Calling out the climate conspirators

Slate, Discover, and The Guardian crack down on the David Rose's distorted reporting

Over the weekend the Daily Mail’s David Rose published a long screed on climate change with some pretty startling revelations: Namely that global warming, as evidenced by depleting sea ice, had paused, causing scientists to believe we are heading for a period of—wait for it— “Global Cooling.”

“Some eminent scientists now believe the world is heading for a period of cooling that will not end until the middle of this century—a process that would expose computer forecasts of imminent catastrophic warming as dangerously misleading,” explains Rose, before he goes on to decry that global warming amounts to little more than a massive media conspiracy.

The Mail on Sunday triggered intense political and scientific debate by revealing that global warming has ‘paused’ since the beginning of 1997—an event that the computer models used by climate experts failed to predict.

The pause—which has now been accepted as real by every major climate research centre—is important, because the models’ predictions of ever-increasing global temperatures have made many of the world’s economies divert billions of pounds into ‘green’ measures to counter climate change.

But the problem with the Internet is that it often doesn’t weigh the reliability of sources before spreading their ideas around the masses. Both MSN and the Telegraph regurgitated Rose’s cooling mantra, which then briefly trended on Twitter.

Which means that, regardless of the outrageous nature of Rose’s claims, science writers (that is, writers whose work is based in actual science) spent the early part of their week dismantling his piece.

First, in The Guardian Dana Nuccitelli issued a dense, point-by-point rebuttal of Rose’s arguments, beginning with his suggestion that this year’s increase in sea ice could be used as evidence of a warming reversal. Sea ice levels are 60-percent higher this year than last—though the measurement should hold until the end of the September melting period—but as Nuccitelli points out, the rate of ice retreat is only significant when contextualized by last year’s dramatic depletion rate:

There’s a principle in statistics known as “regression toward the mean,” which is the phenomenon that if an extreme value of a variable is observed, the next measurement will generally be less extreme. In other words, we should not often expect to observe records in consecutive years. 2012 shattered the previous record low sea ice extent; hence ‘regression towards the mean’ told us that 2013 would likely have a higher minimum extent.

Nuccitelli’s taken Rose to task before—This isn’t the first time Rose has been caught hawking climate-change pseudoscience or that the Daily Mail’s been called out for shoddy reporting. Rose has made a name for himself spewing information cherry-picked from questionable sources, though the piece is a worst-case offender in that it doesn’t just skew—it blatantly disregards facts.

Another repeat Rose debunker is Phil Plaitt, who issued his own summary of the piece’s foibles in his Bad Astronomy blog on Slate, comparing his evaluation of the sea ice depletion to “getting a D- after getting an F on a test. Sure, it’s better, but it ain’t necessarily good.”

Plait also turns his attention to Rose’s grandiose, and blatantly untrue, claims that his own reporting in the Daily Mail had triggered an emergency meeting of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in advance of their annual report. (Ed Hawkins of the IPCC took to Twitter to affirm that none of this actually happened)

At Discover, Tom Yulsman uses a series of animated GIFs to illustrate the Rose’s data problems in a post titled, “With Climate Journalism Like This, Who Needs Fiction.”

The writers each issue a devastating and thorough critique of the piece, but it’s worth nothing how much time is wasted on an author whose reportage Plaitt calls “so ridiculously wrong it’s charitable to call them ‘ridiculously wrong.’”

But as Yulsman points out, the complexity of climate-change science leaves room for this kind of unverified attack: The correct argument is full of nuanced analysis, which is not only harder to write—it’s harder, as a reader, to absorb.

“By now, I’ve no doubt lost most readers with all of this detail,” wrote Yulsman. “Which of course highlights the difficulty of trying to do a journalistically responsible job on a story like this. To provide proper context, and to highlight the uncertainties along with the findings, requires quite a bit of explanation, not all of it terribly compelling. By comparison, waving one’s arms in the air is far easier.”

Until Rose’s arms get tired, it’s good that there’s a large enough blogging core to shut him down.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , ,