Wednesday, May 31, 2017

All emotion, little science and no data

From NYT Peddles More Global Warming Science Without Numbers by Robert Tracinski. Tracinski does a nice job of addressing the weakness of science reporting in the mainstream media, particularly when it touches on subjects of ideological faith.
Recently, I noted the basic pattern of science reporting on global warming, particularly as practiced by The New York Times: feeding you an overall conclusion, illustrated with pretty pictures designed to make you feel like you’ve been given information—but withholding from you the real numbers you would need to actually evaluate and understand the issues.

I can’t overstate how important this is. There is no science without numbers. Science can’t get by on qualitative descriptions. If you say the average global temperature in 2016 was “higher” than in 2015, that’s not science. It could be a lot higher or a little higher. It could be a number that is enormous, or it could be a number that is literally insignificant. (And if they don’t tell you the number, guess which of those it is likely to be.) So to impart information of actual scientific value, a reporter needs to give you a specific number and a margin of error.


Now they’re at it again. Remember what I said about pretty pictures? They’ve got a big new article, not by one of their science reporters, but by their graphics editor. The article is about the shrinking glaciers at Glacier National Park.

This is kind of a big deal if you’re a park ranger, because that’s the draw to bring people to the park. It’s right there in the name. On the other hand, glaciers have been in decline in North America for—well, for a very long time. During the last Ice Age, they covered most of the continent and came as far south as Virginia. But they’ve been in decline since the big natural global warming of 10,000 years ago, so they’ve been reduced to hiding out in a few mountains in Montana.

We can already suspect this is a long-term, natural decline. But nothing can be attributed to mere natural causes any more. It all has to be because of global warming. And that’s what the New York Times report claims.

Yet if the glaciers at Glacier National Park are declining because of warming temperatures, there’s one thing we would expect to know: how much have temperatures increased in Glacier National Park? How much warmer has it gotten, in order to melt all of those glaciers so fast?

That number, you will not be surprised to know, is not given in the New York Times article. At all. And you will probably be even less surprised to find out what the numbers actually show: that temperatures in Glacier National Park haven’t warmed.
Tracinski provides the data that the NYT does not and the data demonstrates that for the past 20 years (from one data set within the park) and the past 100 years (from another data set taking in a larger geographic area), there has been no change in temperature patterns.
Keep this in mind when you go back and read the New York Times article. Suddenly you see how the article acknowledges that the glaciers in the park “have been shrinking rapidly since the late 1800s, when North America emerged from the ‘Little Ice Age,’ a period of regionally colder, snowier weather that lasted for roughly 400 years.”

Cue that record-scratching sound. The little what? The Little Ice Age was a period of colder temperatures in Europe and North America from about the year 1300 to 1850. Because accurate, systematic global thermometer measurements don’t go back that far, we know about the Little Ice Age from contemporary accounts, which describe significantly colder conditions, and from estimates based on other measurements (like tree ring growth) that can be used as proxies for temperature. At any rate, the last 150 years or so have been a slight natural warming from the temperatures of the Little Ice Age.


Against that, all we have are a few assertions that the glaciers have been receding much more quickly—really, we assure you—than they otherwise would have. But we have no numbers, no projections, and no cause and effect. All we get is a link to a single paper in Science, which—if you bother to go through the registration process—you discover is not about the glaciers in Glacier National Park at all. It is based on computer models “not of individual glaciers but of all the world’s glaciers outside of Antarctica combined.”

So The New York Times may want to make Glacier National Park into a symbol of the impact of global warming, but they haven’t given us a single scientific reason to think this is actually true. In short, it’s the basic method of “science reporting” on global warming in the mainstream media. They’ve handed down to us the conclusions that we are supposed to hold, without giving any evidence to back it up.
I have been an environmental conservationist my whole sentient life. I am passionate about the preservation of species, ecological systems and the environment. I am also a reasonably knowledgeable practitioner of the scientific method. What I see in our AGW discussion has little to do with effective environmental conservation and science and is mostly to do with ideological emotionalism bordering on religious fanaticism. As Tracisnki notes, this NYT article is par for the course when it comes to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). All emotion, little science and no data.

Most the mainstream media functions not only as a purveyor of religious belief but also as a modern day Inquisition, seeking to shame and root out deniers, apostates, and blasphemers. What the MSM Inquisition fails to distinguish is that there is a continuum from the faith-based believers, through apostates, to agnostics to atheists. The Inquisition's claim of "Climate Deniers" is simply an indictment that you are not a member of the faith, the equivalent of an apostate or atheist. What the Inquisition fails to distinguish is that, when it comes to climate change, not only are most people not a member of the faith but most people are agnostics rather than apostates or atheists. The agnostics are not "Climate Deniers", they are Science Investigators: they want the data, the reasoning and the evidence to support the claims.

If you adhere to the scientific method, you recognize that climate is a classic example of a complex system - many contributing parts, chaotic, multi-causal, subject to hidden feedback loops, and non-linear. You also recognize that climate, dealing with patterns over centuries or millennia, presents a difficult data challenge. We have only had reliable satellite data for the past four decades or so. Before then, we are relying on core sampling, dendrology, variable/unreliable earth-based thermometers, etc. Not only are there large margins of error in the measurement of each of those variables, but not infrequently the variables conflict with one another.

In addition, all our concern about AGW is based on forecasting models and can be dated to circa 1970s/1980s when we switched from being concerned about an impending global ice age to being concerned about AGW. In those forty years, the models have periodically incorporated a larger and larger set of variables as our scientific awareness has expanded. Things like the heat sink effect of oceans, the complex role of cloud cover, the episodic/chaotic effect of volcanic activity, natural sources of CO2, recalibration of the rapidity of CO2 take-up in increased vegetation, oceanic oscillation, solar cycles, etc. On top of that, the models have had a terrible record of backcasting and forecasting.

There is nothing wrong with the models incorporating new scientific understanding. But you cannot simultaneously believe that the science is settled and also believe that the models should incorporate new knowledge which materially affect their forecasts.

Finally, there is the on-going politicization of the climate discussion which first came to broader public attention when the East Anglia University leak of emails revealed the extent to which AGW advocates were seeking to modify data records, spin interpretation, suppress inconsistent data, suppress research inconsistent with their beliefs, punish real scientists whose conclusions were solely driven by data, and the AGW believers's efforts to ensure an ongoing flow of funding.

System complexity, data paucity and unreliability, model inaccuracy and inconsistency, and evidence of collusion against the scientific method are all sufficient reasons to be at least agnostic about the underpinnings of the AGW faith. You don't have to be either ignorant or anti-science to have doubts. Yet the mainstream media such as the NYT is consistent in characterizing any questioning of the faith as anti-science and denialism.

The mainstream media which cannot, as fisked by Tracinski in this article, even bring itself to make the scientific case for its faith-based beliefs.

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