Ice Never Sleeps: George Will, Jr.

I’ve been writing from time to time recently about the poor job that op-ed sections do with science. As my prime example, I’ve focused on a column George Will wrote poo-poohing global warming for the Washington Post. But I’ve never meant to imply that that particular column was some isolated fluke. I think similar problems can be found in the editorial pages of many newspapers, and many branches of science are affected.

I don’t have the luxury (not to mention the masochism) to become a fact-checker on every opinion piece that appears in every major US newspaper. But I do want to point out a new column by Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe today, “Where’s Global Warming?” Sounding like a George Will, Jr., Jacoby presents what he claims is evidence suggesting that there is no global warming.

Considering how much attention would have been lavished on a comparable run of hot weather or on a warming trend that was plainly accelerating, shouldn’t the recent cold phenomena and the absence of any global warming during the past 10 years be getting a little more notice? Isn’t it possible that the most apocalyptic voices of global-warming alarmism might not be the only ones worth listening to?

What I find striking about this column is that I don’t actually have to do any fresh fact-checking to identify some problems with it. I already have. Jacoby offers us the same glitch with a satellite sensor that Will did, which he seems to be using to suggest that we don’t really know anything about ice coverage. But as I pointed out on February 27, the scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center who discovered the glitch made it clear that “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.”

Jacoby then invokes a new paper which I wrote about last week on a potential new shift in the climate. “In a new study, University of Wisconsin researchers Kyle Swanson and Anastasios Tsonis conclude that global warming could be going into a decades-long remission.”

Remission? You’d think the climate had tumor and was now cancer-free. In fact, Swanson and Tsonis made it very clear that the shift they were proposing was the result of the climate’s natural variability overlaid on the effects of an ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As I wrote in my post, Swanson put it this way to me: “We are describing in this paper what is generally referred to as ‘internal’ (natural) climate variability, superimposed upon a robust global warming trend at century time-scales.”

In both cases, Jacoby misrepresents research. Climate scientists have not concluded that global warming has been affecting the world based on a “run of hot weather” as Jacoby puts it. They look at long-term trends. When George Will made this same kind of error, his editors claimed that his column had actually passed through a stringent fact-checking process. I wonder if the Boston Globe put Jacoby to the same test. A one-minute phone call to either team of scientists would have been enough to render a verdict.

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