Friday, February 27, 2009

Conservative dishonesty

For sheer chutzpah it is hard to beat American conservative columnists. I used to regard William Safire as intellectually honest, in that his views may be off the wall but he would not hesitate to attack the Bush administration if they trampled on civil liberties. But he ceased his NYT column and they are yet to find a successful replacement: their last attempt, Bill Kristol, was a disaster. George Will, at the Washington Post, till recently seemed somewhat principled, but two recent columns on climate change make a mockery of both words I used above: "intellectual" and "honesty".

On February 15, Will wrote a column on climate change that attracted rebuttals from around the web. George Monbiot's, on The Guardian, is here. James Hyrnyshyn's, on scienceblogs, is here.

Today Will rebuts those rebuttals. Except that he doesn't. He ignores nearly all of the rebutters to focus solely on Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. He claims that "[his previous] column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged. The challenge is mistaken." Apparently challenges by well-known columnists and activists like Monbiot don't count.

What is this "mistaken" challenge? It is to the claim, in Will's previous article, that
"Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began."

to which his rebuttal is... actually, he doesn't rebut it (and Monbiot reports that he can find no evidence for this claim). What he rebuts is a separate factual challenge, to his previous claim (which he does not quote here) that
"According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

To this, Monbiot (and others, including, apparently, Revkin) quote the ACRC's response:
"No, it is not correct. I don't know where they are getting that. As of today, there are 1.43m km sq less Arctic sea ice than this same date in 1979. (Roughly the size of two Texas-sized states)."

Inadvertently partially defending himself on this point, Will links to this document. But Will seems to think the document defends himself against his claim that "since September the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979". Nowhere does the document suggest this.

What it does say is that reduction in northern hemisphere ice (about 1 million sq km) is partially offset by an increase in southern hemisphere ice (about 0.5 million sq km), thus leaving a much less visible change in global ice levels; but it makes it clear that the southern hemisphere increase is expected and temporary, and that the surface cover is only one of several worrying indicators. Perhaps Will hoped that nobody would click and read that link. Or that if they did, they would be incapable of understanding simple English, since it is apparently beyond his comprehension.

The article that Will links to suggests (if one simply subtracts the estimates for the two hemispheres) that global ice levels have in fact fallen by 0.5 million sq km since 1979. He reports that the Illinois centre said the difference since 1980 is "less than three percent", which is about consistent with this number.

He then triumphantly ends his column with the news item, that from early January 2009 until February 18 2009, faulty measurement had underestimated the Arctic ice area by 193,000 square miles (about 0.5 million sq km). Why the jubilant tone, I wonder? Did he fail to comprehend that (a) this faulty measurement does not affect the previous data, reported in 2008 and clarified in a document dated January 1 this year? Or that (b) though the number is coincidentally close to the reported global drop in ice since 1979, it is dwarfed by the Arctic drop, so even if it were relevant, it wouldn't affect the conclusions?

It seems to me that, when political columnists turn their attention to science, they do themselves a serious disservice. After watching George Will's ability in reading comprehension and basic scientific, mathematical and geographical literacy in action over two recent columns, how are we to react to his political pronouncements?

But perhaps these people do serve a purpose. Whenever I get annoyed by the Indian punditocracy I head over to new world. Will, Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, to name just three, can make anyone in the world look good by comparison.

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