Tim Ball, Down in the Quote Mine

One favourite tactic of creationists is that of "quote-mining", using out-of-context quotes from scientists that appear to support the creationists' position. Global warming skeptics play this game as well and a recent Calgary Herald column Tim Ball is a good example of the practice. He quotes James Hansen, Stephen Schneider, Phil Jones, Tom Wigley, Kevin Trenberth all of whom apparently agree that we don't know enough about climate to justify something like Kyoto. He ends up this one:

Schneider told Discover Magazine: "We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and make little mention of doubts we may have."

John Quiggin has the history of this one.

Ball also quoted a dishonest attack on Flannery from Bob Carter.

However, Australian climate scientists have debunked it thoroughly, Prof. Bob Carter of James Cook University in Queensland describing the book as "the best written work of Australian fiction since Tim Winton's Cloudstreet."

Reader Ian Forrester wrote to the Calgary Herald:

Tim Ball shows a lack of respect for the many honest and hardworking scientists who have shown that the evidence for global warming is a scientific reality. The fact that he chose to quote Bob Carter as an authority shows either his own lack of knowledge in the field or is a blatant attempt at obfuscation and obscuring of the facts. The article by Carter is a gross misrepresentation of the data shown in the CRU annual report of global climate. Anyone actually looking at the figure in the CRU paper will see an obvious rising of global temperatures over the past 50 to 60 years and not the cooling that Carter claims.

This is just another example of the dishonesty shown by the small band of AGW deniers who are being paid by the very industries who are contributing the most to climate change. Ball's article is full of quotes taken out of context and statements such as his remarks on global cooling which are just not true.

It is time that the popular media sources had their scientific articles vetted by a prominent and honest scientist so that the nonsense promulgated by the likes of Ball and Carter is not given the prominence that it is presently getting.

(The last paragraph was not published.)

Carter replied:

Ian Forrester seems indignant that some expert commentators do not agree with his views on human-caused global warming. And neither do some of the facts. Based on the official U.K. estimate of global temperature change, the average global temperature has been in stasis since 1998.

Yet, human greenhouse emissions have continued their steady rise over the same time period.

How long does the temperature stasis have to last before Forrester and others like him reassess their passionate beliefs?

How many times does Carter have to misrepresent the CRU data before the global warming skeptics that visit here criticize his behaviour? Spence UK? Hans Erren? John McCall? Steve McIntyre? ... crickets chirping ...

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I want to play the game too!

Bob Carter says in a previous post:

Consider the simple fact, drawn from the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, that for the years 1998-2005 global average temperature did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though not at a rate that differs significantly from zero).

Yes, you did read that right. And also, yes, this eight-year period of temperature stasis did coincide with society's continued power station and SUV-inspired pumping of yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

OK, I'm going to play this game with something all too painfully familiar, gasoline prices. Now some doom-and-gloomers will argue that gasoline prices have been soaring recently and indeed been reaching new record highs on an almost daily basis. But I say poppycock, gasoline prices have been if anything stable or even going down slightly, as is clear from the graph at the bottom of the page, from September 27th, 2005 onwards.

So, consider the simple fact, drawn from the official gasoline price records of the Department of Energy of the Government of the United States, that for the months late September 2005 - late April 2006 national average gasoline prices did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though maybe not at a rate that differs significantly from zero for the average consumer).

Yes, you did read that right. And also, yes, this seven month period of gas price stasis did coincide with increased tensions in not only Iraq but Iran as well, and SUV-inspired demand of yet more gasoline into the tanks.

I rest my case.

Schneider's statement, http://rpuchalsky.home.att.net/sci_env/sch_quote.html#quote, strikes me as arrogant and unintelligent, and not much softened by the context of surrounding sentences. How relevant it is to anything is highly debatable. However, to complain when people with whom you disagree dare to cite it for arguments you dislike strikes me as unusually thinskinned, coming from one who never hesitates to give as good as he gets in an argument.

Glen, almost certainly you are, since it is routinely circulated in doctored forms. If the full quote were more damning, it would be used.

Interestingly, the quote miners are doing here exactly what they impute to Schneider - stripping out the qualifications to produce a scary scenario of scientific fraud.

By John Quiggin (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

However, to complain when people with whom you disagree dare to cite it for arguments you dislike strikes me as unusually thinskinned, coming from one who never hesitates to give as good as he gets in an argument.

Err, so quoting out of context is perfectly alright?

By Meyrick Kirby (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

The short version is better by virtue of being terse and capturing the heart of the problem. The full quote doesn't add enough to make up for that. But anybody who finds the abbreviated quote offensive is going to find the full one just as much so.

The quote is not being taken out of context; it accurately captures what Schneider is trying to say. What makes the full quote more damning is only that it makes it so eminently clear that he isn't being taken out of context.

Glen Raphael says

"It's OK to doctor and fabricate quotes to make your point"

That's terse and captures the heart of what you're saying, in my view. So, applying your own rules, I can quote you on this.

If you don't like this, stick to the standard ethics of quotation. If Schneider says that the doctored quotes misrepresent him (and he does) give the full quote.

If you really think that the doctoring is explained by a desire for terseness, ask yourself why the same bits are omitted every time. And ask yourself why Simon and others inserted bogus text, until they were caught out.

By John Quiggin (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Defending Schneider on this one is a bad tactical choice for global warming non-sceptics who value the ethical and intellectual high ground. The argument that context substantially changes the impact of the short version is weak; and no, quoutees do not have an absolute right to dictate the length at which they will be quoted. If some quoters have doctored the text, that does absolutely nothing whatever to make the original any more defensible. The better tack would be, "Schneider said a dumb thing, it was a long time ago, we don't agree with what he said, and it is a trivial point in relation to the status of the issue today."

I have, I suspect unlike any of Schneider's critics, actually read the Discover interview from which the quote is taken. It's clear in that context that Schneider is not advocating dishonesty, but is talking about the difficulties of communicating scientific issues through media that demand soundbites.

I observe yet again the irony that those accusing Schneider of dishonesty ending up either practising or condoning fabrication and fraud.

By John Quiggin (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Mr. Lambert, you are an expert on many subjects, but not, I trust, on all of them. On those where you are not, do you want those who do claim expertise, when they address the wider public, to "offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts [they] might have"? (See quote referenced above for any additional context you might deem relevant.) I don't, and perhaps that is where we part company on this one. And by the way, on those subjects where your expertise is much greater than mine, should I as a reader of your blog assume that you presenting information and argument with Schneiderian philosophy?

Sorry Ken, but communicating complex science to a general audience is hard. If you don't simplify things, they won't understand what you are saying. Scary scenarios are a genuine possibilities of global warming. You think they shouldn't be mentioned because people might get scared? If you write too much about your doubts people will think that what you are saying won't happen at all. And you'll get quote mined by the likes of Tim Ball.

Tim, it's not a question of whether people are scared, it's a question of whether people are being misled. It's dishonest to portray the scariest conceivable scenarios as imminent without some indication of how unlikely they are or how long we have to prepare and adapt and adjust our behavior.

Maybe this would be clearer to you if, for the sake of argument, we used the same technique on the other side of the issue. Let's try it and see.

So: scary scenarios are also a genuine possibility of preventing global warming. If we incur large costs to reduce emissions, this impacts economic and technological progress. Regulations and taxes designed to address any single specific purpose reduce the flexibility to adapt to solving other problems that may arise, of which there are infinitely many possibilities. I find that really frightening, but it's hard to communicate the dangers to a general audience. So let's come up with some specific scary scenario, as Schneider recommends.

Let's see...an economy less able to rebound from minor shocks means a global depression is more likely. It means less ability to address disease outbreaks. It means less ability to address world hunger. But heck, let's really go for broke. So here's my scare story:

Suppose we adopt Kyoto and its successors wholeheartedly and manage to address global warming at the cost of, say, a 2% per year reduction in GDP growth. Meaning the world is about half as rich 50 years from now as it might otherwise have been. The cost of having so retarded technological and economic progress is that when we then discover a meteor hurling towards the earth, we don't have the resources to successfully address that issue, and most of humanity perishes.

Can I assume you approve if I use this scenario to whip up panic in the popular press? Without writing too much about my doubts?

"Kyoto could cause us all to die from an asteroid strike." is totally honest, but still not very effective. Schneider says it's up to us to strike a balance between those two considerations. So how about this: "Passing the Kyoto treaty makes us all more likely to die from an asteroid strike!" (this is true, by my reasoning above) or "Kyoto increases the chance of uncontrollable plagues and world hunger!" Informative, true, and not misleading other than that it lacks caveats and any sense of the magnitude of the increase. I like it! Moreover, Schneider approves! Right? :-)

The Calgary Herald is a good source for this kind of nonsense, as it is the daily paper for Canada's oil centre. They followed it up with "De Freitas just wants an honest debate" and "scientists and left-wing governments are in a conspiracy". Exxon/Mobil has learned from the creationists. It's intriguing how they have geologists (in Alberta, mostly working for the oil, gas, and coal business) and political commentators writing these, they have trouble finding climatologists.

What was that quote? Something like "It's hard to convince someone of a point when their employment depends on not understanding it".

Of course, spending $300 billion to punish Saddam for 9/11, make us safe from terrorists bearing WMDs, fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here, and/or liberate the suffering Iraqis whom we love could have an impact on the free funds for asteroid impact management as well.

Perhaps you might open-up your minds sufficiently to at least consider looking at the link below and viewing the videos it contains:


I challenge you to challenge your beliefs. What do you make of the fact that water vapour, far and away more so than CO2, is the most significant greenhouse gas? Still want to trend away from hydrocarbon engines and go strictly with hydrogen? Or that there is scientific evidence indicating that, historically, temperature rises have indeed been linked to CO2 increases, but that - in fact - the CO2 increases follow the temperature rises, they don't precipitate them. Or how about the historical evidence pointing to the fact that the Vikings farmed areas in Greenland a thousand years ago that are now frozen with permafrost?

It may be all the politically correct rage these days to blindly follow certain scientists' claims that humans are causing global warming, but how about listening to a few of the others (not just Tim Ball) who make credible claims to the contrary? Or will you be like the contemporaries of Copernicus and Galileo and force them to renounce their beliefs and step back in-line with the rest of the "flat-earth" scientific community?

"I challenge you to challenge your beliefs. What do you make of the fact that water vapour, far and away more so than CO2, is the most significant greenhouse gas?'

I "make" of it that this is a well-known fact which is in every science text and which is factored into every climate model.

I "make" of it that the current level of water vapor in the atmosphere effectively absorbs all re-emitted infrared radiation at the frequencies which it absorbs meaning the total greenhouse effect is relatively insensitive to fluctuations in water vapor levels.

I "make" of it that the total greenhouse effect (both natural and manmade) is responsible for increasing the temperature of the Earth by about 30 degrees celsius, and that scientists have been predicting that a doubling in the gases responsible for the other 10% of global warming will increase average temperatures by around 10% - or 3 degrees celsius- for over a century.

I "make" of it that just because some group proclaim themselves to be skeptics that doesn't exempt their claims from a healthy skepticism.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 11 Nov 2006 #permalink

Ian Gould's answer covers it perfectly, and this discussion may be dead. If not, has anyone considered that the real sin of the deniers, the characteristic that annoys us most, could be that they are queue-jumpers? Take Mr. "I challenge you to challenge your beliefs" Darwin above, and his advertisement for the "Friends of Science". The FOS and many like them avoid the study and work that normally results in some level of understanding. Their anonymous followers watch a PR movie, conclude "the scientists are wrong", then expect to jump to the head of the line (to the end of the normally required process), where they can convince people of their view merely by saying it is so. The creationists are amazingly similar in this respect. The worst part is that some active and productive scientists do it. They gain credentials in one field, then pass judgement in another, and gain star status. The media want to meet the contrarians, not the actual experts. A casual search reveals cases in which reporters who would never bother to highlight or interview a real scientist in a field, will gladly promote one that works in one field, and damns the accepted conclusions of another field. Expertise in carcinogens, history, fossils, accounting, maybe even a little experience with met station data, etc. suddenly qualifies them to judge (or rather skip) modern climate science (sometimes, oddly enough, under pseudonyms drawn from their true fields of study; at least the public contrarians like Ball own up to their views and opinions, and don't hide). Real climatologists might want to pause and avoid making the same error. Just a thought.

Eli's take on this was amateur night which can be summarized as local knowledge can be very important, and if you don't have it you will fall into traps. The problem is that a lot of these folk, don't realize that they are in a trap and when you point it out to them they get nasty. There are a lot of these types, not only in environmental science, just go to crank.net to see a full display.

Or, how about "just plain lazy" as a fair description of the jump-in-and-deny crowd? Maybe that is why their idea of a science publication is an article in the newspaper.