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Find the error

Filed under: — mike @ 9 November 2007

A colleague alerted me to a small town Nevada newspaper (The Ely Times) that has recently taken to publishing some rather egregious contrarian editorials and op-ed pieces about climate change (see e.g. here, and here).

Much in the spirit of what we attempt here at RealClimate (that is, public outreach and education), I figured I’d make an effort to inform the paper’s readers of the misleading nature of what they’re being told.

I decided to respond to their most recent editorial ‘Is CO2 a Poison?’ and other questions which wasn’t really a contrarian hit piece (i.e., what we’re used to seeing on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal) so much as a confused mix of half-truths, irrelevant facts, flat-out errors, and, admittedly, some reasonable points (e.g. that there are challenging issues of fairness in how we go about achieving greenhouse gas emissions cutbacks). My letter was firmly critical, but, I felt, reasonably polite and fair.

I never received any correspondence from the editor (Kent Harper), and assumed that he had thus chosen not to publish my letter. So you can imagine my surprise yesterday in finding that, not only did the editor publish my letter, but in fact ran a contemporaneous and scattershot rebuttal along with it.

What I found particularly amusing was his denial that the original editorial contained any errors, as I had asserted. In particular, he challenged me to defend my assertion that he was wrong in claiming that the natural greenhouse effect leads to a warming of about 100F and that the correct number was closer to 60F.

Here is Mr. Kent, in his own words:

I asked Dr. Mann, in an answer to his e-mail, if the Wikipedia entry on the Greenhouse Effect ( was incorrect. It said: “The Earth’s average surface temperature of 15 C (288 K) is about 33 C warmer than it would be without the greenhouse effect.” A celsius temperature of 33 degrees, converts to 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, which I rounded off to “almost 100 degrees”.

Kent: if you are reading this, I would be more than happy to personally answer your question. But since you’ve decided to take our ‘discussion’ public anyway, I thought I’d rather use this as a ‘learning moment’ here at RealClimate. So I encourage our readers to provide their own answers to your question in the comments below.

14 Responses to “Find the error”

  1. 1
    Peter Coates says:

    Many, many years ago (OMG, 4 decades!), when I was 12, I remember have it beaten into us the difference between “degrees centigrade” and “centrigrade degrees”, and if we wrote it wrong, with the degree symbol the wrong side of the “C”, homework was rejected.

  2. 2
    Nate says:

    Hint for Mr. Kent: i’m thinking a “9” and a “5” might be involved…

  3. 3
    Dr. B. Gerard Bricks says:

    It’s a change, or delta T, of 33C. To convert to a change in F multiply change of 33 C by 9/5. 9/5 * 33 = 59.4F change.

    He’s using the 9/5*C + 32 for absolute value, and the 32 subtracts out for delta T.

  4. 4
    Lou Grinzo says:

    Now that he’s made that public, the stampede of Nigerian scam artists heading towards Mr. Kent’s e-mail in-box must be truly astounding.

  5. 5
    Daniel Hall says:

    Hint for Mr. Kent: i’m thinking a “9″ and a “5″ might be involved…

    …and a “32” won’t be.

    Scalars versus vectors!

  6. 6
    Todd Albert says:

    Ha ha! My students will eat this one alive!

    My favorite example of this type of error is a recent mistake in Nature where the editors wrote that NASA’s new Mars Rover has an oven that can heat samples to 1000 deg. C, which, the editor claimed, is “twice as hot” as the 500 deg. C that the old Viking lander ovens could reach. Hee hee. Find the error.

    Peter Coates (#1 above): It must have been decades ago if you were still using the term “Centigrade”, which has been replaced with “Celsius” these days.

  7. 7
    tidal says:

    From the ‘rebuttal editorial’:
    *That’s why I say Dr. Mann’s letter is an example of how importment (sic) Ely has become in the global warming dialog.*

    Actually, Mr. Kent, I think you meant to say “unimportment”. Unless, of course, you were spelling in celsinheit.

  8. 8
    dhogaza says:

    He has acknowledged his error in the comments section following the editorial.

    [Response: Yes–I see here (scrolling towards the bottom). there are two things that are odd though: (1) the time stamp on his comment has it pre-dating a number of other reader comments explaining his error, and pointing him to the RealClimate piece for an explanation. Not sure why those folks would have posted those comments after he’d already issued a mea culpa; (2) He continues to insist that he has emailed me. I have as yet not received one single email from him. I’ve checked our spam directory, not there either. It is possible — even understandable ;) — that our university server might be rejecting his emails as spam. -mike.]

  9. 9
    David B. Benson says:

    I was though Ely in 1969. The only reason it was more than just a gas station is that it was a county seat. Back then most of the population of the county lived along the main highway, 90 miles north along a gravel road.

    Some how, deep in my heart, I feel we are winning. Based on my not blinking when I drove through Ely, Nevada, and the quality of the editorials which stem from there…

  10. 10
    Arthur Smith says:

    Hey, I love that math!!!

    Since 0 degrees C is the same as 32 degrees F, well, think of the possibilities!

    Let’s say I put on my black socks instead of my tan socks this morning. Due to their extra absorbency the planet’s temperature increases by 0 C or, in other words, a shocking 32 F! And you can do it too! Pretty soon we’ll be worse than Venus!

  11. 11

    Not to be outdone, Rush Limbaugh devoted his program yesterday to elaborating on a non-existent paper in a non- existent journal that claimed growing CO2 stems not from human endeavor, but benthic bacteria – a wheeze formulated by Welsh novelist David Thorpe to lure unwary pundits onto the scientific rocks — He succeeded

    [Response: Ha! – gavin]

  12. 12
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re the hoax study mentioned by Russell in 8:

    Roy Spencer says:

    Several of us (scientists and non-scientists alike) were able, within a matter of seconds to minutes, to identify the paper as a fake. We then spread the word, warning others of the hoax. Therefore, we showed that we do not, as the hoaxer claims, “believe almost anything if it lends support to their position”. We did exactly the opposite. … I would say that not only did the hoaxer’s attempt fail, he would do well to be a little more discerning about scientific claims from politicians and actors.

    Perhaps, but has Rush publicly disavowed the hoax?

    Also, it should be fun to see how many times this “study” is cited by denialists in future.

  13. 13
    T. M. Ritter says:

    The posts above are distressingly juvenile. Couldn’t someone just tell the
    main (in plain terms -sorry, Dr. Bricks) that although 33 degrees celsius is 91.4 degrees Farenheit, that
    that is different from converting a 33 degree celsius CHANGE in temperature to
    Farenheit. As occasionally alluded to, that figure is obtained by multiplying
    by 9/5. 33 x 9/5 = 59.4 or, close to 60 Degrees F. Is it that much fun to say
    ha ha we’re smarter than Mr. Kent? Grow up.

  14. 14
    Kent Harper says:

    Dr. Mann,
    Sorry, you didn’t receive my immediate e-mail answer to your LTE, as is noted in my quotation above (I asked Dr. Mann, in an answer to his e-mail, if the Wikipedia entry on the Greenhouse Effect was incorrect). In it I expressed my confusion about the error and asked for a clarification since I was sure you seldom make errors in simple math. Of course, I had made a knuckleheaded error by using the formula in my AP Style Book for converting celsius to Fahrenheit, and then doublechecking it with an online temperature calculator. The answer was right — it was the question that was wrong, and a foolish error. I was justifiably chided by several of my readers and the correction is on disk for our next edition. Exact temperature and differential temperature conversions are different matters of course, something I no doubt learned as a fifth-grader, but have since forgotten. But it’s good to know my work is being read by people with a formal scientific background. I truly would appreciation anyone pointing out errors of fact, and even differing opinions.

    [Response: Fair enough Kent, thanks for your comment. Point made, point addressed. No reason for further comments, so I’m closing out the comment thread on this one. -mike.]