It's not enough to bash in heads, you have to bash in minds

Al Gore vs George Will

Two recent events have provided us clear view of the difference between those who wish to communicate clearly the science of climate change and those wish to deny it.

The first instance come to us courtesy of Al Gore. Now as pretty much everyone is aware Al Gore gets a lot of flack, some of it deservedly so, most of it not.  The fact is that Al Gore has been mostly right.  His movie and his subsequent slide presentation are broadly accurate, and even the vast majority of the details are correct. I know there are plenty of people right about now itching to send me links about the trial in the UK that found error’s in An Inconvenient Truth. Don’t bother. If you think the judge in this case refuted Gore, and called An Inconvenient Truth inaccurate then you obviously didn’t read the judges ruling, which said that “[ An Inconvenient Truth is] supported by a vast quantity of research published in peer-reviewed journals worldwide and by the great majority of the world’s Climate scientists.

Back to the point at hand. Recently Al Gore began including some new slides in his presentation (Image at right is one of the slides in question) that correctly indicates a massive spike of weather related disasters world wide, and especially in the US. So far so good.  Unfortunately for Gore, although not explicitly stated, given the context of his presentation most people would assume that this is an indication of climate change, and since we all know that correlation does not equal causation, and the data doesn’t indicate causation we have a problem. In fact the Center of Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (which is the source of the data used by Gore) stated:

We believe that the increase seen in the graph until about 1995 is explained partly by better reporting of disasters in general, partly due to active data collection efforts by CRED and partly due to real increases in certain types of disasters. We estimate that the data in the most recent decade present the least bias and reflect a real change in numbers. This is especially true for floods and cyclones. Whether this is due to climate change or not, we are unable to say.

So maybe this slide isn’t a very good example of the impacts of climate change. And if it is to be included, Gore should have at least made the bias in the data explicitly clear.  When this was pointed out to the Gore team, they issued the following statement:

We appreciate that you have pointed out the issues with the CRED database and will make the switch back to the data we used previously to ensure that there is no confusion either with regards to the data or attribution.

When the error was brought to their attention, they admitted their mistakes and corrected their presentation. Not bad.  Obviously Gore should have been more careful and avoided the error in the first place, but no one is perfect and mistakes (as long as they are few and far between) aren’t that big a deal, as long as they are admitted to and quickly corrected.

One the other end of the scale we have George Will, who recently penned a column in the Washington post full of verifiably wrong information about climate change.

The first claim made by George Will is the 1970s cooling consensus myth. This is simply wrong. The figure above comes from an article in BAMS in which the authors did a comprehensive search of the scientific literature from 1965-1979.  As one can clearly see even at the height of the ‘cooling consensus’ far more papers were published predicting warming, than cooling.  As John Fleck, one of the authors of the BAMS study, says:

If Will and the others take this argument seriously, it seems incumbent on all of us interested in the climate change debate to go back to the 1970s, to better understand why scientists might have gotten it so wrong, so we could learn from and avoid their mistakes. But when you do that, you find that it is Will who is getting it wrong.

Regardless of your position on climate change, it takes a great deal of dishonesty to continue to claim that in the 1970s the consensus amongst scientists was of global cooling.

Will’s second claim is about arctic sea ice.  He states that:

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

Which prompted the Arctic Climate Research Center to respond, saying:

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.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

We now know where George will got his sea ice data. He didn’t bother to go to the original source, instead he went to the notoriously inaccurate DailyTech, and got his data there.  Relying on a third party for information without at least checking the original source should be an unacceptable practice for a supposedly respected columnist writing in a prestigious paper.  When the third party source is notoriously unreliable editors, fact checkers (the Washington Post does have some right?) should immediately put a halt on the column.  But that didn’t happen.  Instead we get Will’s absurd claim about sea ice, which is verifiably wrong and misleading.

Thirdly George Will states that:

According to the UN World Meteorological Organization [WMO], there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.

This is the classic 1998 denier cherry pick, and is evidence the Will doesn’t want to present an accurate look at the issue. Furthermore the WMO’s latest statement on the issue says the opposite.

So faced with these errors, what did George Will and the Washington Post do?  Did the issue a correction?  Nope. Did they issue a retraction?  Nope. Did they ignore them and move on? Nope. They let Will write another column and repeat the same lies again. Apparently accurate facts aren’t necessary at the Washington post, and yet to people wonder why Newspapers are in decline?

As John Fleck says “George Will is entitled to his own opinions. He is not entitled to his own facts. So what do we do now? Brian over at Backseat Driving has a great suggestion:

Here’s the plan:

  1. Eat a lot of asparagus.
  2. Enter the Post’s headquarters building.
  3. Use a public restroom. Don’t flush.

An optional fifth step is to notify the Post that this represents your opinion of their editing process, but I think even they will eventually figure it out. I also thought about advocating peeing on the restroom floor, but some poor janitor would have to deal with that. On the other hand, if there’s a science believing, asparagus eating ninja out there who can penetrate the editorial office, then Fred Hiatt’s desk and chair and are emphatically fair game.

I acknowledge that asparagus pee is a long shot for turning the Post around. On the other hand, they’ve refused appeals based on fact, reason, and truth. Asparagus pee is the level at which they operate. Time to fight fire with fire.

So despite the fact that Al Gore receives considerable flak, he has shown himself to be responsible and capable of admitting fault and correcting his message when reasonable complaints are made. George Will on the other hand hand has shown himself to be irresponsible and stubborn even when what he publishes is verifiably wrong. And that is no way for someone in the media to behave.

When a reputable newspaper lies, it poisons the community; every newspaper story becomes suspect.

UPDATE: George is at it again.  Despite the Washington Post publishing two articles completely dismantling George Will’s claims (one from Chris Mooney, and one from Michel Jarraud the Secretary General of the WMO), Will continues to misrepresent the data.  Chris Mooney sums it up nicely:

Whoa boy. George Will has done another global warming column. He doesn’t mention either my takedown, or that of the World Meteorological Organization, but it’s obvious he has seen them. And yet, he still wants to use WMO data to cast doubt on the idea that it’s warming up globally:

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.

Congratulations, Mr. Will–your statement is no longer factually incorrect! However, you still appear to reject statistical reasoning about temperature trends. How else to explain this silly fixation on 1998 being the warmest year? This isolated factoid does not cast any serious doubt on the idea that we’re in a warming trend. It’s absurd to assume that we’ll set a new temperature record each year, and that if we don’t, there’s nothing to worry about.

Given all of this, the difference between George Will and Al Gore should now be abundantly clear to anyone. Yet guess who gets more flack?

UPDATE 2: If two rebuttals of George Will in the Washington Post aren’t enough for you, Here are two more:

The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.


George Will’s recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process. Editors and fact checkers are there to ensure that publications like the Washington Post don’t print factually incorrect information… Will’s climate change columns are a case study in how one can cherry pick scientific data to fit their own agenda.

For those counting, that is now a total of 4 articles in the Washington Post (and countless others elsewhere) debunking George Will’s arguments. Does this mean we expect a correction from Will anytime soon? Doubtful. But that is par for the course for deniers.

Given these new rebuttals I have decided to write a new post to highlight them.

5 Responses to Al Gore vs George Will

  1. Oemissions says:

    So many people who deny Climate Change will sit in their big fat pickups or SUVs idling away while people choke walking past them. What emissions?
    At the ferries I started knocking on doors to inform them about bylaws on idling. That turned out to be a life threatening experience.
    Now I leave little print outs with some facts from Environment Canada.
    Quite the line of traffic for the Obama arrival in Canada. And when PM Harper had to go a block or 2 to visit the GG he took a half dozen limousines.

  2. Glad you liked my asparagus pee proposal, Dan. Too bad that it’s needed, but I would love it if someone carried it out.


  3. John Cross says:

    Hi Dan: Good post.


  4. ScruffyDan says:

    @ Brian Schmidt

    I’d do it if I was anywhere near Washington.

    @ John

    Thanks, I thought these recent events were a clear illustration of the difference between those who wish to communicate clearly the science of climate change and those wish to deny it.

    The fact that George Will made several errors, isn’t such a big deal. The fact that when shown his errors he denied them is. The fact that the Washington Post backed him up, despite the fact that his errors are verifiably wrong is an even lager deal.

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