The Island of Doubt

George F. Will has once again waded, some might argue over his head, into the hazardous waters of climatology. His latest Washington Post column restates long-discredited arguments against anthropogenic global warming. Rather than waste an entire afternoon examining the flaws in Will’s case — if you’re interested, Joe Romm has already performed that service — I’m just going to draw your attention to one small reference in the column.

For anyone who has followed the efforts of climate change pseudoskeptics to keep alive the false claim that climatologists were once of the shared opinion that the planet was cooling, it might comes as a surprise to learn that Will has actually found a piece of peer-reviewed science to support the idea. Until now, all the pseudoskeptics could do was point to what the popular press thought the science was saying. But Will cites the journal Science. The Dec. 10, 1976 issue, to be precise.

The item to which he is referring “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages” by J.D. Hays, John Imbrie, and N.J. Shackleton, does indeed predict a coming ice age. But here’s the exact quotation:

A model of future climate based on the observed orbital-climate relationships, but ignoring anthropogenic effects, predicts that the long-term trend over the next several thousand years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.

Several thousand years. And yet Will was using the Science paper to support his contention that

In the 1970s, “a major cooling of the planet” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950” (New York Times, May 21, 1975) …

So there seems to be discrepancy between the content of the paper Will cites and what Will implies it says. Will is careful not to get into what the science says about specific schedules for the coming ice age, but it’s clear from the language used in his other references that he doesn’t expect many readers to compare his column against the Science paper’s actual text. For example:

Because of “ominous signs'” that “the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” meteorologists were “almost unanimous”‘ that ‘the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century” perhaps triggering catastrophic famines.

This leaves us with the question of whether Will deliberately misrepresented the Science paper or simply read into it what his predisposition against the consensus of the climatology community would have him believe. Neither option is particularly charitable to Will’s professional reputation as a journalist.

Incidentally, our understanding since 1976 when it comes to Milankovitch cycles has improved, but the basic idea remains. Orbital changes could still bring another ice age, although “several thousand years” might not be the preferred phraseology for some experts who now anticipate the current interglacial period will last several tens of thousands of year. And of course, there are those who worry that fossil-fuel emissions will effectively put an end to the 100,000-year cycle of recurring ice ages by pushing the planet’s heat balance more or less permanently into a state even warmer than the current interglacial.

And finally, lest anyone confuse my lack of enthusiasm for Will with my opinion of the Post in general, I am happy to report that the news pages of his employer are anything but comparably hobbled. From the Feb. 14 edition, we learn that:

The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said Saturday.


  1. #1 ScruffyDan
    February 15, 2009

    This reminds of when Marc Morano came over to my blog with a list of links that ‘debunk’ climate change. My favourite of these links was an article in Nature that explicitly said that not only is climate change real but we are already feeling its effects.

  2. #2 The Ridger
    February 15, 2009

    George Will is not above quote-mining if it suits his purpose, so I don’t doubt he would misrepresent a paper.

  3. #3 MarkH
    February 15, 2009

    Will has a history of this. Even from back in the days of the old blog we mocked his problems with basic fact checking.

  4. #4 NJ
    February 15, 2009

    Recall also that Will helped Reagan prepare for a debate with Mondale, then post-debate argued that Reagan’s performance was near-perfect without disclosing his own role.

  5. #5 Joseph j7uy5
    February 16, 2009

    There is no need to wonder if Mr. Will was deliberately misrepresenting the science. It was either deliberate or negligent.

    After he wrote a similar column in May 2008, he was sent a copy of the paper that he had misleadingly quoted.

    John Fleck, a knowledgeable journalist, is the one who sent him the paper. Mr. Fleck reports that he even got a thank-you note after sending the paper, so we know that Will received it. Thus, Will is either deliberately withholding facts in his new column, or he got the paper, sent the thank-you, but never actually read the material that he supposedly is writing about.

    Either way, Will is not practicing journalism. He is practicing propaganda.

  6. #6 Hank Roberts
    February 16, 2009

    > professional reputation as a journalist

    There are three reasons you couldn’t add a link behind _those_ words. For one, he’s a columnist, not a journalist.

  7. #7 Hank Roberts
    February 26, 2009

    Why assume Will read it at all? Paste the title and author string into Google, you’ll get three pages. Obviously the science sources knew about this and knew it had nothing to do with the ‘imminent ice age’ nitwittery, not by many thousands of years, so didn’t relate it to debunking that.

    But if you keep looking, you’ll eventually find some nitwit who did claim this paper as the basis for the nutbat notion.

    Like this one:

    Hume Highlights Fresh Studies Showing Global Warming ‘Scare Vastly …
    Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages … 194. no. 4270, pp. 1121 – 1132, December 1976) – J. D. Hays, John Imbrie, N. J. Shackleton …

    Someone with a strong stomach could take a look at that — or go on through the search results and see if it was also brought up by something like co2science or greeningearth/Western Fuels or WTFU or one of the opinion blogs. I figured finding one early touter of it was enough.

    But, someone could look at the detail, to try to find wherever one of Will’s clerical distorters found the stuff and see how much of it they rewrote or just reused. I’d bet that’s how Will got hold of it.

    Just speculating of course.

  8. #8 Hank Roberts
    February 26, 2009

    Glutton for punishment, I guess, I read the rest of the returns, and we have a winner. I think it’s the same newsbuster guy who posts as ‘poptech’ — who pasted a huge long text dump and several repeated comments into a Stanford page, including the Hays et al. cite, at about the same time.
    Poptech on 11/17/07 at 12pm
    Nobody else was hyping it. Betcha that’s Wills’s staffer’s source. Here’s the cached copy of that, for the record.,+John+Imbrie,+and+N.J.+Shackleton

    So he’s someone else who didn’t read what he cites. Tsk.

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