Money quotes and ripe cherries: can scientists avoid having their research “cherry picked” by climate sceptics?


Every  day there are dozens of new research papers on climate change related matters published, monthly there are thousands of them. In addition to the peer reviewed literature hundreds if not thousands of white papers, articles and blog posts are produced by the science community on climate change.

And while this cornucopia knowledge can be overwhelming even for the most dedicated reader on the topic, it represents a rich field of opportunity for those who wish to mischaracterise the work of scientists.

We are of course talking about the practice of cherry picking: selecting data and quotes from the vast sea of climate change related informaiton and reproducing it out of context. In doing so, opponents to mainstream science hope to cast doubt on the scientific consensus and undermine the public’s trust in scientists by taking their words out of context.

Two recent examples illustrate the practice of cherry picking by sceptics. In addition some suggestions are made to avoid or mitigate this tactic.

The Australian: no link between sea level rise and global warming?

The first example is that of The Australian’s misleading coverage of recent research on sea level rise. Environment Editor Graham Lloyd wrote a series of articles implying that there was no link between sea level rise and global warming during the 20th century.

Lloyd referenced the paper Twentieth-century global-mean sea-level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? and seized upon by the following sentence in the abstract:

“Semi-empirical methods for projecting GMSLR (global mean sea level rise) depend on the existence of a relationship between global climate change and the rate of GMSLR, but the implication of our closure of the budget is that such a relationship is weak or absent during the 20th century.

A reading of the entire paper suggests no such thing. As Graham Readfearn pointed out it was merely an attempt to “murder a scientific paper” by cherry picking a single sentence. Indeed one of the papers authors, John Church stated the article produced by Lloyd was misleading.

Fortunately in this case The Australian was forced acknowledge the article was factually incorrect, even going so far to issue a rare correction.

Did NASA scientist James Hansen really admit global warming “stalled”?

The second and most recent example is provided by sceptical blogger Anthony Watts (Watts up with that?).

Watts cherry picked a quote form a recent paper by noted NASA scientist James Hansen, implying Hanesen recently admitted there has been no global warming for the last 16 years:

Dr. James Hansen and Reto Ruedy of NASA GISS have written a paper (non peer reviewed) with a remarkable admission in it. It is titled Global Temperature Update Through 2012.

Here is the money quote, which pretty much ends the caterwauling from naysayers about global temperature being stalled for the last decade.

The five-year mean global temperature has been flat for the last decade, which we interpret as a combination of natural variability and a slow down in the growth rate of net climate forcing.

Gosh, I thought Hansen had claimed that “climate forcings” had overwhelmed natural variability?

A simple check of the original source demonstrates the clumsy manner in which Watt’s has cherry picked the quote to turn it into a “money quote” about stalled global temperatures. Here is the sentence in context (relevant quote underlined):

Global surface temperature in 2012 was +0.56°C (1°F) warmer than the 1951-1980 base period average, despite much of the year being affected by a strong La Nina. Global temperature thus continues at a high level that is sufficient to cause a substantial increase in the frequency of extreme warm anomalies. The 5-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade, which we interpret as a combination of natural variability and a slowdown in the growth rate of the net climate forcing.

An update through 2012 of our global analysis (Fig. 1) reveals 2012 as having practically the same temperature as 2011, significantly lower than the maximum reached in 2010. These short-term global fluctuations are associated principally with natural oscillations of tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures summarized in the Nino index in the lower part of the figure. 2012 is nominally the 9th warmest year, but it is indistinguishable in rank with several other years, as shown by the error estimate for comparing nearby years. Note that the 10 warmest years in the record all occurred since 1998.

The long-term warming trend, including continual warming since the mid-1970s, has been conclusively associated with the predominant global climate forcing, human-made greenhouse gases, which began to grow substantially early in the 20th century.

As can be seen Watts has merely lifted a single sentence to mischaracterise the paper. Hansen and Ruedy do provide the appropriate context, highlighting the fact that “the 10 warmest years in the record all occurred since 1998″.

So in this charged environment what can the scientific community do to mitigate such abuses?

Don’t give them cherries

Real Climate noted the sentence in the Church sceptics seized upon was “awkwardly phrased”. However the Hansen and Ruedy paper is well written, clear and when seen in context the cherry picked sentence makes perfect sense.

For this reason scientists should not berate themselves for seeing their own words used against them.

A first step – and not to slight the authors of the paper on sea level rise – would be to avoid giving sceptics the oppurtunity to pick low-hanging fruit (it is acknowledged the vast majority of scientists are indeed very careful).

However, Watts unintentionally reveals the mindset of climate sceptics by referring to the sentence he lifted from the Hansen/Ruedy paper as a “money quote”.

Sceptics such as Watts are not engaged in reading the scientific literature in an intellectually honest way: they are hunting for anomalies. Regardless of how much caution a scientist may take, it is inevitable sceptics will cherry pick the literature in order to cast doubt on the science.

Stopping the lie before goes around the world: rapid response and press council complaints

To quote Mark Twain “a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” But once the lie has taken flight how should we respond?

Rapidly, calmly and with the facts.

The recent example of The Australian being forced to issue a rare correction offers a salient lesson in dealing not only with the claims of climate sceptics, but with blunting a potent “meme”.

Sites such as Skeptical Science, Real Climate, DeSmogBlog, The Conversation and Climate Progress are all excellent platforms for countering misinformation. Were possible, getting corrections published in the mainstream media is worth pursuing. That includes authoring articles or writing letters to the editor. Even jumping into the forum comments might help undo some of the damage.

Nor should individuals and scientists be afraid to take their concerns to regulatory bodies such as the Australian Press Council (PAC) to tackle misinformation that appears in the mainstream media (MSM).

A member of the public is free to lodge a complaint; however doing so is not a trivial matter. It is vital to review the guidelines for making a complaint.

While sceptics often cry “censorship” when they find themselves corrected, it is vital to counter their misinformation.

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30 thoughts on “Money quotes and ripe cherries: can scientists avoid having their research “cherry picked” by climate sceptics?

  1. […] few months back he cited  material from  Principa Scientific International. This crank outfit is so extreme that even Christopher Monckton […]

    • john byatt says:

      Within the IPCC estimation, guess your earlier claims of less than 1DegC you must agree were crap then?

      quantifying since 2000 does have its problem when an estimate of both hansen’s and IPCC models. testing data with reality both show a 3 to 3.3 CS at present. rough estimation

      thousands of research on CS another to add to the science

  2. Oh and that “more than 5 days out”,

    isn’t that just the cone of randomness, the further out you go the fuzzier the image gets.

    And what about the range of expectation?
    We expect the weather-forecaster to know the weather in a particular place – at a particular time.
    When the weather-forecaster says it will rain Tuesday and it doesn’t, we say their wrong, even if the rain comes a few days later or earlier.
    The weather-forecaster can’t say it will rain on that spot during the next month.

    I’ll bet if weathermen were allowed to forecast a month’s temperature range and precipitation range their accuracy range would be most impressive.

    It’s like denialist wanting to see all the impacts of AGW immediately when geophysical processes operate at their own leisurely rate.

    PS. Tip of the Hat to Ari :

    • “I wonder, does anyone track and systematically quantify “forecast accuracy” for the Met Office or US Weather Service?”

      I’ve considered trying to do that, but it’s never been something important enough to me to actually sit down and do. However…. over the last few years I have occasionally paid attention to how their 10-day predictions seemed to work out during periods of unusual weather (hot, cold, hurricaney) and was surprised to see how well they do. Of course, not having really quantified it, it could all just be perception: after all, if the prediction is for “possible snow, temp range 20 to 30″ seven days from now, and I then observe 12″ of snow and temps of 15 to 28, I might feel that the forecast was accurate. But for the end of January a forecast like that in ANY year stands a reasonably good chance of coming fairly true.

      That’s the problem with anecdotal data and taking individual events as confirmation of long-term and/or causal patterns. There’s a LOT of confirmation bias at work in our brains even when we try to discount it…. which is why the “double-blind” standard for science is so important. Whenever I’m doing my own writing on a more serious level than just blogging, I try *very* hard to put on a “Devil’s Advocate” hat and search for errors or weak points because of that awareness, but it can never be completely corrected for.

      - MJM

  3. “Meanwhile the Met Office in the UK never seems to be able to predict more than 5 days in advance.”

    That sounds like a cliche.

    I’m just saying and I admit I don’t know squat about UK weather forecasting. And I’ll admit locally, Southwest US, they’ve forecasted more snow, rain storms than we’ve seen, but they do have their ChanceOf% and all.

    But, it seems that Hurricane Sandy got nailed pretty good from nearly a week before US land fall… as seems to be the case with most tropical cyclones.

    Is it like the thing where every freak’n stop goes red on “me” when I’m in a hurry… when an actual log would show that statistically it doesn’t – but being stopped when I’m in a rush merely heightens my awareness of having to stop.

    I wonder, does anyone track and systematically quantify “forecast accuracy” for the Met Office or US Weather Service?

  4. [...] Friel discusses in his work, Lomborg’s modus operandi is to cherry pick the scientific literature in order to downplay the risks [...]

  5. Eric Worrall says:

    It is now acceptable in the highest political circles of Britain to suggest that alarmist theory might be wrong. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, a leading candidate for next Prime Minister of Britain, has just publicly questioned alarmism.

    Only a few holdouts like Australia still cling to alarmist dogma. We are winning.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Boris Johnson has been a sceptic for years, citing the same crank weather forecaster. No change there.

      • Name calling may be satisfactory to you but that “weather crank” correctly predicted the recent UK weather well over a month in advance. Meanwhile the Met Office in the UK never seems to be able to predict more than 5 days in advance.

        His methodology works a large percentage of the time, perhaps we should learn from his ideas whatever they are rather than just slinging abuse.

    • zoot says:

      We are winning.

      Winning what, precisely?

    • Boris is a bit of a buffoon and will play to his audience. He has to recite the Conservative anti-science catechism periodically. He holds a minority view – and an unscientific one. The scientific community is laughing and sighing. The debunks are to be found at Carbon Brief and Skeptical Science.

      But at least he’s not stupid enough to think global warming is good. That’s truly loopy.

    • crank says:

      ‘The Highest political circles of Britain…’- but only in the moronic inferno of the Right Wing of the Tory Party, which represents a sad, atavistic, lust to turn back the clock. Once it was thought that going back to the 19th century, and Thatcher’s beloved ‘Victorian values’ would suffice, but today’s Tories (you’d fit in bonza, Big Brain)like their Mad Hatter confreres of the Tea Party in ‘the colonies’, prefer a jaunty escapade back past the Enlightenment, right back to the lovely days of feudalism, with themselves as the Barons, and all the serfs properly respectful and ‘umble. Merlin as Minister of Science and Roger Bacon burned at the stake as a ‘water-melon’.

  6. crank says:

    They can get away with it because the denialist audience are the Dunning-Kruger imbeciles and ignoramuses, who are easily fooled. They get away with it because the MSM, the Murdoch sewer in particular, but by no means the only culprit, goes along with it, because climate destabilisation represents and existential threat to neo-liberal capitalism and the money and power of the Murdochs and their elite allies. And they get away with it because the denialist industry has painted this as a ‘Right versus Left’ argument, portraying science as a giant Commo plot, which has recruited all the vicious ideologues, zealots and bigots of the Right to the cause, a bottomless pit of rancour, aggression, belligerence and bellicosity. In the battle between Mammon and Enlightenment, between Thanatos and Eros, the Right and the Left, back greed every time.

  7. Steve says:

    At least The Australian did print a correction.
    I am not expecting Mr. Watts to do this, or am I misjudging him?

  8. Ari Jokimäki says:

    Minor nitpick: there are dozens of new research papers on climate change related matters published every day, monthly there are thousands of them.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Good call :) made the slight edit.

    • “Minor nitpick: there are dozens of new research papers on climate change related matters published every day,”

      I hope I won’t be accused of a nitpick myself, but if there are dozens “published every day” could someone list just two dozen published on… hmm… say tomorrow, Jan. 23rd? (Heh, I can’t be accused of cherry picking a bad day since it’s not even here yet! LOL!)

      - MJM

      • Ari Jokimäki says:

        I published this post in 2010 but I might make a fresh look at the situation, in case it has dropped…

      • John and Ari, thank you! Both very good answers. I realize now that my request was a bit too vague. Both of your references do indeed contain many papers about climate, and even many about climate change, but there are very few that are making the case for AGW. Ari, look over the list on your page: how many of those would you say are actually presenting such a case as their argument? And John, pretty much the same: your search seems to actually come up with 100 papers/day (which I will admit was a very resourceful and quite valid response to my more difficult request to list all the ones from today only) but how many of them actually make the sort of point that was implied in the original statement that, “there are dozens of new research papers on climate change related matters published every day,”?

        I think my point, that there is not as much solid research out there backing WTD’s claims as you may think, is valid. Say for example that I wanted to argue that meat-eating caused cancer and offered a Google search similar to John’s as proof of all the research out there. I’d get thousands of Scholar articles, but 98% of them would be about meat causing other problems, or about meat nutrition or safety, or about the many risk factors being investigated for cancer of which meat happens to just be one. Thousands of hits, but very little in the way of any actual sound research backing up my contention.

        - MJM

      • john byatt says:

        MJM your question was answered as you asked, now what i would like you to try to understand is, that from those thousands of paper, even millions we can reach a consensus on the current knowledge that we have, that consensus is that global warming is due to humans and that sea level is accelerating which is the point of the post, The Australian has sort to disinform on that

        Do you agree ?

      • John, you did indeed respond well, as I noted a couple of hours ago, but as I pointed out: of the thousands/millions of papers only a very small percentage actually address the question of how much AGW exists and whether its effects at such levels are likely to be harmful.

        Look at Ari’s list: do any of the ones he listed there actually strongly examine that question? Look at your own search results: out of the first fifty, how many directly examine it and arrive at that conclusion? (And don’t forget, the first fifty are probably more likely to include ones that got lots of hits and cross-references because they were newsworthy and talked about. A fairer test would be to look at the ones listed on pages 20 to 25 of the Google search you proposed.)

        So, sorry, I couldn’t say I agree with your conclusion. Not saying the conclusion is incorrect… just that I haven’t seen a convincing enough case built to agree with it. How about this: I haven’t looked, but look at those pages 20 to 25, that’ll be about 50 references, and pick out the three references from that batch that you feel makes the strongest case for an urgency to do something about AGW and that are available for reading on the net. I’ll promise to read them and then we can talk more about it if you like.

        - MJM

      • john byatt says:

        It is simple then put up a reliable list of papers that reject the science because even the famous 1000 papers list is utter nonsense unless you have one that you believe even puts the question in doubt

        no you will not find papers in the current science debating the question
        the question was already answered years ago. you need to accept that

      • john byatt says:

        If you are looking for where the current debate now lies, go here

      • Ari Jokimäki says:

        Current climate change is global event that touches just about everything on Earth. Therefore, “climate change related matters” covers large spectrum of papers from very diverse branches of science. To ask for papers that specifically address the question if AGW is happening or not is not only moving goal posts but it also misses the point. All papers related to the issue are relevant. A paper that reports birds migrating earlier reports evidence that things are happening according to the theory even if the paper would never even mention climate. A paper that improves satellite spectroscopy without ever mentioning climate or even atmosphere is relevant.

        A scientific paper usually studies a very minor issue. Then another paper studies another minor issue. Another paper studies yet another minor issue. Then a paper comes along that ties these minor issues together. Next paper builds little on that. Next paper confirms the results of the previous paper, and so on. You would like us to forget all of this research and concentrate on just one minor issue.

        It’s not only the attribution papers that count, but it’s the whole structure of papers building on each other. It’s also irrelevant if only minor fraction of papers deal with attribution. If dozens of attribution papers all give similar answer, it is quite enough regardless of how large percentage of all climate change related papers are attribution papers. Notice also that the beginning of the post above doesn’t discuss attribution, it discusses how rich field of science there is for climate change doubters to cherry-pick.

        However, if you want to learn about that specific issue, papers exist on that:

        Also other papers exist on the different aspects of the issue.

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