The Scientific Climate

By | August 12, 2007

Last week’s issue of Newsweek (August 13 issue) had the big headline,
"Global Warming is a Hoax.*"

The asterisk referred to the headline’s caveat:

*Or so claim well funded naysayers who still reject the overwhelming evidence of climate change. Inside the denial machine. By Sharon Begley

The article itself began on page 20, and included a claim that "a conservative think tank long funded by ExxonMobil had offered scientists $10,000 to write articles undercutting the new (IPCC climate) report and the computer based climate models it is based on."

The article went on to catalog the efforts of "deniers" of global warming and characterize them as a campaign that doesn’t let real science get in the way of their attempts to say humans are not causing global warming or that global warming isn’t happening.

This week, however, senior Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson takes that story to task. You can read his whole column here. Excerpts from his column include:

Aug. 20-27, 2007 issue – We in the news business often enlist in moral crusades. Global warming is among the latest. Unfortunately, self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism. Last week’s NEWSWEEK cover story on global warming is a sobering reminder. It’s an object lesson of how viewing the world as "good guys vs. bad guys" can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.


The story’s thrust: discredit the "denial machine," and the country can start the serious business of fighting global warming. The story was a wonderful read, marred only by its being fundamentally misleading.

and also…

Against these real-world pressures, NEWSWEEK’s "denial machine" is a peripheral and highly contrived story. NEWSWEEK implied, for example, that ExxonMobil used a think tank to pay academics to criticize global-warming science. Actually, this accusation was long ago discredited, and NEWSWEEK shouldn’t have lent it respectability.

My reason for mentioning the original article and (to me) the stunning critique of it in the very next week’s edition of Newsweek is simply to highlight how emotionally charged the whole issue of climate change and what to do about it has become.
On a different thread, I saw former Vice-President Al Gore on Oprah’s show. He gave some of the highlights of points made in his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Oprah seemed to buy Mr Gore’s thesis completely, and of course many people do.

 However, she used what I thought were unintentionally misleading statements to back up the idea of how much warmer it was getting. She cited this summer’s heat as an example and also how hot it had been in South Dakota, as if those two examples proved the point about global warming. Such isolated examples are about as valid of me claiming it wasn’t so hot in South Dakota by saying it only reached 103 in Aberdeen this July whereas their all time record was 115 in 1936 AND that about two thirds of their daily record highs STILL ON THE BOOKS are at least 50 years old. But if I did that, I would be making a terribly misleading claim, because the core of the heat was not in Aberdeen, but rather around places like Pierre, SD. There, the vast majority of daily high temperature records were set in just the last three years. Furthermore, the extreme heat has lasted longer in parts of Tennessee and Alabama than any time recorded in the past.

Interestingly, recent research at NASA has confirmed that an error in statistical adjustments led to the conclusion that (in the United States) 1998 was the hottest year of the 20th century. When the error was corrected, 1934 reclaimed that honor! (We have gotten emails asking about whether this change applies to the whole world or the just the United States. From what I have seen, it appears the change only affects US statistics. I note that in the absence of worldwide standards of measurement for both… or any… years, it seems difficult to be sure we are making accurate comparisons when we are talking about small fractions of a degree).

This finding, and the methodology of how and why "corrections" are applied to original data, are interesting back stories in their own right. In my opinion, it it absolutely essential that we develop and maintain a top quality observation network that will collect totally accurate data. In the area of climate change, there is a lot riding on a couple of tenths of a degree. If the information we collect cannot be trusted, the conclusions are tainted as well. Please don’t take this to mean that I think we can deny the idea it has warmed (or that humans have been at least partly responsible) by waving our hands and saying the data are not reliable. Even if the numbers are not reliable, it doesn’t negate what has already been claimed about what the data show. "Fixing" the problem does not guarantee the results will be reversed any more than accepting the flawed data as truth answers all the questions with finality.

Updated: 8/13/2007 8:22 PM