Argumentum ad Novi Eboraci Tempora

That would be "ad New York Times" I suppose.  I take as a matter or religious faith that global warming is a scientific issue, and that arguments concerning its reality or unreality should start and end there.  So when one frames the argument about global warming either in response to a Newsweek headline many years ago, or a New York Times article quoted out of context, I think that person is either not particularly well informed about how scientists work (they don't publish their work in the newspaper) or is just plain dishonest.  So George Will today frames his argument against the existence of a well-supported phenomenon by attacking the New York Times, as well as various context free quotes, meant–the quotes–to set up a pretty silly ad hominem.  

He writes:

Plateau in Temperatures

Adds Difficulty to Task

Of Reaching a Solution

— New York Times, Sept. 23


In this headline on a New York Times story about the difficulties confronting people alarmed about global warming, note the word "plateau." It dismisses the unpleasant — to some people — fact that global warming is maddeningly (to the same people) slow to vindicate their apocalyptic warnings about it.

The "difficulty" — the "intricate challenge," the Times says — is "building momentum" for carbon reduction "when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years." That was in the Times's first paragraph.

Whenever this guy quotes stuff, you'd better go read the original.  Here's what it says:

The plateau in temperatures has been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown. And some climate experts worry that it could hamper treaty negotiations and slow the progress of legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

Scientists say the pattern of the last decade — after a precipitous rise in average global temperatures in the 1990s — is a result of cyclical variations in ocean conditions and has no bearing on the long-term warming effects of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere.

The part about the scientists is where the argument ought to be.  Will instead insists that the real discussion is the political question of how to keep non-scientists from wrongly concluding, as Will has in this very piece, that the leveling off of temperatures means it's all a crock.  That's the point of the argument.  Will cites this piece extensively, and he seems to have no notion of what it's about.  Here's what he says:

The Times reported that "scientists" — all of them? — say the 11 years of temperature stability has "no bearing," none, on long-term warming. Some scientists say "cool stretches are inevitable." Others say there may be growth of Arctic sea ice, but the growth will be "temporary." According to the Times, however, "scientists" say that "trying to communicate such scientific nuances to the public — and to policymakers — can be frustrating." 

The quoted bits give the impression of some kind of fudging on the Times' part (like the black and white and weird voice in political commercials).  In any case, as I understand it, the basic point is this: The globe has heated up seriously for a quite a while.  Recently it has leveled off, but it still remains much hotter, so to speak, than before.  This is not unlike a guy with a really bad fever, experiencing a bit of dip, say a dip to 102.  He's still got a fever. 

Anyway, now for the ad hominem part:

The Times says "a short-term trend gives ammunition to skeptics of climate change." Actually, what makes skeptics skeptical is the accumulating evidence that theories predicting catastrophe from man-made climate change are impervious to evidence. The theories are unfalsifiable, at least in the "short run." And the "short run" is defined as however many decades must pass until the evidence begins to fit the hypotheses.

The Post recently reported the theory of a University of Virginia professor emeritus who thinks that, many millennia ago, primitive agriculture — burning forests, creating methane-emitting rice paddies, etc. — produced enough greenhouse gases to warm the planet at least a degree. The theory is interesting. Even more interesting is the reaction to it by people such as the Columbia University professor who says it makes him "really upset" because it might encourage opponents of legislation combating global warming.

This professor emeritus fellow is the only scientist Will cites in favor of his skeptical stance.  Nonetheless, the worry among scientists, justifiable as this piece indicates, is that people with no expertise will misunderstand the significance of the data.


2 thoughts on “Argumentum ad Novi Eboraci Tempora”

  1. By the bye, it is worth noting that Andy Revkin’s characterization of the facts was itself substantially mistaken. The “plateau” isn’t; temperatures have continued to rise, and at a rate that is substantially greater than during the 19990’s:

    Joe Romm has some further comments on Will’s “argumentum ad regurgitatum“:

  2. I take it Will is not a scientific realist (or knows what that means anyway).

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