George Will: Liberated From the Burden of Fact-Checking

By Carl Zimmer | February 16, 2009 5:20 pm

I had to spend a couple hours this morning footnoting my next column for Discover so that it can be fact-checked. I had to assemble the papers I read, the web sites I visited, and the contact information for scientists who helped me understand the subject. One of Discover‘s intrepid fact-checkers will then spend many hours following in my footsteps and discovering where I tripped. He or she will have no compunction about writing up a detailed report of my mistakes. I’m sure some mistakes will turn up, and I won’t be angry to see them in a fact-checking report. I’ll be grateful that my column won’t inadvertently misrepresent someone’s research. And I’ll be personally glad to have any misunderstanding of mine put straight.

Fact-checking is an underappreciated art. As John McPhee explains in his recent essay, even a legendary fact-monger like himself benefits from the relentless skepticism of the New Yorker‘s fact-checkers. I got my own start as a fact-checker, and it was the best training I could imagine for science writing. Even when I don’t have the luxury of fact-checkers vetting my own writing, I have an inner skeptic that drives me to double-check whatever I feel unsure about. One of the things I like most about blogging is the after-the-fact fact-checking that comes from commenters who catch mistakes. While accuracy is important for any kind of factual writing, it’s particularly important in science writing, because there are just so many ways to get a story wrong. (Trust me, I know.)

This old fact-checker gets rankled fairly often when I read about science on op-ed pages, because there doesn’t seem to be much fact-checking going on there. It’s not necessary for anyone to fact-check subjective statements like, “We must unleash the inventive genius of America,” or “Harry Potter is boring.” But imagine that someone writing a column about global warming (or the supposed lack thereof) wrote the following:

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

Surely somebody should actually check with the people at the center to make sure that statement is true. If not the writer, then somebody whose job it is to make sure that paid columnists do not just make stuff up. Wouldn’t the columns be better? Wouldn’t the publication be better for such standards?

Unfortunately, this is not just an imaginary scenario. George Will delivered this bit of information in his most recent column. And, as Talking Points Memo reports, the research center felt the need to post this statement on their own web site:

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 shows 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.

This is not a matter of the complex choices between cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, or other responses to global warming. This is a matter of exquisitely simple facts. 16.79 does not equal 15.45.

Of course, this glaring error helps George Will make his case that global warming is nothing to worry about. But it is not true, and two seconds of fact-checking by the Post could have discovered that. It’s fine for op-eds to be a place for opinions. But that doesn’t mean they should be a vacation from facts.

Update, 4/7: In fact, there is no such thing as the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center. Details here.

Comments (65)

Links to this Post

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  23. Evans Politics » Blog Archive » September 2009 Part 8 | October 15, 2009
  24. More Honesty and Accountability on Climate Change. - Political Forum | December 6, 2009
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  1. WOW that’s a big mistake to go unnoticed… my friend is in a journalism master’s program, and her teacher has a policy that if they make 1 factual error on any assignment (even the littest fact), they automatically fail the assignment. Clearly George would have failed her courses.

  2. Nick Davies in Flat Earth News argues that one of the key failures of modern journalism (not just science journalism) is a lack of time for fact-checking due to a combination of (a) a focus on profits rather than truth, (b) an increasing lack of time, (c) an increasing lack of expertise, (d) an increasing reliance on PR companies or organisations like the Press Association who suffer from the same problem. It’s a good book.

    I’m frankly astounded but delighted to hear about the level of fact-checking that goes on at Discover.

  3. khan

    “My mind’s made up: don’t confuse me with the facts.”

  4. “This is a matter of exquisitely simple facts. 16.79 does not equal 15.45.”

    It is if your margin of error is roughly the size of Greenland. :-)

  5. Long live science! Where facts matter and even the detractors know it. Will is not part of the fact-based community. Simple as that.

  6. Factcheck

    George Will was not being deceptive (although his conclusions are inappropriate), the research center is being disingenuous.
    Here’s the graph Will based his claims on.
    http://images.dailytech.com/nimage/9972_large_daily.gsia.jpg
    Here’s the research center’s updated version of the same graph.
    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/global.daily.ice.area.withtrend.jpg
    It appears 2008 ended right where 1979 began, just under 18 million sq. km., but its falling more precipitously, so by the time the column came out, the current levels were below February 1979 levels.
    To say, “We don’t know where he got his information,” without admitting that just one month ago, according to their own graphs, the levels were the same, is borderline deceptive.

  7. Russ from Brighton

    It just goes to show, you can’t be too careful.

  8. So right now your commenters are doing factchecking about your factchecking of factchecking…

  9. Factcheck–My first question reading your post is, How do you know that George Will looked at that particular chart from January 2008? Will gives us no particular clue about that in his column. Did Will tell you personally? I observe that you linked to an image at the site dailytech.com. That image was linked to an article there that used December 2008 data, comparing it to late 1979. If that’s true, then it appears that Will, writing a month and a half later, did not bother to actually check with the research center to see what the difference in sea ice levels was now. If the Washington Post op-ed section had a good fact-checker, he or she would have called up the center, found out the real situation, and brought that to the attention of Will’s editor.

    A fact-checker might have also noticed a response from the scientists to the dailytech.com article, which can be read here: pdf. There they point out that judging the effects of climate change only by looking at the overall GLOBAL ice cover is not the best approach. They write:

    “Almost all global climate models project a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades under increasing greenhouse gas scenarios. But, the same model responses of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice are less certain. In fact, there have been some recent studies suggesting the amount of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere may initially increase as a response to atmospheric warming through increased evaporation and subsequent snowfall onto the sea ice. (Details: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050630064726.htm )

    “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, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N. Hemisphere reduction.

    “Global climate model projections suggest that the most significant response of the cryosphere to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will be seen in Northern Hemisphere summer sea ice extent. Recent decreases of N. Hemisphere summer sea ice extent (green line at right) are consistent with such projections.”

  10. Factcheck

    I was not implying he looked at dailytech, but that this is presumably what the research center’s own graphs would have shown just a month ago (I don’t know how often they update the chart, nor do I know how far in advance George Will wrote his column, but his statement would have been correct and his factcheckers would have confirmed his statement, if the current chart was posted after the fact). I was not implying that Will wasn’t negligent in his fact checking, only that he didn’t just make up his facts as the research center implied. I was not endorsing his ant-global warming stance, just pointing out that the research center was being disingenuous in claiming his facts could not have come from them. And I was, perhaps, just needling you a little bit in your own acceptance of their claim without doing any of your own fact checking.

  11. Michael Heath

    Will was dishonest with other premises in that column at well. He conflated today’s climate change theory with cherry-picked findings published in the 1970s, which is dishonest in two ways:

    1) While there were peer-reviewed papers promoting the idea of global cooling in the 70s, the rate of such papers was running at an already paltry rate of aprox. 1/3 to 1/6 relative to that by climatologists arguing for global warming (ratio depends on the period covered): http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/03/the-global-cooling-mole/

    2) Given the huge increase in measurement capability and knowledge we’ve developed over the past thirty years, today’s climatologists enjoy a much higher degree of both consensus and confidence in their observations and predictions. Will framed his article in a manner that infers the science has not progressed in its ability to measure, understand, and predict climate change since the 70s and that scientists from that period were equally confident and in agreement between the 70s and this decade. The latest IPCC publication is peer-accepted science with predictions rated with 95% confidence and small margins of error based on a vastly larger set of data points.

    Both of Will’s premises are not merely not true, Will is flat-out lying.

  12. Anon

    Even ignoring the issue regarding the need to differentiate sea ice coverage by hemisphere (and realistically take a multi-year, seasonal average), and even if we assume Will looked at the graph linked above, there is a problem with his argument. That graph indicates that global sea ice levels spiked to values close to those of 1979 in early 2008, not the end of 2008 or 2009. On those graphs, and any I can find, global sea ice levels in late 2008 and early 2009 were 1 million km^2 below 1979 levels. Will says sea ice levels are now equal to those of 1979, so the Research Center was not being disingenuous when they assumed he meant now and not a full year ago.

  13. I am so glad that a blogger in the science community with the stature of Carl Zimmer came out so quickly against Will; as I write this, it is late on Monday evening, and a quick Google search of News (which now finds lots and lots of blogs, which given the impending demise of many of the nation’s newspapers, is where News will be found) revealed the dichotomy of the Will response — conservatives touting the column, and informed scientific blogs trashing/dismissing/challenging/refuting section-by-section/inveigling against … the stunning and appalling level of ignorance in this column. I was tempted to spend the time to do it as well in my nascent and little-read blog, but after seeing the response of those who are much better read, why should I bother?

    But I have to note something, so I’ll do it here in Carl’s blog. The same Sunday edition of the Post which carried Will’s head-in-the-sand op-ed also carried an actual news article:

    Scientists: Pace of Climate Change Exceeds Estimates

    What’s also intriguing — and quite appalling as well — is that to find this article I searched “global warming” in Google News. It turns out that this also dug up a couple of troubling articles:

    Despite Cooling Temperatures, Liberals Still Sell Global Warming from Rush Limbaugh, which still features the “cooling since 1998″ meme that has so besotted the skeptical right-wing. There is no point in trying to explain the difference between weather — interannual variability, which for the past two winters has been affected by La Nina conditions — and climate, whereby there are only two years from the 1990s in the top 10 warmest, and all the others are Y2K or later.

    But further troubling in Limbaugh’s article is the mention that former astronaut and former Senator — and actual geologist — Harrison Schmitt doesn’t believe that humans are causing global warming (more troubling than astronaut Walt Cunningham also being on the skeptical side). Here’s another article on Schmitt’s “revelation” from Fox News, of course:

    Ex-Astronaut: Global Warming is Bunk

    which contains this stunning gem of ridiculosity: “Schmitt said historical documents indicate average temperatures have risen by 1 degree per century since around 1400 A.D., and the rise in carbon dioxide is because of the temperature rise.”

    OMG. I certainly hope that he’s either misreported or misrepresented or both. It would be truly appalling that someone who studied under the late genius geochemist Robert M. Garrels would be so frightfully ignorant as to not understand the Suess Effect!

    A note to Carl: you could look this up; you could fact-check it. You could even — and this would be interesting — contact former Senator and former astronaut (and perhaps we should now add former geologist) Harrison Schmitt, and determine if he does know what the Suess effect is and what it means regarding atmospheric CO2. I suspect (and I also hope) that his ambitious career has caused him to unfortunately forget some of the nuances of geochemistry that he learned during his Harvard days. But it’s really appalling that someone with a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard, someone who studied under Garrels, could be so wrong.

  14. Michael Heath

    Nate Silver catches Will falsely quote-mining in this column in addition to Will’s other lies: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/02/will-omitted-key-context-in-ice-age.html

  15. I am not familiar with climate data, but it seems to me that the daily sea ice area moves through a range. There appears to be a regular pattern of a small peak around July, then a higher peak around November, with a trough around February. This range has a bit of variation, but has a range of about 7 million square kilometers through the yearly pattern.

    For information that has a regular pattern, wouldn’t a chart of weekly data be less prone to noise? Wouldn’t monthly data be less noisy than weekly data. Yearly average data seems as if it would be the most reasonable way to compare any trend in data. Picking an arbitrary date (possibly chosen only because of the date of publication), 02/15/79 vs 02/15/09 is just going to highlight the noise in the data, rather than any significant trend. It is less noisy than looking at the temperature on one day thirty years apart, comparing the numbers, and concluding that you are looking at meaningful climate change data. Looking at the anomaly data would appear to be better at avoiding noise, but it is still looking at daily data.

    It seems as if the point of this data is not to inform. We should be looking at data that accurately represents relevant data. I have no idea how relevant this data is, but it does not appear to be accurately represented by George Will or by the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center.

  16. Sorry, We should be looking at data that accurately represents relevant data should be We should be looking at data that accurately represents relevant information.

  17. roy

    Ice thickness is also a relevant point, and its undoubtedly thinner. Global area would be most relevant vis-a-vis albedo. Perhaps a mass/temperature of ice measurement is available. Of course, all these feed into air temperature averages.

    Will made the same assertion on Abcnews This Week in mid-January.

    …and I like Will. I’d say he’s the best of that ilk. I am disappointed in him.

  18. Charles Schmidt

    It is one thing to have your ideas but to bend the facts to support it is another. It seems that Mr. Will is good at doing just that as are many others on both sides. Most of us just want the real facts on issues.

  19. But-but-but, don’t you people understand–for _large_ values of 15.45, it _is_ equal to 16.79!

  20. The “point” is not to fight over one piece of data, but the reality that Will’s post is filled with distortions and misrepresentations of others’ work and of scientific understanding. This OPED is simply and purely Will-ful distortion.

    The Washington Post has published deceptive truthiness on climate issues from Lomborg, Samuelson, … Will is just one of many.

    See: http://getenergysmartnow.com/2009/02/15/washpost-complicit-in-disformation-or-explicit-collaboration/

  21. On a related note, I had once read an article where they looked at journalists and their predictions. (Stuff like “I predict that within a year…”) George Will was at the bottom of the list for the largest percentage of failed predictions. I don’t remember exactly what that percentage was, but it was astoundingly low. So low, that you would probably make some pretty accurate predictions about the future by saying the opposite of whatever George Will predicted on the subject.

  22. In Fooled By Randomness, Nassim Taleb is very critical of Will for Will’s criticism of Robert Shiller prior to the NASD peak in 2000. Will asserted that it was wrong to listen to Shiller about a bubble in stocks. That listening to Shiller would have cost investors a lot of money. Of course, Will said this while the stocks were on the way up. I suspect that Taleb would have mentioned it, if Will had ever suggested that his criticism was wrong.

  23. @Rogue Medic: Certainly there is some noise in the data, but with a bit of statistical analysis it is possible to sort out the noise from the pattern, and look at the overall trend. This would certainly be more meaningful than trying to pick those numbers off of a graph. I presume the climate research center has done this sort of analysis.

  24. tunamike

    I cannot speculate on Mr. Will’s source for his controversial comment on sea ice but if he saw the article at Daily Tech (http://www.dailytech.com/Article.aspx?newsid=13834) with the title “Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979″, he should be allowed to use that as a statement of fact appropriate to that specific point in time (end of 2008). Of course the ice area would be different a month later and even a week later. That would not affect the accuracy of the end-of-year datum.

    The factual accuracy of the Daily Tech article was ostensibly confirmed by the University of Illinois’s Arctic Climate Research Center researcher, Mr. Bill Chapman – which leads me to agree with Factchecker: the Center is being disingenuous when it disavows its own data.

    It is puzzling if not intentionally evasive that the “response from the scientists to the dailytech.com article” that Mr. Zimmer references is neither dated nor attributed to the Center or a particular Center scientist. At least, Mr. Will (and the Daily Tech author, Mr. Asher) had the integrity to sign their work.

  25. amorphous

    possible explanation for the lack of fact checking:

    URL: http://www.tinyrevolution.com/mt/archives/002858.html
    —————————–
    Here’s a funny story of Noam Chomsky’s from the book Understanding Power about a column Will wrote in 1982:

    CHOMSKY: [A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called “Mideast Truth and Falsehood,” about how peace activists are lying about the Middle East, everything they say is a lie. And in the article, there was one statement that had a vague relation to fact: he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter, the kind of letter you write to Newsweek—you know, four lines—in which I said, “Will has one statement of fact, it’s false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down.” Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek “Letters” column. She said: “We’re kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?” So I told her, “Well, they’re published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971″—which is true, because it was a big proposal, it just happened to go down the memory hole in the United States because it was the wrong story. So she looked it up and called me back, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, we found it there; okay, we’ll run your letter.” An hour later she called again and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, but we can’t run the letter.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he’s having a tantrum; they decided they can’t run it.” Well, okay.

  26. @EastwoodDC,

    Certainly there is some noise in the data,

    I’m guessing this is some of the liberal amounts of humor thrown in, that you mention on your blog. I think that is a great approach. It is true that the noise is nowhere near as great as with the daily temperature, but there is still a lot of noise.

    but with a bit of statistical analysis it is possible to sort out the noise from the pattern, and look at the overall trend. This would certainly be more meaningful than trying to pick those numbers off of a graph.

    Exactly my point. Picking a measurement on one particular day, and comparing it to exactly 30 years ago, means nothing. Even if the day had confirmed what Will wrote, it would be practically meaningless. There is too much noise.

    The only way to look at this data, and derive any meaning, is to average it. That is what i wrote in my first post.

    I presume the climate research center has done this sort of analysis.

    And yet we are left to wonder about that, since they chose to respond as they did. This suggests that they don’t care (in which case why respond?), don’t pay attention to what they are doing (hardly a recommendation), or don’t understand statistics. Maybe an intern posted it. I don’t know.

    I think that, in a post about fact checking, sloppy corrections should not be ignored. Are we more interested in the gotcha or the relevant data that will help people to make informed decisions. On your blog, you point out the chart from J.P. Morgan, which is misleading. This is just a different example of using statistics badly.

  27. Carl, thanks for pointing out how wrong Will some of the facts; Tim Lambert has also pointed out that Will’s use of the 70’s “cooling” canard.

    But on top of these, readers should give some thought to the “alarmists are Malthusians” meme that Will uses, and especially to his reference to that conservative favorite – the famous 1980 bet that Paul Ehrlich so badly lost to Julian Simon over the prices of minerals and commodities. There is a good reason why Simon won and Ehrich lost: Erlich just didn’t understand how markets function and the ability of markets – if resources are owned
    – to anticipate and prepare for future demand (which also adjusts).

    As I have noted on my blog, the reason to pay attention to this is that Will himself – and most “conservative” commentators on climate change and other environment/natural resource issues – fails to note that none of this logic holds true for unowned, open-access resources – like the global atmosphere and the climate it modultes – as there simply are no property rights and hence no marktets in the air. As a result, no one receives any price signal to change his emissions of GHGs and no one has any economic incentive to reduce them simply to save everyone else from the ongoing side-effects. http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/02/18/poor-thing-why-george-will-won-t-be-consistent-on-climate-change.aspx

    Until there are effective markets or pricing signal, people with legitimate preferences as to climate and man’s affect on it have little effective ways of expressing those preferences – short of choosing to change their own behavior, attempting to apply moral suasion, and pushing for collective action.

  28. @Rogue Medic
    I seem to have provoked a strong response, but that was not my intent. For what it’s worth, I think the downward trend is obvious even without the statistics (and I see much more pattern than noise). As you say, GW picking off a value from one month is just wrong.

  29. @Eastwood DC,

    My point is that it is wrong, no matter who does it. The daily data do appear to trend, but they trend in different directions within the same year. The way to make that clear is to average it over a longer time period than a day. Using daily data, rather than averaged data, encourages misuse. Misuse is something we should all oppose. I would prefer to see data averaged over a year on a chart. Otherwise, it looks like something Jackson Pollock might have done. Averaging over a year would eliminate the apparently seasonal trends.

  30. scott in detroit

    Here’s a story everyone posting here should read, attesting to the inaccuracy of any measurement system. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601110&sid=aIe9swvOqwIY

    [Carl: Readers may also want to check out my new post on the same subject too.

  31. It seems the details have been liberated from accuracy, just as the finger-pointing in this article.

    Mr Will’s data was accurate when he posted it. He may have understated his case, in fact.

    Additionally, it has been discovered recently that the sensors measuring sea ice have been understating the amount of sea ice by 500000 sq km SINCE Mr Will wrote his article.

    My source (one of many):
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601110&sid=aIe9swvOqwIY

    Besides, it has never been proven that if there is global warming that it is better to freeze in the cold of the little ice age from ~1400 to ~1800. Also there is no evidence that it is man’s fault. Three huge IF’s in the equation. Religions have failed for having less to stand on.

  32. Andy Thom

    Inspiring lecture on fact checking, too bad you didn’t hold yourself to your own standards. Perhaps then you would have bothered to look at the last several months of data postings from the Artic Climate Research Center and seen that Wills was accurate for data at the beginning of the year. You might also have discovered there were many individuals questioning the accuracy of the posted data from Cryosphere Today in February considering they were posting no ice in areas where ice obviously was. Instead, it’s hard to determine who now look like more like individuals trumpeting an agenda posing as scientists, Carl Zimmer or Cryosphere today.

    However I have hope that you will re-read your article and do the fact checking for furture posts.

  33. Robert

    Did you read Will’s response to the NYT’s article?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/26/AR2009022602906.html

    Are you aware of the error’s at Cryosphere? If so, when will you post a retraction and apology to Will?

    [Carl : I’m going to assume that you didn’t read my a post about Will’s response, nor did you read about my discussion about the issue with the satellites. You can get to those posts (and others) in the summary I wrote yesterday. If you read them, you’ll see why I don’t agree for a need for a retraction, let alone an apology.]

  34. Richard

    Those wishing to “Discover” what the current raw Arctic Sea Ice Data shows can find it at: http://www.nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews

    The maximum 2008-2009 sea ice appears to already exceed the maximum from 2006-2007.

  35. Sam

    February is between 28 and 29 days….the exact day of the reading and survey in February is exremely important as the extent of the ice cap changes with the seasons I believe….howcome this very important bit of information is left out. I think the sea ice can can change over 10 million sq km in a season…what the hey !?

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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