Tag Archives: sea level rise

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 et.al. 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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The Australian: sea rise not linked to warming! Oops our bad, sea rise is linked to warming…

Sea rise not linked to warming…

Despite the fact Australia has been experiencing record-breaking heat waves and catastrophic fires in nearly every state, Chris Mitchell (Editor) and Graham Lloyd (Environment Editor) of News Limited’s The Australian steadfastly choose to remain  locked in a parallel universe in which climate change isn’t happening.

Perhaps they have incredibly effective ideological filters that allows them to block out the reality of extreme heat and horrific bushfires: that or really good air conditioning.

For those of you who had the pleasure of picking up copy of today’s edition you may have been surprised to learn there is no link between climate change and sea level riseLloyd explains:

THE latest science on sea level rises has found no link to global warming and no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years.

A paper published last month in Journal of Climate highlights one of the great uncertainties in climate change research – will ocean levels rise by more than the current 3mm a year?

The peer-reviewed article, “20th-century global-mean sea-level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?” by JM Gregory, sought to explain the factors involved in sea-level rises during the last century. It found that sea-level rises had not accelerated “despite the increasing anthropogenic forcing” or human influence.

Australia’s pre-eminent sea-level scientist, John Church, contributed to the paper, which said it could not link climate change and the rate of sea-level rises in the 20th century.

Australia is at the forefront of global research on sea-level rises, but must double its funding to $10 million a year to match other countries in the search for an answer.

There is no dispute that sea levels are rising and significant concerns about what the recent increased rate of melt of Arctic ice might mean. But the key question is whether the rate of sea-level rise will accelerate and, if so, when and by how much?

The paper in question, Twentieth-century global-mean sea-level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? was published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate (behind a pay wall).

It is worth noting this paper and the climate sceptics excitement about it has already been discussed over at Real Climate. They address the science issues much better than I ever could so go there, however it is worth quoting part of their post:

The Gregory et al. paper was greeted with enthusiasm in “climate skeptics” circles, since it includes the peculiar sentence:

The implication of our closure of the budget is that a relationship between global climate change and the rate of global-mean sea-level rise is weak or absent in the past.

The abstract culminates in a similar phrase, which can easily be misunderstood as meaning that global warming has not contributed to sea-level rise. That is wrong of course, and the claimed closure of the sea-level budget in this paper is only possible because increasing temperatures are taken into account as the prime driver of 20th Century sea-level rise.

When read in full context, the true meaning of the statement becomes clear: it is intended to discredit semi-empirical sea-level modelling…

So just another blatant example of cherry picking? Without doubt.

However it is worth noting The Australian has a history of being – shall we say – liberal with the facts concerning the science of sea level rise.

Back in 2011 The Australian published a similar front page story questioning the link between climate change and sea level rise:

ONE of Australia’s foremost experts on the relationship between climate change and sea levels has written a peer-reviewed paper concluding that rises in sea levels are “decelerating”.

The analysis, by NSW principal coastal specialist Phil Watson, calls into question one of the key criteria for large-scale inundation around the Australian coast by 2100 — the assumption of an accelerating rise in sea levels because of climate change.

Based on century-long tide gauge records at Fremantle, Western Australia (from 1897 to present), Auckland Harbour in New Zealand (1903 to present), Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour (1914 to present) and Pilot Station at Newcastle (1925 to present), the analysis finds there was a “consistent trend of weak deceleration” from 1940 to 2000.

Mr Watson’s findings, published in the Journal of Coastal Research this year and now attracting broader attention, supports a similar analysis of long-term tide gauges in the US earlier this year. Both raise questions about the CSIRO’s sea-level predictions.

There was only one problem with the story: it misrepresented the actual findings of the scientists. Both Tim Lambert over at Deltoid and the ABC’s Media Watch discuss this falsehood.

Indeed, so egregious was their behaviour it prompted Watson’s employer to write a fairly stern letter stating they fundamentally misrepresented the research and that they should correct the article.

Oops, our bad: The Australian corrects itself

Ok, maybe we got it wrong…

To bring us back to the present day…

The story might have ended there and we all would have shaken our heads in dismay at yet another example of The Australian’s dissociated state of denial.

But less than 24 hours after publishing the article it appears editor Chris Mitchell & Co. have been stricken by a sudden and virulent case of journalistic ethics as they have corrected themselves in a follow-up article:

SCIENTISTS have rejected claims that the latest research on climate change finds no link between global warming and rising sea levels.

CSIRO scientist Dr John Church, regarded as Australia’s leading authority on sea level and climate change, said they were clearly connected.

“It is clearly linked to increases in greenhouse gases,” he said.

“Sea level has already increased the rate of rise from the 18th and 19th century. The instrumental record would indicate an acceleration during the 20th century and the projections will indicate a further acceleration during the 21st century.”

Similarly, Professor Thomas Stocker, co-chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group on the physical science of climate change, said sea level rise had been considered for many decades and the observations of its rise were unequivocal.

John Church has also stated The Australian’s story is simply inaccurate. From denial and misrepresentation to having to back track and quote the actual words of scientists? While recanting such falsehoods is positive I fear the damage has been done.

As Mark Twain noted “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Once more there can be little doubt The Australian has helped fan the flames of climate scepticism.

As proof of this Lloyd’s story has been picked up by the denial echo chamber. Simon over at Australian Climate Madness approvingly quotes Lloyd’s story:

Two great stories from Graham Lloyd in The Australian today. Firstly, we have – shock horror – the ABC spinning its climate reporting by failing to mention stories, inconvenient to its alarmist editorial agenda.

To paraphrase Twain: a sceptic meme will travel across the entire internet before science even has a chance to respond.

However I am somewhat encouraged by the response that is quickly emerging: Graham Readfearn has written an excellent post on this topic while the comments by John Church are helping to blunt the impact of this recent example of denial from The Oz.

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