David R. Henderson  

Gray Lady Down: Justin Gillis's Misleading News Story

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How to Mislead and Undercut While Appearing to be Writing a News Story

A friend who is an avid reader of the New York Times sent me a link last night to a piece by New York Times reporter, and my friend asked for what I think. I started to write him and realized that my thoughts might be of more general interest.

The background is that Justin Gillis, a New York Times reporter on the environment, wrote a piece pointing out that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

Much of the piece is unobjectionable: it's a report by a reporter who finds that some scientists are worried by the increased concentration of CO2. But at key points, Gillis outright misinforms or misleads the reader.

Consider his opening paragraph, which is arguably the most important paragraph of any news story:

The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.

Do you see anything wrong? I do. The most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere is not carbon dioxide, but water vapor. Here's what Thomas G. Moore writes in his entry on global warming in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Water vapor, the principal molecule that keeps us warm, accounts for almost all (98 percent) of the natural heating of the world.

A later sentence in Gillis's story:
Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air -- as of Thursday's reading, exactly 0.04 percent.

Notice three things.

First, they're not just "skeptics" now; they're "contrarians." Hint: don't pay attention to these people; they're just contrary.

Second, in case you didn't get the hint, they have little scientific credibility. So he doesn't seem to feel the need to name them. And the only reason we have to note them is that they're "politically influential."

Third, the most important point these "contrarians" make is that CO2 is only a tiny fraction of the air? One would think so since that's the only argument of the skeptics that Gillis highlights. But the skeptics have made much stronger points. They have, for example, noted that CO2 is not the most important greenhouse gas. They have pointed out that if there is as tight a connection as the believers (I guess that's the opposite of contrarians) believe, then the earth should have warmed in the last 10 years. In fact, the earth has neither warmed nor cooled.
If you want to see, by the way, a hilarious attempt by a global warming believer to deny this fact, see Peter Gleick's article here. Gleick claims that statements that the globe has not warmed are "scurrilous deceptions and falsehoods." Whoa! That's strong stuff. How does he back it up? By pointing to the fact that global warming has been "noted by every climate research institution tracking temperatures, the US National Academy of Sciences (over and over and over), every other national academy of sciences on the planet, and every professional society in the geosciences." But, probably remembering that he is a scientist, Gleick does feel the need to show the actual data. So he does. And what does it show, from 2002 to 2011? That's right. The line is flat. In case you think it's flat, he wants to reassure you that we've really had warming. So he quotes the British Met Office's statement that "we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000-2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850." Of course that doesn't contradict the "no warming in the last decade" claim at all. If a temperature rises and then stays steady for 10 years, then those 10 years will be the warmest decade. If real GDP had grown from 1940 to 2000 (which it did) and then stayed at its 2000 level until 2010 (which, fortunately, it didn't), then the decade of the highest real GDP would have been, you guessed it, the first decade of the 21st century. You can't make this stuff up. Well, actually, I guess you can.

Back to Gillis. Next sentence:

"The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic," a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.

So, you might argue that I was wrong above in my claim that Gillis doesn't feel the need to name any contrarians. Cleary, he has named one: Dana Rohrabacher. But what are Rohrabacher's scientific credentials? He's a Congressman. I've known Dana since July 1970 and I can believe that he said this. (I can also believe that Gillis took him out of context.) But the bigger point is that this is the best Gillis can do in finding a "contrarian?" Has he heard of Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen, to name only two? Of course, the answer must be, given that Gillis is not just a random person but an environmental reporter for the New York Times who has covered this issue for a long time, that he has heard of both Michaels and Lindzen. So why not mention them? I think it's obvious. Gillis wants the reader to associate "contrarianism" with "politically influential" Congressmen rather than with actual climate scientists who actually have reasons for what they say. The latter would not fit the narrative.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (21 to date)
stubydoo writes:

"In fact, the earth has neither warmed nor cooled."

Source?

Peter writes:

Dave,

The bit about Water Vapor vs CO2 mixes up what is the most abundant greenhouse gas and what is the most important greenhouse gas. Water Vapor is just a feedback, while CO2 is "Nature's Control Knob."

The part about how the earth "should have warmed in the last 10 years" reeks of going down the up escalator.

If you were actually interested in learning about the climate over the last 10 years you should start here.

Yes temperature has remained basically flat, but that's because solar output and ENSO have both gone through declining phase of their cycles. Without GHG global warming the climate would have cooled a lot.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

"The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years."

And where are the written records dating back for millions of years that reveal these observations (seen or not seen)?

Andrew writes:

Hey stubydoo,

Google "Economist Climate science: A sensitive matter." It provides a nice summary of the latest findings regarding global temperatures, with links to reports where you can check out the data for yourself.

David R. Henderson writes:

@stubydoo,
I refuse to "regive" sources to people to whom I've already given them. You took time to bother writing this comment. Take time to bother actually reading carefully my post.

pyroseed13 writes:

David, I am a bit disappointed that you are continuing to beat the drum for climate change skepticism. While I think that economists should discuss the costs and benefits of climate change, we need to recognize that the vast majority of peer-reviewed research supports the view that the Earth has warmed and that humans are primarily responsible. You accuse Gillis of wanting the reader to associate "contrarian" with "politically influential," but given that most of the research disputing the consensus has flowed from "politically influential" think tanks, I am not sure why this association is unjustified. At most you can cite two climatologists (well, Lindzen is actually an astrophysicist) who challenge the consensus, though their work has been widely criticized for methodological flaws, while those who accept the mainstream view could easily cite thousands.

Your claim that the "earth has neither warmed nor cooled in the last 10 years" is also a bit misleading. Yes, if you slice the global warming trend line a certain way you will find periods where this is true, but this should not obscure the overall trend which shows persistent global warming.

I am a fan and avid reader of this blog who does not want to see the credibility of its authors diminished. I can understand why liberals think that free market economists have nothing useful to say about the environment because many of them argue from the position of denying that a problem exists at all. Occasionally these free market economists are right to do this, and I do agree that liberals have tendency to exaggerate the costs of climate change, but I would appreciate a more thoughtful and nuanced discussion of these issues.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

David,

You could easily fill the rest of your days reconstructing articles of this caliber. They get published by the dozens a day. Not saying your contribution to the debate isn't valued, but it does strike me as a little naïve. This article isn't some aberration in an otherwise honest debate; this is its bread and butter.

Ken B writes:

Excellent post David.

Readers should note that the main importance of CO2 in warming derives mostly not from its direct effect but from its alleged effect in increasing the water vapor content of the atmosphere. Is there a positive feedback? Is this a large or a small effect? This simple question, the heart of the matter, is ignored in most discussions. The size of this effect is what is questioned by most scientific skeptics. Did the NYT article mention this at all?

Note the correction in the article; the reporter initially misstated the result by a factor of 100, a surprisingly lapse for one scolding others for ignorance and carelessness.

Bob Murphy writes:

Thanks for sharing, David. I hadn't seen that Gleick piece. Its funniest line: "What about the last 15 years? This claim, too, is false, in two important ways: First, it actually has warmed over the past 15 years..." (People will need to read the article to understand exactly what he means by that, and why David and I think the whole thing is "hilarious.")

I observe a great deal of alarm in mainstream media about human-caused global warming. What causes this alarm? I allow that humans might be causing global warming, as a reasonable conjecture.

But let me propose another possible explanation for all of the alarm. If it can be established as true that unregulated human industry is endangering the livability of Earth, then it is a short step to justify great increases in government regulation of human industry.

So what if there exists a set of people who suppose that it would be a good thing if government greatly increased its regulation of human industry? And what if these people are susceptible to applaud any argument which will lead to their desired end? Then it seems to me that this set of people might quickly embrace, without critical care, the idea that humans are causing global warming.

To be scientifically objective, I propose we would need to sort out this predisposition.

So of course you could not ask me. Because I acknowledge a predisposition: I am suspicious of state power.

David R. Henderson writes:

@pyroseed,
we need to recognize that the vast majority of peer-reviewed research supports the view that the Earth has warmed
I think you're right and nothing I said contradicts that. I was addressing a narrower issue and I made that crystal clear: has the earth warmed in the last 10 years. It hasn't.
@Eelco Hoogendorn,
Not saying your contribution to the debate isn't valued, but it does strike me as a little naïve.
I don't think it's naive to challenge a reporter in one of the most respected newspapers in the world when he misleads. In fact, I don't have a clue why you would say that.
@Ken B,
Thanks.
@Bob Murphy,
Thanks.

happyjuggler0 writes:

pyroseed13,

For someone who chooses to present himself as knowledgeable about climate science, you are remarkably ignorant about who Richard Lindzen is, or isn't.

You claim he isn't a climatologist, but rather an astrophysicist. Your claim is laughably wrong. He is one of the most well known, and highly cited, and highly respected climatologists in the world, and he has been one for half a century.

I am not sure where you got your misinformation about Dr. Lindzen from, but please stop spreading your blatant untruths here.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Lindzen

pyroseed13 writes:

@happyjuggler Sorry that was a typo. I meant to say "atmospheric physicist." I was not implying that atmospheric physicists have nothing useful to say about climate change btw. I was only pointing out that much of his work has been criticized.

Lars P writes:

Just a typography note to David and others.

The correct name of the gas is "CO₂". In 2013 there is no good reason to not use standard unicode characters on the web.

Other useful unicode "tricks" include:
- 15 °C
- E = mc²
- 9 ½ weeks

The only slightly hard part is how to type them. The simplest way is to use Google! Search for "subscript 2 unicode", and you will get a page where you can copy the character from to paste into your original text.

Hope this helps!

Harold Cockerill writes:

I'm really worried about the planet heating up and want government to do something about it. First I'd like them to show they can fix something simple. How about getting rid of poverty? That's an easy one compared to the climate. Also it looks like Obamacare may not be the wonderful thing we've been promised.

Most likely if government gets in the climate fixing game we'll all end up like the salmon I grilled yesterday.

Brad D writes:

Why do believers focus solely on the potential negative aspects of potential global warming?

Is it possible that we could have some positive effects of potential global warming?

Surely something good might result from global warming.

RPLong writes:

What makes me skeptical of AGW theory is precisely the fact that as soon as the scientific discussion expands to include things like orbital patters and solar activity, so many AGW-adherents revert back to the fact that average global temperatures have increased slightly over the past 150 years.

That mere fact of data is not alone sufficient to render all additional scientific inquiry crank skepticism.

jpa writes:

Tom,
We get historical CO2 concentration levels from history by drilling down and getting ice cores from antartica. Those ice cores have pockets of trapped air, where we can see what the atmosphere was like 100,000 or 1,000,000 years ago.

I'm a skeptic, but CO2 levels are pretty well understood.

Mark Bahner writes:
I was addressing a narrower issue and I made that crystal clear: has the earth warmed in the last 10 years. It hasn't.

By that you mean land and ocean surface temperatures. Or potential lower tropospheric temperatures.

You don't mean ocean temperatures have not increased.

Ken P writes:

@David Henderson,
I see 4 categories: Deniers, Contrarians, Believers and Alarmists.


Ken P writes:

I meant skeptic, not contrarian.

There is also the issue of extent. With a prediction of 6 degrees C by the end of the century, Im in the denier camp. A prediction of 1..5 degrees C puts me in the skeptic camp.

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