Rarely does such a visible argument end with such a definite conclusion.
In my Jan. 25 op-ed “Climate-change deniers ignore science,” I gently suggested that New Mexico’s Energy secretary designate Harrison “Jack” Schmitt might have made a mistake in his statement about the recovery of Arctic Sea Ice:
In 2009, Schmitt submitted a white paper to NASA. He stated, “Artic (sic) sea ice has returned to 1989 levels of coverage.” I wrote to him, politely pointing out that this was not true, and directing him to the data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (the ice extent in 2009 had not recovered, and as of this writing is at an all-time winter low). He responded, but never made the necessary correction. Anyone can make a mistake, but scientific integrity requires that authors own up to mistakes and fix them.
One great thing about science is that it’s perfectly acceptable, even commendable, to change your mind when someone points out that you got the facts wrong. I even wrote an essay about this last year for Skeptical Inquirer, “When Scientists Actually Change Their Minds.” I quoted Carl Sagan’s observation that, “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again… I cannot recall the last time something like that has happened in politics or religion.”
Admitting when you are wrong is not a concept that is understood at the Heartland Institute, the right-wing pressure group that denies the reality of human-caused climate change. Rather than accept the possibility that Schmitt might have made a mistake, they immediately went into full defense mode. In his rebuttal, “Writer owes Schmitt, readers apology,” the Heartland Institute president Joseph L. Bast, explained Schmitt’s statement this way:
Boslough falsely accuses Harrison Schmitt of making a false statement in 2009 about Arctic sea ice having returned to 1989 levels, and then failing to correct the error. In fact, National Snow and Ice Data Center records show conclusively that in April 2009, Arctic sea ice extent had indeed returned to and surpassed 1989 levels.
The climate science blogosphere has had a field day with Bast’s explanation, with commentary in the Huffington Post, Skeptical Science, Scott Mandia’s blog, and one of Peter Sinclair’s masterful videos “How to Pick a Cherry (Twist like that).”
James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute has a ready excuse for the Schmitt’s cherry-pick. Taylor (Huffington Post Defends False Climate Accusations) says Schmitt wrote the paper in April, 2009, just when the sea ice extent briefly exceeded the April 1989 extent (of course Schmitt didn’t say “April 1989″–he said “1989″). Taylor says:
At the time Schmitt wrote the paper, however, Arctic sea ice had indeed recovered to 1989 levels. This was factually accurate and current information at the time Schmitt wrote the paper. Only later did Arctic sea ice modestly retreat again. Boslough claimed Schmitt lied about Arctic sea ice. Schmitt obviously did no such thing. We pointed that out by demonstrating that at the time Schmitt wrote and submitted his paper, his Arctic sea ice observations were both current and accurate.
This is an interesting assertion that we will revisit later.
This morning, the argument was settled. Walt Meier and Mark Serreze, both of whom are senior research scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, gave the authoritative answer in a letter to the New Mexican entitled “Arctic sea ice is not recovering.” Their conclusion:
The 2009 maximum extent, minimum extent, and annual average extent values were all well below 1989. Based on these facts, it would be incorrect to suggest that 2009 represented a recovery of Arctic sea ice to 1989 levels.
So Schmitt was wrong, but will he admit it? Perhaps he will have a chance to explain during the upcoming confirmation hearings. Is he still a scientist who can actually change his mind when confronted with the facts? Or is he now more loyal to the politics and religion of the Heartland Institute?