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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.