Archive for February 15th, 2010

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Yes, Our Press Corps Is That Bad

February 15, 2010

I’ve seen the claim that Phil Jones has “admitted” that there has been no climate change since 1995  in several places, but I was startled tonight when my mild-mannered father — a scientifically-inclined, but otherwise disinterested and innocent dentist in quasi-rural Virginia — raised the question with me. “What’s the deal with one of the supposed great figures in climate science saying that there is no more climate change?” he asked.

Sigh.

Evidently, many in the press don’t bother much to parse the language of statisticians, or less charitably, some interpreters of science are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to bend a statement to suit their purposes. Real Climate, I think, nicely disassembles the bullshit. Here’s a quick quote of their analysis:

What Jones actually said is that, while the globe has nominally warmed since 1995, it is difficult to establish the statistical significance of that warming given the short nature of the time interval (1995-present) involved. The warming trend consequently doesn’t quite achieve statistical significance. But it is extremely difficult to establish a statistically significant trend over a time interval as short as 15 years–a point we have made countless times at RealClimate. It is also worth noting that the CRU record indicates slightly less warming than other global temperature estimates such as the GISS record.

Amazing how handily some statements can be twisted.

Plainly, this should serve not as an indictment of Jones or climate science, but of the reporters of climate science, of the mouthpieces of disinformation and obfuscation. It is also a warning about accuracy and nuance. Jones was being mighty nuanced in that interview. Such nuance yields gaping holes for sophists to exploit and for most people to peer through.

As a dentist, my father is actually reasonably familiar with statistical significance, but the nuance of Jones’s comment was lost on him. He just didn’t want to bother to dig much deeper, so he let it slide and went with the press’s narrative. For reasons that escape me, it’s an easy narrative to swallow, particularly if one is already inclined that way.

LATE ADDITION (moved up from comments):

The question posed to Jones, as it happens, is a loaded (or complex) question. There have been many such questions in recent months.

Here’s a parallel:

“Do you agree that from January 2009 until January 2010 there has been no statistically-significant global warming?”

That’s a question with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t response. “Yes, I agree” is accurate, but it’s accurate only because the scale is too small and it gives a misleading impression about climate science. “No, I don’t agree” is inaccurate, because it is wrong about statistical significance, and it too gives a misleading impression about climate science. Even to say in blanket fashion: “Yes, but only just” or “Yes, but only because your statistical significance is harder to demonstrate across shorter timespans” which is pretty close to what Jones said, gives a misleading impression.

I think it’s too much to expect that someone can identify some of these fallacies on the fly. I actually traffic in fallacies on a daily basis, and it can be very hard for me to identify them and call them by name.