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George Will-misled and misleading

Filed under: — Ray Bradley @ 24 December 2004

In a Washington Post Opinion article on December 22, 2004, commentator George Will applauds Michael Crichton’s new book, State of Fear. We have already pointed out some of the more egregious scientific errors in Crichton’s novel (see Michael Crichton’s State of Confusion ). Mr. Will compounds those errors and fails his own standards by making statements that are truly “innocent of information but overflowing with certitudes”.

Will commits one of the most basic mistakes in examining climate change — using evidence of cooling from one location to question whether the earth as a whole is warming. (If Mr Will finds that one stock in his portfolio has declined, does this lead him to conclude that his entire portfolio is losing money? For his sake, we hope he takes a more global perspective on his financial affairs than he does on the subject of climate change.)

Remarkably – considering he is frequently writes as an historian – Will also repeats the historically inaccurate claim that “30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling” . We provide a more detailed response to this and other errors in another post. Here, we merely point out that there is abundant scientific evidence that global warming is real, that global warming has resulted in a rise in global sea-level, and that global warming has led to recession of glaciers in virtually all corners of the world. These issues have been carefully examined by several national and international scientific organizations, and it would have been easy for Will to read this literature, rather than simply taking the words of characters in Crichton’s novel at face value. In addition to the scientific assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (essentially a comprehensive review of the literature on the subject) we refer the reader to statements by the American Geophysical Union, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the American Meteorological Society:

“Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century.” (AGU position statement on human impacts on climate, EOS,Vol. 84, No. 51, 23 December 2003)

“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise…The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.” (Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2001)

“Because greenhouse gases continue to increase, we are, in effect, conducting a global climate experiment, neither planned nor controlled, the results of which may present unprecedented challenges to our wisdom and foresight as well as have significant impacts on our natural and societal systems.” (American Meteorological Society Statement on Climate Change Research, February 9, 2003).

18 Responses to “George Will-misled and misleading”

  1. 1
    Wil Burns says:

    OK, I know I’m being redundant here, but for those of us who make publication presentations on climate change on a regular basis, and thus need to counter the arguments of the skeptics at every juncture, this site is a god send! Thanks so much to all of the contributors! Wil Burns, Chair, American Society of International Law – International Environmental Law Interest Group.

  2. 2

    Quote The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.’ (Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2001)

    The foolishness of crowds can be exhibited in a variety of ways. From the 1950’s to the 1990’s the “current thinking of the actuarial profession, the insurance industry, financial advisors, etc., etc., was that investment in funds for retirement to pay for annuities was a proven way to ensure the safety of savings”.


    Lancelot Hogben in an address as the President of the Statistical Society, (author Science for the Citizen”, “Mathematics for the Million”),in 1956 exposed the Bayesian fallacy of ascribing numerical values to chance. He anathematized the usage of this in insurance claculations and pointed out that this was first used by the Equitable Life who were famously the first Life Insurers.

    Now nobody took much notice. Hogben was a bit of an academic wild card, a Marxist, along with Desmond Bernal, P.M.S. Blackett, and others.

    It took 40 years for his sceptical prophesies were proven correct, as the many many people (curiously EL investors counted amongst them the most educated and senior members of our society, judges, financiers, barristers, doctors, academics, maybe even climatologists) who piled money into the solid, rock bottom,copper botttomed A1 at Loyds, actuarially approved schemes, which have foundered and lost countless sums of money and are causing and will cause huge personal losses for a very long time. It has had secondary consequences in the disinvestment in insurance ans the retreat to property with attendant impact upon capital formation, industrial investment and consequently national economic growth.

    A century earlier, Ambrose Bierce in his famous Devil’s Dictionary said “Insurance is a new fangled thing where the players think they can beat the table”. Which amounted to much the same thing.

    The address by Hogben was published in “Science in Society” published (and long out of print) by Allen & Unwin.

    Should anyone wish to improve their understanding of statistics and illuminate their understanding of the drawbacks and perils of statistical modelling, they are welcome to seek a copy from me, if it is not available in any other form to them.

    The truth of scientific propositions is not decided by the ballot box. Not infrequently the contrarians are correct. A wise climatologist would be well advised to learn from the experience of others who would forecast the futurebased on the uncertain understanding of the present and the past.

    Response: While the ‘consensus’ is not infalliable, the contrarians have a much worse track record. Remember N-rays, cold fusion, the memory of water, innumerable perpetual motion machines etc.? Each time, the same statements are made ‘they laughed at Galileo’ (see John Fleck’s description of the Galileo argument) as if one example of a correct contrarian validates all other contrary beliefs. It doesn’t. Now, I should apologise for going off topic. Back to climate! – gavin

  3. 3
    vernaculo says:

    Sweat cools the body. But a drop in temperature because of perspiration doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Fever is one way the body rids itself of pathogens.
    So is the earth warming because it’s getting too much exercise? Or is it coming down with something?
    Someone told me once they thought the coining of the phrase “global warming” was a mistake, because it was too gentle a term. It made it sound as though all we’d have to do would be to take off our sweaters earlier in the year and put them on later, and enjoy the milder winters.
    Someone else told me, back in the 1980’s, that the real scenario was increasing chaos and a rise in the incidence of extreme weather events.
    Global fever may be a more accurate description.

  4. 4
    caerbannog says:

    So my personal observation that my local area cooled for 25
    years was just my imagination??

    Someone needs to be reminded of the difference between
    “global” and “local”.

    newsweek noticed

    Newsweek is not a professional scientific journal. What Newsweek has to say
    is entirely irrelevant as far as the scientific community is concerned.

    To eliminate any confusion as to what the scientific consensus regarding
    “global cooling” was back in the ’70’s, please see

  5. 5

    George Will should know better. Of course scientific understanding improves over time. Citing old reports and articles from major newspapers and scientific journals is a time-honored tactic used by critics of science to show the “fallibility” of scientific research. When those reports Will cited came out 30 years ago, I was just starting graduate school and Keeling’s work indicating yearly increases in carbon dioxide concentrations on Mauna Loa was just beginning to be discussed in my graduate classes.

    We also knew from paleontology that in about the last half-million years there had been 4 or 5 ice ages (glacial periods) each lasting each around 100,000 years with interglacials lasting about 10,000 years. Given that it had been perhaps 18,000 years since the last glacial maximum and that historically interglacials lasted around 10,000 years, it was not unreasonable to suggest that the Earth perhaps was due for another global cooling in the near (geologic time-frame) future.

    Let’s remember than when Keeling started his carbon dioxide measurements in 1958, it was just five years after Francis Crick walked into the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England and announced that he and James Watson “had found the secret of life” (the structure of DNA). (I still had old textbooks in college dating from the 50’s that stated that generic inheritance might have something to do with nucleic acids or proteins in the nucleus of eukaryotic cells!).

    Will forgets that less than 50 years after Watson and Crick determined the structure of DNA, scientists had been able determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA
    One would think that in the past 30 years our understanding of global climate processes, like our understanding of genetics, might have improved significantly.

    That Naomi Oreskes only this month published her essay reitering the scientific consensus on climate change is something that should not have been overlooled by George Will, a well-known columnist and (1970’s) Pulitzer Prize winning commentator.

  6. 6
    tom says:

    Regarding the personal observation on cooling. You obviously didn’t read the post. My personal observation is that my area (8500 feel above sea level in Colorado) has warmed by more than 4 degrees in the last 40 years. This is only relevant in the sense that it appears that higher altitudes are warming faster than lower altitudes. Why can’t we all understand that we are talking about global warming, not local warming or cooling?

    As for Will, it is especially sad since he has a large audience via Newsweek. I trust that someone here will be writing a letter to the editor so that the oppo can get the audience it deserves.

    And btw, can someone explain to me why higher altitudes would be warming faster than lower altitudes? I can guess, but would like a more scientific explanation. For that matter, it appear that latitude is a factor.

    Response There is a post that explains some of this already up on RealClimate: see Why does the stratosphere cool when the troposphere warms?. On the question of latitude, a major factor that leads to greater warming at Northern high latitudes is the positive feedbacks that result from lower ice and snow cover.

  7. 7
    Cameron Peters says:

    Wonderful site. You are all providing a great service to scientists and lay people alike. I only hope that the site remains free of personal attacks or derogatory statements, and instead focuses on the issues and facts. Too much vitriol and this will become just another rant site. Keep up the good work!

  8. 8

    Let me make a wild guess here:  doesn’t everyone who remembers the “new ice age” hype remember this from the same sensational “popular” magazines which we are now condemning for being too inaccurate or gullible regarding global-warming claims?

    If they were bad now, they were probably bad then.  We should ignore what they say and look at what the peer-reviewed scientific research says.  (In many cases this is going to be “we suspect this, but we really need more data”… and we should respect that.)

  9. 9
    e m butler says:

    In a nutshell ,why the higher altitudes or latitudes are warming first(or more ) has to do with the water vapor content of the atmosphere overhead… Water rules heat gain or loss in the tropics or anywhere else that is humid..Co2 content doesnt make a dent compared to the water content.. But at high altitudes or latitudes there isnt much water and the atmosphere is transparent to heat loss to space ,except the higher CO2 content is increasing blocking (lowering) the heat loss..

    a good example is the sahara…no water to speak of, the temp goes sky high during the day and goes close to freezing at night…

  10. 10
    tom says:

    The higher the altitude, the lower the water vapor content. I understand that and am very conscious of that, living at a hight altitude. But is that true of latitude? And if so, why?

  11. 11
    e m butler says:

    The poles are deficient in water vapor…every hear of the saying
    “It’s too cold to snow”…that’s bacause most of the water vapor is ffrozen out.. therefore the co2 content has a chance to effect the heat loss..

    and the news week article (from 1972) was to refute the initial article that the “world had been warming for 50 years ” .. even the popular press is competant enough to notice colder weather ,even individuals can..
    I know of one man from maine ,who kept a record of the local lake ice-breakup each spring..and according to him ,it breaks up 2 weeks earlier than when he was a kid back in 1970..
    The latest scientific announcement was from Cornell scientists who declared that spring is 4 days earlier than 1965 and their observations were from watching flowers bloom (in the spring tra la)

  12. 12
    Dave says:

    If you look at the pattern of warming at high latitudes you find very strong warming taking place during the winter, especially at night, with more modest warming in spring. In the summer and fall, warming is often negligible or even shows slight cooling. The likely culprit is changes to seasonal cloud cover. In arctic air, radiation processes are very important. The difference between temperatures in clear arctic air and those under cloud cover can be 8 to 10 C, sometimes larger. Large forecast temperature errors often arise because of poor cloud forecasts – forecasting clearing in an area that stays cloudy or vice-versa. Increasing cloud cover during the arctic winter can produce significant warming as a result. During the summer and fall, insolation plays a larger role and increased cloud actually leads to reduced warming and even slight cooling, which is what we are seeing now. The real question that needs to be addressed is what is producing changes in cloud cover.

  13. 13

    Michael Crichton writes fiction.

  14. 14
    BERTIN-TIBI says:

    L’existence de ce site semble vitale.Il n’aura un el impact que s’il est traduit (correctement et avec précision) en plusieurs langues.

  15. 15

    Voici enfin un site très clair sur les perspectives climatiques du siècle,qui nous est signalé par un grand journal français. Félicitations! Mais faites-le en plusieurs langues de manière à atteindre un public qui, dans les pays non anglophones,ne soit pas uniquement composé de scientifiques. Et veillez à rester aussi près que possible des faits pour éviter les polémiques inutiles.Peut-etre pourriez-vous dériver un jour de ce site un petit ouvrage court( une centaine de pages) et très simplement écrit,à l’attention de lecteurs non spécialistes. B.D.

  16. 16
    Daniel Fivel says:

    This is really a request for information: In the 1950’s when I was a grad student at Johns Hopkins, I worked on radiation transfer in planetary atmospheres with Gilbert Plass and wrote a few papers with him. I didn’t stay in the field but have heard that Plass (who died last year) deserves some credit for raising an early alarm about global warming.
    If any experts read this I would appreciate knowing if and how Plass’ work has influenced the current theoretical picture

  17. 17
    Mark Lynas says:

    Will bemoans “government subservience to environmentalists”, presumably in today’s real world rather than Crichton’s fictional one. Satire is pointless in the face of such a bizarre inversion of reality. Of course every day we have to put up with the Bush administration kow-towing to the greens, don’t we? ‘Nuff said.

  18. 18
    Gary Goldsmith says:

    Hmmm … “innocent of information but overflowing with certitudes” (first paragraph of original post, last line).

    I believe that this is more commonly known as “often wrong, but never in doubt.”