Climate Change Deniers Cherry Picking Data

Peter Gleick: Misrepresenting Climate Science — Cherry-Picking Data for Political Purposes

In 2009, Harrison Schmitt, a former senator, astronaut, and self-described climate “denier” (and potentially the Energy Secretary to the new New Mexican governor), sent a paper to NASA riddled with long-debunked errors of science. Others have written about this paper, taking it apart error by error. But this week, some of those errors reappeared – thrust back into the debate by the Heartland Institute, self-described on their website as “libertarian” and “free-market” group. In Schmitt’s original paper sent to NASA in September 2009, he said:

“How long this cooling trend will persist remains to be seen; however, Greenland glaciers have been advancing since 2006, Artic [sic] sea ice has returned to 1989 levels of coverage.”

There is, of course, no cooling trend but a warming trend, and it’s hard to ignore the nerve of saying that Greenland glaciers are growing since the best scientific evidence says Greenland is losing over 200 billion tons of ice per year.

Water Number: 200 billion. Greenland appears to be losing massive amounts of ice (now around 200 billion tons per year and accelerating) annually due to warming.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

But the error that has stirred up the new debate in New Mexico is the third one “Artic [sic] sea ice has returned to 1989 levels of coverage.” [John Cook has also tackled this here in an excellent Skeptical Science post.] In The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper on January 24, Dr. Mark Boslough (an adjunct professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UNM, with a doctorate from CalTech) noted the errors in Schmitt’s statement and wrote how he tried to privately point them out to Schmitt, but that Schmitt never corrected them.

Disappearing Arctic Ice: Specific, Verifiable Data

First and most simply, Boslough is right and Schmitt is wrong. No matter how you measure it, there was less Arctic sea ice in 2009 than in 1989:

— The average area of Arctic ice was less in 2009.

— The average extent of Arctic ice was less in 2009.

— The volume of Arctic ice was less in 2009. [Check out this shocking graph.]

— The maximum amount of ice (in winter) was less in 2009.

— The minimum amount of ice (in summer) was less in 2009.

If you tried, you couldn’t find an honest argument that there was more, or even equal, Arctic ice in 2009 compared to 1989.

Enter the Heartland Institute and its President Joseph Bast. They tried and couldn’t either. But rather than simply acknowledging Schmitt’s error, Bast and the Heartland Institute pulled a fast one, called “cherry picking” — where someone carefully selects one piece of data to prove a point while ignoring or hiding all of the other data points that refute it. This is scientific dishonesty. Scientists destroy their reputations when they do this (since inevitably other scientists find out); in some instance it is considered scientific misconduct. And the Heartland Institute’s cherry picking is one of the most extreme examples I’ve ever seen of misrepresentation of science and data.

Here is how Heartland’s Bast chose to do it. On January 31st he wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican criticizing Dr. Boslough, in which he says:

“In fact, National Snow and Ice Data Center records show conclusively that in April 2009, Arctic sea ice extent had indeed returned to and surpassed 1989 levels.” (emphasis added)

In a desperate attempt to try to support Schmitt’s false statement that there was as much or more ice in 2009 than 1989, Bast (or colleagues at Heartland) searched through the ice records from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and found the single month (April), where the area of ice was higher in 2009 than 1989. There was less ice in 2009 in January, February, March, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, on average, the maximum, and the minimum. But not in April (and just barely). Figure 1 shows the monthly ice area for the Arctic for 1989 and 2009 and the carefully picked month of April. I’ve circled the data point Bost and Heartland “cherry-picked.”

If Figure 1 was your bank statement for 1989 and 2009 could you claim with a straight face that you had more money in 2009 than 1989? And should anyone believe you?

Pacific Institute, data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2011

On Monday February 7th, the National Snow and Ice Data Center itself weighed in with an official letter disputing Heartland Institute and Schmitt and agreeing with Boslough (and my analysis here).

“it would be incorrect to suggest that 2009 represented a recovery of Arctic sea ice to 1989 levels.”

It doesn’t get much more brazen than this effort by the Heartland Institute to mislead readers in New Mexico. Unfortunately, lots of readers probably fell for it. But scientists and honest researchers don’t cherry-pick data to support pre-determined positions.

I recently argued in testimony to the U.S. Congress that science

“is inherently adversarial — scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But no one who argues against the science of climate change has ever provided an alternative scientific theory that adequately satisfies the observable evidence or conforms to our understanding of physics, chemistry, and climate dynamics.”

Individuals can make mistakes. Harrison Schmitt made a mistake about Arctic sea ice having recovered in 2009 to 1989 levels (among many other fundamental mistakes) and he refused to correct it when his error was pointed out to him privately. I cannnot speculate on his motivations. But of much greater concern in this episode is the role of the Heartland Institute, which has long tried to piggyback on Schmitt’s reputation and history of public service. Heartland has established itself as a coordinator of climate denial efforts, as a publisher of a discredited pseudo-scientific attack on climate science called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, and as organizer of a conference that brings together groups and individuals that work against the science and policy of climate change. Their irresponsible actions in this cherry-picking exercise substantially diminish even further Heartland’s claim to be any kind of honest broker of serious scientific skepticism on the topic of climate change.

Peter Gleick

2 replies
  1. Vincent van Zeijst says:

    The question that serious, honest scientists should ask themselves is: how come that disreputable institutes like the Heartland Institute and its pseude-scientists receive such a disproportional slice of media attention? How come that one maverick gets such coverage that he becomes a threat to the work of countless honest researchers? Is it just because the media wish to feed us with good news? Or are more sinister mechanisms at work here?

  2. Seth Sheldon says:

    It always amazes me how effective anecdotal evidence (individual data points like the April example) can be in forming public opinion.

    Anyway, this was a good read. Thanks, Dr. Gleick!

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