David R. Henderson  

Borenstein's Biased Reporting

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I posted last week on Andrew C. Revkin's and John M. Broder's New York Times news story, to show how clever journalists can bias the reader at every turn. In today's local Monterey County Herald appears an Associated Press news story from yesterday that does the same thing on the same issue: Climategate. The story is by news reporters Seth Borenstein, Raphael Satter, and Malcolm Ritter.

Here are some of the key paragraphs that do that, starting with the first paragraph. [I won't quote all the paragraphs, both because of my time constraint and because of my concern with copyright issues.]

LONDON (AP) -- E-mails stolen from climate scientists show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data - but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked, according to an exhaustive review by The Associated Press.

Notice, as in the NY Times' piece I analyzed last week, the prominent use of the word "stolen." Again, if it's true, it's important--theft is bad. But is this such an important part of the story still? Also, is it true? How do we know the e-mails were stolen rather than leaked? The major point made explicitly in this paragraph is that the messages don't support the view that the science was faked. Of course, because that's the main point Borenstein, Satter, and Ritter make, a careful reader will want to see whether they establish that claim in this 1800+-word story.

The 1,073 e-mails examined by the AP show that scientists harbored private doubts, however slight and fleeting, even as they told the world they were certain about climate change. However, the exchanges don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

There are two claims in the above. The first is that they had private doubts and that these were slight and fleeting. Nowhere later in the story do they establish that their doubts were slight and fleeting. Second, the exchanges don't undercut the vast body of evidence supporting the global warming thesis. But nowhere in the article do they refer us to a "vast body of evidence."

The scientists were keenly aware of how their work would be viewed and used, and, just like politicians, went to great pains to shape their message. Sometimes, they sounded more like schoolyard taunts than scientific tenets.

OK, I'll give them that one. That does sum up a lot of the juvenile tone of the e-mails.

Frankel [Mark Frankel, mentioned in an earlier paragraph as director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science] saw "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very 'generous interpretations.'"

"Generous interpretations" sounds pretty serious to me. As Frankel said, it's not falsification or fabrication, but it sounds like going beyond what the data say. Weren't the reporters curious enough to ask him to give instances? Where did these scientists go beyond the data? And to what extent is the much-vaunted "consensus" due to people giving over-generous interpretations?

The e-mails were stolen from the computer network server of the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in southeast England, an influential source of climate science, and were posted online last month. The university shut down the server and contacted the police.

Did we forget to mention that the data were stolen?

One of the most disturbing elements suggests an effort to avoid sharing scientific data with critics skeptical of global warming. It is not clear if any data was destroyed; two U.S. researchers denied it.

This is semi-good reporting. It is disturbing. Their second sentence implies that the data may have been destroyed. Their last clause is weak: two U.S. researchers denied it? Who are these researchers? What is their role in this?

Again, because of copyright issues, I don't want to quote too many of their paragraphs but some of the next paragraphs are decent reporting. They point out that the some "mainstream scientists repeatedly suggested" that they all block attempts of critics who sought their data under Freedom of Information Act kinds of laws. They also pointed out that this raises a "science ethics question." They also, to their credit, directly quoted some of the damning e-mails. They also quote Michael Mann's statement that, despite the request, he didn't delete e-mails. Finally, they quote one scientist celebrating the death of a critic, another jokingly suggesting that they hire a Mafia hitman to murder global warming skeptics, and another stating his temptation to beat the crap out of another skeptic. Interestingly, though, they don't point out that this skeptic who avoided being beat up is himself a climate scientist named Patrick Michaels.

When the journal, Climate Research, published a skeptical study, Penn State scientist Mann discussed retribution this way: "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal."

We're getting warm because we almost get to the circular reasoning. "The skeptics don't publish in the peer-reviewed journals," goes the chant. And so when they do so publish, let's boycott those journals. But now notice the very next paragraph:

That skeptical study turned out to be partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute.

In other words, dear reader, you can dismiss your concern about these scientists' suggested boycott of a scientific journal because the paper it published was partly funded by an oil lobby. And, of course, none of the papers done by the players who believe in anthropogenic global warming were funded by organizations with an ax to grind, right?

One e-mail that skeptics have been citing often since the messages were posted online is from Jones. He says: "I've just completed Mike's (Mann) trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (from 1981 onward) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

Jones was referring to tree ring data that indicated temperatures after the 1950s weren't as warm as scientists had determined.

The "trick" that Jones said he was borrowing from Mann was to add the real temperatures, not what the tree rings showed. And the decline he talked of hiding was not in real temperatures, but in the tree ring data which was misleading, Mann explained.

Lots going on here. Notice that the reporters don't comment on the use of the word "hide." When researchers try to hide something that contradicts their other findings or views, then, as comedian Will Durst says, "That's not good." Notice also that the tree ring data say that temperatures weren't as warm [they mean "high"] as "scientists had determined." In other words, scientists had already "determined" that the temperatures were high.

Remember that the reporters promised, in the second paragraph, that the e-mails "don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions." They're coming close to the end of the story now, so it's time to show that. Here goes:

But in the end, global warming didn't go away, according to the vast body of research over the years.

Wow! That cinches it. They don't actually give us any quotes or hints or specific findings from this "vast body of research" on which Borenstein has apparently been reporting on for years. Instead, they then quote two "moderate" climate researchers who state that the e-mails didn't change their minds.

They finally get around to citing one of the skeptics, Steve McIntyre. Then they write:

McIntyre, 62, of Toronto, was trained in math and economics and says he is "substantially retired" from the mineral exploration industry, which produces greenhouse gases.

Trained in "math and economics." That's fair: he's not a climate scientist. But he was in an industry that "produces greenhouse gases." So, of course, he must be biased, right?

Interestingly, Borenstein et al never mention two e-mails that raise the most skepticism about the science, both by Kevin Trenberth. I can't say it better than Bob Murphy and so here is his comment:

But hold on just a second. Trenberth's follow-up email was even more interesting than the one receiving the bulk of the press coverage. Tom Wigley quoted Trenberth's statement and said, "I do not agree with this." In other words, Wigley was saying that he thought he and his colleagues could explain the lack of warming, and so there was no travesty. To this Trenberth replied (bold has been added):

Hi Tom
How come you do not agree with a statement that says we are no where close to knowing where energy is going or whether clouds are changing to make the planet brighter. We are not close to balancing the energy budget. The fact that we can not account for what is happening in the climate system makes any consideration of geoengineering quite hopeless as we will never be able to tell if it is successful or not! It is a travesty!
Kevin

At the risk of being melodramatic, I do declare that the above email is simply jaw-dropping. If the climate scientists cannot tell if a particular remedy is working, it means that they aren't exactly sure how the climate would have evolved in the absence of such a remedy. In other words, Trenberth at least is admitting that he is not at all confident in the precise, quantitative predictions that the alarmists are citing as proof of the need for immediate government intervention. And this expression of doubt wasn't from the distant past: Trenberth sent the above email in October of this year!



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COMMENTS (15 to date)

Thanks. This is a useful microcosm of the wider problem in climate and climategate reporting. The countervailing powers in society -- media, the courts, politics, and climate economists like 'Lord Stern' -- have all invested heavily and it will take time for these oil-tankers to adjust course and re-examine the science. A gale of voter backlash whipped up by climategate could speed things up.

In my view the whole affair is raw material for a wonderful case-study of the power of ideology, and of the fractious but ultimately productive relationship -- so accurately depicted by Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek, and Talcott Parsons -- between science and ideology. Hayek brilliantly subjected the 'science' of state activism to new scrutiny, and helped re-shape the world. Of course, the economic impact of climate policy in the early 21st century may not be as great as the impact of corporatist policy in the mid-20th, but you never know!

Bob Murphy writes:

David,

I agree with your post--especially the conclusion!--but I wonder if we're being unfair. It would be neat if you found a different article by the same reporters (if possible) on an apolitical topic, and then could see if they backed up their claims in the story itself.

In other words, I'm just wondering if it's asking too much for them to justify their claims that "this doesn't upset the consensus," beyond quoting some scientists who make that claim. I mean, surely you don't expect them to get into a discussion of climate forcing and model calibration, right?

Bob Murphy writes:

Let me put it this way, David: I think it's probably true that most practicing climate scientists (and yes I know some people object to the very term "climate scientist") would say that Climategate doesn't really affect their overall view on, say, the climate system's sensitivity to a doubling of CO2. Right after this broke, I asked the two practicing scientists in this area what they thought, and neither thought it affected the science. (One was a skeptic, the other not.)

When you think about it, that makes perfect sense, because the actual peers don't need to rely on the assurances of Phil Jones to reach their own conclusions.

For an analogy, if it turned out that Scott Sumner was getting paid by a firm that supplied paper to the Treasury, the scandal wouldn't influence my views. I would say, "I knew all along Sumner was a monetary crank."

(For those who are shocked, I think Scott would laugh at the above so chill out.)

So for me, the relevance of Climategate was not that it upset what other climate scientists would think, but rather it would help us outsiders evaluate the claims coming from the inner clique versus the skeptics who weren't in the club.

I suppose in a sense you could say, "So it shattered the 'consensus,'" but I'm just pointing out that if the reporters had conducted a scientific poll of published climate modelers, I bet most would agree with the reporters' claims that you wanted them to substantiate.

Bob Murphy writes:

* Oops I left out a phrase: I asked the two practicing climate scientists whom I know personally what they thought, after Climategate broke...

Tom West writes:

I have to agree with Bob, the science is not much affected by ClimateGate. *However*, the politics very much so. (Although I've dropped my personal P(AGW) to 0.75 from 0.95.)

As Bryan has pointed out, in areas that one knows very little about (such as climate), the intelligent usually cleave to the scientific consensus. It's not always right, but it's right a heck of a lot more often than any other view.

The scientists involved quite explicitly attempted to take advantage of this particular behaviour. Since I consider trusting experts a generally admirable approach, I do feel somewhat betrayed.

I can also understand why they did it. It took 14 years from pretty conclusive scientific proof that smoking was dangerous for the government to declare it dangerous (and start taking action) due to industry obfuscation and delaying tactics, including buying "scientists" to "prove" that cigarettes were safe. Choosing to play by strict scientific rules allowed industry to delay action long to probably cause thousands, if not a hundred thousand premature deaths.

With this as an example, the death toll potentially in the millions, and the science a good deal less certain, I can understand why they chose to play a political game rather than a scientific one.

But it still hurts.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Michael, Bob, and Tom,
I think that Bob's criticism is basically correct. He's right that on issues other than this, I wouldn't expect reporters to write like experts. Note, though, that Bob has challenged only one part of my post, albeit an important part. What he hasn't challenged is the important things they left out and how they felt the incessant need to hint that those who disagree are paid off.
Best,
David

Greg Ransom writes:

The CRU emails DO show that scientists repeatedly threatened to cut off journalists how didn't report the global warming story exactly as they wanted them to.

Greg Ransom writes:

"Climategate" is as much about fraud and corruption and party--line politics among journalists, as it is about fraud and corruption and party-line politics among scientists, isn't it?

Greg Ransom writes:

It looks to me like Bob Murphy is wrong on this.

The most damaging revelations out of Climategate are (1) the junk nature of the computer code underneath the global climate model created by the CRU, as revealed by the comments of coders buried in that code, and the junk nature of the "normalized" temperature readings going into CRU accounts of global temperature changes, as revealed by what has taken place in Australia and in Russia, and due to the 85% heat source contamination rate of weather collection sites in America.

Most researchers are dependent on only 3 research centers for this stuff, and all centers seem to attempt to make their own "models" and charts fit to what the others are doing.

There is a real scientific crisis here, as a number of the very top climate scientists have testified.

David R. Henderson writes:

Greg,
None of what you said in your previous comment contradicts what Bob Murphy said.
Best,
David

malavel writes:

Seth Borenstein has emails in the climategate batch. So he's probably not unbiased.

"Kevin, Gavin, Mike,
It’s Seth again. Attached is a paper in JGR today that Marc Morano is hyping wildly. It’s in a legit journal. Whatchya think?"

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/12/aps-seth-borenstein-is-just-too-damn-cozy-with-the-people-he-covers-time-for-ap-to-do-somethig-about-it

David C writes:

"Notice that the reporters don't comment on the use of the word 'hide.' When researchers try to hide something that contradicts their other findings or views, then, as comedian Will Durst says, "That's not good." Notice also that the tree ring data say that temperatures weren't as warm [they mean "high"] as "scientists had determined." In other words, scientists had already "determined" that the temperatures were high."

It's a good point about people subconsciously or consciously looking for the facts to fit their views, but how is he hiding the warming if he's making an adjustment based on openly published research? Were they refusing to make publicly available their methods of adjusting the raw data? It seems more like "hide" was just a poor choice of words.

The last one on news reporting of ClimateGate was a good critique, but with this article it seems like you're doing a lot of nitpicking. Also, please don't turn into Dean Baker. I read blogs like this because I know the major media outlets are terrible. I don't need a constant reminder.

David C writes:

Oh, and I forgot about Bob Murphy's argument about the Trenberth emails.

Via Real Climate (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/11/the-cru-hack-context/comment-page-21/)

Here's a paper explaining exactly what Trenberth was talking about, and why he mentions geoengineering and not climate change in general:

http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/cas/Trenberth/trenberth.papers/EnergyDiagnostics09final2.pdf

The abstract:
"Planned adaptation to climate change requires information about what is happening and why. While a long-term trend is for global warming, short-term periods of cooling can occur and have physical causes associated with natural variability. However, such natural variability means that energy is rearranged or changed within the climate system, and should be traceable. An assessment is given of our ability to track changes in reservoirs and flows of energy within the climate ystem. Arguments are given that developing the ability to do this is important, as it affects interpretations of global and especially regional climate change, and prospects for the future."

He's worried about geoengineering's prospects because of difficulties in predicting regional variations. Emissions reductions are about preventing regional changes, but geoengineering causes regional changes.

MJR writes:

"[The] temptation to advocacy is a sort of inverted form of Pascal's Gambit, wherein the infinite returns associated with religious salvation (eternal bliss), when dropped into an expected value calculation with any non-zero probability of that salvation occurring, result in infinite expected value numbers. Hard to resist converting to Catholicism in such circumstances. What's the net present value of infinite bliss? (If you asked 'What's my discount rate?' please seek professional help).

Of course, there is also a sort of inverted 'division by zero error' implicit in this sort of exercise. Expected value calculations lose all meaning and do so very quickly when infinity is used as a variable, as even vanishingly small probability assignments mean that even cosmically unlikely events are still worth betting vast sums (even all available sums) on. More crudely: 'It's not the odds, it's the stakes.'"

Nicely sums up the motives of the climate scientists working on this project. Even if you're not convinced of the merits of global warming, it's easy to justify manipulating or deleting uncooperative data in order to convince the general public that climate change is real. But rationalizing these actions from an economics prospective doesn't make this good science.

Note: I am not the author of the above quote; The author of the blog I referenced (Equity Private) simply said it better than I ever could. A link to the original post: http://finemrespice.com/node/74

MJR writes:

By the way, that post was specifically re: Tom West and his point about understanding why the scientists did it.

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