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Friday, February 12, 2016

Satellites and thermometers

By Steve Ahlquist in Rhode Island’s Future

It’s bad enough that Providence Journal editor Ed Achorn regularly runs op/eds from climate change deniers but its worse that he responds to those who question his decision to do so by accusing them of having a “totalitarian mindset” and of believing that “issues of vast public importance should not be debated.”

Achorn made his comment to me on Facebook, after I wrote that “publishing anti-climate change op-eds from conservative disinformation groups” is “completely irresponsible ‘journalism.’” 

I was referring to Herbert E. Stevens’ piece “Fuzzy data on warming”  in which the meteorologist claimed that readings from surface thermometers that show the Earth is warming are less accurate than satellite readings of temperature that, Stevens claims, show “much less warming… than the surface data — and show no net warming of the planet over the past 18 years and 8 months.”

The piece seems innocuous enough, until you realize that it’s a piece in defense of Ted Cruz, Republican nominee for President, who repeatedly claims that there has been “no significant warming whatsoever for the last 18 years.”

As Chris Mooney ably demonstrates in his Washington Post piece, Cruz is seriously misleading the public when he makes these claims. He’s taking a minor (if interesting) debate about the accuracy of surface thermometers versus satellites when taking global temperature readings and using it as a way of calling into question the very existence of human caused climate change, which is not a seriously debated issue at all.

Nowhere in the op/ed does Stevens mention Cruz. He writes as if he is simply covering an interesting meteorological topic, apropos of nothing. But Stevens ideological bent is revealed when he includes obvious falsehoods, such as when he says, “Back in the early 1990s NASA recommended that satellite measurements be used as the preferred method of measurement because it was the most accurate method.”

The truth is that “Roy Spencer and John Christy, two satellite experts affiliated with NASA and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, argued in the prominent journal Science that satellite measurements are able to deliver “more precise atmospheric temperature information than that obtained from the relatively sparse distribution of thermometers over the earth’s surface.”

Two university experts “affiliated with” NASA is a far cry from an official NASA statement. But it gets worse. One of those experts, John Christy, is known as a climate “skeptic” and he’s one of the key people that Cruz seems to be depending on for his climate denial position, a position that Stevens seems happy to echo in the pages of the ProJo, without proper attribution.

The idea that satellites are more or less accurate than surface thermometers is not settled science, and that debate is interesting, but that’s not the context in which Stevens frames his article. Stevens wants us to believe that satellite data is more accurate and that this more accurate data somehow contradicts the idea that the Earth is warming. Therein lies his second falsehood.

Stevens claims that the data shows that there has been “no net warming of the planet over the past 18 years and 8 months,” ignoring the fact that we have satellite data going back to 1979, not just 1998. 

As Mooney points out in his piece debunking Cruz, 18 years gives us a starting point during the “very warm El Niño event of 1997/1998.” Starting in 1998 shows little to no warming, because our starting point is artificially higher due to El Niño. If we start in 1979, however, even the satellites show a warming trend that can only be caused by humans using fossil fuels.

Stevens has committed a serious scientific fallacy called cherry picking that even a climate skeptic like John Christy has disavowed. Stevens is only looking at the evidence that bolsters his claim, not the evidence that runs counter to what he’s trying to prove. That’s dishonest.

In response to Achorn telling me that I have a “Totalitarian mindset” I said, “Following the science, rather than the vested opinions of think tanks and cranks, is not totalitarian. Using that word [Totalitarian] against critics to silence them is.”

Instead of acknowledging my point, Achorn doubled down saying, “I strongly believe that discussion of major matters of public interest is healthy. I strongly oppose the totalitarian mindset that those who disagree with me must be silenced.”

Is disinformation masquerading as science contributing to the healthy “discussion of major matters of public interest,” as Achorn seems to be claiming? Is it “totalitarian” to demand something akin to the truth and honesty – even in a ProJo op/ed?

I wish I had taken the time to compose a better response to Achorn, but Facebook is a place of quick writing and off the cuff thoughts. Achorn graciously allowed me the last word, not responding to me when I wrote:
“Though as an editor, you choose all the time who to print and [who] to silence, by not printing their opinions. One of the qualifying rationales for accepting a[n op/ed] piece must be truth, as informed by reason and science. If not, what are you basing the decisions on? There are disagreements in the community of climate scientists, but these are not the subjects you traditionally cover. Instead, you print pieces by deniers following the same playbook as the tobacco lobby followed in the 50s, 60s and 70s. This does nothing to further the discourse, but instead hinders and reduces it.”

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member. and Twitter: @SteveAhlquist