Careless reporting on climate change and the growing threat to science

Today I came across this article on the BBC where the headline reads Climate change: Fresh doubt over global warming ‘pause’.
First off, you will notice that the headline mentions words like “doubt” and “climate change” very close together. In fact, you have to read this headline very carefully in order to understand its correct meaning and have a certain amount of background knowledge to understand the word “pause”. Most people will only quickly browse the headlines, and with a majority this headline will have registered along the lines of “fresh doubts over global warming”. You actually only have to change a single letter, the “p” from pause to a “c”, and you are there. Well done BBC! It is actually quite clever if your intention is to have most headline-shoppers walk away with the wrong impression, strengthening the doubt agenda, while still being able to maintain the appearance of unbiased journalism as the facts are reported correctly in the article. This is shoddy editing at best, or shameful journalism at worst, but either way not helpful in an already difficult debate.

Why not use a less ambiguous headline like: “Scientists confirm: global warming at constant rate since 1950” or something along those lines. This is clear and leaves no reason for doubt (pun intended)! Because if you do take the time to read the article, it soon becomes clear that what has actually happened is that scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have re-analysed the global ocean temperature data and found that the apparent hiatus in global warming since the late 1990s or so was in fact caused by combining data from different measurement systems (ship-based, buoys, and satellites) while incorrectly accounting for a slight bias in one of them. Turns out that buoys tend to report slightly cooler temperatures compared to ship-based measurements, and since ships are very expensive (we are talking about 40-50k€ per day for a big ocean-going research vessel), oceanographers around the world have been switching to buoys since the 1990s. When you combine data from different sources, cross-calibrations need to be made and even some minor mistake can result in rather significant errors. After all we are talking about hundredths of a degree to find a number for the annual increase of temperature. So if you analyse each source separately, thereby avoiding any judgement call on how to combine the data, the following curves emerge:

New analysis from Hausfather et al 2017.

So looks like scientists are not the alarmists that they are often made out to be after all. Instead, they have actually underestimated global warming during the past few years. And why did they do this? Not because they had some political agenda telling them to do so but because their data gave them this result. And they reported it anyway, although it did not fit the picture of the “constant” increase in global temperatures since 1950. It made their life a lot harder to convince societies and politicians around the world of global warming and its link to human CO2 emissions, and yet they reported it anyway. Show me one politician or businessperson who has this much integrity, I dare you. Now that the error has been found, scientists were at first sceptical and what do scientists do if they are sceptical? They have other scientists check and re-check their results and only after they are confirmed (in this case by a group in Japan and at the UK MetOffice) do they become fact. So the global increase since the 1990s has indeed remained at the pre-1990s level of 0.12°C per year rather than the lower value of 0.07°C that was originally reported.

Yes, science is complicated and scientists make mistakes but methods evolve and errors are rectified which is why science is the best thing we have got in times of Twitter-presidents and other oversimplifiers and fake-news purporters. Because it is based on facts and our best current knowledge. Unlike politics or religion it does not follow ideologies or self-interests. If the facts are contradictory (as with the apparent hiatus in global warming) science will still report them, and if new facts or improved methods appear, science will change its opinion regardless of an individual scientist’s political leanings or preferences. This is because the methods are transparent and the data available to everyone around the globe to check them so it would not go unnoticed for long if some scientists tried to manipulate data following some hidden agenda. Science is evidence based and self-correcting while politics is purely interests driven and will almost never admit to mistakes. Knowing this, it should not be too hard to decide who to believe next time you hear statements on global warming (or any other scientific issue for that matter, e.g., evolution).

Meanwhile, and although the newest NOAA findings have been backed up by other independent studies, scientists at NOAA were being accused of fraud and NOAA was subpoenaed by the US House of Representatives to hand over their emails. At the same time, Trump even requested from the US Dept. of Energy to provide the names of all staff that had been working on climate change issues1. The level of persecution and intimidation that scientists face in the US already before the new Twitter-clown takes office is rather scary. I cannot think of any other developed country that would accuse its entirety of climate scientists of fraud just because the results do not fit with some political agenda. But then again the US is apparently also the country with the second lowest acceptance rate of evolution (only beaten to the shame spot by Turkey):

Views on Evolution

So I guess anything goes there. Most people do not seem to understand that the right to vote also comes with an obligation, an obligation to inform oneself about topics that matter and not believe in flying spaghetti monsters and the like. This dumbing down of society in the US and many countries around the world is partly due to failures in the education system and multinational corporations controlling large shares of national media markets. I can only hope that we won’t regress all the way to the Dark Ages again where scientists had to publicly recant their findings if they did not want to face incarceration or worse. Happy days ahead!


Author: admin

I am a scientist by training and currently call Spain my home.

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