Broad Irony

Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt

[update 3/20/07: The New York Times has run a short letter from us w/ a link to RealClimate for more info (scroll down to 5th letter; the 2nd letter from James McCarthy of Harvard is quite good too, as are some of the others).]

The first rule when criticizing popular science presentations for inaccuracies should be to double check any ‘facts’ you use. It is rather ironic then that William Broad’s latest piece on Al Gore plays just as loose with them as he accuses Gore of doing.

We criticized William Broad previously (Broadly Misleading) for a piece that misrepresented the scientific understanding of the factors that drive climate change over millions of years, systematically understating the scientifically-established role of greenhouse gases, and over-stating the role of natural factors including those as speculative as cosmic rays (see our recent discussion here). 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 starts out by quoting Don Easterbrook (Western Washington University) with a statement,

there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data.

Thrown in for good measure is a similarly poorly-supported quote by Kevin Vranes (who is referred to as a climatologist, but who now works on science policy) that

questioned whether his [Gore's] presentations were overselling our certainty about knowing the future.

Unfortunately, neither Easterbrook’s inaccuracies nor Vranes oversold certainties are mentioned. We reviewed the movie ourselves, looking hard for such ‘inaccuracies’, and could only find one minor area (the explanation of the complex relationship between the global surface temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations over glacial/interglacial cycles) where justified criticism might be levied (and here, the accusation was only that Gore simplified a complicated relationship, something that is arguably unavoidable in a movie intended for mass popular consumption).

Broad then draws upon the same false dichotomy 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.

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