500,000 = 0 ?

Robert Waldmann

In my childhood and teens I counted on The Washington Post (motto “All the President’s Men. If you liked the movie, you’ll love the newspaper,” so now I guess I will have to relearn mathematics to adapt to the fact that 500,000 = 0.

Via DeLong Via Hilzoy

In defense of George Will’s claim “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” Post ombudsman Andy Alexander provided this link http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf** to a *one page* document which includes the text

“However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N.Hemisphere reduction.” Now I thought that 1 million – 0.5 million = -500,000 != 0.

update: notes added and link made clickable. also one zpelling correction.

* There is an engraved bronze bell in the Washington Post building which refers in bronze to the post and it’s editor or something.

** The link is now clickable thanks to cursed in comments.

update II pulled back from comments

2slugbaits says:
Yesterday, 5:53:58 PM
“George Will has a problem getting basic facts right. This isn’t the first time. For example, a few months ago he had a column about government salaries. He got the numbers wrong. A simple fact to verify. I sent him a link to the Office of Personnel Management site that showed government wages and salaries by region. He never corrected his post. He never even sent a private thank you. He just collected his paycheck from the WaPo and went about writing even more fact challenged editorials.

See also this mediamatters article on Will.

update III: Washington post ombudsman Andrew Alexander has withdrawn his claim that 1,000,000 = 500,000. More after the jump.

I explain the arithmetic subtleties of whether 0 = 500,000,000 after the jump.

The Washington Post is resting it’s* credibility on the claim that 500,000 = 0, that is, that one half is approximately one — the difference between the magnitude of estimated changes in the North and the South, which the Post asserts is zero, is equal to the estimated change in the South, which is Will’s only point. This means the Post is saying both that 500,000 sq miles is insignificant and negligible and that it is important evidence.

In context the cited document argues that, even if, global sea ice areas were constant, the decrease in the Northern Hemisphere would be strong evidence of global warming and the increase in the Southern Hemisphere would be what is predictedy by some models of global warming (presumably not all models and presumably those some models were written after the fact was noted). That is, the cited publication argued that world wide sea ice levels are neither a useful statistic to test models of global warming against the alternative that climatologists are full of it nor a useful statistic to test the null that the climate isn’t warming. A clause from that argument, taken out of context, was used by Will to falsely assert “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979” even though that specific claim of fact is inconsistent with text in the cited document.

Now I understand that the cited document is a whole page long (with only one picture) but couldn’t Mssrs Alexander and Will have read it before claiming that it said the opposite of what it said ?

update III: Andrew Alexander has a new column on the controversy.

In this column he revises his original conclusion and concludes that 500,000

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will’s assertion that global sea ice levels “now equal those of 1979.” I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

This time Anderson provided a link to the home page of the center not the pdf which contained the numbers 1 million and 0.5 million. In fact he still doesn’t mention the number 0.5 million or note that it is less than one million. My original post noted that he had claimed that this document confirmed Will’s claim, that is, that 500,000 = 1,000,000. Now he tells us he has changed his mind, but, it seems, makes it difficult for us to understand why — that is he doesn’t note that earlier column implied that 500,000 = 1,000,000.

Like Brad DeLong, I am unable to doubt that he posted the link to the one page document without reading the document. Still better late than never.