Friday, February 20, 2009

Facts are No Longer Facts to George Will, Washington Post

As the old saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. As bad as the global warming denialists have been in insisting on their own, ill-informed and statistically ignorant interpretation of facts (eg the claims that there's a recent cooling trend, or there was a scientific consensus on global cooling in the 70's), few have boldly claimed facts of their own. Enter George Will and the Washington Post. Will's latest column there on the subject makes the following claim:

"According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

The problem? The research center itself disputes that, and has explicitly rejected Will's claim. Now it is one thing to have different opinions or interpretations of data, but claiming someone believes something they themselves say they don't, absent strong evidence to the contrary (such as the wedge document, is about as bald-faced dishonest as one can get. The response from the Washington Posts editors was comical, that is if you loved 1984:

"We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction."

Great, so now what YOU said and/or believe is up for dispute if enough people claim you said or believe something else. There are good discussions here, here, here, and here of the details of this gross example of dishonesty, as well as others commonly used by the AGW denialists. Here are some highlights:

Carl Zimmer: If someone from the Post’s crackerjack multi-layer squad of fact-checkers had bothered to pick up the phone, they could have simply asked, “Is it indeed true that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979?”

And they would have probably gotten an answer like this: “Well, what do you mean by now? Today? And what do you mean by 1979? Exactly thirty years ago today? If that’s what you mean, the answer is no.”

A good fact-checker would then say, “Well, it seems this claim is based on an article that came out January 1.”

To which the scientist would say something along the lines of, “At that point it was near or slightly lower what was observed in late 1979.”

At the very least, that discrepancy would have to be corrected. But a good fact-checker would see a deeper problem, saying, “Whoa, that changed a lot in a month and a half.”

Which would then lead to a discussion of the fact ice cover is such a noisy process that picking out a single day to compare these numbers does not say a lot about how it is affected by climate change. Climatologists look over longer time scales.


Nate Silver: And yet, according to George F. Will, many scientists were convinced in the 1970s that global cooling was a significant threat to the planet. And if those scientists were so wrong before, why should we trust them when they say that global warming is a threat now?

There's just one little problem with this story, which reappears every so often in conservative discourse on the environment. Specifically, it's a crock of shit.

Certainly in the 1970s there were a handful of scientists and scientific reports that were concerned about the prospect of global cooling... An even smaller handful of these scientists may have been rather alarmist about the prospect; the media was happy to write cover stories on their proclamations...But there was certainly nothing of a scientific consensus, as Will sneakily implies, around global cooling.

Tim Lambert:Note that under this policy Will, can attribute any statement at all to any organization he wants and no correction would be necessary, no matter how much the organization denies the statement. For example, next week Will could write that the Smithsonian had concluded that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and he would not have to correct this no matter how fiercely the Smithsonian denied it, as long as he could find a Creationist web site that said that was the Smithsonian's conclusion.

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