Misleading NY Times article on Gore film gets deserved excoriation by RealClimate


RealClimate, a key Web site in which leading scientists set the record straight on current climate change issues, takes apart William Broad’s deplorable and widely off-the-mark March 13 article in the New York Times on “An Inconvenient Truth.” How can we expect the average newspaper to get it right, if the Times role-models this kind of second-rate reporting?

We have great respect for the generally excellent job the Times has done for many years in providing, overall, the nation’s leading newspaper coverage of climate change science issues. 

However, we must question the paper’s judgment in allowing William Broad—who clearly doesn’t have his arms around either the science issues or the matter of who’s-who in the relevant cast of characters in the science community—to publish such misleading and biased reporting as we find in his article, “From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype.” 

Other critics have already made a number of the key points. Michael Mann (director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center) and Gavin Schmidt (climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) note in a compelling critique in RealClimate (“Broad Irony”) on March 13.  An excerpt:

In this piece, Broad attempts to discredit Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” by exaggerating the legitimate, but minor, criticisms of his treatment of the science by experts on climate science, and presenting specious or unsubstantiated criticisms by a small number of the usual, well-known contrarians who wouldn’t agree even if Gore read aloud from the latest IPCC report.”… 

Broad…draws upon the same false dichotomy [he has] used previously which seems to equate the mainstream of scientific opinion (that global warming and climate change is real, almost certainly in large part anthropogenic, and likely to lead to substantial and potentially deleterious changes in our environment if no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) with “alarmism”, and places contrarians at the very fringe of scientific thinking on an equal footing with mainstream scientists. He goes on to trot out a number of the usual suspects, reciting the usual specious claims and half-truths.
Among the worst, is this one

…Mr. Gore, who highlights the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and cites research suggesting that global warming will cause both storm frequency and deadliness to rise. Yet this past Atlantic season produced fewer hurricanes than forecasters predicted (five versus nine), and none that hit the United States.

This is dishonest in at least two different ways. First of all, Broad conveniently forgets to mention that the 2006 Hurricane season was accompanied by a moderate El Nino event. It is well known that El Nino events, such as the 2006 El Nino, tend to be associated with stronger westerly winds aloft in the tropical Atlantic, which is unfavorable for tropical cyclone development. The season nonetheless produced a greater than average number of named storms in the tropical Atlantic (10), 3 more than the typical El Nino year. But El Ninos come and go—more or less randomly—from year to year. The overall trend in named tropical Atlantic storms in recent decades is undeniably positive. We can have honest debates about the long-term data quality, but not if we start out by misrepresenting the data we do have, as Broad chooses to. Additionally, this is a clear misrepresentation of what Gore actually stated in his book. Gore indicated that it is primarily Hurricane intensities which scientists largely agree should be expected to increase in association with warming surface temperatures, and specifically notes that: “There is less agreement among scientists about the relationship between the total number of hurricanes each year and global warming.”

And so forth.  Read the Times article, if you have managed to avoid it so far, then read the full RealClimate review of it.  If anything, Mann and Schmidt are a bit more diplomatic in some of their statements than we might have been. 

And while you’re at it, among other reviewers of the Broad piece we also recommend Dave Roberts’ trenchant dissection of it in Grist (“Debunking the NYT’s sloppy hit piece on Gore”), which covers some ground that goes beyond RealClimate in certain respects (posted on the GristMill blog by Roberts at 8:46 AM on March 13).  Roberts’ concluding paragraph:

[L]et’s summarize: Bill Broad took to the pages of the paper of record to establish that there is significant concern in the scientific community about the accuracy of Gore’s movie. To do so, he trotted out scientific outliers, non-scientists, and hacks with discredited arguments. In at least two cases (Pielke Jr. being a scientist and the [National Academy of Sciences] report contradicting Gore) he made gross factual errors. As for the rest, it’s a classic case of journalistic “false balance”—something I thought we were done with on global warming. I guess when it comes to Al Gore, the press still thinks it can get by on smear, suggestion, and innuendo.

Broad, and The New York Times, should be embarrassed.

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