NOAA’s climate overview for 2012 draws media skepticism
A Wall Street Journal columnist calls it unimportant; Fox News calls it grounded in bad data.
January 16, 2013Published: January 16, 2013
By Steven T. Corneliussen
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 8 January "State of the Climate National Overview" began, "In 2012, the contiguous United States...average annual temperature of 55.3 °F was 3.2 °F above the 20th century average, and was the warmest year in the 1895–2012 period of record for the nation." A graph vividly illustrated the second sentence, which said, "The 2012 annual temperature was 1.0 °F warmer than the previous record warm year of 1998." NOAA's news drew lots of media attention, including criticism on statistical and technical grounds from a Wall Street Journal columnist and from Fox News.
The WSJ columnist, Holman W. Jenkins Jr, has long objected to scientists' climate consensus. His recent column even mentions his belief that "global warming has ceased in our time." That column argues two main points under the headline "Our 'hottest year' and Al Gore's epic failure: Its moment has come, but the global warming lobby is too discredited to seize it."
One main point is that former vice president Al Gore allegedly has many deficiencies—he asserts moral superiority, denounces people, makes false assertions, and exhibits self-delusion, sanctimony, self-discrediting hysteria, exaggerations, self-righteousness, and foolishness. The headline's scare quotes on the phrase hottest year telegraph the other main point. Jenkins charges that consensus-enthralled journalists have hyped the significance of NOAA's news. He neither uses nor mentions any graphs, but his argument amounts to an attempt to debunk the vividness in NOAA's graph showing that 1.0 °F jump.
Online, the column has a video sidebar in which editorial writer Anne Jolis tells "what conclusions to draw" from NOAA's report. With the title "Climate-change hot air" superimposed, Jolis amplifies Jenkins's skepticism about the import of NOAA's news.
She also adds skepticism about data validity, the criticism emphasized by Fox News under the headline "Hottest year ever? Skeptics question revisions to climate data."
Unlike Jenkins, Fox grants that scientists, and not just reporters, say that "breaking such records by a full degree is unprecedented." But the network quotes Roy Spencer, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville: "2012 [wasn't] necessarily warmer than it was back in the 1930s...NOAA has made so many adjustments to the data it's ridiculous." Fox also quotes:
* A climate blogger, Steve Goddard, who charges that the "adjusted data is meaningless garbage."
* Blogger and meteorologist Anthony Watts, who asserts that in "the business and trading world, people go to jail for such manipulations of data."
At Ars Technica, the article "False balance: Fox News demands a recount on US' warmest year" mocks the Fox report with the allusive subhead "Is that just math you do as a skeptic to make yourself feel better?" The sarcasm operates by calling to mind a much-lampooned election-night question posed by Fox's Megyn Kelly.
The Ars Technica article charges that by news-policy directive, Fox automatically questions temperature data in climate reporting even if the only other questioners "are out past the fringes of the scientific community." It calls the Fox report "a classic example of what's been termed 'false balance'" in that Fox "presents experts with relevant experience and the official word from NOAA, but...simultaneously surrounds them with quotes from several people who aren't scientists—as well as one scientist who is a notable contrarian about other fields of science."
At the blog RealClimate.org in 2005, scientists began criticizing what they called "the false objectivity of 'balance,'" condemning as "indefensible" the allotment to "contrarians" of "equal time or space in public discourse on climate change out of a sense of need for journalistic 'balance.'" But it's clear that in this case, Ars Technica sees false balance arising out of something less innocent than routine journalistic instinct.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.