ABC’s Insiders returns to our screens this Sunday. It’s an election year and there are major policy issues to be dealt with such as the final attempt to pass an emissions trading scheme. So our national broadcaster’s flagship political discussion program should be aiming to bring us insightful, intelligent and honest analysis of the issues and the politics, right?

Insiders ABC 1 9am Sunday, on the panel The Australian’s Lenore Taylor, The Age’s Mischa Schubert and The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt.

Yes, Insiders has booked the mainstream media’s denialist-in-chief for Episode 1. That’s Andrew “disgracefully one-sided coverage” Bolt. Andrew “I wonder if Australian viewers would like an alternative to no-argument Left politics on their televisions” Bolt.

Viewers could benefit from three commentators who can analyse and explain complex issues, give a perspective that draws on evidence, and debate the strengths and weaknesses of different political positions. Unfortunately, having one person on the panel who instead argues via talking points that are short, simple and catchy while at the same time being irrelevant, distorted or utterly wrong (e.g., “the world hasn’t warmed since 2001”) derails the whole process. The level of debate tends to come down to the lowest common denominator among the participants in that debate. And despite railing against the “mainstream media”, Andrew Bolt continues to get a gig as their Lowest Common Denominator.

Chances are I’ll do what I did many times last year – skip the show itself and follow the discussion of #insiders on Twitter. I’ve become used to seeing better intellectual arguments – including ones from a conservative perspective – from the people who weigh in about the issues raised in the show online than I have from the pundits who regularly occupy the Grumpy Chair. And if you want an example of how a nuanced, complex and yet important topic can be boiled down into five inaccurate bullet points from Andrew Bolt that distract people from the real issues, I’ve got an example over the fold.

So, Andrew Bolt has tried to attack NASA – again. This time, it’s over a fact-sheet type article titled “Is Antarctica Melting?” To bolster his claims he draws on a rebuttal of the same article from Steven Goddard (published at Bolt’s favourite source for denialist talking points, Watts Up With That). In doing so, Bolt manages to exaggerate and misrepresent not only what NASA said, but also to mangle Goddard’s own arguments. Let’s take a look.

Bolt thinks NASA’s article is both alarmist and untrue. He singles out two very brief statements for quotation:

Earth Observatory, of the pro-warmist NASA, warns that Antarctica “has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice each year since 2002” and that “if all of this ice melted, it would raise global sea level by about 60 meter (197 feet)”

Let’s start by putting the first quote in context:

Gravity data collected from space using NASA’s Grace satellite show that Antarctica has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice each year since 2002. The latest data reveal that Antarctica is losing ice at an accelerating rate, too. How is it possible for surface melting to decrease, but for the continent to lose mass anyway? The answer boils down to the fact that ice can flow without melting.

So they’re pointing to a specific data source giving them that figure, and the article explains that other types of measures may not pick up the same thing.

Now, the second quote:

Two-thirds of Antarctica is a high, cold desert. Known as East Antarctica, this section has an average altitude of about 2 kilometer (1.2 miles), higher than the American Colorado Plateau. There is a continent about the size of Australia underneath all this ice; the ice sheet sitting on top averages at a little over 2 kilometer (1.2 miles) thick. If all of this ice melted, it would raise global sea level by about 60 meter (197 feet). But little, if any, surface warming is occurring over East Antarctica. Radar and laser-based satellite data show a little mass loss at the edges of East Antarctica, which is being partly offset by accumulation of snow in the interior, although a very recent result from the NASA/German Aerospace Center’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) suggests that since 2006 there has been more ice loss from East Antarctica than previously thought 5. Overall, not much is going on in East Antarctica — yet.

So, they acknowledge that historically there has been very little change in temperature or ice levels in East Antarctica, and the “if all of this ice melted” statement follows after a description of the size of the ice sheet and helps to illustrate just how much ice they are talking about. But they acknowledge that at this stage nothing much is happening.

Now that you’ve looked at a couple of complete paragraphs containing complete sentences that explain things, are you scared by those statements? Do you feel like NASA wanted us to believe that sea levels are about to rise by 60 metres? Because Andrew finds himself asking:

Now, why would you scare folks so …

Then Andrew produces his list of bullet points (supposedly from Goddard) that refute NASA’s warmist-alarmist claims. Let’s take them one at a time and compare what Andrew claims to what others have said, or what the evidence shows:

  • Satellite data shows Antarctica cooling, not warming.

Goddard said:

But even more problematic is that UAH satellite data shows no increase in temperatures in Antarctica, rather a small decline.

Words like “small” aren’t relevant for Andrew – not when it comes to cooling, anyway. Increases in temperature need to be significant to be meaningful, of course. But even Goddard’s claim is pretty tenuous when you see just how small that decline has been:


Perhaps someone used a trick to hide it.

Bolt’s next claim:

  • Antarctic sea ice has expanded over the past three decades, not shrunk.

This is a classic furphy of Bolt’s – he addresses claims about the ice sheet on the Antarctic continent by pointing to the increase in sea ice. In fact, NASA’s article acknowledged exactly what Bolt used in rebuttal:

One new paper 1, which states there’s less surface melting recently than in past years, has been cited as “proof” that there’s no global warming. Other evidence that the amount of sea ice around Antarctica seems to be increasing slightly 2-4 is being used in the same way. But both of these data points are misleading.

Misleading? No kidding.

In making that claim, Bolt also includes a hyperlink to this site – which is puzzling, since it’s about Arctic climate and the only links on that page relating to Antarctica on that page relate to temperature and not sea ice extent. But still, to readers who don’t bother clicking through the link it might look like Bolt has provided actual evidence.

Bolt’s third claim:

  • At even NASA’s claimed rate of melting, it would take 300,000 years for that Antarctic ice to melt.

Goddard did the calculations for this one – Andrew doesn’t do his own sums, perhaps because of that fear he has about calculators being put in uncomfortable places. But it’s based on the misrepresentation that NASA was saying “OMG teh ice is all melting! Run for your lives!!1!”, which clearly isn’t the case when you look at the entire paragraph quoted above. But it’s also flawed because it assumes a linear rate – the one note of warning NASA actually does sound is this:

Isabella Velicogna of JPL and the University of California, Irvine, uses Grace data to weigh the Antarctic ice sheet from space. Her work shows that the ice sheet is not only losing mass, but it is losing mass at an accelerating rate. “The important message is that it is not a linear trend. A linear trend means you have the same mass loss every year. The fact that it’s above linear, this is the important idea, that ice loss is increasing with time,” she says. And she points out that it isn’t just the Grace data that show accelerating loss; the radar data do, too. “It isn’t just one type of measurement. It’s a series of independent measurements that are giving the same results, which makes it more robust.”

So both the logic and the maths Bolt relied on turn out to be flawed.

Bolt’s fourth claim:

  • At the rate of sea level rise measured over the past century, it will take more than 18,000 years for the seas to rise 60 metres.

Again, Goddard did the heavy lifting. But I’m not sure what this point has to do with anything in the NASA article.

And finally, Bolt claims:

  • In fact, the seas have not risen for nearly four years

This is up there with Bolt’s claim last year that “Arctic sea ice is recovering” because 2009 was the third-lowest year on record. Linear trends over longer recording periods are ignored and the short-term pattern most convenient to his argument is stated as fact. Here’s the graph that Bolt himself uses as evidence that sea levels are not rising:


Goddard wasn’t silly enough to make that claim. In fact, the linear trend in that data set is what Goddard used to calculate how long it would take for sea levels to rise 60m. But Bolt can’t even make sure the claims he makes in a single post are logically consistent with each other.

So there it is. NASA’s Earth Observatory publishes an examination of data about Antarctic loss of ice mass. Andrew Bolt grabs a couple of fragments that make it sound like NASA was forecasting imminent doom, coats them with a generous serving of pseudoscience, irrelevant “evidence” and dodgy reasoning, and all his readers end up seeing is five bullet points that make no intellectual contribution to understanding the original question – “Is Antarctica melting?” Yet he is given prominent exposure on our screens, over our airwaves and in our papers to repeat these pointless statements. In a year when important decisions need to be made and votes will be cast, it’s beyond disappointing.

POSTSCRIPT: I mentioned Bolt’s reliance on short-term data to claim the long-term trend doesn’t exist. The January satellite temperature data is in, and Bolt’s line that warming has stopped since 2001 looks like it might have reached its best before date: