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Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 November 2008

Debra Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a history of writing misleading contrarian pieces on climate change. She contacted NASA Public Affairs recently for a comment on the initial glitch on the October GHCN numbers (see this earlier post for discussions of that). They forwarded the query to me and since her questions were straightforward, I answered them as best I could. Indeed in her subsequent column, she quotes me accurately and in context. However, the rest of her column shows none of the same appreciation for basic journalistic standards.

She starts by asking why newspapers are no longer trusted – a good question, and one that may indeed be answerable. However the column quickly goes off the rails. First off, her headline “When the warmest year in history isn’t” doesn’t appear to be related to any actual content. Possibly it refers to the 1934/1998 hoohah from last year (again see posts passim for discussion on its irrelevance to global warming). Journalists don’t generally write their own headlines, but a vague connection to current events is the more usual practice.

Next, she gets the Oreskes’ Science and society paper story completely wrong (it was a sampling of literature and survived numerous challenges to its validity – see here and here). Then she uncritically quotes David Bellamy (a late-developing contrarian who used to present natural history programs on the BBC) who appears to think that an anti-GW article he wrote in 2004 is responsible for him not presenting BBC documentaries since 1994 (an event he had previously blamed on his running against John Major (then UK prime minister) in an election). She then throws in a few completely untrue ‘facts’ (i.e. “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” (not) and “in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased” (no it didn’t) or that there ‘has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ (wrong again: 0.21 +/- 0.13 deg C/dec GISTEMP, OLS, 95% CI)). However, note that she is quoting Bellamy and Lindzen here, so that it can be plausibly claimed that she is just reporting the statements rather than endorsing their nonexistent truth value. Sneaky. She even quotes Marc Morano and the Erika Lovley column in support of a contention that the consensus is collapsing. Oh dear.

In fact, the only bit of original reportage in the piece comes from the email from me; the rest of the article is simply a cut-and-paste of untrue and unverified claims strung together in a facsimile of logical argument. Why is it so hard for newspapers to insist that their columnists at least make an effort to check their facts? If she can email NASA about the GHCN issue, she could have emailed any number of people about the other points she made if she’d wanted to get it right.

The sad thing is that this kind of empty rhetoric is being employed at a time when maximum intellectual effort needs to be put into dealing with the energy and climate situation. As I’ve said elsewhere, the reflexive refusal of some commentators (on the right and, occasionally, the left) to come to terms with the reality of climate change is profoundly disappointing and an abdication of their potentially constructive role in public life.

If Ms. Saunders wants an answer for why “people don’t trust newspapers”, she need only fact-check her own column.

262 Responses to “Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?”

  1. 251
    jcbmack says:

    I am not saying we should not move forward towards a more green society, what I am saying is that a huge percentage of people in the green movement are not scientifically literate and make choices and fight for changes detrimental to the environment. Read my posts about electric vehicles in mountains and molehills and in contrarians and you will see that I know that those EV were great and would have reduced emissions by a huge margin and that I support wind mill placements, but without engineering and proper policy the green movement is a detrimental ideology on several levels. Just look at the physics, chemistry, ecology, biology and engineerin. Again I support a rational green movement, the only thing in anyone’s head that is false is your denial.

  2. 252
    jcbmack says:

    Mark some scientists and environmental groups do advertise because they do have the money.

  3. 253
    Richard C says:

    I stop watching broadcast television a couple of years ago when I realised I only turned it on once a week in summer for the MotoGP. So I can’t comment on that. But I think the Guardian gives good coverage, if stories are current, and I seem to recall that Monbiot had a piece about the crazies that comment not too long ago.
    I’m not a fan of the mob currently running the country, yet they have made some pretty impressive promises. Now we must wait to see if they have the money and the willpower to back them up, e.g. carbon-zero newbuilds from 2016, 80% emission reductions by 2050, of course it would help if they also stopped building on flood plains.

  4. 254
    Hank Roberts says:

    (the “Hot Spot” mistake continues to be repeated; RC cited for correction).

    [Response: This is really becoming a litmus test for cluelessness. Or maybe a Rorschach test? – gavin]

  5. 255
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Good Lord, Evans is just sad. [edit – sorry, but that was offensive]

  6. 256
    Ark says:

    Dear RC team,
    Off-topic, but could you explain for us Rest of the World what the composition of Obama’s team might mean for action on climate change? It sure looks as if denying dinosaurs are being replaced by sensible people, congratulations!

    [Response: One simply couldn’t have asked for better than Chu (DOE), OSTP (Holdren), and Lubchenko (NOAA). I’m awaiting the announcement of the new NASA head w/ great anticipation. The short answer to your question is that there is good reason to expect major action w/ all major obstacles cleared and with the executive and legislative branches now working together on this. -mike]

  7. 257
    David B. Benson says:

    Ark (256) — Look at recent threads on

  8. 258
    Ark says:

    Thanks David (257),
    That’s really climate progress, impressive!
    It also robs the deniers and confusers, that take so much of the RC time for so little content, of their Washington amplifiers. Hopefully the attention can, here as well, shift towards science again.

  9. 259
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Regarding the numerous comments on climate change and fire, beginning at #4 and ending at #114:

    The question of whether or not climate change is altering fire regimes (~= fire frequencies, sizes and intensities) is a topic where I would say angels wisely fear to tread, because it displays (at least) two serious attribution problems also shared by climate change science alone: (1) the possible confounding by other potential causes and (2) scale issues, particularly, whether the scale is large enough given the knowledge of system behavior/determinants. As scientists we have to be REALLY CAREFUL on topics like this, or we risk giving the contrarians real ammo. Unfortunately, this is in fact happening, I’ve seen it directly (but won’t name any names).

    Regarding the second point, I’ll let the climate modelers respond, but my understanding of the current state of the science is that climate change attribution is still primarily at the global to continental scale, and breaks down in proportion to the reduction of that scale (i.e. much harder, maybe currently impossible?, to attribute at the local to regional scale, outside of the arctic locales). The difficulty then of saying that climate change is responsible for observed effect x in local area y (say, fire regimes in California), should be apparent. Fire regimes in the western USA?. Better maybe, if the climate change attribution evidence is correspondingly stronger there.

    On the first point, however, there are without qualification serious issues. The primary of these, is that most fire-prone areas have experienced serious alterations of the natural regime, via fire reduction policies over the last ~100-150 years, with a resulting large buildup of the amount and continuity of fuel. These increased fuels are well known to affect fire behavior, including final fire size, spread rates, controllability, fire intensity (heat level, ecological damage etc), and resulting landscape pattern (which in turn affects future fire behavior/pattern). Similarly, fire frequencies are a function of ignition rates, which are known to vary as a factor of both human behavior patterns and lightning ground-strike rates.

    Fire prediction and attribution is complicated and is made uncertain by human behavior uncertainties. Attribution also suffers from the same problems of the empircial climate record, only moreso, i.e. the fact that the direct historical record is limited (e.g. the NIFC fire history database used in the Westerling et al (2006) study mentioned above (post #74) goes back only to about 1970), and the fire history proxies have the typical problems of proxies in general (i.e. uncertainty or under-determination of the process creating the observed proxy data). Nevertheless, they are generally good enough to show that fire frequencies have dropped drastically over the last 150 years, so real care must be exercised when making any statements about increased fire rates relative to some 20th century baseline.

    As a side note, I consider the Westerling et al paper to be less than definitive evidence regarding the role of climate change in western USA fire activity (since ~1970). Changes in fuels, ignition rates, and suppression efforts are not considered, only fires over 1000 ha are considered (

    [Response: use html for less than signs i.e. & l t ; -gavin]

    [Response: Climate change detection and attribution is indeed now done at the continental/regional scale and with respect to changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation regimes. Such developments in the science constitute not only the basis for the Barnett et al paper which attributes changes in western U.S. hydroclimate to anthropogenic forcing (this was linked earlier in this comment thread) but, constitutes one the key developments in the science of climate change detection and attribution in the 4th IPCC assessment. You should acquaint yourself w/ the actual state of the science before making dismissive pronouncements about it. -mike]

  10. 260
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Thanks Gavin. Didn’t know there was a character limit. End of previous:

    As a side note, I consider the Westerling et al paper to be less than definitive evidence regarding the role of climate change in western USA fire activity since 1970. Changes in fuels, ignition rates, and suppression efforts are not considered, the use of the metric used to define length of fire season is suspect, and only a tiny fraction of all fires since 1970 is considered.

  11. 261
    Jim Bouldin says:

    I meant to add however, that the fire frequency-climate proxy relationships are pretty strong for the fires Westerling et al did consider, so the other factors mentioned may not be that important for the set of fires they studied

  12. 262
    Jim Bouldin says:

    I’m not making any dismissive pronouncements about it Mike. I know that attribution is solid at the continental and subcontinental scales, and said so. The Westerling et al paper is also of entire western USA scope and I specifically stated that the confidence at that scale would be stronger than for, say, California. But at SOME ill-defined small scale attribution confidence is seriously degraded, is it not? Moreover the larger point I was making was the potentially serious confounding by other factors that contribute to a given observed phenomenon, which can be exacerbated by difficulties with the historical record and (perhaps) by the mentioned scale issues, if small enough.

    [Response: ok. -mike]