George Will: Time For Some Significant Fact-Checking

A year ago this month, George Will wrote a howler of a column in the Washington Post about global warming, loaded with scientific errors and profoundly illogical arguments. It would not have survived even the most perfunctory fact-checking–despite claims from the Washington Post that his columns go through a “multi-layered fact checking process.” In subsequent months, Will has continued to offer new climate howlers, and this Sunday he provided us all with a dubious one-year birthday gift.

In Will’s latest piece, he yet again declares global warming a construction of hysterical climate scientists who, in his words, “compound their delusions of intellectual adequacy with messiah complexes.” This time, he claims that climate scientists themselves are finally confessing that it’s all been a whole lot of hooey.

Will backs up this claim with a link to a BBC interview last week with Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia. A BBC journalist asked Jones questions, some of which had been submitted by unnamed climate skeptics, including this one:

Q: Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?

A: Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

This statement then got run through a sausage grinder run by journalists who are apparently both innumerate and illiterate. The Daily Mail declared,

“This week the unit’s former head Professor Phil Jones, performed a majot [sic] u-turn and admitted there had been no ‘statistically significant’ global warming in the last 15 years.”

This version of the story, which makes Jones sound like he was making a confession under enhanced interrogation techniques, ended up on the Wall Street Journal editorial page and today in George Will’s column:

Global warming skeptics, too, have erred. They have said there has been no statistically significant warming for 10 years. Phil Jones, former director of Britain’s Climatic Research Unit, source of the leaked documents, admits it has been 15 years.

Will doesn’t tell us exactly who these skeptics are who claimed there had been no “statistically significant warming” for 10 years. I have no way of knowing if they in fact exist. Will himself has been loudly beating the “no-warming-for-a-long-time” drum over the past year. But he has backed up this claim simply by searching for the hottest single year in recent history. “According to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998,” he wrote in April. Will continued to claim that global warming has stopped since 1998 even after the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization wrote into the Post to explain why Will was wrong.

In his latest column, Will added the fancy, shiny new term “statistically significant” to his claim that there has been no global warming. But in doing so, he misleads his readers about what statistical significance actually means.

To see why, take a look at this graph. NASA scientists have been building it for years now, using weather records from around the world. Other graphs built by other teams of scientists have produced similar patterns. If you only look at a small vertical slice of the graph, you’ll see the temperature jump up and down and up again. That’s the sort of pattern you’d expect from a system as big and noisy as the planet’s climate. There are lots of sources of variations in the average global temperature, such as El Nino, a natural oscillation in the movement of heat in the oceans.

Sometimes these hopping temperatures don’t seem to go anywhere in particular. In other cases, there appear to be trends lurking under the noise. To test a hypothesis like this, scientists estimate how likely it would be for an apparent trend to be nothing more than the noise in the climate system. They then set a threshold for those odds.

In many branches of science, researchers set that threshold at 5%. In other words, if there’s only a 5% chance that a particular pattern of temperatures was the result of pure noise, scientists will call the trend “statistically significant.” If, on the other hand, the probability turns out to be 5.1%, the trend is still likely not to be the result of noise, but it’s not officially statistically significant.

“The boundary of .05 should be seen as a guide to interpretation, not as a clear boundary between truth and fiction,” Michael Whitlock and Dolph Schluter write in their book, The Analysis of Biological Data.

Just because a trend over a particular stretch of time doesn’t quite meet the 5% cutoff doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not real. It just means that scientists cannot reject the null hypothesis that noise is the cause. One way scientists can deal with this challenge is to look at longer sets of records. In the case of climate, looking at longer stretches of time reveals that there is indeed a real trend of warming temperatures. Just because the BBC’s questioner arbitrarily set the cutoff for analyzing the climate at 1995 doesn’t change that fact. Jones openly addressed this fact, but George Will conveniently omitted it.

Significance is one of the basic concepts of statistics that everybody should learn about. We rely on these concepts to judge not just the state of the climate, but also the meaning of clinical trials of drugs, the conclusions of psychology experiments that help reveal the inner workings of the mind, and all manner of other discoveries. In today’s column, George Will isn’t just making misleading statements in the service of trying to foster doubt about climate change. He’s also helping to muddle our collective scientific literacy. Why the editors of the Washington Post’s editorial page want to be a party to this is a mystery to me.

[See Skeptical Science and Tamino for more.]

George Will: Uncheckable?

Long-time readers of this blog will be aware of my Ahab-like obsession with George Will’s global warming errors in the Washington Post–and the Post’s hollow claims to have carefully fact-checked him. I confess that I’ve let a couple of his more recent columns slip by. But I had to stop to blog about his latest take on global warming, in which he jumps on the recently stolen emails among climate scientists. He does a remarkable job of making no sense at all.

In case you haven’t followed it, somebody stole thousands of private emails from the University of East Anglia, where the Climate Research Unit gathers and analyzes climate data. Suspicions are turning to Russian hackers, but there’s been no official word about who did it. The emails ended up on the Internet, and have become a big deal. The University of East Anglia, for example, is investigating both the theft itself and the accusations that have been leveled against UAE scientists as a result.

There’s been a huge amount of stuff published in newspapers and on blogs in the two weeks since the theft. I recommend a piece in Popular Mechanics by a geochemist at Columbia named Peter Keleman. Keleman carefully distinguishes between the possible ethical issues raised in the emails and where this controversy leaves the science of climate change.

Unfortunately, pieces like Keleman’s are not stopping the spread of myths that promote the notion that global warming is a fiction generated by a global (and centuries-old!) conspiracy. For example, US congressmen are claiming that the emails reveal a campaign of suppression that included the firing of the editor of a journal called Climate Research after the publication of a “skeptical” paper. Actually, the editor-in-chief resigned in protest over the paper, which he considered flawed, as well as the publisher’s unwillingness to let him write an editorial about that. (Three other editors resigned at the same time.)

George Will gets on the bandwagon, too, in his latest piece. He tries to fold the news about the email theft into his favorite errors, like the one about how global warming actually “stopped” in 1998, because 1998 was warmer than any other year since. He seizes on one email for his opportunity.

A CRU e-mail says: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment” — this “moment” is in its second decade — “and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

Will has put himself in a bind. He loves to tell us that it’s been over ten years that there has been no global warming. In an earlier column, he invoked the World Meteorological Organization as his source, linking to this document (pdf). But the climate record they show (on page 4) is the handiwork of none other than the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, the epicenter of those wretched climate scientists who, Will assures us, “compound their delusions of intellectual adequacy with messiah complexes.” If you look at analyses produced by other groups, 1998 does not appear as the warmest year on record–instead, it is much more recent. In NASA’s analysis, it’s 2006. The difference lies, in part, in the weather stations included in the analyses.

Will cannot have it both ways. He cannot pretend to speak with authority about the history of climate, but rely on people he considers cranks as authorities on that history.

None other than the Secretary General of Will’s beloved World Meteorological Organization himself wrote to the Post in March to explain why Will’s fixation on 1998 was misleading:

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column [“Dark Green Doomsayers,” George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

The difference between climate variability and climate change is critical, not just for scientists or those engaging in policy debates about warming. Just as one cold snap does not change the global warming trend, one heat wave does not reinforce it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit.

Evidence of global warming has been documented in widespread decreases in snow cover, sea ice and glaciers. The 11 warmest years on record occurred in the past 13 years.

The difference between long-term and short-term patterns was actually at the heart of the email Will quotes. Kevin Trenberth of National Center for Atmospheric Research was writing in reference to a paper (pdf) he recently published in which he wrote that, while the long-term trend in global warming is clear, scientists ought to try to monitor short-term variability more closely to understand its sources. In other words, Trenberth was not  part of a conspiracy to hide some embarrassing facts about the climate history. He was writing about it in public, and proposing ways to move the science forward.

I have no idea if Will was even aware that Trenberth wrote the email, let alone bothered to read the paper to get some context. But a fact-checker definitely should have, and should have raised a host of red flags.

George Will's Crack Fact-Checkers Continue Their Nap

There is no way to keep up with all the bad reporting on science these days, but I cannot resist certain egregious cases. As Loom readers know, George Will writing about global warming is one. This morning brings fresh evidence of his trouble with the facts–and, more importantly–the empty claims of the Washington Post‘s editorial page that they respect the time-honored art of fact-checking.

In a nutshell, George Will wrote some columns starting in February in which he claimed that scientific evidence shows that all the heat-trapping carbon dioxide we’re putting in the atmosphere is having no effect on the planet. He claimed as proof that global ice levels had not changed in thirty years and that in fact there has been no global warming since 1998, just to name two.

giss440.jpgThe Loom and many other blogs pointed out why these claims were in error. Will ignores the fact that climate change is a noisy, long-term process. Today it is cooler at my house than it was yesterday. That does not mean that next week I will wake up to find snow on my doorstep. If you look at the annual mean temperature of the planet, you can cherry-pick one year, such as 1998, in order to make the false claim that there is no global warming. Of course, you could just as easily pick 1999, in which case the same logic would force you to conclude that there has been a staggering increase in temperature. But that’s not how climate scientists actually study global warming. They look at long term patterns, such as the red line in this graph from NASA, which represents the five-year mean since 1880. And when they do, they recognize a long-term trend of rising temperatures.

This somehow slipped through the multiple levels of fact-checking carried out by the editorial page staff at the Washington Post. Nor could they catch the other errors Will made on the science. So my fellow blogger Chris Mooney and the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization made it easy for them, by writing a column and a letter respectively, to set things straight. The Post even saw fit to run both.

They did not, however, issue any correction on Will’s claims. Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who claimed that there had been fact-checking on multiple levels, did acknowledge things might have been handled a wee bit better, and then offered this sunny thought for the future:

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.  [Emphasis mine]

As far as I can tell, Alexander’s wish is being ignored. Today Will has published a column about recent negotiations on controlling carbon emissions. He considers them a bunch of empty promises, which seems to be just fine with Will, because there is no global warming to control anyway. Here’s how Will closes his latest piece:

When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called upon “young Americans” to “get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon,” another columnist, Mark Steyn, responded: “If you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you’re graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade.”

Which could explain why the Mall does not reverberate with youthful clamors about carbon. And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying.

In earlier days, Will liked to claim the World Meteorological Organization as an authority when he wrote that there has been no global warming since 1998. Now that the World Meteorological Organization has set things straight, he’s claiming a columnist at National Review as his authority. That’s quite an upgrade.

The most urgent question today’s column raises is not about Will, but about how media organizations decide how to present science to the public. If the Post’s editorial page editors really do believe in fact-checking and in “respected and informed viewpoints,” I can only conclude that they slept in very late this morning.

Update: A commenter below accuses me of intellectual dishonesty for not showing a graph with a longer time-scale, which, I guess, would show that there’s no link between between carbon and climate. Ummm…like this one? (CO2 levels as black curve, temperature grey. Source pdf.)

rahmsdorf.jpg

Just Keep Calling It Fact-Checking And Someday They'll Believe You

Zachary Smith at Talking Points Memo, among others, notes that the Washington Post editorial page editor is still claiming that George Will’s many misrepresentations about global warming were subject to “careful fact-checking,” some two months after many people showed they were anything but–including some who explained the errors in the Washington Post itself. It’s a sad coda to a long tale of op-ed woe.

George Will, Now With Misleading Links!

There’s a lot of dismally wrong coverage of global warming these days (see some recent examples chronicled by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum at The Intersection, for example). But the way global warming gets treated on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post–particularly by George Will and his enabling editors–is particularly exquisite. For my little Ahab-like obsession with the editorial process there, check out this string of posts. Many other observers have made similar points, so you’d think that somebody over at the Post might have learned something from the experience.

Today, we see that they haven’t.

One of the more egregious lines from George Will’s recent columns on global warming is the claim that real data shows that warnings about a rise in the average global temperature are wrong. He writes: “According to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.”

The secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization himself, Michael Jarraud, decided he had to write to the Washington Post to tell them George Will is wrong.

Here’s the nut of Jarraud’s letter from March 21:

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column [“Dark Green Doomsayers,” George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

The difference between climate variability and climate change is critical, not just for scientists or those engaging in policy debates about warming. Just as one cold snap does not change the global warming trend, one heat wave does not reinforce it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit.

Evidence of global warming has been documented in widespread decreases in snow cover, sea ice and glaciers. The 11 warmest years on record occurred in the past 13 years.

While variations occur throughout the temperature record, shorter-term variations do not contradict the overwhelming long-term increase in global surface temperatures since 1850, when reliable meteorological recordkeeping began. Year to year, we may observe in some parts of the world colder or warmer episodes than in other parts, leading to record low or high temperatures. This regional climate variability does not disprove long-term climate change. While 2008 was slightly cooler than 2007, partially due to a La Niña event, it was nonetheless the 10th-warmest year on record.

Today, George Will is back on the subject of global warming. The occassion for his column is the alleged uselessness of energy-efficient light bulbs. The column is basically a cut-and-paste job on a recent New York Times article on the bulbs–the same newspaper that Will claimed in an earlier column is “a trumpet that never sounds retreat in today’s war against warming.” Somehow, a paper Will knows is nothing but a climate propaganda machine can publish an article related to global warming that he relies on as absolute authority.

But let’s leave internal logic aside. Let’s just deal with fact-checking. At the start of Will’s column today, he argues that all this worry about light bulbs is supremely pointless because…you guessed it…

Reducing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998.

Does the Post read its own letters? Does it remember them? Do they think if you add the phrase “stastistics” you can continue to mislead on the exact same point emphasized by Jarraud? Perhaps Will’s editors think if they put a link in Will’s misleading statement, it somehow makes it right. Did they actually look at the linked document? If they did, they’d find stuff like this:

The global average temperature for 2007 is statistically indistinguishable from each of the nine warmest years on record.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74°C, but this increase has not been continuous. The linear warming trend over the past 50 years (0.13°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the past 100 years.

Every time I think this sorry tale of fact-checking woe can’t get worse, it does.

Glaciers and Electrons

Thirty-four days ago, George Will published a column in the Washington Post that was loaded with erroneous statements about global warming. Many people, your humble scribe included, laid out the fact-checking. The Washington Post editorial page editors claimed that they checked the column repeatedly, yet their ombudsman granted that perhaps it might have been a nice idea if somebody had called the scientists Will invoked as his authorities–scientists who themselves refuted him. Yet the Post has not published a correction to Will’s column. Instead, they published a second column on the subject from Will, in which he reiterated some of his earlier misleading statements and even managed to slip some new ones in.

Today, at last, the Post published an “opinion” piece by science writer Chris Mooney in response. I use quotation marks because most of his piece is actually a concise fact-checking report. The same issue also includes a letter from the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, Michael Jarraud, who rejects Will’s characterization of the WMO’s work on global warming.

Chris says that this experience has changed his previously critical view of the Post editorial page. I wonder how far it changed. It is certainly to the Post‘s credit that they published these pieces that are so critical of a column’s accuracy, even after they claimed it was factually accurate. But they’re presented today in the standard op-ed debate format, as if Will was arguing in favor of health savings accounts and Mooney and Jarraud are responding with arguments in favor of a single-payer health system. This situation is very different. Will made statements that would have not made it past a fact-checker who bothered to call up the experts Will cited. Only 34 days later do the readers get an inkling that this is the case. In an age of electrons, that’s a glacial pace. There is still a lot of room here for improvement.

Ice Never Sleeps: George Will, Jr.

I’ve been writing from time to time recently about the poor job that op-ed sections do with science. As my prime example, I’ve focused on a column George Will wrote poo-poohing global warming for the Washington Post. But I’ve never meant to imply that that particular column was some isolated fluke. I think similar problems can be found in the editorial pages of many newspapers, and many branches of science are affected.

I don’t have the luxury (not to mention the masochism) to become a fact-checker on every opinion piece that appears in every major US newspaper. But I do want to point out a new column by Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe today, “Where’s Global Warming?” Sounding like a George Will, Jr., Jacoby presents what he claims is evidence suggesting that there is no global warming.

Considering how much attention would have been lavished on a comparable run of hot weather or on a warming trend that was plainly accelerating, shouldn’t the recent cold phenomena and the absence of any global warming during the past 10 years be getting a little more notice? Isn’t it possible that the most apocalyptic voices of global-warming alarmism might not be the only ones worth listening to?

What I find striking about this column is that I don’t actually have to do any fresh fact-checking to identify some problems with it. I already have. Jacoby offers us the same glitch with a satellite sensor that Will did, which he seems to be using to suggest that we don’t really know anything about ice coverage. But as I pointed out on February 27, the scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center who discovered the glitch made it clear that “the temporary error in the near-real-time data does not change the conclusion that Arctic sea ice extent has been declining for the past three decades.”

Jacoby then invokes a new paper which I wrote about last week on a potential new shift in the climate. “In a new study, University of Wisconsin researchers Kyle Swanson and Anastasios Tsonis conclude that global warming could be going into a decades-long remission.”

Remission? You’d think the climate had tumor and was now cancer-free. In fact, Swanson and Tsonis made it very clear that the shift they were proposing was the result of the climate’s natural variability overlaid on the effects of an ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As I wrote in my post, Swanson put it this way to me: “We are describing in this paper what is generally referred to as ‘internal’ (natural) climate variability, superimposed upon a robust global warming trend at century time-scales.”

In both cases, Jacoby misrepresents research. Climate scientists have not concluded that global warming has been affecting the world based on a “run of hot weather” as Jacoby puts it. They look at long-term trends. When George Will made this same kind of error, his editors claimed that his column had actually passed through a stringent fact-checking process. I wonder if the Boston Globe put Jacoby to the same test. A one-minute phone call to either team of scientists would have been enough to render a verdict.

Checking George Will: The Perils of Time Travel

While I was blogging over the past few weeks about fact-checking George Will’s dismissal of global warming (collected here), I got comments. A lot of them.

A fair number of commenters claimed George Will was right, and presented evidence that they claimed supported him. Some tried to back their claims with news that came out after Will’s column was published. For example, a few days after his column came out, there were reports that the a satellite that measure ice cover had some trouble and was fixed. But George Will could not jump forward in time, check out the satellites, and then leap back to write his column. There’s no way that it could have any bearing on fact-checking his piece. What’s more, even if Will did know about them, he’d still be wrong, as I explained here.

Today brought more time-travel. Trey writes:

Just FYI to the AGW crown [sic] and to support George Will and Lou Dobbs (CNN) there appears to be a shift to global cooling now. MSNBC and Discovery.com are reporting no warming since 2001 and that we’re looking at no warming or even cooling for the next several decades.

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/03/02/global-warming-pause-02.html
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29469287/

My response is much the same as my response to the satellite story. On February 15, George Will wrote the following about current “global cooling”:

Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.

If we’re going to fact-check George Will, this is what we have to check. What does the World Meteorlogical Organization in fact have to say about global warming?

This (from April 2008):

The long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing. Global temperatures in 2008 are expected to be above the long-term average. The decade from 1998 to 2007 has been the warmest on record, and the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C since the beginning of the 20th Century.

And this (from May 29 last year):

While important uncertainties still remain, the overwhelming global scientific consensus, as reflected through the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, is now that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming at an increasing rate and that most of this warming is very probably due to human activities, particularly fossil fuel burning and certain agricultural practices. It is also recognized that, while these changes are just beginning, their impacts will intensify in the coming decades.

If George Will has been having back-room chats with the World Meteorological Organization folks, where they’ve repudiated statements like these, he hasn’t share that news with the rest of us. My hunch is that Will would point to 1998, which was a very warm year, and say, “See, global warming stopped in 1998.”

But that’s not how the World Meteorological Organization (or any major organization of climate scientists) judges global warming. It’s pointless to pick out a single year for comparison, because the rising global temperature trend is overlaid on a naturally variable climate. If Will decided to pick 1997 or 1999, he’d have to deal with a year that was cooler than recent years. In fact, the World Meteorological Organization judges global warming based on averages of several years, which they compare to the entire climate record since humans started pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on an industrial scale.

So what about this new report from Discovery.com, and reprinted by MSNBC? First off, a fact-checker can’t use it to confirm a statement Will made about the World Meteorological Organization three weeks ago. The story itself from Discovery is very short and doesn’t provide any details about where the study in question came out. So I got in touch with the scientists, Kyle Swanson and Anstasio Tsonis of the University of Wisconsin. They sent me their paper, called “Has the climate recently shifted?” It will be published soon in Geophysical Research Letters.

filename.jpgSwanson and Tsonis observe that over the past century, the average global temperature has risen, but there have been periods when it has dropped temporarily. Swanson and Tsonis have been investigating how the natural climate variability may explain the shifts between these phases. This variability includes oscillations in the circulation of the ocean and the air. El Nino is the most famous of these oscillations, but there are others as well in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic. Only three times in the twentieth century did all these oscillations synchronize, after which the climate moved to a new state. This figure, from the paper, shows the periods of synchronization as cross-hatched bars.

Based on the study of chaotic systems, Swanson and Tsonis propose that the synchronization and climate shift are connected through cause and effect. Once a lot of oscillations are working in sync, even a small change to one of them can radiate out through the whole system and trigger a change. And along with the three shifts in the real climate, climate models also show a similar response when oscillations line up.

In their paper, Swanson and Tsonis then look at the past few years. They see a peak in synchronization in 2001 and 2002, and they also observe that in the years since, the temperature change has been on average flat (although much warmer than at the beginning of the century). They estimate that all the warming due to carbon dioxide should have driven the temperature up .25 degrees C since then. The fact that it hasn’t leads them to propose the the oceans and atmosphere have changed the way they handle heat. The oceans may have absorbed more heat due to a change in circulation, or the atmosphere may radiate more heat away by clouds. If this hypothesis is true, then it’s possible that the climate will remain in this new stage for some years to come before it shifts again.

Swanson and Tsonis write:

Of course, it is purely speculative to presume that the global mean temperature will remain near current levels for such an extended period of time. Moreover, we caution that the shifts described here are presumably superimposed upon a long term warming trend due to anthropogenic forcing.

They conclude with this warning:

Finally, it is vital to note that there is no comfort to be gained by having a climate with a significant degree of internal variability, even if it results in a near-term cessation of global warming. It is straightforward to argue that a climate with significant internal variability is a climate that is very sensitive to applied anthropogenic radiative anomalies (c.f. Roe [2009]). If the role of internal variability in the climate system is as large as this analysis would seem to suggest, warming over the 21st century may well be larger than that predicted by the current generation of models, given the propensity of those models to underestimate climate internal variability [Kravtsov and Spannagle 2008].

This story has been bouncing around a lot around the blogosphere. The conservative Heritage Foundation quoted from the Discovery.com piece with the headline, “Trillions in New Taxes to Accomplish Nothing.” A lot of the coverage describes the study as showing that global warming stopped in 2001, as Trey writes. But the paper doesn’t say that. It says that a synchronization happened then. It’s a bit odd how easily people can shift from claiming the warm year of 1998 as the end of global warming to 2001.

So I asked Swanson and Tsonis what they thought about its reception.

Tsonis wrote,

I was worried that this will happen, that is why we caution in the paper that while climate shifts may be part of the natural variability of the climate system they may be superimposed on a anthropogenic warming trend. We mentioned that also in the MSNBC story, and this will be my answer to anybody who asks me.

I like to report on the science only. If political organizations want to pick up what they like in order to pass their point and ignore the real science, there is nothing we can do.

Swanson wrote to me that this natural shifting is exactly what you’d expect if the Earth’s climate was indeed sensitive enough to carbon dioxide that it would respond by warming as has been projected.

We are describing in this paper what is generally referred to as “internal” (natural) climate variability, superimposed upon a robust global warming trend at century time-scales. Viewed in that light, the “halt” in global warming is no different than an El Nino/La Nina transition, which also breaks a warming trend – what we are describing is just climate variability that occurs over longer time scales.

Swanson and Tsonis have certainly come up with an intriguing hypothesis, based both on temperature observations and mathematical models of the climate. I’ll be curious to hear what other climate scientists think of it. It will take time to test, but even if it turns out to be right, it does not mean that global warming is over. If George Will could have climbed into a time travel machine and jumped forward to today, he would have been wrong if he tried to use this study to bolster his arguments back in February.

Update: I just noticed the Discovery news article did mention the journal where the paper will be published. I’ve struck the offending text.

Ice, Ice Baby: When Fact-Checking Is Not Fact-Checking

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been blogging about the problems newspaper opinion pages have with science. The example I’ve focused on is two columns on global warming by George Will in the Washington Post (and syndicated to 300 newspapers). Will claims that scientists who point to evidence that global warming is having an effect on the planet and reporters who describe their research are all hysterical doomsayers. To make his point, Will offers a range of evidence, from accounts in the 1970s about global cooling to statistics about the area of global ice cover recorded by satellites.

I have argued that George Will’s claims would have not have passed the standard fact-checking carried out by many magazines. He even manages to add extra errors in his second column, which is just a defense of his first. A number of other bloggers have also criticized the Post on similar grounds. The Washington Post editorial staff has responded on three occasions, most recently and at the greatest length this morning. As I’ll explain below, it’s not much of a response.

The first reaction was reported last week in Talking Points Memo. Andrew Alexander, the new Washington Post ombudsman, checked with the editorial page editors and told TPM that they have a “multi-layered editing process” in which columns are fact-checked to the greatest extent possible. They had, in other words, been satisfied that the information in George Will column factually correct in advance of publishing it, and now saw no reason to print any corrections. Then the editorial page editor Fred Hiatt was interviewed Thursday in the Columbia Journalism Review, where he stated that Will may have made inferences from the data that scientists didn’t agree with, and that it was up to those scientists to debate Will. Again, he saw no need for any corrections, and even suggested that pieces like Will’s column helped the public appreciate the uncertainty on issues including global warming, along with other fields like medicine.

I’m not going to deal in detail with these responses here, having already done so yesterday. Instead, I want to take a look at the latest response that came out this morning: a full-blown column in the Washington Post by the ombudsman Andrew Alexander–in fact, Alexander’s first official piece in his new job. You can read it here.

As I read it, I kept hitting one puzzling statement after another. For example, Alexander starts out the piece by focusing his column on what he calls “a key paragraph” about the global area of ice. As I’ve explained before, that paragraph is indeed in error, both in the specifics of the data, and in the way Will uses it as evidence that global warming has not been occurring. It became all the more striking because the scientists whom Will named as his source for the data rejected his claims, and, as I later showed, neither Will nor any of the fact-checkers bothered to contact the scientists to confirm their information. Instead, they pointed to another statement from the scientists as confirming Will’s claim–while ignoring the parts of the one-page statement that showed why Will was wrong.

But as vivid as that case may be, it was only one of numerous errors in the piece. If Will’s columns had indeed been properly fact-checked, the fact-checkers would have drawn attention to other errors in his columns.

For example, Will misrepresents an article by the late great Walter Sullivan in the New York Times in 1975, pretending that it trumpets an imminent plunge into an Ice Age:

The New York Times was — as it is today in a contrary crusade — a megaphone for the alarmed, as when (May 21, 1975) it reported that “a major cooling of the climate” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

Here is how that article actually starts:

The world’s climate is changing. Of that scientists are firmly convinced. But in what direction and why are subjects of deepening debate.

The whole article is here [$]. For more on all this, see here and see “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus,” (free pdf) published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I write frequently for the Times, although only once about global warming.)

Here’s another error Alexander doesn’t address: Will tries to use a recent satellite sensor glitch as evidence that skeptical scientists get attacked for questioning global warming. I explained how scientists have dealt with that glitch and corrected the record, and how the scientists themselves state that the glitch doesn’t affect their conclusion that the Arctic has shown a three-decade trend of shrinking ice area–a result that also comes from climate models.

But Alexander never addresses anything beyond Will’s claims about the global area of ice now and in 1979. When fact-checkers write up their reports, they do not just look at one paragraph and call it a day. I don’t understand why that is acceptable for a report from an ombudsman about the accuracy of a newspaper column.

But even within this narrow scope, Alexander’s conclusions puzzle me. He states:

My inquiry shows that there was fact-checking at multiple levels.

What Alexander then describes is not fact-checking.

It began with Will’s own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

Next, it went to The Post’s op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

Fact-checking descriptions of scientific research involves a wee bit more than perusing Internet reference links. It is not just a pattern-matching game, where you see if a sequence of words is the same in two places. Anyone who has actually fact-checked for a magazine like Discover (where I fact-checked for a few years) can tell you that you need to get familiar with the scientific research to see if the description is a good representation of the science itself.

And one essential part of getting familiar with it is calling scientists who live day and night with that research (especially if those scientists were cited explicitly in the piece being checked). A call to the scientists would have immediately sent up red flags (as I found when I got in touch with them on February 21 to satisfy my own curiosity and clear up some questions of my own).

This is not a criticism of the people Alexander names in his column. Newspapers and magazines are responsible for establishing procedures for fact-checking, which staff members must then follow. What I don’t understand is how Alexander can offer us this account of what happened and call it fact-checking at multiple levels.

Even more puzzling is Alexander’s account of his own research into the narrow question of the ice.

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will’s assertion that global sea ice levels “now equal those of 1979.” I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

It said that while global sea ice areas are “near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979,” sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is “almost one million sq. km below” the levels of late 1979. That’s roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn’t until last Tuesday — nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction — that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.

Readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods.

I know that I may be sounding a bit Talmudic by spending so many blog posts on this one bit of information, but examining how these Post editors have dealt with it has proven to be very revealing. They never bothered to check with scientists about the validity of a statement in a column, and after thousands of people have complained, they recognize that there was something so amiss that should have called the scientists. But they still can’t manage to make a decision about whether the statement requires a correction.

What’s more, they continue to ignore the broader, more important problem with Will’s discussion of sea ice: the facts that picking out two days from a thirty-year time series is not a meaningful way to look at climate trends, and that climate models do not, in fact, lead you to expect a decrease in global ice cover. And they have not even taken any notice of all the other errors in Will’s two columns.

Alexander’s prescription for the Post is this:

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.

I don’t see why the news reporters at the Post have to recommit to anything. They’ve been doing their job. What really has to happen is for people who claim to be fact-checking to really do some fact-checking. It’s that simple.

Update, Sunday 3/1: In my initial version of this post, I sometimes referred to Andrew Alexander as Anderson by mistake. When I first noticed this mistake, I thought I only did it once and fixed that error. But commenters have kindly pointed out I had left several Andersons behind. I’ve now fixed them all. Apologies for the confusion.

Update later Sunday: Via Andy Revkin, I came across what is essentially an independent fact-check. It’s from Walt Meier of NSIDC, responding to a question about Will’s column

Basically, Mr. Will made three mistakes:

1. He was factually incorrect on the date that he reported his “daily global ice” number. However, he was merely out-of-date with his facts (it was true on Jan 1, but wasn’t 6 weeks later). This is somewhat nit-picky, though it illuminates how fast things can change in a relatively short period of time, meaning that one should be very cautious about drawing any conclusions about climate from an isolated event.

2. Related to that, it is easy to cherry-pick one date here and one date there to compare to support most any view. The important thing is to look at things in the context of long-term changes. That is what NSIDC always tries to convey by comparing to long-term averages.

3. “Global sea ice” simply has no meaning in terms of climate change. The Arctic and Antarctic are unique and separated environments that respond differently. It would be like taking a drought in Georgia and torrential rain in Maine, adding those up and claiming that “rainfall is normal” in the eastern U.S.

Update, 4/7/09: Alexander’s use of “Arctic Climate Research Center” is incorrect.

Unchecked Ice: A Saga in Five Chapters

[Correction appended]

I guess I don’t understand editorial pages. The laws of physics must be different there.

Chapter 1: A Correction

On February 15, George Will wrote a column for the Washington Post, in which he scoffed at dire warnings about the effects of global warming. He claimed that environmental pessimists are always warning about catastrophes that never come. And he offered a series of claims about the climate that added up to a larger claim about the lack of evidence of global warming. For example:

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

These are statements about facts–both the grainy little facts of data, and the larger facts they add up to about how the world works. Are these facts correct?

As I wrote on Monday, that question would have been answered if Will was writing for a science magazine like Discover (or the New Yorker, or many others). A good fact-checker would burrow into the column and demand confirmation of everything in there–typically by reading over all the relevant material and calling up the sources.

I’ve long wondered if opinion pieces are fact-checked at all, especially ones that deal with science. Over the years I’ve read some real howlers. And so it was very striking to read, via Talking Points memo, that the Arctic Climate Research Center, the very place Will invoked as his source of information, posted this statement on their web site:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

I later contacted Bill Chapman, who runs the center, to ask about the statement. He explained that he and his colleagues got somewhere between 80 and 100 from people coming to the center’s web site to see for themselves how the ice was the same, and finding that there was a lot less ice than George Will had said. Of course, they probably assumed that by “now,” Will had mean “now,” as opposed to “two months ago.” Silly readers.

Chapter 2: A Multi-Layered Editorial Process

The ice was not the only subject of errors in Will’s piece. Brad Johnson of Wonk Room, among others, has come up with a list of other items–a lot for a column just a few hundred words long. But that sharp reply from the Arctic Climate Research Center made the ice the focus of many complaints that came to the Washington Post.

The ombudsman at the Post gave a response on Tuesday. He had asked around and had been informed that

the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

How had this information about the ice slipped through the dense fact-checking mesh? The ombudsman did not cite a call to anyone at the research center. As I later discovered, nobody–not Will, not his employees, not the two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, not the op-ed page editor, not the two copy editors–actually got in touch with the scientists at the center. Instead, they relied on a statement that had been posted on the center’s web site in January.

Chapter 3: Global Warming, Global Ice

That January statement has a backstory of its own.

On January 1, a blog ran a post that claimed that global ice cover at the end of 2008 was the same as at the end of December 31, 1979. The implication being, “Hey, what’s all this global warming people are screaming about? There’s just as much ice as ever.”

In the research center’s January statement, the scientists wrote that “Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.”

So–on the level of grain-sized facts, Will could have said, with accuracy, that on one day in December 2008, the global ice area was near or slightly lower than it was on that day in December 1979. He did not. I leave readers to ponder why he didn’t.

But as you reflect, consider how this rewrite would have sounded: “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice is 1.34 million sq. km less now in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.”

It doesn’t quite have the same ring as the original.

Of course, the big difference between February 2009 and February 1979 does not, on its own, mean that the world’s ice is on a fast track to oblivion, no more than picking a single day in December means there has been no change. Climate change happens over years and over decades, with noisy jumps at smaller scales. And to understand how climate change is affecting the ice, climate scientists actually consider what the latest climate models predict about how that ice will change.

In his column, Will claims that many experts were warning in 2008 that the drop in global ice areas was evidence of man-made warming. He doesn’t tell us who those experts are. And, in fact, the research center scientists wrote in their January statement that global ice area may not be relevant as an indication of climate change.

Why? Because almost climate change models project shrinking Arctic ice, but not necessarily Antarctic ice. In fact, some recent models show extra evaporation due to warming leading to snow falling on the sea ice around Antarctica.

And if you look at the ice at each pole, the ice in the Arctic has been on a shrinking trend. The ice around the Antarctic has had a reverse trend as is actually covering a bigger area this year than in 1979. This is consistent with the climate models.

All of this was in that January statement. It’s one page long. If the Washington Post’s batallion of fact-checkers actually used this to approve Will’s statement about the area of ice, they had to have seen this additional information. But they did not bother to raise an objection.

Chapter 4: George Will Should Read This Blog

All the attention Will has been getting–or at least an article that discusses his column in the New York Times–seems to have gotten under his skin. In his column today for the Washington Post, he has returned to global warming, and to his own previous column on the subject.

“The column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged,” he claimed. “The challenge is mistaken.”

The challenge he’s referring to is about the ice. Will does not mention the many other challenges that have been laid out. But let’s leave them aside. Life is short. What does Will have to say now about the ice?

He now says his previous column was “citing data from the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech, a technology and science news blog.”

Citing data as interpreted by a blog…That’s some fine reporting. Neither George Will nor his employees did any more research than look at a blog. Now, blogs can be wonderful, but would it have been really so hard for Will and Co. to drop a note to the scientists themselves to do their own research? Pick up the phone? Apparently not.

Will then uses that same January statement from the scientists in response to that blog post as evidence that he was right.

But on Feb. 15, the Sunday the column appeared, the center, then receiving many e-mail inquiries, issued a statement saying ‘we do not know where George Will is getting his information.’ The answer was: From the center, via Daily Tech. Consult the center’s Web site where, on Jan. 12, the center posted the confirmation of the data (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) that this column subsequently reported accurately.

See anything missing here? How about the fact that by the time Will published his column, there was a lot less ice than there was 30 years ago? How about the point made in that same statement Will prizes so greatly that global ice is a red herring?

But Will can’t leave it at that.

The scientists at the Illinois center offer their statistics with responsible caveats germane to margins of error in measurements and precise seasonal comparisons of year-on-year estimates of global sea ice. Nowadays, however, scientists often find themselves enveloped in furies triggered by any expression of skepticism about the global warming consensus (which will prevail until a diametrically different consensus comes along; see the 1970s) in the media-environmental complex. Concerning which:

On Feb. 18 the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that from early January until the middle of this month, a defective performance by satellite monitors that measure sea ice caused an underestimation of the extent of Arctic sea ice by 193,000 square miles, which is approximately the size of California.

Will ends his column by complaining that the New York Times isn’t reporting on that story. But Will hasn’t told the story accurately.

First of all, the trouble with the satellite has not affected the information coming from the Arctic Climate Research Center. As I wrote earlier this week, the scientists there use their own methods to calculate sea ice area that are different from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. And by cross-checking with other satellite measurements, they found that their estimates were still good.

Meanwhile, the National Snow and Ice Data Center scientists began to look at the readings from another sensor on the same satellite. They recalculated the ice area for the past few months. And on February 26, they were back in business, publishing their corrected measurements, which include the period when they had been underestimating the ice.

And in their news update on all this, the National Snow and Ice Data Center scientists had this to say:

The temporary error in the near-real-time data does not change the conclusion that Arctic sea ice extent has been declining for the past three decades.

In trying to justify an old error, Will can’t help making new ones. But at this point, I’m not expecting any corrections.

Chapter 5: Post-Modern Fact-Checking

What has kept me hooked on this saga is not George Will’s errors. Errors are as common as grass. Some are made out of ignorance, some carefully constructed to give a misleading impression. What has kept me agog is the way the editors at the Washington Post have actually given their stamp of approval on Will’s columns, even claiming to have fact-checked them and seeing no need for a single correction.

The climax to this part of the story came yesterday, when the Columbia Journalism Review was finally able to get Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Post, to speak directly about the ice affair:

It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject–so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point…I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas–not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else–there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain.

I’ve heard that line before…the one about how people can look at the same scientific data and make different inferences.

I’ve heard it from creationists. They look at the Grand Canyon, at all the data amassed by geologists over the years, and they end up with an inference very different from what you’ll hear from those geologists.

Would Hiatt be pleased to have them writing opinion pieces, too? There is indeed some debate in the scientific community about exactly how old the Grand Canyon is–with some arguing it’s 55 million years old and others arguing for 15 million. Would Hiatt consider it healthy to publish a piece from someone who thinks the Grand Canyon is just a few thousand years old, with just a perfunctory inspection of the information in it?

At this point, it’s hard for me to see how the answer could be no.

[Correction, 4/7/09: Bill Chapman is a member of the Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois. Despite George Will’s claims in his column, there is no such thing as the Arctic Climate Research Center at the University of Illinois. I regret not noticing this error sooner. Details here.]

George Will: Locked In Ice!

Last week I dedicated a few posts (1, 2, 3, 4) to a column by George Will on global warming as an example of why fact-checking is important. The whole thing flared up a lot more than I had expected, with the Washington Post editorial page folks actually claiming they had fact checked Will through a “multi-layered” fact-checking process. (Unfortunately, no one bothered to pick up a phone to call a research center cited in the piece.) Etc., etc.

I’ve been too busy with many deadlines on other projects to keep close track of this any longer, but I just had to pass on this bit of news from Talking Points Memo: George Will is back, baby!

We thought we were done with the topic of George Will and climate change. But now we’ve gotten an advanced look at Will’s latest column, set to run tomorrow in the Washington Post and in syndication. And it amounts to a stubborn defense of the amazing global warming denialist column he published earlier this month, that was ripped apart by just about everyone and their mother — including us….

Will stands by the substance of the February 15 column, maintaining, in the case of the key factual dispute, that he had accurately reported the findings of a respected climate research center on the question of sea-ice levels. Though the center has since put out a statement disavowing Will’s use of its data, Will claims that last month it posted confirmation of that very data on its web site — and, getting all bloggy, includes a link.

We’ll leave it to others to parse the finer points of this defense — though it’s immediately noticeable that Will doesn’t mention that the center’s confirmation of its findings notes that the data concerns global sea ice levels, rather than northern hemispheric levels. Global levels, it says, “may not be the most relevant indicator.”

But after Will and Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt declined to answer TPMmuckraker’s questions about the column — leaving that task to the paper’s ombudsman, who cited the paper’s “multi-layer editing process” — it’s certainly intriguing that Will has chosen to wade back into the muck.

I’ll have to wait to see the column itself to comment on it, but what’s really intriguing to me is that the multi-layer editing process over at the Post has let Will sail through the fact-checking process yet again. I just wonder if they bothered to call anyone this time.

A Wrinkle In Ice (or Not)

[Correction appended]

There’s been a wrinkle in the global warming fact-checking saga I’ve been following this week.

Just to recap–George Will wrote a column claiming that global warming’s a lot of hype. He made a number of misleading statements, including one that was rejected by the very scientists he claimed as his source.

Will stated, “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

A statement was then posted on the research center’s web site of the Polar Research Group:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

A number of bloggers laid out the problems with the column and sought a response from the Washington Post. The Post announced that they had fact-checked Will’s column, and that it was just fine. I explained why that looks like some mighty poor fact-checking.

Last night in the comment thread, Doug drew my attention to an article on the ice record maintained by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado (a different research center). On February 18 (three days after Will’s column appeared), the NSIDC announced that there was a glitch in the satellite sensors measuring ice in the Arctic, and so their record was gradually drifting off. The drift started in January, and gradually increased until they caught it in mid-February. The scientists now say that the latest estimates were off by 500,000 kilometers. They’re working now to compensate for the drift and correct the measurements. Here’s a graph from their web site.

The blue line marks the ice measurements taken by SSMI, the satellite NSIDC uses for the 30-year record of ice extent. The dashed red line is data from AMSR-E, a new  satellite that has also been measuring the ice and has remained accurate. The reason the scientists don’t switch over to the new AMSR-E satellite is that jumping from one data set to another can create the illusion of change that isn’t really there. But AMSR-E is still useful to the researchers, because they can compare its measurements to the ones they get using SSMI satellite to see if everything’s okay.

Some commenters wondered whether this development would cause me to take back my criticism. Let’s just set aside the fact that this news came out after Will had published his column, and thus could not have any real bearing on whether he or the Post bothered to contact the scientists that they cited as their source.

After looking at some of the web sites involved, I thought I ought to get in touch with the scientists who run the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center–the center at the Polar Research Group–the scientists on whom Will depended for his claim, and which rejected that claim.

I got a prompt response from Bill Chapman, a University of Illinois climate scientist:

“It’s refreshing to have someone ask about the data before they write about it.”

Just pause to consider that. After all this kerfuffule–involving a nationally syndicated columnist, the assistants to that columnist, the editors at the columnist’s syndication service, the editors at the Washington Post editorial page, and the Post’s ombudsman–Chapman was refreshed that someone bothered to contact him about his research before writing about it. What a concept. For me, this whole affair has been about the value of fact-checking science, and Chapman’s reply shows just how little checking was carried out by the Post and company.

In his reply to me, Chapman explained that the two research centers, NSIDC and ACRC, both use the SSMI satellite readings, but they have different methods for building their time series. Chapman and his colleagues at ACRC use a composite of three sequential days for their ice cover readings. If a swath of data is missing on one particular day, they can go back to the previous day’s concentrations. If there are still missing regions, they go one more day back.

“Missing regions or swaths of data have always occurred from time to time in the SSMI record, which is why we set it up this way,” Champan explained.

Despite the recent trouble with the SSMI satellite, Chapman said the three-day-composites have still been meaningful. “As one check, we have been comparing our time series with those from the independent data source AMSR-E. They are just about identical so we are comfortable that our time series remain solid. Our time series and therefore the statement are unaffected by the recent satellite problems. If the sensor degrades a lot more, our numbers will be affected, but to date, they are not.”

I then asked what he thought about the Washington Post’s support of Will’s claim about ice. (To recap again, their support was decidedly roundabout. A January 1 post on a blog called Daily Tech claimed that global ice cover in late 2008 were unchanged from 1979. In response to that blog post, the Center posted a pdf on their web site explaining that “observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.” But then the scientists also explained that climate models predict a decline in Arctic ice, but are less certain about Antarctica, with some even suggesting an increase–making measurements of global sea ice not terribly relevant to the question of climate change. The Post ignored that part.)

Here’s Chapman’s reply:

Since their statements were based on the end of the previous year, and more importantly the end of 1979, the statement ‘global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979’ just didn’t make sense any more. We have received 80-100 emails from confused people who had read George’s column and looked up the graphs on the Cryosphere Today [one of the center’s web pages] and said they came to a different conclusion, or, could we point them to the report that said that Feb 1979 and Feb 2009 sea ice area was nearly the same. We had to post the current and corresponding 1979 values to avoid the inconsistency that readers were noting. After doing some googling, it appears that Daily Tech article got repeated on a lot of blogs, so it’s not surprising George Will came across it at some point. Still it was sloppy for them to not double check with the original source and it really points out the danger of making any conclusions on climate change based on any two days in history. I really wish they would have contacted us at some point to avoid this.

Our goal is to present the data in as concise and useful format as possible for interested users. Whether the Washington Post decides to publish a correction is up to them.

Indeed.

Finally, just to illustrate what Chapman’s talking about when he refers to the danger of picking out just two days in history, I thought I’d also include two graphs from Cryosphere Today. The top one shows the extent of Arctic sea ice, as compared to the 1978 to 2000 average. The bottom one is from Antarctica. A number of researchers have found a downward trend in the Arctic ice in recent decades, while there’s a small upward trend in the ice around Antarctica.artic600.jpgantarctic600.jpg

Correction: I erroneously called the University of Illinois Polar Research Group the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center. The latter, used by George Will, is a fabrication. Details here.

You Call That Fact-Checking?

While recovering from an extracted wisdom tooth this morning, I cheered up when I saw that Talking Points Memo and other blogs have picked up my grousing about George Will’s error-laden global warming column in the Washington Post. When I first became aware of Will’s column on Monday, it seemed to me the perfect example of the general problem with treating op-ed pages as “opinion.” That is, if by opinion, you mean that someone doesn’t have to adhere to the facts. I could state that the Earth is 6000 years old, and no one would dare correct me, because it’s just my opinion. (I guess that’s the rationale that led Forbes and US News to run pieces by young-Earth creationists as “commentary” a couple weeks ago in “honor” of Darwin’s birthday. [Okay. No more air quotes. Promise.])

Now we learn via Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman, that the editorial page has a whole team of fact-checkers. Or at least there are personal assistants to George Will, a couple syndication editors, and Post copy editors who have been identified as fact-checkers. Somehow, this army all decided that Will’s piece was just dandy. Even weirder was the post-modern refusal to run a correction from Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director: “We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction.”

It seems as if the Washington Post just doesn’t think this is important. Via Jay Rosen I learned that Alexander’s inaugural ombudsman column today has nary a mention of the affair–even though Alexander himself made inquiries. Maybe Alexander just wanted to say “Hello, World,” in his first piece, without diving straight into any particular complaints. That’s fine. Let’s see what he writes about once the niceties are out of the way. (He invites email: ombudsman@washpost.com )

My own opinion is that this was a serious screw-up, but not an easy one to solve in any systemic way. In an ideal world, editorial pages would employ full-time fact-checkers who felt no fear in pointing out small and large errors of fact. Only after their objections had been satisfied would a column see the light of day. That’s what happens to articles at some magazines today.

In the real world, though, a lot of magazines don’t have fact-checkers on staff, and they expect writers to do the fact-checking themselves. It’s particularly tough for newspapers, which churn out so many stories a day. To fact-check those stories well, they’d have to hire back a fair amount of the people they’ve laid off in recent years. I assume the same probably goes for editorial pages, although I can’t say for sure, never having dealt with them myself.

Still, it remains seriously weird for a national newspaper to run a piece that they claim has been thoroughly fact-checked, which has since been showed to be plainly flawed. It’s also weird for it to then refuse to run a correction based on a bogus sense of balance about the evidence of how much ice there is in the world and what that means for climate change.

A lot of people have left comments here complaining about George Will. And others have then accused them (and me) of being part of a left-wing conspiracy, attacking Will while letting the inaccuracies of others slide by. For me this is not really about Will. It’s about how newspapers and magazines succeed or fail to convey science as accurately as possible. And this case is a textbook example of failure. I hope something is learned from it.

[Update, 2/22: I’ve added a new post addressing some confusion over some late-breaking news about the satellites that measure ice. And along the way, we are reminded of just how weak the multi-layered fact-checking at the Washington Post editorial page is.]

The Sea Ice Affair, Continued

[Correction appended]

Monday I bemoaned the lack of fact-checking of opinion pieces in newspapers, pointing to a George Will column on global warming in the Washington Post as evidence. Now the Washington Post op-ed folks claim that it was in fact heavily fact-checked. All I can say is that none of them better apply for a fact-checking job here at Discover.

To recap: George Will wrote a column in which he tried to downplay the evidence that global warming has already affected the Earth, and that it will have bigger impacts in the future. Various bloggers have pointed out examples where Will misrepresented scientific studies in this column. The most glaring one was this: “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

The Research Center put a statement on their site explaining that Will was wrong. On February 15, the day Will wrote his column, there was substantially less ice than on February 15, 1979: the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

I picked up this story from Talking Points Memo, and it has been bouncing around for a few days now. The folks at TPM and elsewhere have been trying to get a response from the Post about why they haven’t posted a correction. Today, Wonk Room appears to have finally broken through. And, oh, what a response they got. It’s worth quoting at length, because it reveals some intricately baffling behavior:

When contacted by the Wonk Room, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, veteran reporter Andy Alexander, “sought clarification from the editorial page editors”:

Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

Wow. I’d hate to see what Will’s columns look like before the “multi-layer editing process.”

Full email from Andy Alexander (ombudsman@washpost.com):

Dear Mr. Johnson,

Thank you for your e-mail. The Post’s ombudsman typically deals with issues involving the news pages. But I understand the point you and many e-mailers are making, and for that reason I sought clarification from the editorial page editors. Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn’t agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that “Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979,”

Best wishes,
Andy Alexander
Washington Post Ombudsman

Update: Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director, told the Wonk Room that he looked into the accuracy of Will’s claim that “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979”:

We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction.

There’s a lot of wiggly, lawyerly language here. What does it mean for the editors to check facts “to the fullest extent possible”? As I mentioned in my last post, magazine like Discover and the New Yorker assign a person to check every point in an article. It can become the fact-checker’s Moby Dick. The fact-checker doesn’t rely on press releases or blog posts, but calls scientists up to get the best information.

Did the veritable army of fact-checkers described by the Post fact-check to this degree? We can safely assume the answer was no, because the researchers at the Arctic Climate Research Center were baffled by Will’s claim about the ice. “We don’t know where he is getting his information from,” they wrote in their statement.

If someone from the Post’s crackerjack multi-layer squad of fact-checkers had bothered to pick up the phone, they could have simply asked, “Is it indeed true that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979?”

And they would have probably gotten an answer like this: “Well, what do you mean by now? Today? And what do you mean by 1979? Exactly thirty years ago today? If that’s what you mean, the answer is no.”

A good fact-checker would then say, “Well, it seems this claim is based on an article that came out January 1.”

To which the scientist would say something along the lines of, “At that point it was near or slightly lower what was observed in late 1979.”

At the very least, that discrepancy would have to be corrected. But a good fact-checker would see a deeper problem, saying, “Whoa, that changed a lot in a month and a half.”

Which would then lead to a discussion of the fact ice cover is such a noisy process that picking out a single day to compare these numbers does not say a lot about how it is affected by climate change. Climatologists look over longer time scales.

A good fact-checker would also learn that almost all climate models project that increasing greenhouse gases will cause a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades, but the response of the southern hemisphere is less certain. In fact, evaporation caused by the warming might lead to more snowfall onto the sea ice. If the southern ice expands, it cancels out some of the retreat of the northern ice. And lo and behold, the northern hemisphere ice is almost a million square kilometers smaller than it was in late 1979, and the Southern Hemisphere ice is about half a million square kilometers bigger than in late 1979. So not only is Will wrong on the particulars of his statement, but he’s wrong on what it means about climate change. A good fact-checker would make sure that this was fixed too.

How can I be so confident that a good fact-checker would learn this? Because it is in that same January statement from the Center that the Post cited as “evidence” that Will was correct.

If the Post’s fact-checkers actually looked at the statement before they published Will’s column, they could not have seen the sentence about sea ice coverage without seeing the broader discussion of what climate change does to sea ice as well. And yet, even if they did see it, it did not cause them to make Will change his column.

If that’s indeed what happened, it would be bad fact-checking. But it’s also possible that they only looked at the January statement after this kerfuffle broke out this week, and picked out one line that seems to justify Will’s false statement–even though it was nestled in the discussion of the differences between the two hemispheres. That’s not fact-checking at all. It smacks of quote-mining.

It’s easy to think of fact-checking as a luxury of old-time journalism, akin to three-martini lunches and business class flights. But if fact-checking is done right, it can make newspapers and magazines reliable and trusted–a distinction that may help them survive in these competitive times. Sadly, in this case, we see what happens when the process fails.

[Update, 2/22: I’ve added a new post addressing some confusion over some late-breaking news about the satellites that measure ice. And along the way, we are reminded of just how weak the multi-layered fact-checking at the Washington Post editorial page is.]

[Correction, 4/7: It turns out that there is no such thing as the Arctic Climate Research Center at the University of Illinois. That is a fabricated name. I should have referred to the Polar Research Group. Details here.]