Global warming denialism: watch it in real time

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While we’re on the topic: climate change denialism got a brief shot in the arm this past week with the announcement of some statistically insignificant revisions to small portions of the global temperature record. It’s been interesting watching the saga unfold. Most denialist claims are so musty at this point that they’re growing mold. It’s rare to see a de novo myth squeak to life and then get blown up to a deafening roar in the denialist echo chamber.

I first caught wind of the story from a headline on the front page of the New York Times web site: ‘Hottest Year’ Data Meltdown. The gist of the story is that a blogger had noticed some anomalies in the NASA temperature data. The blogger emailed NASA, and it turned out he was right. A few days later, NASA released corrected figures.

So far, so good. The Times then proceeds to quote from a DailyTech blog post about the potential “fallout” from the new figures:

NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as recordbreaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II. Anthony Watts has put the new data in chart form, along with a more detailed summary of the events.

The effect of the correction on global temperatures is minor (some 1-2% less warming than originally thought), but the effect on the U.S. global warming propaganda machine could be huge.

And that was it. The Times post was odd in about a dozen different ways: the use of sensational terms such as “meltdown” and “fallout”; the vaguely silly movie-conspiracy notion that a blogger with a personal computer could somehow upend our entire understanding of global temperature trends; the uncritical reference to the global warming propaganda machine, as if such a thing exists.

But at heart the post was still making a seemingly striking factual claim about the temperature record. And, then, with all the predictability of day following night, the following two things happened:

  1. Denialists went nuts, baying for Hansen’s dismissal and accusing NASA of perpetrating a fraud on the American people. Scientific eminence Rush Limbaugh declared the story “more evidence, ladies and gentlemen, that this whole global warming thing is a scientific hoax.”
  2. The whole story turned out to be pretty much bunk.

You can see the authoritative takedown, as always, at Real Climate, but the nickel version is that NASA never claimed 1998 was the hottest year in the U.S. 1998 was always a statistical tie with 1934, and it still is. Moreover, the bigger picture hasn’t changed at all. Globally, we are still experiencing the hottest weather on record, and the minor changes to the U.S. temperature record doesn’t change the IPCC conclusions one whit.

As I said before, the partisan furor over global warming is just damned weird, and I’d really like to hear a good explanation for it. More prosaically, I wonder how many years the great NASA Temperature Data Fraud will live on in the internet?

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  1. Andrew E - August 13, 2007

    Great summary! I think that the problem is, as always, that the ones speaking loudest and most passionately are the ones with the least knowledge and the most partisan agenda.
    The scientists at NASA and even at RealClimate.org are just scientists and do not have the training to explain the complexities of climate issues to lay people who barely care about it.
    Whereas, Limbaugh and the like know that all they need to do is spread a little doubt and even the most well-constructed scientific arguments go unheard.

  2. Anonymous - August 15, 2007

    Who is the Rush Limbaugh for the scientists? Seems to me this is worth a battle with an obvious outcome… Times and RL eating crow.

  3. lkhoyt - August 15, 2007

    It’s almost tough to have a “Rush Limbaugh for the scientists.” Caring about the truth *at all* makes it difficult to speak in sound bites; there’s no way to convey subtleties without, well, conveying the subtleties. And under the current administration, caring about subtleties is a vice, not a virtue.

  4. Tom Jeff - August 15, 2007

    —–Even if the error found is “statistically” insignificant a blogger should not have been the one to alert NASA to the error. As a layman, the problem I see is that the global warming debate is no longer a scientific debate–It is debate that is largely political, ideological, and religious in nature. This article is a prime example. Using the phrase “denialism” does nothing to advance the scientific debate. Smearming scientists who dispute data, the anaylsis or conclusions is not science. I know that many consider the debate over—but that is a little arrogent. The science should stand on its own–regardless whether or not the scientists at NASA and even at RealClimate.org are just scientists and do not have the “training” (stereotype) to explain the complexities of climate issues to us poor ole lay people.

    Far too many proponents put too much stock in predictive computer modeling of the earth’s climate systems that science does not yet clearly understand. I’m not ready to turn society on its head until the science, and not the modeling, is clear.

  5. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    Jeff — there’s a certain irony here. Not to point fingers, but it’s people like you who have made this an ideological debate. The science does stand on its own. It stands on its own quite well, and if you’re interested in the science, there are any number of great resources to help lay people understand why scientists consider the big-picture question of climate change largely settled. If you’re not interested in the science — which would be perfectly understandable — then probably the sensible thing is to accept the scientific consensus, as I’m sure you do in most other areas of your life (medicine, physics, whatever).
    But these accusations of arrogance don’t really stand up to scrutiny. The only smearing going on is directed at the researchers themselves. You seem to think it’s immaterial that the mistake was statistically insignificant, but this is a central point. A small mistake that doesn’t affect any of the conclusions of climate scientists is being used as a club by non-scientists to declare global warming a hoax. Who is being arrogant?
    As to your specific charge that scientists should never make mistakes, well, that would be nice, but more important is that they correct and acknowledge those mistakes when they happen. Which they did.

  6. Chad - August 15, 2007

    Ikhoyt, I would agree with you completely, except for in your last sentence, you seem to imply that it is the Republican party that avoids subtlety when it complicates their message. Sadly, this is not the case. All parties do this, and it is a core element of politics.
    I challenge you to think about all the statistical lies and misleading arguments dealt by your own party. Trust me, there are plenty, regardless of what party that is. You should be willing to shoot these arguments down EVEN WHEN YOU SUPPORT THE GOAL.
    To do less is to be part of the problem.

  7. Annie Beckett - August 15, 2007

    Thanks, Adam, for a strong incisive response. It would be helpful to me, and I’m guessing to others, if you’d list the “any number great resources” for lay people to “understand why scientists consider the big-picture question of climate change largely settled.” The ones I avail myself of regularly are RealClimate.org, which you did mention, New Scientist magazine and website, Scientific American magazine and website, National Geographic magazine… What else do you recommend?

  8. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    Hi Annie,
    Good question. If you’re looking for books, I liked both Field Notes to a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Weathermakers by Tim Flannery.
    Grist’s How to talk to a climate skeptic series is also quite good, although it’s not really meant to be read straight through, and I don’t know whether it’s really going to sway any skeptics. But for interested non-skeptics, it’s a handy reference.
    If you want the deep dive, check out the Discovery of Global Warming site, which is actually an expansion of a shorter book. I haven’t read everything on the site, but what I have read is quite interesting.

  9. Chad - August 16, 2007

    Annie, both Science (www.sciencemag.org) and Nature (www.nature.com), the world’s top scientific publications, have also made a number of their articles and editorials concerning climate change free to the public. If you would like to skip the middle-people of Scientific American, realclimate, etc, you can get some quite interesting data directly from the peer-reviewed publications.

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