Climate Change and the Problem of 'Press Release Science'

When I agreed to write a weekly science column, I have to admit that it was intimidating at first — the thought of having to find a topic every week.

I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly. The supply of people saying dumb stuff about science, and the opportunities to explain why the things they’re saying are dumb, is just endless.


It’s kind of sad when it’s NASA though.

Yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is a video from NASA’s Goddard institute of Space Science (GISS) in New York City. GISS is directly upstairs from Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway, famous in song and TV.

None of which is particularly important in this story.

So, if you watch the video (embedded below), it’s an animation of the computed distribution of surface temperatures changing from 1891 to 2011. The video itself is an excellent example of press-release science. Let’s just list some of the issues:

  • The scale on the temperature variation, which is colorized to run from deep blue to fiery red, is a mere ±2°C. Sure looks impressive to go from ooooh-cold blue to OMG red though.
  • The use of a Mercator projection means that the visible area of the map is completely dominated by the Northern Hemisphere above about 40°N (which happens to be right where I’m sitting now) and in particular by northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. This will be important, because
  • As the video runs, those vast areas of the northern and southern extremes turn that fiery OMG red giving the impression of a world wide conflagration.

This is why it’s “press release science”: they’re reporting real results — although questionable for various reasons — but doing so in a TV-movie dramatization.

The APOD blurb is interesting too.

Explanation: How has the surface temperature of Earth been changing? To help find out, Earth scientists collected temperature records from over 1000 weather stations around the globe since 1880, and combined them with modern satellite data. The above movie dramatizes the result showing 130 years of planet-wide temperature changes relative to the local average temperatures in the mid-1900s. In the above global maps, red means warmer and blue means colder. On average, the display demonstrates that thetemperature on Earth has increased by nearly one degree Celsius over the past 130 years, and many of the warmest years on record have occurred only recently. Global climate change is of more than passing interest — it is linked to global weather severity and coastal sea water levels.


Let’s look at it piece by piece.


An Earth Scientist

By the way, it’s always good to follow all the links in any APOD post. Here, for example, is what they link for Earth scientists.

They have a quirky nerd sense of humor that I enjoy.

So, there are a bunch of things we could say about the 1000 weather stations, most of which have already been said at length; the way GISS selects and uses those weather stations has been criticized as well. Just by my own natural skepticism, I wonder just how many weather stations there actually were north of 80°N in 1881-1900, and how accurate they might have been.

There’s also this sentence:

Global climate change is of more than passing interest — it is linked to global weather severity and coastal sea water levels.

The APOD guys are being careful with the phrasing — and it’s good they are — but the links are to a National Geographic story with the title “Severe Weather More Likely Thanks to Climate Change“, and an EPA page in the “Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change“.

The EPA page starts with a picture of waves crashing against an old building, and a graph showing the ocean levels rising dramatically — but if you look at the scale of the graph, you find out that the total dramatic increase is 10. Ten what, you ask? Ten meters? Ten feet? No, it’s a total increase of ten inches in 130 years.

Press release science.

The National Geographic piece is perhaps even more questionable, because it’s repeating something we’ve all heard over and over that turns out to be either unfalsifiable or flat out untrue. See, for example, Roger Pielke, Jr’s blog. Pielke is really a political scientist — I mean as a field, not as a description of his methods — who has been interested in the actual effects of climate change for some time. (Pielke, by the way, believes in human-caused, CO2-forced, warming; he’s just an actual scientist interested in actual data.)


Pielke is counted as a skeptic and even a “denialist” in the AGW activist community for graphs like this:


The trend: flat.

This graph is of the frequency of hurricanes, and shows that actually we’ve been in a dramatic hurricane drought in recent years, even an unprecedented one — although not enough of one to change the overall trend line, which is exactly flat.

Okay, but the NatGeo piece says that severe weather is more likely, maybe they mean less common but more intense? Pielke has a chart for that too.


The trend is still flat.

This graph shows the power of hurricane storms from 1900 thorough 2012 , including famous “Superstorm Sandy.” The gray line is the trend line. It’s exactly flat. Notice, by the way, that “superstorm” Sandy doesn’t cause a blip. It got good press because it went to New York City, where all the press is, and because New York isn’t really prepared to cope with what was, actually, a fairly normal sort of storm.

You might imagine then they’re talking about economic impact. Again, Pielke has a chart:


Trend? You guessed it: flat.

It turns out that once you normalize for inflation, losses also have been flat.

Press release science.

I’ve written before about science as a social contract. It’s a (mostly unstated) agreement among scientists to collect their data rigorously, state their hypotheses in ways that can be tested, and put the hypotheses and the data explaining their belief in the hypotheses validity out for public display and critique. There’s no Book of Law for Science, it’s a collection of customs that evolved over time, and there’s room for a lot of flexibility because the assumption is that over time any mistakes will be identified and corrected. It’s a messy system, involving people with other motivations than Pure Science, and over short time spans, like one lifetime, it can go badly astray.


Some of those motivations are political, and by that I don’t mean just “national politics” or “partisan politics”. The scientific process is itself inherently political, with power groups, and parties, and with government funding driving so much of science those power groups and parties respond to what is politically convenient in the world we normally think of as politics. When I was in graduate school, the big NIH funding drive was for HIV/AIDS; nearly every grant application in biomedical areas had those initials somewhere in the abstract. In my area in Computer Science, it was “Star Wars”, the Strategic Defense Initiative, ballistic missile defense; we wrote grant proposals to make it clear that our formal methods work directly applied to SDI. The cardinal rule I learned was that all research reports should end with “Further funding is needed.”

All these pressures lead to press release science: glowing or terrifying reports of what could be, or could be prevented, if only some particular research is funded. These are sales pitches, intended not to report results, but to attract further funding.


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