Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Neither politicians nor political commentators

Neither politicians nor political commentators are a reliable source for your scientific information. I've been reminded of this yet again as a political commentator has decided to abuse information from the Cryosphere Today and repeat a lie he's used before. The commentator is George Will (Washington Post 15 Feb 2009, page B07).

He repeats the lie about the experts calling for global cooling in the 1970s. One can see from his article itself that he's not looking to the experts -- he's referring to newspapers and other non-science sources. What the experts did have to say was generally that they expected a warming -- if you look at what papers they were publishing in the scientific literature. William Connolley has been pursuing this question for years, including a paper with Tom Peterson and John Fleck in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. (September 2008 issue).

Nearer to my heart, professionally speaking at least, is he joined in the abuse of Cryosphere Today. I do know the fellow who runs it. (You're not surprised, I hope. The field isn't very large, so most of us know most of the rest of us.) He does good work and provides the public service of presenting his work daily. Downside is that he likely gets much more attention for the mentions by a political commentator than he does for scientific interest, which can be more than a bit frustrating.

Anyhow, Will opines "According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979. " Except, if you go to the Crysophere Today, you'll see that the global figures are (or were at the time Will's column appeared) well below 1979. For a brief period at the end of last year, the statement wasn't relentlessly false. But, as tamino showed at Open Mind, the statement was still terribly false. This is also the error I was taking Roger Pielke, Sr. to task for last October.

Probably few people who care about the science and what we really understand actually get their information from political commentators. Still, I'm depressed a widespread, influential source, Will in this case, which is given inappropriate credence, and which is so blindly disregarding reality.

Back to real science tomorrow!


Philip H. said...

As a scientist I'm inclined to agree about all that, but one has to remember that George Will is, first and foremost, a conservative political commentator. Thus he is most likely to author pieces that support the conservative political viewpoint, no matter how irrational or baseless the viewpoint may be.

Penguindreams said...

The last part of your comment is where I find the greatest issue these days. I'm old enough to remember when the people most annoyed with a conservative who lied were other conservatives. At that time, I was wishing for more such behavior from liberals. Time has passed.

A conservative viewpoint (or liberal one, or any other) has nothing to do with being reality based, or not. With the Arctic ice, for instance: It's declining, observed to be doing so, and to have done so drastically in the 2007 and 2008 seasonal minima. That's just part of reality, not a matter of political viewpoint.

Where I think we get to the part of viewpoint is in deciding whether that bit of reality, and others, means that humans might need to do something differently. And in deciding what those things might be, if we've decided that some things need to be addressed.

But I realize my thought there is far from the norm for the parts of the world Will's column, and such, inhabits.

quasarpulse said...

The problem comes in, I think, when a group discovers that it's easier to persuade the masses to collectively deny reality than to convince them to maintain their ideological stance on an issue while confronting reality.

This happens fairly often - note that fundamentalist religions which operate on the principle of reality-denial are the only ones still able to convince their followers that women shouldn't have equal rights, and that Holocaust denialism is a cornerstone of the ideology of the (thankfully small) group of people who want to persecute Jews. It turns out that people are actually pretty good at denying elements of reality that make them uncomfortable in their ideology.