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Weird Science
Why Is Accurate Climate Reporting So Difficult?

Rising sea levels and steady erosion from waves sank five reef islands in the Pacific Ocean over a six-decade span and a further six were seriously eroded, according to a report published late last week. In the rush to get the news out about this study, some media outlets exaggerated the link between the fate of the islands and climate change, including the Guardian, which published a follow-up to the original article that included comments from the study’s lead author:

Many media outlets, including the Guardian, jumped to the conclusion that the islands were lost to climate change. But this largely misinterprets the science, according to the study’s author, Dr Simon Albert.

“All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told the Guardian. […]

The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.

However, as Albert’s paper points out, the ocean has been rising in the Solomon Islands at 7mm per year, more than double the global average. Since the 1990s, trade winds in the Pacific have been particularly intense. This has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles…

Let’s give credit to the Guardian for not merely burying these comments by the study’s author in a correction to the original story, and instead publishing this as its own article. With that said, there are two important takeaways from this mistake.

First, science journalism is hard. Reporters are tasked with making dry, complicated, jargon-filled reports and studies interesting to a blasé general audience. All too often, however, this results in sensationalism and exaggerated headlines that obscure what the new research really means. There’s no quick fix to this, but learning what news outlets you can trust with stories like these is a good start.

The second issue this kind of reporting points to could be more difficult to address, however, as it is more systemic. There is a strong current of climate alarmism in the modern environmental movement, and the media organs that try to cater to these greens therefore tend to exaggerate the harm climate change is causing while simultaneously downplaying any good green news. It’s confirmation bias in action, and it ultimately leads to favoring immediate growth-killing measures over smarter, more forward-looking green policies.

Worst of all, when greens paint the future in the worst possible, apocalyptic light, and exaggerate climate science to fit this portrait, they not only breed skepticism among their audiences (who grow weary of predictions that never fully come to pass). They also discredit their own cause when scientists are forced to reach out to news outlets and clarify what their studies actually meant.

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  • Frank Natoli

    Critical reasoning requires the individual to assemble all relevant facts, then formed a reasoned conclusion on the basis of the facts.
    Man-made climate change reverses the process. The [emotional] conclusion, that carbon fuels must be immediately abandoned, comes first, and the “facts” to derive the emotional conclusion are reverse engineered. That is why the “facts” prove troublesome, see above article.
    Science has always had a hard time with those operating from emotional beliefs. Ask Galileo. It’s no different today. Be a scientist, dependent as always on government largesse, say the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, you won’t be burnt at the stake, but you will have your funding yanked.

    • CosmotKat

      Well said, Frank.

      • Frank Natoli

        Thank you.

  • Beauceron

    “Climate alarmists don’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story.”

    Or funding.

    • Jim__L

      Interesting thing about Climate Funding — I was talking with a researcher at a NASA research center recently about how projects are funded, and she told me about some research that was pursuing funding from a “Climate Study” source.

      The research wasn’t really related to climate. At all.

      As you might imagine, successful grant-writers are quick learners when it comes to relating their field of study to whatever the cause du jour might be. Research jobs depend on getting grants to fund themselves, so suddenly a whole
      lot of science finds itself “climate-related”. When it isn’t.

      And if these scientists’ cynicism and self-interest is just a little bit more developed, they say, “Yeah, sure, climate change is real, there’s no doubt about it”. Why not? Either they wrong the world, or the world does wrong to them. Besides, no one is really implementing strict laws based on climate change, so who’s really being hurt? Heck, it might even be true. This other guy over here says it is, why not believe him?

      And that, boys and girls, is how “scientific consensus” is born.

      • Beauceron

        I have a friend who’s a wildlife biologist. She as a cool job– she studies “urban and suburban” wildlife ecosystems, sort of the wildlife in your back yard.

        She told me that if you want your project funded nowadays, you have to work the climate change angle into your proposal or it’s almost impossible to get it funded.

        • Jim__L

          It’s odd how comforting cynicism can be sometimes. Look at how much money is being allegedly poured into Climate Change Research boondoggle… it’s probably being used for no such thing.

  • qet

    The same 27 year-old “reporters” that were such easy prey for Ben Rhodes and Jonathan Gruber because of their complete ignorance of all things are the same ones pushing the Left’s climate change narrative through the major national media.

    • CapitalHawk

      I was thinking along the same lines. The problem with journalism today (and maybe forever, I don’t know for certain) is that journalists get degrees in Journalism and then go out a report on science. That is why reporting on science is hard. The journalists fundamentally don’t understand science. Perhaps we should have some scientists report on science? That would be nice for a change.

      • Andrew Allison

        I think it’s a relatively new problem. Most “journalists” mindlessly recycle the BS they get fed by “climate scientists”. You don’t need science to find out that hurricane frequency and intensity have been declining since 2005, that much of the Arctic ice-melt is geothermal, etc. Worse yet, “97% of scientists” have shown themselves to be either unaware of the scientific method, i.e. prove an hypothesis by experiment) or, none of their predictions have materialized, dishonest.

      • Frank Natoli

        We’re sort of getting into mind reading here, never a scientific enterprise, but I suggest the problem is not the degree but rather the perception of the job description. Journalists have been writing about things they themselves were neither trained nor expert in for hundreds of years. Ernie Pyle wasn’t a combat infantryman, but he reported what it meant to be a combat infantryman better than anybody else, including Stars and Stripes military reporters. Pyle knew his job was to tell it like it really was, which immensely endeared him to the average GI, though it often severely annoyed those who wanted a “beautiful” view of war. Journalists today think their job is to change the world, not to report what is the world.
        That’s the problem.

        • ljgude

          In the early 70s I was standing in the Library as a young academic on my second job musing to myself why it seemed to be the case that to be a ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ academic it was necessary to have a ’cause’ or ‘agenda’ that one was pushing. What, I thought, had happened to just seeking truth and letting the chips fall where they may? Fast forward to today. Here I am a retired academic reading TAI and recognizing that these two moments are connected. That was probably when i started to become a conservative and I suppose I still trust theoretical physicists like those chaps down in the Piney Woods of Louisiana who claim to have caught a gravity wave on their kilometers long surfboard. As for the rest of scientific reporting, read it more the way you would the fashion pages.

  • Andrew Allison

    Science reporting is no harder than climate science. Science demands objectivity, and there is none in so-called “climate science” or most reporting on it. A typical example is the reporting that 2015 was “indisputably” the hottest year on record and the urgent need to take action. NASA and NOAA have been shown to have been fudging the data by revising historical temperature data downward to make it appear that temperature is rising faster than it is. Furthermore, the Church of AGW has been extending the time required to establish a temperature signal, from 5 to 10 to 15, and currently 30 years, since the rise in temperature paused 18 years ago. Similarly, the breathless reporting on “extreme weather events” is based on the cost of the events not their severity. Simply put, there’s more stuff to break, so the repair bill is increasing.

    • CapitalHawk

      Yeah, they never inflation adjust those cost figures doe they? Makes it pretty easy for “the most expensive storm EVER!!!!” to occur every few years.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Same way we are told about how the ‘intensity’ of hurricanes is increasing, ignoring inflation and the growth of housing in coastal areas.

        • Andrew Allison

          Something else you’ll have trouble finding at NOAA: hurricane intensity and frequency have been decreasing since the record-breaking 2005 season (http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/timeline/#/?decade=2000s). I don’t know about you, but I find the deliberate fear-mongering by a government agency very disturbing.

          • Tom

            They’re following dictates from above, I expect. NOAA’s head is a political appointee, and I don’t think Obama would have appointed anyone but a hard Green to the position.

    • LarryD

      I’m old enough to remember when people were fashing themselves over the “returning Ice Age”. Before that trend, it was warming. By the way, we still haven’t recovered from the Little Ice Age. We now know about the multi-decade oscillations in the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans, and the climatic influence on North America. Which just happens to be where the best long term weather records have been kept. And the survey of weather stations shows many of them are no longer sited according to standards. Bad data in …

      And if anyone wants to point to Venus, I’ll point out that Venus has an atmospheric surface pressure about 92 times that of Earth. Check the atmospheric profile data for Venus, at an altitude where the pressure matches Earth’s surface pressure, the temperature isn’t much different from Earth’s “mean” temperature.

  • Pete

    Climate accuracy is difficult becasue the Green, the liberals, the Democrats have turned it political and try to use it to advance their agenda.

  • Jim__L

    Isn’t anyone a little suspicious of any study that claims that a *great big body of water* (which is about as close to a Newtonian fluid as you’re going to get) has spatial variations in its “level” that amount to several millimeters?

    Honestly people, wouldn’t a more rational explanation here come from geology? The Earth’s crust is very active in some places.

    • CaliforniaStark

      It is interesting to note that many reef islands in the Solomon chain, which are at about the same elevation as the ones that sank, are not sinking. Perhaps “climate change” is causing the oceans to become lumpy; with islands being flooded in close proximity to islands that are not affected. This Newton guy with his fluid theory must be a climate denier; his works should be banned.

      The misnamed journal Scientific America stated the sinking of the Solomon Islands in question was the “first scientific evidence” of sea level rise; previously there had only been “numerous anecdotal accounts.” So much for that claim. It was pointed out in the Guardian article that comparisons from aerial photographs from WWII with present ones had not proven seal level rise; I have seen pictures of WWII ships partially submerged in lagoons at Tarawa, there is not a lot of difference in the parts of the ships above water between the pictures and now.

      Finally, am appreciative the above article did not begin with the introductory statement: “We all know that climate change is causing the seas to rise, however.”

      • Jim__L

        You’d think that over several decades there would be some settling of these ships, or the sediments underneath them at least. Weird.

        By the way, Newton was fired long ago by the likes of Neil Degrasse Tyson. The religion thing, you know.

  • Proud Skeptic

    Climate reporting is difficult because the science is vague. Most people don’t understand how hard it is to measure the average temperature of the Earth today and yet (or therefore) they believe we can measure this temperature fifty or a hundred years ago…let alone five hundred or ten thousand. We lack the technology, computing capability, and historical records to make predictions about this complex system.

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