Broadly Misrepresenting

Last November Ray Pierrehumbert at RealClimate was very disappointed in a New York Times article by William Broad:

The worst fault of the article, though, is that it leaves the reader with the impression that there is something in the deep time Phanerozoic climate record that fundamentally challenges the physics linking planetary temperature to CO2. This is utterly false, and deeply misleading.

And:

This article is far from the standard of excellence in reporting we have come to expect from the Times. We sincerely hope it’s an aberration, and not indicative of the best Mr. Broad has to offer.

Alas, it’s not an aberration. Broad has done it again, with an article where he gives global warming skeptics (who are “centrist” according to Broad) free rein to say anything they want, without checking the accuracy of their claims. Worse, he adds his own statements on the science that seriously misrepresent scientific reports.

Broad is trying to make the case that the scientific “middle ground in the climate debate” is criticising Gore for alarmism. Trouble is, most of the critics he quotes are not from the middle at all, but are skeptics who reject the scientific consensus. He has skeptics Benny Peiser, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter, Don Easterbrook, Bjorn Lomberg and Paul Reiter. Broad identifies a couple of these as skeptics, but misleads his readers by making it appear that the others are from the middle.

It gets worse. Broad simply misrepresents the findings of the IPCC to make it appear that they contradict Gore.

Some of Mr. Gore’s centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that studies global warming. The panel went further than ever before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe’s warming since 1950, part of Mr. Gore’s message that few scientists dispute. But it also portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process.

It estimated that the world’s seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches — down from earlier estimates. Mr. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent.

The IPCC report absolutely did not say the maximum sea level rise this century would be 23 inches. Gore talks about the changes in ice flows in Greenland and Antarctica and states that if half of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, sea levels could rise 20 feet (6 metres). The maximum sea level rise that Broad quoted does not include this effect.

Models used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedback nor do they include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking. The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future. For example, if this contribution were to grow linearly with global average temperature change, the upper ranges of sea level rise for SRES scenarios shown in Table SPM-2 would increase by 0.1 m to 0.2 m. Larger values cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.

The report also states:

The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise.

So sea levels could rise by 6 metres as Gore suggests. And the scientists don’t know how long it would take, so Gore did not present a time frame for the rise.

But even that is not the worst of Broad’s misrepresentations. Check this out:

So too, a report last June by the National Academies seemed to contradict Mr. Gore’s portrayal of recent temperatures as the highest in the past millennium. Instead, the report said, current highs appeared unrivaled since only 1600, the tail end of a temperature rise known as the medieval warm period.

That’s actually the opposite of what the report said:

There is sufficient evidence from tree rings, boreholes, retreating glaciers, and other “proxies” of past surface temperatures to say with a high level of confidence that the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years, according to a new report from the National Research Council. Less confidence can be placed in proxy-based reconstructions of surface temperatures for A.D. 900 to 1600, said the committee that wrote the report, although the available proxy evidence does indicate that many locations were warmer during the past 25 years than during any other 25-year period since 900. Very little confidence can be placed in statements about average global surface temperatures prior to A.D. 900 because the proxy data for that time frame are sparse, the committee added. …

The committee noted that scientists’ reconstructions of Northern Hemisphere surface temperatures for the past thousand years are generally consistent. The reconstructions show relatively warm conditions centered around the year 1000, and a relatively cold period, or “Little Ice Age,” from roughly 1500 to 1850. The exact timing of warm episodes in the medieval period may have varied by region, and the magnitude and geographical extent of the warmth is uncertain, the committee said. None of the reconstructions indicates that temperatures were warmer during medieval times than during the past few decades, the committee added.

The report agrees with Gore and does not say that it was warmer in medieval times. Just to be clear here — I don’t think that Broad deliberately lied about the report. I imagine that he didn’t bother to read it, but wrote down what his global warming skeptics told him. But he should have checked and he didn’t.

Update: RealClimate think that Broad is being dishonest.

Comments

  1. #1 Sir Oolius
    March 13, 2007

    Broad is trying to make the case that the scientific “middle ground in the climate debate” is criticising Gore for alarmism. Trouble is, most of the critics he quotes are not from the middle at all, but are skeptics who reject the scientific consensus. He has skeptics Benny Peiser, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter, Don Easterbrook, Bjorn Lomberg and Paul Reiter. Broad identifies a couple of these as skeptics, but misleads his readers by making it appear that the others are from the middle.

    My thoughts exactly….The problem is that by doing so, Broad suggests that those who have cared little about their own accuracy in the past are somehow innocently interested solely in the accuracy of Gore’s movie. When in fact Gore’s movie did more to advance accuracy in public discourse than they could ever hope to do by showing the public what could happen.

  2. #2 david tiley
    March 13, 2007

    Is this NYT article another in a grand tradition?

  3. #3 David Graves
    March 13, 2007

    The reader of Broad’s piece would not know that Spencer and Christy’s work on atmospheric temperatures has been uhh, corrected, or that Peiser’s attack on Oreskes was shown to be crap, or that in addition to his being teminally tendentious, Dr.Lindzen’s WSJ piece on “alarmism” had no science worth mentioning. Yet Broad brings them to the party as disinterested observers. And what exactly are we to make of Pielke’s comments about the science community and Al Gore? I’ll take Revkin’s piece of two months ago about the center over this nonsense.

  4. #4 Thom
    March 13, 2007

    One moment in the article reveals that Broad is truly a top-ranked journalist with a keen eye for detail.

    “Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, said he sensed a growing backlash against exaggeration.”

    So, I looked Vranes up, and what do you find?

    http://tinyurl.com/2lhaqc

    Not a single peer-reviewed article on climate change. Not surprising. This fits the pattern of his sidekick Pielke Jr. also commenting on things in the press for which he has no expertise.

  5. #5 Chris Mooney
    March 13, 2007

    Folks,
    Without defending Broad’s every claim…I think the problem is that Gore, although largely accurate, does leave himself open to certain kinds of attacks. See for example his assertion on tornadoes and the problem with it:
    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/02/global_warming_and_tornadoes.php

    Or see the quote from James Hansen–who faults some of the things Gore says on hurricanes–in Broad’s piece. Hansen is no skeptic.

    Unfortunately, given the way the media works today, they can be expected to go after Gore for relatively small nuances *even if* the film is 95 percent accurate or more. And just wait til you see what the likes of Fox News make of this. So I find the whole thing sad…but also predictable.

  6. #6 Tim Lambert
    March 13, 2007

    But Broad is going after Gore for the stuff he got right, like temperatures being the warmest in a millenium.

  7. #7 Thom
    March 13, 2007

    Mooney, your whole point is pinned down with a flawed bit of reasoning–the idea that Gore himself does not realize that he is out on a limb on hurricanes.

    I highly doubt that a guy who has been studying and thinking about climate change before you even entered college is not aware of this. So the whole “gotcha” thing doesn’t really make much sense.

    Gore’s trying to explain things as simply as possible. And so some things get compressed and simplified. If I held my high school chemistry teacher to the same standard then I would go back and tell her that she lied to us about electron orbits because electrons really don’t behave like that.

  8. #8 JB
    March 13, 2007

    “Unfortunately, given the way the media works today, they can be expected to go after Gore for relatively small nuances even if the film is 95 percent accurate or more.”

    I think Chris has it right. After all, this is the same guy the American media went after over his statement about “inventing” the internet (which Gore never actually made, but hey, who’s keeping track?) and has given Bush a free ride on all of his BS (before or since he became President).

    In general, the media do not like Gore. I think it’s because he is smarter than most journalists are. They’d rather write about one of their own (frat-boy party animals): Bush.

  9. #9 QrazyQat
    March 13, 2007

    The real question here is how long does it take Mr. Broad to make macaroni and cheese?

  10. #10 David Roberts
    March 13, 2007

    I wrote a long post on this, that gets at some of the inaccuracies you pass over, Tim:

    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/3/12/233737/021

    This piece was a real lemon.

  11. #11 Andrew Dessler
    March 13, 2007

    FYI, I blogged on this here.

  12. #12 Stu
    March 13, 2007

    Perhaps this is where you came across it in the first place, but the Sydney Morning Herald have printed this article as well. As a result the “mainstream scientists attacking Al Gore” falsehood got a run on late night ABC radio last night in their look at the next day’s papers as well.

  13. #13 Wayne Sanderson
    March 13, 2007

    And I have blogged on this here: http://blog.thedailybriefing.com.au/

  14. #14 Sortition
    March 13, 2007

    I have to take issue with

    >> This article is far from the standard of excellence in reporting we have come to expect from the Times.

    It seems to me that this article is actually quite typical of the level reporting one can expect from the NYT. See, for example, [FAIR's list of NYT related items](http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=19&media_outlet_id=1).

  15. #15 Bill O'Slatter
    March 13, 2007

    Interesting to see Broad’s article get a run in the Fairfax stable along the lines of ” scientists disprove global warming”. There is something sadly lacking in reporting on science in the mainstream media. It should not be sufficient to just have an arts degree to report on science.

  16. #16 hc
    March 14, 2007

    I think one needs to be careful of overreacting on every issue. The article discussed some claimed problems with Gore’s arguments but overall it had a fairly positive tone. The last two paras:

    ‘Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton who advised Mr. Gore on the book and movie, said that reasonable scientists disagreed on the malaria issue and other points that the critics had raised. In general, he said, Mr. Gore had distinguished himself for integrity.

    “On balance, he did quite well — a credible and entertaining job on a difficult subject,” Dr. Oppenheimer said. “For that, he deserves a lot of credit. If you rake him over the coals, you’re going to find people who disagree. But in terms of the big picture, he got it right.”‘

    Of course it is right to attack misrepresentations but the overall impression from Broad I thought endorsed Gore.

  17. #17 JB
    March 14, 2007

    “Of course it is right to attack misrepresentations but the overall impression from Broad I thought endorsed Gore.”

    I’d suggest re-reading the title: “From a rapt audience, a call to cool the hype”

    and reading this paragraph at the beginning, which is Broad’s basic thesis

    “part of his scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore’s central points are exaggerated and erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.”

    Conveniently, Broad does not mention that the scientists in this group make up a very small part of Gore’s audience — and very small part of the scientific community.

    The whole first part of the article was comprised of quotes from skeptics and Broad merely threw in a few mainstream scientists for “balance” (Fox style)

    It’s an old journalistic trick to make one’s case at the beginning of the article and then put in the “by the ways” at the end (where you have already lost about 3 quarters of your audience).

  18. #18 itchy
    March 14, 2007

    Thom said:

    Mooney, your whole point is pinned down with a flawed bit of reasoning–the idea that Gore himself does not realize that he is out on a limb on hurricanes.

    False. Chris’s statement says nothing about whether Gore knows or doesn’t know he’s ‘out on a limb’ — only that he is. And whether Gore knows or not doesn’t change the argument at all.

    I think Gore had to make some difficult choices. If he erred on the side of being conservative in his message (like the IPCC), climate change deniers could respond, “See, that’s not so bad.” But if Gore pointed to some of the effects that *might* happen, he could be criticized for being ‘alarmist.’

    As you say, Thom, Gore isn’t delivering a talk to scientists; he’s simplifying the message for laypeople, myself included. The message is much stronger at the human level — pictures of Katrina, animations of flooded areas, etc. — because, in the end, it’s about humanity (and other creatures).

    It’s tricky to pull off. Either way, Gore was going to be hit by critics.

  19. #19 Hank Roberts
    March 14, 2007

    “We should not be led by folks who are afraid of light.” — David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com/blackmail.html

  20. #20 J
    March 14, 2007

    Have you actually seen this? BBC UK documentary:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XttV2C6B8pU

  21. #21 El Cid
    March 14, 2007

    According to the website of Intelligence Squared, the US audience for the debate on “Global Warming Is Not A Crisis” hosted by NPR narrowly voted for the resolution 46 to 42, endorsing the idea that GW is NOT a crisis.

    Audio not yet available.

    http://www.intelligencesquaredus.org/Event.aspx?Event=12

  22. #22 Lori Lett
    March 15, 2007

    “Global Warming” has become an industry in and of itself. Let’s face it–thousands of people make their living off of the frenzy surrounding it.
    Scientists pretty much all agree, as the British Ch. 4 documentary, “The Great Global Warming Swindle” points out, that global warming is real. BUT history shows that it’s a natural part of the ebb and flow of the Earth’s climate over the last 10k years.
    Man has NO effect on global warming. Too many people are just “chicken littles” running around screaming “The earth is warming!!”, with the narcissitic conception that man can fix it.

  23. #23 JB
    March 15, 2007

    “Global Warming” has become an industry in and of itself.”

    The irony here is that we could go a long way toward addressing — and possibly heading off — the potential problems associated with global warming if it did become an industry in itself: more fuel efficient cars that emit less and save money, more energy efficient building materials, houses, motors, etc, etc.

  24. #24 Sylvia Tognetti
    March 15, 2007

    It will be interesting to see how much mileage this piece gets in future headlines as “an authoritative source”, just as Benny Peiser continues to be cited, even in this article, and to cling to his conclusions, even after “we” knocked down the entire edifice on which they were based, and he himself admitted to mistakes. I have a few more comments on this here, with more to come after my fingers stop sputtering.

  25. #25 Thom
    March 15, 2007

    What’s sad about this whole incident is that all the so-called experts, especially those who have published nothing on climate change such as Pielke Jr. and Vranes, will use this NY Times piece to ride a wave of media interest for some time to come.

    The public needs to hear from the real experts. Not a bunch of guys who play at climatologist on their blogs.

  26. #26 Blatherskite
    March 16, 2007

    “Man has NO effect on global warming.”

    Bold claim. Hope you are right.

  27. #27 JB
    March 16, 2007

    “Man has NO effect on global warming.”

    That claim is false on its face (Falls on its face, too).

    Humans (particularly men, who drive more than women) are certainly having an (ie, some) effect.

    One can argue about what that effect is (positive or negative) and about its magnitude (eg, whether it is significant compared to “natural” causes), but one can really not argue that “man has no effect”.

    That would be tantamount to saying that “humans are completely uncoupled from the earth’s atmosphere.”

  28. #28 Marion Delgado
    July 5, 2007

    Reporters and editors aren’t frat boy party animals, they’re stereotypical bourgeois soccer moms and softball dads. But their dislike for Gore is rooted in that sense that he’s coming off as, or needing to come off as, smarter than them. They really are used to feeling superior in information to politiicans. A senior editor at a paper I was at said that she felt that way covering Gore in Tennessee – he has to act so smart, basically. (And also that that made him seem cold).

    And that percolates up and feeds into, frankly, a bottom-line mentality on the part of the people who own and advertise in papers and on TV and radio.