Ice Never Sleeps: George Will, Jr.

By Carl Zimmer | March 9, 2009 2:50 pm

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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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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