One reason that it's tough to slog through the blogs is that they are susceptible to a rigid madness of dogma, a sort of hysteria that prevents them from looking at an issue with any sort of reason. This hysteria is the same for both 'left' and 'right' wing bloggers, and it means that it's tough to trust what you read out there.
George Will wrote a column in the Washington Post about climate change. (And he offended me in his first paragraph: "Predict catastrophe no sooner than five years hence but no later than 10 years away, soon enough to terrify but distant enough that people will forget if you are wrong." I guess pundits don't need forecasts.) He went on to sound the horn on the recent history of debate on climate change, with the familiar skeptic chorus of the previous debate on global cooling and the more recent news which so obviously served as a hook on which to hang his column, the recent recovery of Arctic ice. Because of the controversy this column caused, he wrote a follow-up piece published February 27.
Liberal bloggers went berserk. Bloggers I have read (and considered reliable) for years--Brad DeLong, Mark Kleiman and many more went on multi-post tirades, blasting Will for having 'invented' the global cooling consensus of the 70s and lying about the Arctic ice recovery. They seized on this as evidence of the moribund condition of the Washington Post and demanded a retraction or, amusingly enough, a factual correction of an opinion piece.
I hold no brief for George Will. He plays the game the same way he's getting played now, and has a bigger stage to play from. But he's right on both of these counts. Will quoted numerous articles in the national press from the 70s on global cooling, and it took me 15 minutes on Scirrus.com to find two dozen scientific, peer-reviewed articles between 1970 and 1975 that mentioned global cooling in the abstract. Download Scirrus search for global cooling . Will didn't call it a consensus, and he was correct about the level of coverage.
More important is the issue of Arctic ice. Will wrote "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." Liberal bloggers jumped all over this, saying that ice was lower by a mass the size of California. But at about the time Will's piece was published, the NSIDC had a sensor give out and gave out wrong data on ice levels for a few days. Global warming skeptics had a bit of a field day on this, with some blog commenters (not the bloggers themselves) muttering about conspiracy.
Yesterday, Walt Meier of the NSIDC wrote an open letter to Watts Up With That (a rationally skeptical weblog--one of the good ones), explaining what had happened, why and what they were doing to avoid future incidents of this type. It was an extraordinarily gracious communication, full of good will and the presumption of good will on the part of his readers.
But Meier continued the dialogue in the comments thread of the post, and was drawn into commentary on Will's opinion piece. He cited three mistakes he felt George Will had made (the other two are substantive and well worth a look, but my post here is exactly about the froth on weblogs that deliberately obscures the substance--I strongly advise you to go to Watts Up With That and read his letter and later comments). The first mistake was:
"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." (Don't forget to go look at his other two mistakes.)
My clients pay me money to tell them what's going to happen in the environment in the medium term future, the 5 years out that George Will laughs at. It's a pity that I won't be able to rely on Brad DeLong and Mark Kleiman as anything more than weathervanes on environmental topics. It's more of a pity that I will have to treat everything they say going forward in much in the same way they treat the Washington Post.
And because of all this froth, we put off to yet another distant day the serious discussion about global climate change, green technology and Obama's energy plan that we so sorely need to have. Much in the style of Karl Rove, the news cycle got hijacked in the service of jihad. We are all poorer as a result.
But at least I got to use religion as a category tag for this, because that's what this is all about.
Update: Mark Kleiman very classily commented on my post, in a very non-frothy and measured way. Thanks, Mark. His point, that Will is entitled to err, but should correct mistakes when they are pointed out, is quite reasonable, and one that Will has had countless opportunities to ignore in the past.
Kleiman is also correct substantially on the measures he cites--scientific work in the 70s did use a geologic timescale when referring to the next Ice Age, and models did and do predict Arctic ice melting rapidly while Antarctic ice modelling is uncertain.
I'm happy to see and to say that Mark Kleiman is still the gracious writer that I have always seen on the Reality Based Community. Which is not to say that I agree with him 100% on the substance of this. I think we're training a microscope on Will's columns when we should be using a telescope to look at other things. I hope I'm wrong about Brad DeLong as well.