Will-full ignorance

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.

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59 comments on this post.
  1. Joe:

    Well done. Perhaps Mr. Crichton should stick to books about killer gorillas and lava. Amid all the obfuscation on this issue (the scientific details of which I do not pretend to be intimate with, but am glad you are…) the last thing we need is for the popular culture to fight reality, as well.

  2. Thomas Palm:

    Your last point is unfortunately all too common. People are easily dazzled by lots of references and assume it must mean that the author knows a lot about the subject.

  3. eric:

    In fairness to Crichton, these books are all novels. Our objection to State of Fear — and to George Will’s “review” of it — is that it seems that Crichton wants to be taken seriously. (Presumably George Will wants to be taken seriously at any rate).

  4. tom:

    I hope you are sending this to the Post. That’s where it will do the most good.

  5. tom:

    I noticed that there is an editorial in the Post today generally rebutting the idea that the consensus on warming is meaningless and not supported by good science. She doesn’t mention Will or Crichton but at least there was a relevant editorial from the other side.
    Editor’s note. This is Naomi Oreskes, who published an essay in Science which we highlighted earlier. See Statistical analysis of consensus.

    She mentions some guy at MIT who says that the consensus is based on religious faith. Who is this dude and does he have any credibility?
    Reponse: Richard Lindzen. He does have credibility, and is to be taken seriously. Many of his arguments don’t hold water though. We’ll have a post on this at some point.

  6. Jim Norton:

    Richard Lindzen. Here is part of a story:

    “Do you believe in global warming? That is a religious question. So is the second part: Are you a skeptic or a believer?” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen, in a speech to about 100 people at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

    “Essentially if whatever you are told is alleged to be supported by ‘all scientists,’ you don’t have to understand [the issue] anymore. You simply go back to treating it as a matter of religious belief,” Lindzen said. His speech was titled, “Climate Alarmism: The Misuse of ‘Science'” and was sponsored by the free market George C. Marshall Institute. Lindzen is a professor at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.


    Obviously if you ask if someone believes it is a religious question.

    The full article is at http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=/Culture/archive/200412/CUL20041202a.html but I can’t open the page.

    BTW, Will’s column appears in many papers. Is anyone trying to contact them? Is anyone trying to contact Will?

  7. caerbannog:

    Nice response. Here’s hoping that reporters in the mainstream media will start parroting this site in preference to wingnut sites like co2science.org, etc…

    But it looks like a little “thinko” slipped through in (6). It reads, “Actually, there is still too little data to say whether Antarctica, on average, is getting thicker.”

    s/thicker/colder/ ?
    Response I mean what I said. A question we’d like to be able to answer well is whether the balance between accumulation of snow and ice and ablation (melting, sublimation, and loss of ice to the ocean via iceberg calving) is positive or negative. We don’t know the answer because the calculation involves a subtraction of two big numbers to get a small number. Over most of the Antarctic ice sheet, snow accumulation rates are about 2 grams per square centimeter per year. Multiply that by the area of the continent to get the total mass of snow added. Now add up all the icebergs you can find, which cracked off the edge of the ice sheet this year. Now subtract the second from the first. Is the answer positive or negative? If it is positive, the ice is getting thicker. See why this is very uncertain?
    The question of cooling/warming is separate. Take a look at the map at http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/met/gjma/trends2003.col.pdf to see just how silly it is to claim “Antarctica is cooling.”

  8. CalorDolor:

    While we all agree that the climate shouldn’t change at all, and while nothing whatsoever good has been shown to come from global warming, I find it rather abominable that someone of Will’s stature should be so off-base!

  9. Steven T. Corneliussen:

    It seems to me that since RealClimate’s credibility comes ultimately from respect for plain old facts, it’s important for you to stop calling the commentator and public intellectual George F. Will a “historian,” as you have done at least three times so far (quoted below). As Google readily confirms, a third of a century ago, when Will was an academic, his field was political philosophy. I’ll bet I’m not the only nonscientist reader of RealClimate who believes this factual distinction is important. Thanks. Those three instances:
    * We find it disappointing that Will, trained as an historian, appears not to have bothered looking up the most basic facts before writing his article.
    * Remarkably — considering he is an historian — Will also repeats the historically inaccurate claim that “30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling.”
    * “30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling.” We find it especially disappointing that Will, trained as an historian, repeats this historically inaccurate statement.
    Response Thanks for pointing this out. We note that Will has frequently written as an historian (most famously, history of baseball). Nonetheless we will correct the posts.

  10. DrMaggie:

    A better link to NASA’s study of retreating glaciers on Iceland might be http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov/topstory/20010410iceland_glacier.html (in any case, there is a typo in the current link – remove the colon at the end!)

    In any case, thanks for a great site!

  11. Eli Rabett:

    Someone once told me a story about Lindzen which explains much of what he does scientifically. According to my friend, Lindzen got where he was by adopting unlikely (far out, difficult, wild, etc.) ideas. A few of these were later shown to be correct. Most of the others were forgotten, that being the culture of science and Lindzen got credit for being the creator of the few correct ones. Therefore he will advocate for the unlikely or at least the not well accepted.

    Thus such concepts as the adaptive iris.

    However, he has now stepped into the policy/political arena, where nothing is forgiven in an opponent and there are a lot of simply wrong concepts that Lindzen has put forth. One begins to see this in the discussions about climate sensitivity. Lindzen’s reaction appears to be to dig in his heels and try to make the issue even more political (or religous in this case) however he better watch out because he has an awful lot of dirty scientific laundry out there in the literature.

  12. tom:

    Lindzen makes the point that we shouldn’t simply take scientists word for anything, including global warming. But the point provides nothing that would help us confirm or deny its existance. While it is true that 99% of climate scientists could be wrong, this possibility provides little in the way of meaningful guidance for the layman, even the informed one.

    The fact is and will remain that the vast majority of the public will never have the time, inclination, or expertise to sort through all or even a significant amount of the data to come to their own independent conclusions.

    Yes, to be honest, we should admit that it’s always possible that GW is not really significantly driven my man induced activities.

    However, I feel like Lindzen is just encouraging the idea that we should do nothing in the abscence of virtual certainty. After all, all these scientists could be wrong so I will just sit here in smug compacency and continue to burn fossil fuels at whatever rate I damn well please.

    When you’re experimenting on the entire planet, you will never have the level of certainty that you have in the lab until it is too late. Too bad we don’t have a spare planet so we can conduct a controlled study.

  13. Mark Bahner:

    “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;…”

    Complete BS. The average surface temperature of the globe has as much chance of rising 5.8 degrees Celsius from 1990 to 2100 as the authors of this website have of running 4-minute miles.

    Response: As discussed elsewhere on the site, the IPCC scenarios do not come with probabilities attached. The scenarios are simply concievable, and the model simulations are performed to assess the implications of those conceivable scenarios. Similarly, it is conceivable, though unlikely, that one of the authors could in fact run a 4-minute mile (since it is physically possible). My times are unfortunately not quite up to that mark. When putting out the finishing tape, it would therefore be prudent to allow for the possibility that one of us might be that fast. – gavin

  14. Blogcritics:

    State of Fear vs. the truth
    Michael Crichton, a science fiction novelist, has written the very misleading State of Fear, a book published by this non-scientist…

  15. SwimJim:

    For Jim Norton: I emailed Will (his email address is found with the Washington Post column) on Thursday, alerting him to Real Climate’s discussion of Crichton’s book. I received a polite reply (and they had read it, because they addressed me properly), indicating that they would alert him to the Web sites (RealClimate URLs) when he returned from travel. I replied to that by providing RealClimate’s URL for the first discussion of Will’s column. Somebody else should send him the second URL so it doesn’t appear that I’m pestering him.

    I sincerely hope that a number of people are replying to him, but we should just try to be informative, not impolite. I did point out in the first message that he had clearly stepped out of his realm of expertise in his Crichton-laudatory column.

  16. dave:

    What is the role of realclimate.org?

    I find the posts (and responses) are best when the reader gets clear explanations of the current understanding of climate phenomena (with the associated uncertainties) and links to sources for further reading. I think this post does a good job. But, there are a couple of problems. First, you make the impression that the IPCC TAR, the “consensus” as discussed in previous posts, is some kind of holy writ to be taken on faith. This kind of “consensus” is a snapshot of what was known in the years leading up to to 2001. Revisions are constantly being made as additional studies and data come to light. For example, there appears to be a greater rate of ice sheet thinning in parts of West Antarctica and Greenland than was known about in 2001. Better understanding of feedbacks in the carbon and hydrological cycles are of great interest. Better understanding of how clouds affect climate sensitivity is clearly important, etc. In other words, put out the word and hope that people will pick up on it and decide for themselves. You’re never going to change George Will’s or Michael Chrichton’s mind. Maybe you can influence the views of others. Ross Gelbspan (Heat Is Online) is a good example. He got turned around when he became angry that he had been lied to by the likes of Richard Lindzen. This constitutes another problem, as I describe directly below.

    As far as I know, skepticism about climate change is confined almost entirely to the United States, where it is entirely a political issue. When not waxing eloquent about baseball, George Will has been protecting vested economic interests for many years now. Here’s the best part of Will’s column:

    Various factions have interests — monetary, political, even emotional — in cultivating fears. The fears invariably seem to require more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives.

    He says this at a time when almost all our environmental laws are under assault. This is a kind of Orwellian reversal, ie. War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, Environmentalism (Climate Science) is a Totalitarian Threat.

    To this kind of lie, there is no effective reply other than to put out positive reliable information about climate science. Do that and hope for the best. That is the role of realclimate.org in my view. Trashing George Will is a waste of time, his mind is already made up – he does not need the facts. So, I hope realclimate.org will create its own agenda to educate the public and not get bent out of shape with each politically motivated attack. For example, make it clear that the more greenhouse gases that end up in the atmosphere, the more likely it is that there will be greater warming. Or that the troposphere is indeed warming as fast or faster than the surface here. Quoting the IPCC 1.4 to 5.8°C estimate (for doubling CO2) outside current agreements among models that the uncertainty is most likely in the 2.5 to 4°C range or failing to point out that discrepancies (used by skeptics) between surface and troposphere warming have been resolved, is misleading in my view. In fact, it is counter productive. The IPCC TAR is not the bible. Science marches on and the result that human-caused warming is happening is more convincing all the time. Also, I’ll venture this criticism: your early posts on what a General Circulation Model (GCM) is or what a coupled AOGCM model is were short and uninformative to interested laymen. How about telling everybody how these how climate models work in more detail?

    I hope you guys (gavin, mike, eric et. al.) will agree with this view about the role of realclimate.org. Or maybe this comment will spur some debate.

    Response. Thanks for this thoughtfull comment. A few responses to specific points. 1) I tend to use IPCC because it is an easy reference for people to look up, if they want to check the details. I’m also careful to only cite things from the IPCC TAR where I’m also familiar with the primary literature that IPCC cites. Still, there is a danger in this, as it may gives the impression that IPCC is the only place to get this information, which is certainly not the case. Indeed, there is nothing new in IPCC — it is really just a compilation of existing knowledge. 2) It may be true Will has already made up his mind, but our posts are not really directed at him. In general, I agree that it is a waste of time avoid responding to this sort of journalism, especially when it is so poorly argued and unoriginal (Will makes not a single argument we’ve not all heard — and shown to be wrong — before). But we got a lot of emails asking us to do this, as Will is so widely read. 3) We have limited time to write an entire textbook on climate change science… but a post with more details on how climate modeling actually works will be posted at some point. — Eric

  17. Alex Merz:

    Or: ask a biologist what he thinks of The Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park (Crichton doesn’t know much about biology). Or ask a physicist what he thinks of Prey (Philip Morrison’s scathing review in Scientific American shows that Morrison doesn’t grasp the even the basic physics underlying nanotechnology). Crichton is an amusing hack, not a science writer. A person who goes to Crichton to learn science is bound to come away ill-informed. A thoughtful person goes to Crichton for his science if he intends to be ill-informed.

  18. SwimJim:

    Regarding Alex Merz’s comment: the problem with the debate about global warming (and many other environmental issues) is that the uninformed are thinking that they ARE informed because they are getting their information well-spun from “authorities” like Crichton and Lomborg and Gregg Easterbrook and Patrick Michaels. Conservatives are quoting Crichton’s Commonwealth Club speech (link below) as further “proof” that environmentalists have a socialist, anti-economic, anti-human agenda. He cites the supposed DDT “ban” in his speech, and he’s totally off base there, too. Read this:

    “Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the twentieth century history of America. We knew better, and we did it anyway, and we let people around the world die and didn’t give a damn. … I can tell you that second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the EPA has always known it. I can tell you that the evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit.”

    Remarks to the Commonwealth Club

    The first step is to keep people like Crichton and George Will honest — if that’s possible.

  19. J. Sperry:

    [On my previous post, I clicked “post” instead of “preview” before I was finished.]

    While we all agree that the climate shouldn’t change at all, and while nothing whatsoever good has been shown to come from global warming…

    Although CalorDolor’s comment received no response from the moderators, I hope this statement isn’t the “consensus”. Climate certainly changes over a relevant amount of time. And what of fewer cold-related deaths, longer/better growing seasons for crops, etc? (Not to downplay the predicted bad effects, but the quote did say “nothing”.)

    Response. I agree. I’m not sure what it means that “we all agree that the climate shouldn’t change.” For one thing, this is a socio-economic argument, not a scientific one. Furthermore, it is meaningless, as climate does change all the time, with or without human influence. Some aspects of human-influenced climate change will probably be good for some things, just as human clearing of forests is good for starlings, but bad for wood warblers. — Eric

  20. Bolo:

    Excellent site. I think the occasional debunking of widely-read sources like Crichton and Will is very important and should be continued whenever the opportunity arises. It’s a good way to connect with people who have read such uninformed sources and wouldn’t want to wade through the literature or too many technical details. But, as you all say, taking the time to respond to every single misinformed opinion on GW isn’t worth it. Just go after the big shots :).

    And Alex Merz:

    As someone who has at least received undergraduate training as a physicist and is specializing partly in nanofabrication… yeah, ‘Prey’ was terrible. Absolute garbage. The science was horribly wrong and the plot seemed to be lifted from some low-budget made-for-TV movie. I haven’t met anyone who is knowledgeable about nanoscience that has liked the book.

    At least nanotech isn’t quite as politicized as climate change has become–but it will be someday, and Crichton is just one of many people who will have directly contributed to that sad fact.

  21. pat neuman:

    A Richard Hoagland 2004 article, discussed on national radio claims that climate change is occurring throughout
    the entire solar system, not just on Earth. http://www.enterprisemission.com/ [Interplanetary] The claim is being used to encourage listeners to conclude that
    greenhouse gas emissions from human activity is probably minor. I doubt the cklaim is true, but what can be said to discount it?
    Response. This is one of the more outlandish claims I’ve heard! Note that these folks also believe that the “face” on Mars is actually architechure. Given the source of information, it
    doesn’t seem worth pursuing this any further. eric

  22. Ted Spickler:

    Perhaps we all have some responsibility to take advantage of the excellent information available here to compile and send letters-to-editors of local newspapers rebutting George Will type columns. I have learned to trust Will when reading his reasonable and fact-based analyses of economic issues but he falls off the deep end whenever global warming or the environment is on the table. The same holds true for normally excellent commentary in “Investors Business Daily”. They are rational about economic issues and offer supporting data for opinions but completely fail to handle global warming in a fair and objective manner. The claim that GW has a religious character is best demonstrated from the skeptical side where linquistic legerdemain is crafted to present an illusion that GW is an artifact of hungry scientists desperate for research funding fed by tree-hugging wackos. Keep chipping away at them using reason and facts yet within a context of respect; they have earned it in their own niche.

  23. Aaron:

    pat (#21) ~

    Hoagland’s argument is based on a vague “New Physics” that Hoagland says he has developed:

    “This ‘higher dimensional/hyperdimensional’ description is not just an abstract concept, left over from a few mathematicians a hundred years ago — but is a serious, quantifiable new model…”

    Every serious, quantifiable physical model involves heavy-duty math. Until Hoagland shows someone that math, he isn’t even worth talking about.

  24. dave:

    For all interested persons: Please make use of my Climate Science Search directory at Climate Science Search at my site (under construction) Climate Warning if you want additional information about subjects discussed here at realclimate.org.

    This directory is not complete but includes and serves as an adjunct to sources cited by realclimate.org. The goal is to make good climate science web resources available to anyone who wants more information about the topics discussed on this BLOG site. I am making an effort to include sources cited by realclimate.org in this directory.

    Also, (for the realclimate.org contributors), if there are good sources of information about climate change that I have left out or not discovered, please let me know. I will include them in my search directory.

  25. eric:

    There is a review of Crichton’s book in the New Yorker, at http://www.newyorker.com/talk/content/?050103ta_talk_kolbert, which is available free of charge. It is worth reading.

  26. fmcgowan:

    For all the comments about George Will being wrong (especially #16 above), no one has yet said how the following passage is incorrect:

    Various factions have interests — monetary, political, even emotional — in cultivating fears. The fears invariably seem to require more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives.

    Will, at least for the duration of the passage quoted is quite correct – factions do have interests. Just exactly how was he incorrect to say that we are urged to bend government policy to favor environmentalists’ suggestions or that those suggestions will require more government supervision of our lives? How is that increased government supervision, including but not limited to, restraint on my ability to leverage my labor by increasing use of mechanical power and the fuel to supply the power different from the creation of a centrally planned economy?

    Many things have been argued, but the idea of directly dealing with Will’s contention is simply dismissed as not worth the effort. I’m sorry, but that isn’t really a valid argument, is it?

    Response: If you care to notice the arguments here have addressed the scientific aspects of his article. These are generally unsupported by data. Will’s opinion about environmentalists in general is irrelevant to those points. – gavin.
    Also… I would also reiterate that RealClimate is not intended for political discussion. But if I may make a vaguely political statement: I am skeptical of political ideas, such as Will’s, that appear to be based on premises that are patently false. I would further suggest that Will is fomenting fear himself — the bizarre fear that scientists like ourselves are part of some vast conspiracy. — eric

  27. tom:

    Since Will cannot stick to the science, he attacks motives of people he knows nothing about. What proof does he have that any of the climate scientists have the interests he lists. Even if it were true, it is a diversion and a cowardly way to avoid the science, for which he has no expertise. If you want to talk about motives, the other side, bought and paid for by the oil and mineral companies, has far more to answer for. Regardless, it is best to stick to the science.

  28. dave:

    Eric’s comment (re #26) about a “vast conspiracy” is right on the mark. I once wrote (in a misguided moment of anger) to Jay Ambrose, an editorial writer for Scripps-Howard. He had written a column saying that Soon and Baliunas had demonstrated that Michael Mann’s work and the work of others (showing that the recent warming trend surpassed that of any other in the last 1000 years of climate) was wrong. See Mann’s “Hockey Stick” post. Here’s the relevant part of Ambrose’s reply:

    Do you want to make a list of all the pro-global warming scietnsits (sic) who get
    government money for grants to make this thing seem a crisis?

    And I immediately thought – he thinks all the climate scientists are fabricating a problem to maintain their funding. This had never occurred to me. That is also a context for Will’s remark.

    And I would also say to Gavin’s response (re #26) this: if you’re going to respond to people like George Will, then be prepared to talk about politics because Will is political journalist and not a scientist. Nor, as I said in #16, does he care about the science.

    Finally, I think that we can all acknowledge that we all have an agenda. However, the beautiful thing about science is that it is self-correcting and deals in falsifiable hypotheses. Thus science gets around our human flaws most of the time.

  29. eric:

    The following is from a letter sent to me by my colleague, M. Baker at the University of Washington, and sent as a Letter to the editor at the Post.

    “In October I attended my class reunion at University High School in Urbana, IL, where George Will and I were students eons ago. Hanging in the hallway was an article about George. Although I’ve often disagreed with George’s viewpoint as expressed in his writing, his pieces are usually thought provoking, for they display the critical thinking, based on solid information, that Uni High emphasized. George’s column of December 23 on climate change, therefore, came as a major disappointment.

    That column began with comments on Michael Crichton’s new work of fiction, State of Fear, in which the novelist has concocted a thrilling story of ecoterrorism practised by fanatic climate scientists. The real theme of George’s column is that climate scientists do not understand enough to make predictions about future climate change, and therefore their warnings are primarily merely ploys (‘unsubstantiated by fact’, to quote George) to increase their own research funding.

    This conspiracy theory flies in the face of hard evidence of climate change in recent decades. The global mean temperature rise of less than 1 degree C in the past century does not seem like much, but it is associated with a winter temperature rise of 3 to 4 degrees C over most of the Arctic in the past 20 years, unprecedented loss of ice from all the tropical glaciers, a decrease of 15 to 20% in late summer sea ice extent, rising sealevel, and a host of other measured signs of anomalous and rapid climate change.

    These climate indicators have been carefully analyzed by scientists and the results published in scores of rigorously reviewed documents. The most complete compilation of these analyses is the series of reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), representing literally thousands of scientists from all over the world. The reports began in 1990. In their most recent report, published in 2001, the IPCC stated that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to be attributable to human activities (primarily, burning of fossil fuels, which increases atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide). Since then many other major international scientific organizations have published statements agreeing with this conclusion. The basic fact that rising concentrations of greenhouse gases result in global warming has been understood since it was predicted from physical laws over a century ago; specification of the magnitude and geographical distribution of the warming are elucidated by the twentieth century observations and calculations.

    The IPCC and other groups have presented a range of predicted future changes that depend on the future production of greenhouse gases. These predictions necessarily involve uncertainties, but all show that increased warming will accompany increased greenhouse gas emissions.

    George Will ignores all this information to argue that, because the predictions are uncertain and change slightly in detail as research evolves, they should not be taken seriously. He chooses isolated incidents to bolster his position, discarding well established global trends.This is analogous to discarding findings by medical researchers on the role of viruses in the spread of certain diseases because a few isolated individuals do not become ill when exposed.

    In our twenty first century democracy, the electorate is often called upon to make decisions based on highly technical analyses which that electorate cannot perform for itself. Responsible journalism guides the public toward making such decisions based on the best available information, not on uninformed personal opinion or entertaining fiction. To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the educational principles of good schools like Uni High, and to do the public a grave disservice.”

  30. Ferdinand Engelbeen:

    Re: #10: Icelandic glaciers are not only receding in recent decades, they are receding already since 1890, which was the year with the largest observed ice area. But that was the result of the “Little Ice Age”. Before that, the Iceland coast was largely ice-free. See:

    “In the seventeenth century the coastal land around Breidamerkurjökull was ice-free and farmed quite intensively by local people. Cattle and sheep grazed, and barley and wheat were grown.”

    About #4 and #10 of the main response to George Will , I think it would be interesting to start a discussion about the real performance of current climate models to “predict the past” (and thus the ability to “project the future”). E.g. if one looks at the 1945-1970 period, the models use sulphate aerosols to offset the influence of CO2 and other GHGs. But the observed influence of sulphate aerosols is much lower than what the models incorporate. See: http://home.scarlet.be/~ping5859/aerosols.html . As a consequence, the influence of GHGs is overestimated too, besides that solar influences probably are underestimated…

  31. Steven T. Corneliussen:

    Should nonscientists write about science? Comment 15 notes, factually, that George Will has “clearly stepped out of his realm of expertise” in writing about climate. Comment 27 notes that Will “has no expertise” in climate science. Comment 28 notes that he’s “not a scientist.” And it’s true; he’s not. But I would question the wisdom of using that fact as ammunition in the debate, if that’s what’s intended. It seems to me that when any writer botches any topic, the remedy is reason, not — as is sometimes implied, whether or not it’s implied above — disqualification from further writing about the topic.

    In fact, assumptions underlying RealClimate are that, however complicated climate science may be, the facts needed for clear climate understanding aren’t beyond most people’s ability to grasp, and that responsible journalists should learn those facts before committing technopunditry. That’s why I like the end of the letter quoted in Comment 29: “In our twenty first century democracy, the electorate is often called upon to make decisions based on highly technical analyses which that electorate cannot perform for itself. Responsible journalism guides the public toward making such decisions based on the best available information, not on uninformed personal opinion or entertaining fiction.”

    In the long run, we’re never going to have climate scientists writing all of the climate-science commentary any more than we’re going to have soldiers writing all the articles about the military or MBAs writing everything that covers business. If George Will has blown it, he should be held accountable for what he wrote, and not for his failure to belong to a class of science mandarins.

    Response: You are absolutely right. It should be possible for informed laymen to be acquainted with the basics of the field and of the issues of the day in the same way that I might occasionally comment on a supreme court case for instance. However, what we have here is the (ab)use of science to support a previously held opinion on the merits of some political action. That is not ok, and when commentators do that they should indeed be held accountable. But, if there are seemingly credible scientists telling you things that support you position, commentators could be forgiven for taking them seriously. Most of the time this would be fine, but Will’s contention is that the vast majority of scientists are all wrong and that he knows better. They aren’t and he doesn’t. This is what provokes the responses you mention, not the fact that he merely talked about science. – gavin

  32. Scott Robertson:

    Eric and Gavin,

    Thanks for “picking up the ball” on getting out the message of scientists. Most of the people I know that work in the field (there are 2 GCM’s under development at my University) don’t care what people think. Although I am not, most of my co-horts are apolitical. You have probably already mentioned this, but GCM’s have been run post-mortem (on old data) and performed very well. A pretty good indication that the models are working very well.

    Lindzen, Christy, Spencer et al will never be convinced. It ‘s laughable to hear some from their side still continue to deny the ozone hole! How can you argue with that kind of logic?

    Thanks for starting this website and I look forward to more thoughtful posts in the future.

  33. pat:

    George Will is presumably an expert on political issues. The hosts of this site are presumably experts on climate science. If global warming is considered to be strictly a scientific dispute then Will should be quiet. However to the extent that the global warming dispute is a political question he is compelled to speak and the scientists should maintain a respectful silence about an area in which they have no special credentials.

  34. Andrew Boucher:

    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).

    Since these models were almost certainly constructed with knowledge of the cooling period, I’m not sure what is proven. Do climatologists make predictions of what will happen over the course of next year?

    [Response: The models were constructed at a time when the temperature record was known, although the cooling isn’t built into their basic structure. No-one is claiming that “prediction” of the cooling counts as a major success for the models, since it was hindcast, not predicted. But conversely, to argue that the cooling is a *problem* for GW theory is quite wrong: it can be, and is, quite happily incorporated – William]

  35. Pat Neuman:

    Question (from a previous post):

    > Do climatologists make predictions of what will happen over
    > the course of next year?


    NOAA’s NWS Climate Prediction Center (CPC) is responsible for issuing
    seasonal climate outlook maps for one to thirteen months in the future.
    The CPC’s outlook and forecast products complement the short range
    weather forecasts issued by other components of the National Weather
    Service (e.g. local Weather Forecast Offices, and National Centers for
    Environmental Prediction). These weather and climate products comprise
    the National Weather Service’s Suite of Forecast Products.


  36. Eli Rabett:

    Another answer to Andrew Boucher is http://www.ccsindia.org/gw_debate.htm. Read the whole thing!

  37. Andrew Boucher:

    Pat: Perhaps I am wrong, but my impression is that the forecasts of the weather service 1 month into the future are not very good. Is there any study how good the 1 year forecasts have been over a ten year period?

    Eli: the link doesn’t work. The home page is pretty much a hodge podge, so I couldn’t find see anything on global warming.

  38. Michael Langdon:

    I have two concerns about this subject:
    1. The constant jabbering between “scientist” and “nonscientist”. Science is not a person it is a process. Too much scientific personality has become involved whereby we are told that most scientists agree that global warming is occuring. There are a myriad of examples where most scientists were completely wrong, for example, it was once believed that bacteria could not live in the acid of the stomach.

    2. This seems to be the only field which seems to treat computer models as fact. There is a canyon of reality between a computer model and the actual working planet. Using Pinatubo as a demonstration as to how well computer models work is almost funny since hindsight is 20/20. Could you please provide a list of accurate computer model predictions like Pinatubo and those that were wrong?

    Response: Nobody is treating computer models as ‘fact’. They are merely a useful tool that contain a lot of what we know about the climate, and provide a way to quantify the net effects of all the different feedbacks. I don’t understand your point about hindcasting – what are we to use for validation other than ‘experiments’ that have already taken place? Only the information about the forcings are included in such simulations, not the climate response! In addition, there were sucessful predictions of the net effect of Pinatubo prior to them being seen (i.e. Hansen et al. 1992). Also, model results published in 1989 (see this post) have shown a good match to global temperatures over the last 15 years. – gavin

  39. SkinnyPuppy:

    Reply to “Response” from Gavin on Post 39:

    If enough people make predictions through computer models, you can always go back in time and find one that was accurate. That is called cherry picking.

  40. Andrew Boucher:

    I’d agree about the danger of cherry picking.

    On the other hand, re my question about predictions, the response in 39 is closer to what I was looking for. If climatologists have a model from 1989 which predicts (given the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere) what the temperature increase is, then that would go a long way to allaying my concerns.

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but since this does not seem to be a central argument of the climatologists now – look we made the prediction fifteen years ago, we’ve been constantly right, and the same model predicts x increase over the next 75 years should CO2 increase y – then there is probably something wrong with this prediction or the constantly right part or the model used to make it (have climatologists already changed it?) or the confidence that climatologists have with predictions from this model in the future.

    If there is nothing wrong, then I would modestly suggest that climatologists are not emphasizing the strongest part of their scientific argument.

    If there are too many models for there to be some general consensus of what the prediction should be, then we do in fact revert to the problem of cherry picking. At least some of the models can be expected to be correct after a (short) period of observation.

    [Response: GCMs have advanced a lot in 15 years. I would trust a modern GCM much more than a 15 year old one. I don’t think the verification or otherwise of 15 year old predictions should be counted as a major argument in favour (at the same time, I don’t think that the skeptics assertions that past GCMs have been hopelessly wrong are worth anything). Nonetheless, as it turns out, the old predictions aren’t startlingly different from the new ones. There is more to be said on this, it might make a post on its own one day – William]

  41. Eli Rabett:

    Sorry, try http://www.ccsindia.org/gw_debate.htm which worked a minute ago. However, since it applies to the current exchange, let me quote the first three paragraphs (also it will let anyone google the article should there be another urlup

    The Global Warming Debate

    By James Hansen

    The only way to have real success in science … is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally. In science you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty. –Richard Feynman

    In my view, we are not doing as well as we could in the global warming debate. For one thing, we have failed to use the opportunity to help teach the public about how science research works. On the contrary, we often appear to the public to be advocates of fixed adversarial positions. Of course, we can try to blame this on the media and politicians, with their proclivities to focus on antagonistic extremes. But that doesn’t really help.

    The fun in science is to explore a topic from all angles and figure out how something works. To do this well, a scientist learns to be open-minded, ignoring prejudices that might be imposed by religious, political or other tendencies (Galileo being a model of excellence). Indeed, science thrives on repeated challenge of any interpretation, and there is even special pleasure in trying to find something wrong with well-accepted theory. Such challenges eventually strengthen our understanding of the subject, but it is a never-ending process as answers raise more questions to be pursued in order to further refine our knowledge.

    Skepticism thus plays an essential role in scientific research, and, far from trying to silence skeptics, science invites their contributions. So too, the global warming debate benefits from traditional scientific skepticism.

    I have argued in a recent book review that some “greenhouse skeptics” subvert the scientific process, ceasing to act as objective scientists, rather presenting only one side, as if they were lawyers hired to defend

  42. Alex Merz:

    To Michael Langdon: as part of an implicit argument that scientists cannot be trusted on, apparently, any subject, you say that it was once believed that bacteria cannot survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. It is true that the vast majority of bacteria cannot survive in the stomach, and that the stomach does not normally support a large flora in comparison to mouth, intestines, or skin. This has been known for a long time. It has also has been evident for a long time that some bacteria can survive can survive transiently in the stomach. Else, how would enteric pathogens (Salmonella, Vibrio cholerae, etc.) make it to the intestine where they cause disease.

    It is also true that many scientists — principally endocrinologists and GI specialists, not infectious disease specialists — did not believe that gastric ulcers might have a bacterial etiology. This was principally because the issue had not been intensively investigated. When evidence — data! — began to emerge that there might indeed be a bacterial etiology, acceptance within the infectious disease community was relatively fast. I know this because I was a student at the time (my doctorate is in microbiology and immunology, with emphasis on bacterial pathogenesis). It was mainly gastreoenterologists who resisisted the bacterial hypothesis, and when sufficient evidence accumulated, that community was almost entirely swayed by the evidence as well.

    So what, exactly, was your point?

  43. Pat N:

    In post #37 Andrew Boucher wrote:

    > Perhaps I am wrong, but my impression is that the forecasts of the
    weather service 1 month into the future are not very good. Is there
    any study how good the 1 year forecasts have been over a ten year

    Andrew, , from another page on the NWS CPC website it says:
    Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Model (CMP) Tool



    I don’t know the answer to your question. I don’t know if numerical
    verification tables are available for the monthly and seasonal
    outlooks for precipitation and temperature.

    I find it confusing that the NWS Climate Prediction Center issues
    “climate” outlooks which have nothing to do with the subject of
    climate change or global warming.

    The NOAA NWS strategic plans use “Climate variability and Change”,
    which I find tob be confusing, even misleading at times. This is a
    major federal agency with direct ties to local and national media,
    local and state agencies, other federal agencies, and businesses
    world wide. NOAA, NWS have the machinery to educate the public
    about global waming. Why isn’t this working like it should?

    People have a responsibility to learn what’s going on. They need to
    know where to go to for advice about regional climate change and
    global climate change / global warming. I think NWS, with their
    many local offices and ties to media and local govs, need to be
    educating the public on climate change, but that has not happened.
    Why? Managers of government agencies that have the responsibility to
    inform the public on safety and the environment are failing in their

    If the government had known of the magnitude of the devastation that
    was about to happen it likely would have sounded the warming…. but
    not knowing is NO excuse for not acting… it was irresponsible to
    downplay the danger and do nothing, which is what the U.S. government
    continues doing in regards to global warming.

    My hope is that the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean has
    jarred the U.S. enough to stir the people and government in the U.S.
    into action on global warming. Then at least some good might come
    from the horrible devastation caused by the tsunami.

    I am aware of the hostility that some people may have toward those
    that try to connect the tsunami with global warming issues. However,
    I see this as more than an opportunity. They should be connected
    because it seems clear that failing to warn about the tsunami and
    failure to warn about global warming are connected, by the failure
    to warn.


  44. Pat N:

    This is an addition to the message that I sent about 20 minutes ago
    that was in reply to #37 comment by Andrew Boucher.

    I meant to precede my closing comments on the important connection
    between the tsunami and global warming with this note from another:

    >> It is also worthy of note that it is now being said
    >> that the warnings of tsunami were not given by some
    >> governments “in deference to the tourism industry”.

    > If the government had known of the magnitude of the devastation
    > that was about to happen it likely would have sounded the warming…
    > but not knowing is NO excuse for not acting… it was irresponsible
    > to downplay the danger and do nothing, which is what the U.S.
    > government continues doing in regards to global warming.

    > My hope is that the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean has
    > jarred the U.S. enough to stir the people and government in the U.S.
    > into action on global warming. Then at least some good might come
    > from the horrible devastation caused by the tsunami.

    The duties of government

    Fundamentally, government has only a limited range of duties.
    Defending the borders, policing the streets, providing a framework
    for education and promoting public health are prominent among them.
    Maintaining a high quality environment and overseeing the provision
    of a modern transport system are two more.

    And the impact of the quality of our environment on public health is
    something which is increasingly clear.

    Today, policy-makers must respond to every aspect of the environment.
    Presentation in full:

    Pat N

  45. Pat N:

    My originial messages didn’t make it so I will replace it with this.

    In post #37 Andrew Boucher wrote:

    > Perhaps I am wrong, but my impression is that the forecasts of the
    weather service 1 month into the future are not very good. Is there
    any study how good the 1 year forecasts have been over a ten year

    Andrew, THE SKILL OF THE CMP [Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Model]

    I find it confusing that the NWS Climate Prediction Center issues
    “climate” outlooks which have nothing to do with the subject of
    climate change or global warming.

    The NOAA NWS strategic plans use “Climate variability and Change”,
    which I find to be confusing, even misleading to some. This is a
    major federal agency with direct ties to local and national media,
    local and state agencies, other federal agencies, and businesses
    world wide. NOAA, NWS have the machinery to educate the public
    about global waming. Why isn’t this working like it should?

    People have a responsibility to learn what’s going on. They need to
    know where to go to for advice about regional climate change and
    global climate change / global warming. I think NWS, with their
    many local offices and ties to media and local govs, need to be
    educating the public on climate change, but that has not happened.
    Why? Managers of government agencies that have the responsibility to
    inform the public on safety and the environment are failing in their

    Additional comments are in #41, above.

    Pat N

  46. Aaron:

    “This seems to be the only field which seems to treat computer models as fact.” (#38)

    Like Gavin said, nobody is treating computer models as fact, but computer simulation is a crucial part of several fields. For example, I believe that almost all electronic circuits these days are tested with computer models like this one before fabrication. Computational fluid dynamics simulations are important in aircraft design, among myriad other applications. Monte Carlo simulations of molecular behavior are apparently useful to many people. Naturally, no simulation is considered as good as the real thing, but “simulation” does not mean “nothing to do with the real world,” just as “theory” does not mean “idle speculation.”

  47. Dano:

    Pat N:

    Perhaps we can convince the CPC to produce products such as what the Canadians do, especially this feature.



  48. Steven T. Corneliussen:

    Please consider a bit more on the topic of some people’s disapproval, in principle, of nonscientists presuming to write about science. (And please note, again, that I am not defending errors by Michael Crichton or George Will.) A Massachusetts Institute of Technology on-line publication has published a rebuttal of Crichton and Will that goes beyond attacking their errors of fact and reasoning to condemn as well their failure to be scientists. MIT’s Technology Review Tuesday Update for December 28 contained (in part via hyperlink) a brief commentary titled “Realclimate vs. Crichton.” The author, David Appell, name-calls Crichton “a mere science fiction novelist” and name-calls George Will Crichton’s “sycophant” and “no scientist either.” Appell’s commentary summarizes Gavin Schmidt’s RealClimate responses to both writers, condemns Crichton’s and Will’s errors, and ends by promising that why “the world is willing to pay attention to what novelists and political pundits think about the complex science behind global climate change is a subject for another day.” But right now, today, isn’t that willingness actually a basic reason for the present discussion? Here’s a question I’ve raised before, only this time expressed in two new ways:
    * Whatever the errors of Crichton and Will, to what extent, if any, should nonscientist observers of human culture treat science uniquely — that is, in a way they treat no other aspect of culture — by abstaining from writing about it? To what extent would culture in general and science in particular be better off if nonscientist observers did abstain?

    [Response: Non-experts are free to scrutinise any area of activity. What they shouldn’t do is attempt to pass off their analysis as expert. If Crichton had stopped at writing a pot-boiler, few would care. The problem is his aping of scientific method with the footnotes, whilst missing crucial aspects – like peer review, which would have removed his more blatant errors as chronicled here. The point is that Crichtons errors are not subtle: they are blatant. You can’t make mistakes like those by mistake. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book, I’m relying on whats here) – William]

    * The Nobel physics laureate Leon Lederman, in his second career as an advocate of what some call “public science literacy,” has often wished publicly for a TV sitcom about scientists. That’s because he believes that in the long run, it’d be better to have polychromatic civic engagement of science than the monochromatic engagement advocated by those who believe that public discussion of science is rightfully the exclusive province of scientists. To what extent, if any, is Lederman right?

    [Response: it might be fun – I’ve discussed it with colleagues over coffee – but no-one takes the idea seriously. William]

  49. Pat Neuman:


    I think the Canadian links you provided are good sites in explaining Climate Change to the public. The NWS Climate Prediction Center has not been tasked with studying or explaining climate change, but has been tasked with providing short term precip and temp outlooks for the U.S., monthly and seasonal. I would like to see the National Weather Service (NWS) provide information similar to that provided on the Canadian websites you provided in your message. But NWS could do more than provide website information. There are over 100 local NWS offices in the U.S., staffed with meteorologists and hydrologists that could be giving face to face presentations with discussions for high schools, local library public meetings and staffs with local government staffs. I think doing that would be a great public service. Why isn’t it being done? … two reasons … 1) NOAA Administrators and NWS directors have ordered employees not to talk to the public about global warming… saying it’s too political or too controversial. Those that speak out about global warming happening risk loosing there jobs. 2) The majority of those having meteological background in the U.S. are global warming skeptics… they don’t understand that global warming is happening yet they haven’t taken the time to investigate and see that it is, and their background in other earth sciences, including hydrology, is limited. Another group that should be looked at for doing more includes the regional and state climatologists offices… including the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC). State climatologists have background in meteorology and meteorological archiving, but their knowledge of paleoclimates and the disciplines involved in climate other than the atmosphere is limited. For example… they know little about hydrology, arctic sea ice, vegetation and transpiration processes, etc. Yet, because their title includes climate, the public perceives these “climatalogists” and meteorologists as good sources for information climate change/global warming, but they are truly lacking in that, in general. However, they convey the skeptic views on global warming to the media, local governments and other… usually off the record on an informal basis. Tax payer funded meteorolgist and mislabled climatologists should not be telling the public that there is no global warming problem… but in fact many of them have been doing that for many years already. When will that stop?

    Pat N

  50. William:

    George Will writes …could herald “a full-blown 10,000 year ice age” (Science, March 1, 1975). I attempted to look this up. There is no Science, March 1st, 1975. Can anyone gues what Will is referring to, assuming that he isn’t just making it up? “Science News” (p138, 107(9)) is a possibility, but I don’t have access to it. Anyone…?

    [Update: Gavin found it for me (thanks Gavin!). It *is* from Science News not science. I will be posting on this “soon”]

  51. Peter Copeland:

    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.


    Peter Copeland
    University of Houston

  52. Tom Rees:

    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

  53. Chris Radlinski:

    Superb letter, Dr. Copeland!

  54. Gary Goldsmith:

    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.

  55. Pat Neuman:

    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:

    Thank you.

    Pat N

  56. dave thorneycroft:


    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

  57. Steven T. Corneliussen:

    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.

  58. mike morgen:

    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

  59. Peter Copeland:

    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.