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Will-full ignorance

Filed under: — eric @ 26 December 2004

It is not worthwhile for RealClimate to post a response to each misinformed newspaper commentary on climate change that we come across. However, George Will’s recent article in the Washington post (in which he praises Michael Crichton’s State of Fear) perhaps deserves special attention because Will is so widely read and respected. We find it disappointing that Will appears not to have bothered looking up the most basic facts before writing his article. See also our earlier post on the George Will article.

We have already posted detailed responses to State of Fear. Here, we respond briefly to the points Will tries to make. The italics are direct quotes from his article.

1. The villains [in Crichton’s book] are frustrated because the data do not prove that global warming is causing rising sea levels
This is a particularly strange example for Will (and Crichton) to choose, since even the most ardent “skeptics” do not question that sea levels are rising, and that this is almost all due to the warming of the planet. The rate of sea level rise (about 1.5 mm/year over the last century, and 2.8 mm/yr since 1992) is well established from direct measurements and its primary causes (thermal expansion of the ocean, and melting of glaciers) are well known. See also the US Geological Survey’s report, National Assessment of Coastal Vulnerability to Future Sea-Level Rise and references therein.

2. So they concoct high-tech schemes to manufacture catastrophes … the calving of an Antarctic iceberg 100 miles across…
High-tech schemes to create such catastrophes might be possible, but are hardly necessary. Icebergs much larger than this have broken off the Antarctic Peninsula, and there is good evidence that warming of the surface air temperature is responsible for at least some of these (though warmer water temperatures, and simply the internal dynamics of ice sheets also play a role). There are photographs and films that document this.

3. “greenhouse gases,” particularly carbon dioxide, trap heat on Earth, causing . . . well, no one knows what, or when
The absorption of infrared radiation (the main way that the Earth loses heat to space) by greenhouse gases is a very well understood phenomenon. This is easily demonstrated in the college science laboratory, and is also illustrated by measurements from space that show diminished intensity of outgoing radiation (“light”) at particular (infrared ) wavelengths. This is the reason the Earth’s average temperature is about 15 degrees C, not well below freezing, as it would be without the existence of greenhouse gases. What Will probably is trying to say is that we do not know what will happen because of the increased greenhouse effect that results from anthropogenic increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet scientists have worked very hard to answer precisely this question, and they have done so in a precise way: “The globally averaged surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 5.8°C over the period 1990 to 2100″ (IPCC Third Assessment Report, Summary for Policy Makers, 2001; See e.g. Figure 5).

4. the decline of global temperatures from 1940 to 1970
This is one statement that we can agree with — there was cooling in the 1940s to 1970s. But the cooling is a small variation superimposed on the overall warming of the last century. As many of us have explained many times over, no one is claiming that CO2 is the only influence on climate. Indeed, far from being an embarrassment to climate scientists, this short period of cooling is in good agreement with model calculations that include the other natural and anthropogenic influences (see e.g. the IPCC assessment report Figure 12.7, and the paper by Delworth and Knutson in Science).

5. since 1970, glaciers in Iceland have been advancing.
According to NASA, all but one of Iceland’s major glaciers are receding. Will (and Crichton) would have been on firmer ground if they had used the example of Norwegian glaciers, which almost uniquely in the world have been growing because the increase of precipitation during winter is larger than the increase in melting in summer.

6. Antarctica is getting colder and its ice is getting thicker.
Actually, there is still too little data to say whether Antarctica, on average, is getting thicker. Thickening ice in Antarctica has been predicted by climate scientists for a long time, as a consequence of the greater moisture-carrying capacity of warmer air, so evidence for a thickening ice sheet would actually support, not negate, other evidence for global warming. In any case, there is abundant evidence that the ice sheet is getting thinner (and quickly) along the margins. It is true that some parts of Antarctica have cooled but only in the last two decades; Will neglects to mention that the Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest warming region on earth. More details on the question of recent Antarctic climate change is addressed elsewhere on this website.

7. while Earth’s cloud cover “is thought” to have increased recently, no one knows whether this is good or bad.
Cloud cover is very difficult to quantify, and because different cloud types have different effects, their influence is hard to quantify as well. It is well recognized that our inability to accurately simulate clouds in computer models is the largest uncertainty in climate change projections. This doesn’t change the fact that even the most conservative of these projections – with clouds creating a large negative feedback – nevertheless show significant warming over the next century.

8. Climate-change forecasts … are like financial forecasts but involve a vastly more complex array of variables. The climate forecasts, based on computer models analyzing the past …
This is apples and oranges, and is not a very useful comparison. The question of how many variables are involved is not as important as whether the models represent reality. Climate models vary in complexity from simple 1-dimensional energy balance models to full-fledged general circulation models. Climate forecasts are not based on analyis of the past, but on the principles of physics. Past data is often used to validate models, and these comparisons show, for example, that climate models correctly predicted the cooling of the planet after the Pinatubo volcano eruption.

9. “30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling.”
We find it especially disapponting that Will repeats this historically inaccurate statement.
The “panic” about cooling in the 1970′s is an urban myth. In particular, the Science article from 1976 is totally misrepresented by Will. That article qualified its predictions by “in the absence of human perturbation of the climate system” as did many papers at the time. It is also telling that Richard Lindzen, a well known critic of other climate scientists, happens to agree with us on this. Writing for the Cato Institute, he says: “But the scientific community never took the issue [global cooling] to heart…” (see full text here).

10. [Crichton’s book] has lots of real scientific graphs, and footnotes citing journals.
If Will is trying to make the point that Crichton’s book, while fiction, is nonetheless worth listening to because it draws on real scientific knowledge, it is a rather weak point, since as we have discussed elsewhere, State of Fear is notable mostly for what it leaves out.


59 Responses to “Will-full ignorance”

  1. 51
    Peter Copeland says:

    This is the letter I sent to Mr. Will directly (at georgewill@washpost.com) on Dec 23. I have not received a response as of today (Jan 4).

    ______

    Dear Mr. Will,

    I usually enjoy reading your columns. I consider myself an independent, politically (even though my recent article in Academic Questions makes me look pretty conservative) and I am generally disappointed that the general level of discourse coming from the liberal end of the spectrum is often not as well constructed as arguments such as you often deliver from the more conservative side. This was seriously called into question today as I read your column regarding a recent work of fiction, State of Fear, by Michael Crichton. I understand that you deal with significant length and deadline constraints when writing your columns but today’s piece contained factual errors, intellectual dishonesty, misrepresentation, and a fundamental misunderstanding about how our understanding of the natural world is increased through the application of science. Either you were having a very bad day or you are not the careful and thoughtful analyst I until this morning thought you to be.

    Firstly, our understanding of atmospheric chemistry and its effects on climate and society has not and will never be advanced by reading novels. I’ve read one of Mr. Crichton’s books, Andromeda Strain; I enjoyed it well enough but even though I read it as a teenager, it didn’t convince me that we need to be worried about microbes from outer space. Mr. Crichton gets paid for making stuff up.

    However, his new book apparently straddles the line between fact and fiction, citing information from scientific journals. In June, I completed a three-and-one-half-year term as Editor of Geological Society of America Bulletin so I’m a big fan of journals and having folks cite from them but I’m sorry to have to point out to you that some stuff that gets published in even the most respected journals gets revised. It may be that the journals articles cited by Mr. Crichton reflect current and widely held opinions of respected scientists (I doubt it) but nothing about writing a work of fiction requires this. But just to see what had impressed you so, I did some research.

    You note that Mr. Crichton cites something from Progress in Physical Geography. Given that PPG has only been around since 1977, I can’t count it among the most respected of scientific journals but that made it easier for me to research. I didn’t look at all the issues but my quick search found one article concerning global warming (v. 22, no. 3, p. 398) which fairly well describes the relationship between CO2 in the atmosphere and average global temperature – they’ve been tracking quite close for the past century. My point is not to support any of the conclusions in this particular article but to criticize you for shoddy scholarship. You took a citation from a secondary source (and a work of fiction at that) as important. It took me ten minutes to find a primary resource that, as far as I can tell from your column, comes to a very different conclusion than Mr. Crichton’s novel.

    You also note Mr. Crichton’s use of something from Transactions – American Geophysical Union. First let me point out that the actual name of the journal is EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union but more importantly, I must tell you that EOS (as members of the AGU – and this surely doesn’t include Mr. Crichton – call it) is the ‘fast publication’ journal of the AGU. This is basically a newsletter and the vast majority of what is published here are abstracts of work to be presented meetings. If the ideas presented at the meetings prove meritorious they might get published in the AGU’s journal of record, the Journal of Geophysical Research. Anybody who knows anything about the AGU or publishing in geoscience generally -and here I must now exclude you- would not be too impressed just because something got published in EOS.

    You also make note of something published in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. These are not science journals but newspapers and if the Washington Post can get something about science so wrong (as evidenced by your column today) why can’t the New York Times? What scientific report was the Times talking about? This is sloppy on your part.

    Now, on to your factual errors and misrepresentations. They may be just repetitions of Mr. Crichton’s mistakes but by putting them in your column you have made them yours as well.

    I went to look up what had swayed you so from the March 1, 1975 edition of Science. Problem is, however, Science did not publish on that date. I looked at the 28 Feb 75 and the 7 Mar 75 issues of Science but couldn’t find any articles that seemed to be about global warming. Very sloppy.

    I next went to see about what you were so interested about in the 10 Dec 76 issue of Science. The only article in that issue remotely related to the topic of your column is by Hays et al. (p. 1121-1132); it’s about the effect of variation of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun on climate. This has nothing to do with global warming as effected by atmospheric chemistry. You lampooned the article, saying it – warned about ‘extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.’ – I looked at this paper (did you?) and found the very last sentence to say this: “the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and a cooler climate.” Now to call this a “warning” may be excused as a hyped-up exaggeration but to suggest that this report has anything to do with concerns over CO2 emissions and global warming, sea-level change, etc. is just the worst kind of misrepresentation! I am going to chose the most charitable interpretation I can think of and assume you did this out of a profound ignorance of what you chose to write about. It seems you read a footnote in a novel by an author not schooled in the Earth Sciences, didn’t bother to look up the reference yourself, and then concluded that the scientific community can’t get it’s story straight. Shame on you. The ideas about the orbital variation of the Earth and its relationship to ice ages are now well established in the geoscience community. It very much seems that another ice age might be down the pike – in about 20,000 years. The concerns about global warming as related to atmospheric chemistry are on a much shorter time scale and on top of the longer-term cycles of orbital variation. Moreover, concern about CO2 and other gases has grown significantly since the paper by Hays et al. in 1976. You got this one really wrong.

    Finally, although you column was quite short, I’ve one more bone to pick with you. You said, “The theory of global warming is that ‘greenhouse gases’ particularly carbon dioxide, trap heat on Earth, causing – well, no one knows what, or when.” This is you at your most ungentlemanly. Is this how you want to be treated by others? I think you know that while the theory of global warming may be wrong it is not wishy-washy. This is the writing of someone who doesn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good jeremiad. The idea is that CO2 and other gases make things warmer. This might be wrong (or far to simple) but there are a quite a lot of data available that support this idea. If you took the time to speak to scientists and not read novels you could become acquainted with these data.

    You conclude by saying that, “because Crichton remembers yesterday’s discarded certitudes, millions of his readers will be wholesomely skeptical of today’s.” It’s good writing but it’s based on no foundation (also, you can’t seem to decide if the problem is being too headstrong or too irresolute). Read the papers! If you do you will find that the way of science is not certitude but careful, reasoned conclusion supported by observations of the tangible world. If you want certitude you need to go to politics. For example when President Bush opined on July 17, 2003, “We based our decisions on good, sound intelligence, and the – our people are going to find out the truth. And the truth will say that this intelligence was good intelligence. There is no doubt in my mind.” I missed your column lampooning this certitude.

    There are plenty of good scientists near you, at NASA and the University of Maryland, for example. You should look them up; they’d have much to teach you. You’re also welcome to visit the University of Houston. My colleague, Barry Lefer and I would be happy to talk to you about orbital dynamics, atmospheric chemistry and Earth’s climate and the process by which science sets aside bad ideas. We’ve never written a novel but we’ve combined for more that 30 years of trying to better understand the natural world through observation without regard for the political implications of our findings. You ought to try it sometime.

    Sincerely,

    Peter Copeland
    University of Houston

  2. 52
    Tom Rees says:

    Regarding predicted mean global temps for 2005. The UK Met Office provides this, along with an assessment of previous predictions: http://www.metoffice.com/research/seasonal/global/index.html

  3. 53
    Chris Radlinski says:

    Superb letter, Dr. Copeland!

  4. 54
    Gary Goldsmith says:

    Fascinating site (which I found through the MIT blog referred to above) with thoughtful, in-depth analysis. From a psychodynamic standpoint, it is worth remembering that Michael Crichton was a physician before becoming a hack writer, not a background likely to instill humility in one.

    Most people have little tolerance for uncertainty and are looking for simplistic, easily understood answers, presented in entertaining ways. (As a visitor, it would be impolite for me to start a flame war by bringing up the recent election.) Because Mr. Crichton writes entertainingly about scientific subjects, people tend to think he actually knows something about them. I guess that’s not so surprising, since we make the implicit assumption that entertainers are well-informed because they play characters who seem to be experts.

    Clearly your commentators are more knowledgeable than I am regarding the specifics of climate change, but when I speak with people about this topic I try to point out that global warming doesn’t mean that everything gets hotter. It means that weather (and its consequences) become more unstable.

    Keep up the good work. I’ve added your site to my Faves bookmarks.

  5. 55
    Pat Neuman says:

    In #54 (above) Gary Goldsmith wrote:
    >
    > … I try to point out that global warming
    > doesn’t mean that everything gets hotter. It
    > means that weather (and its consequences)
    > become more unstable.

    I understand that global warming means more unstable weather.
    However, global warming does indeed mean that conditions will
    get “hotter”, on a global average-decade/century scale.

    Please check out the 1890-2003 plot of 10 year moving averages
    using globally averaged annual land temperatures (GLT).
    The annual GLT data was obtained from NOAA NCDC.

    The plot is at:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Paleontology_and_Climate_Articles/

    Thank you.

    Pat N

  6. 56
    dave thorneycroft says:

    Hello

    I am a complete layman. On reading your comments I find many discrepancies e.g ” the relationship between CO2 in the atmosphere and average global temperature – they’ve been tracking quite close for the past century.” (Prof Coupland 04/01/05), how is this the case since there was a cooling period globally between 1940 and 1970 when (presumably) CO2 levels increased ? Please enlighten me.

    . Please see my point #4 in the post “Will-full ignorance“. –eric

  7. 57
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    George F. Will has just published another high-level science overview column, this time on physics. (I’ll send it to RealClimate in case they want to append it to this comment, assuming legalities don’t preclude that.) It’s in today’s Washington Post and will be appearing in many other newspapers. Some RealClimate participants might be interested. In my view we should be.

    But in my experience, some who Lament the State of Public Science Literacy really only care about public funding of their own scientific specialties, or at most public enlightenment about their specialties. An example might be the theoretical physicist who eloquently laments science illiteracy, but who doesn’t know or care much about federal limitation of stem-cell research — and who might dismiss RealClimate.org as, say, a fun idea that no one takes seriously.

    It seems to me that this kind of parochialism is akin to the weird dynamic by which Carl Sagan was excluded from the National Academy. And whether or not Professor Copeland (Comment 51) has a broad view of science, I suspect it’s also akin to his belief that “our understanding of atmospheric chemistry and its effects on climate and society has not and will never be advanced by reading novels.” Again, I make no defense of egregious errors by Crichton and Will, and I don’t claim that any purpose of imaginative literature is merely to establish scientific fact. But I sure wish it weren’t too late to forward the professor’s assertion for comment to C. P. Snow, who gave the name to the insidious two-cultures problem that the assertion illustrates, and who besides being a scientist was a novelist.

    Please don’t get me wrong about Professor Copeland. I too value the eloquence of his letter to Will. But I question both the usefulness and the accuracy of attacking Will by accusing him of “intellectual dishonesty.” Most who have read Will since the 1970s — even those, like me, who disagree with him in fundamental ways — have experienced the integrity of his arguments time after time. So I think longtime readers will suspect that something besides intellectual dishonesty explains Will’s climate-science column. Will occasionally tells a story about the person he may admire most: his dad, a scholar who labored for years on some set of ideas, only to come to the realization that he was wrong — and who then had the intellectual integrity to start over. In my view, scientists and science advocates should concentrate on that aspect of Will, and leave ad hominem arguments to Rush Limbaugh.

    I also think that scientists should follow their own important rule about getting the facts straight. Professor Copeland quotes President Bush’s confident July 17, 2003, statement about the accuracy of pre-invasion intelligence and then taunts Will with this line: “I missed your column lampooning this certitude.” It’s probably true that no Will column has lampooned that presidential certitude — though Will has been mighty sarcastic about the president’s faith that Jeffersonianism will spread — but it’s also true that on Oct. 23 of that same year, Will wrote (Washington Post, p. A.31): “Critics correctly fault the mistaken certitude of some of the administration’s prewar pronouncements.” And last Oct. 31, when Will endorsed the president’s candidacy (Washington Post, p. B.7), he noted that “Bush sometimes confuses certitude with certainty… .”

    But then, like many distinguished scientists who want — admirably, in my view — to Improve Public Science Literacy, Professor Copeland is plenty skeptical of science in the popular media, including not only the Washington Post, Will’s home newspaper, but the New York Times, which is home every Tuesday to the Science Times supplement. It seems to me that facts show that the professor is right about the media in general, maybe including the Post. But it also seems to me that anyone who wants public science literacy to improve should value the Science Times. See, for example, Andrew C. Revkin’s Dec. 14 debunking of the Crichton novel (“New Climate Thriller: Scary, but Is It Science?”), as well as the two letters that appeared in the Science Times the following week.

    Anyway, I hope that scientists and others who focus on improving science’s engagement of society will consider today’s Will column. Is Will’s Richard Feynman quotation a non sequitur? (I think it’s not — and that some scientists will never see why.) Has Will advanced public understanding this time? To what degree does the column represent the kind of commentary we’d like to see about science? How does it compare or contrast with Will’s infamous climate-science column?

    The Washington Post accepts op-eds, especially from people of prominence. So do the New York Times (where Will’s columns don’t appear) and many other papers (where they do). It seems to me that it’s counterproductive to bash George Will personally. But the world’s full of opportunities to rebut him simply in the realm of reason, the realm where I wish scientists — with their beautifully self-correcting system — could remain natural exemplars for the rest of us.

  8. 58
    mike morgen says:

    I was disappointed that in taking George Will to task for not adhering to well-founded science, you make the same error yourself. Specifically, with regard to your third point about the predicted temperature rise, I do not believe anyone has sufficiently demonstrated a model for predicting either average global or average local atmospheric temperature changes as a function of mass of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (e.g. CO2) put into the atmosphere. As far as I am aware there is no reason to believe that current models are either precise or accurate, give the large number of variables for which they cannot properly account. In fact, I would suggest that there is no convincing evidence that historically recent rises in average temperatures have been caused to any significant degree by anthropological sources. Correlations of CO2 levels with temperature rises do not prove a cause and effect relationship. Neither does a rough notion that at some level greenhouse gases should cause a temperature increase. A rise of 1.4 to 5.8 deg over the next 100+ yrs given in your point #3 is a huge range, which is proof that the models are not robust. The impact of temperature changes to our society could range from insignificant to dramatic over the range given.

    Response: There are many such model predictions which, as I’ve stated in other posts, do a reasonable job of projecting global temperature rises as a function of CO2 changes and other forcings. There is much accumulated evidence to support the contention that historical temperature trends over the last century have been significantly impacted by human activities (see IPCC for instance) and this evidence is not based on mere correlation. Most of the spread in the projected 2100 temperature rises are due to the emission scenarios used – not the response of the model. The models are in fact relatively robust – the current range of sensitivities are 2.6 to 4.1 deg C for a 2xCO2 scenario. – gavin

  9. 59
    Peter Copeland says:

    My comments to Steven T. Corneliussen’s post above (#57):

    3rd paragraph: Indeed it would be fascinating to see what C.P. Snow would say but each time I’ve read his 1959 Rede lecture or his1963 follow-up I haven’t seen anything that made me think that he was advocating study of the sensible world through fiction. He argues that each of the two cultures can learn from the other but he doesn’t argue that one can become the other. He did say the following and I have been disappointed to find just how often this remains true some 45 years later:

    “They [non-scientists] are impoverished too – perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it. ” As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all. Even if they want to, they can’t. It is rather as though, over an immense range of intellectual experience, a whole group was tone-deaf. Except that this tone-deafness doesn’t come by nature, but by training, or rather the absence of training.”

    4th paragraph: It is precisely because I have so much respected George Will’s work in the past (see the 1st paragraph of my letter) that I felt I could be so harsh. He clearly stated that, “no one knows what, or when” the theory of global warming predicts. I just have too much respect for his powers of reason and observation to conclude anything more charitable than intellectual dishonesty. I could be wrong, but that would be even more disapponting. I would love to have lunch with Mr. Will and I think we’d have much to agree on but not this.

    5th paragraph: I should be held accountable for every thing I said but nothing I didn’t say and there was nothing un-factual about my statement. You are welcome to criticize my tone (perhaps the inclusion of the statement from President Bush would have been enough) but I did miss the columns mentioned.

    6th paragraph: The interpretation that I am “plenty skeptical of science in the popular media” isn’t a very good description of my views but, more important, isn’t borne out by what I wrote. But, perhaps I could have written it better. Let me clarify: My chief criticism of Mr. Will was his shoddy scholarship. His references to the NYT and CSM were at the very least *tertiary* references. I’m a big fan of Science Tuesday but this is a venue for *publicizing* science, not advancing it. It is sloppy and misleading to I imply when the Times reports something it is the work of the Times. Reporters interview scientists; they don’t do science. When my undergraduate students hand in papers with sources from textbooks or newspapers or the internet (they’ve not yet tried novels) and not the primarly reference, I mark them down. I am holding Mr. Will to the same standard.

    8th paragraph: It was not my intention to criticize George Will, the man, but the work of George Will, the journalist. I think those of us who have had to read the rejection letters regarding our grant proposals to the NSF or submissions to Science or Nature understand that it is not a personal attach to point out that a particular idea or interpretation is way off base because these ideas need to be grounded in physical reality. As to why I didn’t submit an op-ed piece to the Post, I regret that I didn’t have the time to write something shorter.

    -PC


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