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.

(a)  From hilzoy (described as a “philosophy professor who specializes in ethics”), posted at Obsidian Wings:

“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.

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.

“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.

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:

  1. “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”.
  2. “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.

Updates

(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.

For more information from the FM site

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:

  1. A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
  2. Is anthropogenic global warming a scientific debate, or a matter of religious belief?, 22 November 2008
  3. Another pro-global warming comment, effective PR at work!, 1 December 2008
  4. Mystery solved, providing an important insight about the global warming debate., 2 December 2008
  5. The definitive rebuttal to skepticism about global warming!, 10 December 2008
  6. High school science facts prove global warming! Skeptical scientists humiliated by this revelation!, 31 December 2008
  7. A puzzle – can you find a solution?, 16 January 2009

Posts about the sociology and politics of climate science:

  1. A look at the science and politics of global warming, 12 June 2008
  2. “Aliens cause global warming”: wise words from the late Michael Crichton, 15 November 2008
  3. My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
  4. Apostasy against core leftist doctrine at the Huffington Post!, 13 January 2009
  5. Peer review of scientific work – another example of a flawed basis for public policy, 22 January 2009
  6. Obamaopens his Administration with a powerful act that will echo for many years, 4 February 2009
  7. Science in action, a confused and often nasty debate among scientists, 5 February 2009
  8. Richard Feynmann, one of the 20th centuries greatest scientists, talks to us about climate science, 12 February 2009
  9. President Kennedy speaks to us about global warming and Climate Science, 7 August 2008

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18 thoughts on “George Will: climate criminal or brave but sloppy iconoclast?

  1. Instead of spending time on this climate stuff (which I don’t think we have enough data on to decide one way or the other), it seems a lot more pertinent to focus on articles like Niall Ferguson’s new essay in Foreign Policy magazine “Axis Of Upheaval.”

    Some of the articles in that issue of Foreign Policy are just mind-boggling. For example, “State Of War.” And Arkady Ostrovsky’s “Reversal Of Forune” is even more startling. But the article “Fortress America” really proves eye-opening.

    If AGW turns out to be true, we’ll see global consequences 2 or 3 decades from now. But if Mexico falls apart or Russia collapses, we’re going to see major consequences 2 or 3 months from now.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The articles about climate change are part of a larger series illustrating how we are the object of intense propaganda, and how this distorts our OODA loop (like this one). Due to intense criticism from pro-global warming folks, a long detour was necessary to demonstrate exactly your point: that at this time we don’t have enough data on to decide one way or the other.

    As for Mexico, the FM site has covered this story. In addition to mentions in the weekend updates, did you see these posts:
    * Is Mexico unraveling?, 28 April 2008 — summary of Stratfor’s warnings about Mexico.
    * “High Stakes South of the Border”, 13 May 2008
    * Stratfor: the Mexican cartels stike at Phoenix, AZ, 6 July 2008
    * “Drug cartels ‘threaten’ Mexican democracy”, 24 July 2008
    * Stratfor reports on Mexico, news ignored by our mainstream media, 19 August 2008
    * Nonsense from StrategyPage: Iraq is safer than Mexico, 17 December 2008
    * New reports about Mexico, the failing state on our border, 9 January 2009

  2. Thanks for those links. Here’s a surprisingly cheerful one from a ‘Tier 1’ UK publication: “Iran: the friendliest people in the world, Times, 21 February 2009 — “Beaming smiles, gel and a joke about lavatory brushes and weapons of mass destruction – Iran overturns all expectations”

    I just pray we are not going to get into some sort of mind-boggling shock and awe deal with these people, our long-lost ‘Aryan’ cousins (which is where the word Iran comes from). I am reading a history of Iran right now and it is a fascinating, multi-ethnic, multi-faceted story.

    I think one of the great ironies of history, repeated again and again, is that it usually takes some sort of brutal conquest to establish a territory and/or empire, then if things go well there is peace and plenty for several centuries, and then they get over-run by conquest from outside after which things can go well or badly again. Of course there is also the corruption factor as entrenched elites gradually take more than their fair share and ultimately weaken the entire social fabric making it that much more easy to be torn to shreds by revolution or invasion. Anyway, it’s a nice ‘international’ story to complement the heavier Foreign Affairs ones.

    I sort of agree about the climate change issue. I have felt since the 80’s that we don’t have good data on it and also science is often far too beholden to who is paying for the studies/research. But I understand why FM goes on about it. It’s one of the least politically sensitive/controversial subjects of widespread interest that exemplifies many of the systemic ‘challenges’ we have nowadays, the interface between the public, media, policy makers, corporate interests and so forth.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is one of journalism’s great filler stories, that the people of XXX are just people too, and like Americans. I’ve read these for 30 years. They can manufacture these about any place little-known to Americans (which means about any foreign land, including Mexico and Canada).

    1. In a world of nuclear tipped ICBMs, it is *way* to dangerous to allow the old cycle of “conquest, stagnation, reconquest” to carry on.

      A side effect of efforts to combat AGW may be to reduce the sovereignty of nation states and a move towards international law that actually means something.
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      Fabius Maximus replies: In a world where the major powers all have nukes, what makes you think that this cycle will continue? It’s good to be King, much more fun than a rapid transformation into radioactive dust.

  3. Most important conclusion is definitely point c. Though I almost always disagree with Will, I like him a lot better than Krauthammer and the Post’s other conservatives. Even when he’s wrong he’s got a point… which is that we don’t know what’s happening with the climate but are acting like we are absolutely certain the world is going to end. Some of this Chicken Little talk has good upshots, a reduction of dependence on foreign oil might not be bad geopolitically, especially when there’s strong evidence that Big Oil is running out of fields. We’ll need a new industry for those jobs. That being said, we’d be a whole lot better off without the ideologues from both sides skewing the policy debate.

  4. Unfortunately, global warming chicken littles are making us MORE dependent on foreign oil rather than less, underscore.

    When you abolish offshore drilling, oil shales, coal, arctic oil, and other domestic sources (nuclear or oil sands) of energy in the name of “saving the climate” or saving the Earth, you make the nation MORE dependent on foreign sources.

    BTW, the European carbon trading market has essentially collapsed. You know, the one Obama wants to model for the US?

    1. true, but a lot of that drill here, drill now message was hype–we could never ramp up production without at least ten years of infrastructure development and on top of that, we just don’t sit on enough oil to support our energy needs. By ‘weening’ ourselves off foreign oil, I was referring more to the imposed greening of the auto industry as well as plans by entrepreneurs like T. Boon Pickens to get into wind energy. Not saying it’s perfect or implemented, but there’s a whole big push for these kinds initiatives that just didn’t exist as strongly ten years ago.

  5. Your post on George Will and his critics, correctly noted that Will quoted the work of another without atttribution. Fair enough to criticize Will for that error, but what of the thousands of others before him? News weekly magazines, newspapers and other popular media outlets routinely cite sources without attribution, and supply no endnotes, footnotes, or literature cited. What results is a de facto license to say/write pretty much whatever one pleases. This is a very different standard than one finds in peer-reviewed journals, which whatever their other flaws, at least require authors to document their work. The mainstream media equivalent until recently was a citation in the text of the article/story, noting the source (even if only in a vague manner or even anonymously); now, even that is often missing.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: My point was that Will brought this upon himself by omiting attribution. If he had acknowledged his source, the error would be sloppy copying — not the serious errors attributed to him. Note this does not excuse his misrepresentation at the end of column of the two articles about ice ages.

  6. FM: I know your articles on global warming are an example of America’s broken OODA loops. The real question is: Why are America’s OODA loops broken?

    I thought you might like to read this article: “Twilight of the Psychopaths“, Dr. Kevin Barrett, The Canadian, no date — Excerpt:

    “Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.” – John Lennon, before his murder by CIA mind-control subject Mark David Chapman.

    … As a leading “conspiracy theorist” according to Wikipedia, I feel eminently qualified to offer an alternative conspiracy theory which, like the alternative conspiracy theory of 9/11, is both simpler and more accurate than the prevailing wisdom: The only conspiracy that matters is the conspiracy of the psychopaths against the rest of us.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: I have no idea how or why our OODA broke; its an important question. As for the article, the author lost me with the reference to “CIA mind-control subject Mark Chapman”.

  7. A 5% decline isn’t statistically near zero. Breaking it down to a smaller number on a yearly or daily basis doesn’t change that.

    Granted, there’s a lot of noise in sea ice data, which is why people apply trend analysis. You don’t need to run spreadsheets though – just look at the data and you can see what’s happening, and why Will is dishonest.

    Check it for yourself here: Cold Hard Facts, Open Mind, 8 January 2009
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This reply is absurd in every respect, faux math.

    (1) “A 5% decline isn’t statistically near zero.”
    First, try quoting me correctly. I said “an annual decrease of 0.16% point to point, statistically zero.” Second, “change per unit of time” is the appropriate metric for trend analysis, not the gross change.

    (2) “just look at the data and you can see what’s happening”
    This is totally wrong. There is a large body of research showing that the human eye is terrible at this discerning trends from datapoints. That’s why statistical analysis is necessary.

    (3) The “Open Mind” article is a fine example of chart junk. This illustrates why owning excel does not make one a statistican.
    * Poor explanation of the data presentation (how many people noticed what was actually being graphed here, or understood what the units on the “y” axis meant.
    * No statistical analysis. Is there a statistically significant trend? If so, is it an artifact of a specific period (such as the 2003-2007 period)? That’s esp so when looking at a short period of data known to be affected by multiple long-term cycles.

  8. Haven’t read Will’s article but I am an admirer of the clarity of his logic.

    I’ll take it as a given that his article was sloppy. And we all, from time to time, make mistakes.

    As for his getting lucky, two sayings come to mind; “better to be lucky than good” and the one that I suspect is ultimately more accurate: “Luck is the residue of design.”
    Branch Rickey, US baseball administrator(1881 – 1965); Lecture title, 1950

    Perhaps the ‘design’ is Will’s intuitive appreciation for the heart of the matter…in which case his ‘sloppiness’ is irrelevant. Only those obsessed with the minutia of ‘correctness’ overlook the ‘forest’ of truth.

  9. FM: The articles about climate change are part of a larger series illustrating how we are the object of intense propaganda, and how this distorts our OODA loop (like this one). Due to intense criticism from pro-global warming folks, a long detour was necessary to demonstrate exactly your point: that at this time we don’t have enough data on to decide one way or the other.

    Your kidding yourself FM, having read this blog for a year it’s increasingly obvious that this is just one long conservative whine about the modern world.

    There is very little true analysis. Your so called examination of propaganda and the OODA loop is mostly just a complaint that your not getting the propaganda that you want.

    This post is a classic of the – the facts are demonstratively wrong but I still support the conclusion variety. Something that was common in conservative circles around the start of the Iraq war and it’s “we make reality” ideology.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Does this rant have any content? Or is it a deliberate example of “how not to write a useful comment: bold words with no supporting evidence”.

    (1) “the facts are demonstratively wrong”
    I cite appropriate authorities for my comments. On the other hand, your strident arm-waving does not. Please atttempt to demonstrate to back up your fierce words.

    (2) “complaint that your not getting the propaganda that you want”
    You provide no quotes to support this bizarre statement. At least try to convince us you are not making stuff up.

    (3) ” increasingly obvious that this is just one long conservative whine about the modern world.”
    You must be kidding.
    * 12 articles about the McCain/Palin ticket, all critical.
    * 3 articles about the GOP — all critical.
    * Many posts critical of the Bush Administration’s policies, domestic and foreign.
    * 23 articles reposted on the FM site from TomDispatch, run by that good leftist Tom Engelhardt (see here).

    (4) “that was common in conservative circles around the start of the Iraq war and it’s “we make reality” ideology.”
    That’s an odd thing to say on a site that has published 94 articles about the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars, every one hostile to them.

  10. If anthropogenic global warming is such a foregone conclusion and the only objectors are ‘conservative’ bloggers, neo ice age theorists, and the Republican party, how come even the generally accepted left wing New York Times is expressing some doubt over whether the green mafia is playing politics or conducting science?

    Politics in the Guise of Pure Science“, John Tierney, in the Science section of the New York Times, 23 February 2009 — Excerpt:

    Why, since President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in Washington, do some things feel not quite right?

    … Well, I suppose it never hurts to go on the record in opposition to a billion imaginary deaths. But I have a more immediate concern: Will Mr. Obama’s scientific counselors give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats? To borrow a term from Roger Pielke Jr.: Can these scientists be honest brokers?

    Dr. Pielke, a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, is the author of “The Honest Broker,” a book arguing that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they’re jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.

    Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.

    But climate change, like most political issues, isn’t so simple. While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090). And while most members of the public want to avoid future harm from climate change, they have conflicting values about which sacrifices are worthwhile today.

    A scientist can enter the fray by becoming an advocate for certain policies, like limits on carbon emissions or subsidies for wind power. That’s a perfectly legitimate role for scientists, as long as they acknowledge that they’re promoting their own agendas.

    But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

    “Some scientists want to influence policy in a certain direction and still be able to claim to be above politics,” Dr. Pielke says. “So they engage in what I call ‘stealth issue advocacy’ by smuggling political arguments into putative scientific ones.”

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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, this interesting article deserves to be read in full.

  11. “FM: This is one of journalism’s great filler stories, that the people of XXX are just people too, and like Americans. I’ve read these for 30 years. They can manufacture these about any place little-known to Americans (which means about any foreign land, including Mexico and Canada).”

    Fair comment. One little item I liked in the Times article I linked was a comment from, if I remember correctly, someone who had bicycled around the world and also confirmed that the Iranians were the friendliest people of all. Of course such things are impossible, if not silly, to measure.

    Nevertheless, it is also valuable to remember that along with geopolitical machinations which are far too often chess moves in a game played by various competing elites, that ordinary people are the ones who pay the ultimate price in such games. And ordinary people are basically good, and ultimately the most precious resource we all share, something to be treasured rather than callously destroyed.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed, that is an important and easily forgotten aspect of history and life.

  12. FM: “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.”

    In other words, let no facts stand in the way of the Truth!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your comment. Please explain a bit more.

  13. Updates — one serious, one weak, one so bad its funny

    I’ve added links to the reply to his critics by George Will and the National Snow and ice Data Center’s update about the effects of the failed sensor on ice totals.

    Best of all is this: 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.

    Is there any limit to the misrepresentations journalists will make in order to continue their crusades?

  14. Just came here from your post about “Tea Party” conspiracies. To be convinced that there is a huge conspiracy to promote “Climate Change” as one of our biggest problems, look no further than NPR. They had a segment on this week that sounded like a Stephen Colbert routine. “Climate Change”, big problem, or biggest problem ever? They had two “experts”, each trying to out do the other in fear mongering. No debate over the science, none, zip, nada. I’m telling you, NPR is the new mouthpiece for our elites, and as print dies, expect more spoon feeding of crap science, and crap public policy, by NPR.

  15. Do we have a national CO2 emissions-reduction target or goal? I’m not aware of one. If we do, has anyone seen the Plan to reach it?

    Considering the seriousness of the matter and the cost for changing to alternative energy sources, and considering the effect this will have on our way of life, why hasn’t our government formulated and published a step-by-step plan for reaching the final goal. Exactly, what is the final goal? Without this, how can we measure our progress towards success? Thus far it seems that we are just adopting (expensive) knee jerk reactions as our only response to the problem: $700 billion annual payments for foreign oil instead of domestic oil, diluting gasoline with corn-based Ethanol, switching to LED light bulbs, cap and trade schemes to penalize everything that hasn’t switched to an as-yet-to-be-invented form of energy, and development of windmill farms and rooftop solar cells.

    Where are we going with all of this? Is it only to push society “in the right direction”? Are we just throwing money at a problem to purchase time to invent a magical new energy source? Or is it all a part of some murky master plan to take us down the road to a destination the citizenry would not otherwise voluntarily go? Is it rational to force the American people to reorder their way of life to fight a problem for which no plan of action exists?

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