Lies, Damned Lies and Climate

One of the things that is meant to distinguish newspapers of record from trashier outlets is factchecking. This is one of the many things generally thought to have declined as budgets are squeezed, even as checking becomes easier. Nevertheless, if you read an opinion piece in a paper like The Age it’s normally reasonable to expect the factual claims will be true, or at least defensible.

It’s an opinion piece, so crucial facts that don’t support the author’s arguements may be left out, and an error or two may slip through, but something containing one falsehood after another usually just won’t be run.

The exception – possibly the only exception – is articles denying climate change. Two days ago The Age ran a piece by John Spooner promoting a new book by the usual (Australian) suspects about how climate change isn’t happening, isn’t caused by humans if it is, and would be a good thing anyway. (I’m not go to link to it, as that might encourage The Age).

As expected Spooner leaves out lots of important information (sea level rise, polar ice melt). However, he also includes at least nine straight up and down false statements (thanks to Bill King and Krystal Evans for pointing out some I missed). Some of these are trivial – he calls Phil Jones “Paul” – but others crucially undermine his argument. All this in a piece 1400 words long. In several cases they relate to things where Spooner almost certainly has had the correct information pointed out to him in response to previous distortions he has published.

No doubt having been a long serving (and once great) cartoonist for the newspaper helps Spooner get a run with this stuff. Nevertheless, I cannot think of another field in which someone could get away with such egregious mistakes and still be published. Did the editor simply not bother to check, figuring it was the silly season? Or more likely, was the decision made that “we need a piece from the other side” and since it is now almost impossible to write a persuasive article without getting the facts wrong they just ran it anyway?

I’m not sure, but I really can’t think of another field in which this would happen. And that, I think, is very revealing indeed.

Update: Someone asked me on facebook for a list of the errors, so I thought I might as well list them here. Not going to go into detail on why they are wrong unless I get requests to specific ones.

1) Everyone agrees there has been a pause in warming over the last 16 years. This is two wrongs for the price of one because 1) not everyone agrees and 2) its not true. Take the average temperatures for the last 16 years, put them in Excel, create a graph and trendline and you will get a rising trend. Whether it is statistically significant or not depends on the exact test you use and the start and end dates, but what we have might at best be considered a slow-down, certainly not a pause.

2) Computer models failed to predict this. Well the models of people like Richard Linzen, who Spooner relies on, certainly failed to predict the temperatures, since he predicted a fall, but what has happened is very close to the IPCC projections based on reputable models.

3) [Models] failed to predict the abundance of post-drought rain. No they didn’t. One of the consistent predictions of climate modelling is that Global Warming will lead to more intense, and probably longer, droughts in South-eastern Australia, but when the rains come they will be more intense. Exactly what we have seen. Oh and by the way, over the last 4 months most of southern and eastern Australia has been back in drought, or close to it. Too early to make much of it, but a worrying sign.

4) Denier is used with intent to link those who dispute climate change to Holocaust deniers. Denier is actually a word that goes back to the 17th Century for someone who denies the bleeding obvious. Its used because these people’s preferred term of “sceptic” is so manifestly false. Like Spooner, they will believe absolutely any junk put out by the anti-science brigade; the very opposite of scepticism.

5) Even James Lovelock has become a sceptic. I’m not sure how sceptical Lovelock is in the true meaning of the word, but the notion that he has joined Spooner’s side and is disputing human induced global warming is a gross misrepresentation of what he has said.

6) That a judge found 9 errors in The Inconvenient Truth. The judge explicitly stated that he had not found any errors in the film, and indeed was not trying to judge the science. Rather he looked at what the plaintiff alleged were errors and referred to these throughout in scare quotes. He said there were nine points where Gore’s claims were not necessarily in keeping with the IPCC report, and that this should be noted if the film was used in classrooms. In one of these points Gore actually did get it wrong, albeit on a very minor point. In the other cases his wording was either ambiguous, or he has been endorsed by leading climate scientists, often because he had more up to date information than was included in the IPCC report.

7) Spooner could not even get Phil Jones’ name right, calling him Paul.

8) The Inconvenient Truth came out, and was primarily seen in 2006, not 2007 as Spooner says. Also probably trivial.

9) That ocean “acidification” has been seriously challenged. There is genuine dispute about whether acidification is the right word (the oceans are very slightly alkaline, something that is essential for the coral reefs, they are becoming less alkaline, that is moving towards the acid end of the scale, but they are still well short of neutrality). However, the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that the ph of the oceans is falling as a result of human emissions of carbon (and to a lesser extent sulphur) dioxide.

If anyone knows of any more feel free to point them out.

Further update: I’ve tried to add just such an excel graph here.

temp anomalies

I can’t get it to display for some reason, but it seems if you click on the link, then click again, it will come up. What you can see is that there is a rising trend with a rate of 0.009 °C. That is equal to almost 1°C a century – not fast enough to be really scary. However, is this is the sort of thing Spooner describes as a “pause”, after carefully cherrypicking his dates, it should be obvious that rises of twice that are highly credible, even without allowing for acceleration as a result of increased carbon emissions, feedback loops etc. Dropping off 1996 and adding in 2012 may decrease the trend, but it will still be unambiguously positive. Of course the rate is actually much higher than this – the figures are depressed by the enormous El Nino near the start of the period and the two La Nina years towards the end. If you remove the ENSO signal the trend is much faster. (Thanks to Skeptical Science.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Enemies of science, Global Warming. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Lies, Damned Lies and Climate

  1. I doubt they would make a ruling on some of these (eg Lovelock) and others are too trivial to bother with, but maybe I should lay a complaint under 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9. Do you know the process?

  2. Robert Manne says:

    Robert Manne:

    Stephen, I am the friend of John Spooner he purports to quote. In a private email I wrote some time ago, following Clive Hamilton I wrote to him, that for non-scientists, with regard to climate change, the real question was not what we should believe but who. Obviously I meant that when the overwhelming majority of the relevant scientific community was convinced of human-induced global warming, non-scientists like Spooner and myself had no rational alternative but to accept the scientific consensus. Revealingly, Spooner misrepresents my comment in The Age piece. He claims I wrote that the issue is not what you know but who, thus changing my comment from a plea for reason into a supposed claim about status.

  3. Robert, I thought that comment about “not what you know but who” sounded unlikely to have been meant in the way he interpreted, but of course could not know that. Have you contacted The Age (and it seems the SMH) about a rebuttal? You could add something extra to the errors everyone else could point out.

    I do think that the one part of the article that can be justified as an opinion piece is the question of whether non-scientists should simply accept the scientific consensus, or if they should try to get their heads around the evidence themselves and reach their own conclusions. I think a case can be made for either side, not just on this issue but on many others. However, if people are to try to second-guess the scientists they must at least be acting on accurate information, and this is where Spooner, Carter and Plimer are behaving truly reprehensibly – providing false information that prevents people from forming an informed judgement.

  4. Pingback: Climate change denialism, paedophilia and Fairfax | Independent Australia

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