This last week has been an interesting one for observers of how climate change is covered in the media and online. On Wednesday an interesting paper (Thompson et al) was published in Nature, pointing to a clear artifact in the sea surface temperatures in 1945 and associating it with the changing mix of fleets and measurement techniques at the end of World War II. The mainstream media by and large got the story right – puzzling anomaly tracked down, corrections in progress after a little scientific detective work, consequences minor – even though a few headline writers got a little carried away in equating a specific dip in 1945 ocean temperatures with the more gentle 1940s-1970s cooling that is seen in the land measurements. However, some blog commentaries have gone completely overboard on the implications of this study in ways that are very revealing of their underlying biases.
The best commentary came from John Nielsen-Gammon’s new blog where he described very clearly how the uncertainties in data – both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns – get handled in practice (read that and then come back). Stoat, quite sensibly, suggested that it’s a bit early to be expressing an opinion on what it all means. But patience is not one of the blogosphere’s virtues and so there was no shortage of people extrapolating wildly to support their pet hobbyhorses. This in itself is not so unusual; despite much advice to the contrary, people (the media and bloggers) tend to weight new individual papers that make the news far more highly than the balance of evidence that really underlies assessments like the IPCC. But in this case, the addition of a little knowledge made the usual extravagances a little more scientific-looking and has given it some extra steam.