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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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The importance of context

As a science communicator, I found this fascinating.


The following is an email that was sent in 2003 by a very senior scientist, Stephen Schneider, to a long list of other senior scientists about an article in a newspaper by an economist. Read it and see what you think of the economist, Ross McKitrick at the end.

Hello all. Ah ha-the latest idiot-McKitrick-reenters the scene. He and another incompetent had a book signing party at the US Capitol-Mike MacCracken went and he can tell you about it-last summer. McKitrick also had an article-oped, highly refereed of course-in the Canadian National Post on June 4 this year. Here is the URL that worked back then: http://www.nationalpost.com/search/site/story.asp?id=045D5241-FD00-4773-B816-76222A771778


It was a scream. He argued there is no such thing as global temperature change, just local-all natural variablity mostly. To prove this he had a graph of temperature trends in Erie Pennsylvania for the past 50 years (this is from memory) which showed a cooling. THat alone proves nothing, but when reading the caption I noticed the trend was for temperature in October and November!! So one station for two months consitituted his "refutation" of global warming-another even dumber than Lomborg economist way out of depth and polemicizing. I showed it to a class of Stanford freshman, and one of them said: "I wonder how many records for various combinations of months they had to run through to find one with a cooling trend?" THe freshman was smarter than this bozo. It is improtant to get that op-ed to simply tell all reporters how unbelievably incompetent he is, and should not even be given the time of day over climate issues, for which his one "contribution" is laughably incompetent. By the way, the Henderson/Castles stuff he mentions is also mostly absurd, but that is a longer discussion you all don't need to get into-check it out in the UCS response to earlier Inhofe polemics with answers I gave them on Henderson/Castles if you want to know more about their bad economics on top of their bad climate science


Now what did you think? If you are like me, you probably had two reactions. First that the senior scientist, Steven Schneider, is surprisingly nasty in his tone. But second that the economist, Ross McKitrick, sounds as if he really did make a fairly blatant cherry-pick to suit his confirmation bias.


Now read the relevant section of the newspaper article that McKitrick wrote.
...And that wasn't the only bit of global warming fiction on TV recently. The same night as the fictional glacier melted, TVOntario interviewed David Suzuki on their current affairs show "Studio 2." Apparently some scientists sponsored in part by the David Suzuki Foundation have put out a report arguing that global warming will cause the Great Lakes to boil dry, or overflow, or do something or other a few decades from now. Ho-hum yet another apocalyptic enviro-scare: it's starting to drag on like a secular "Left Behind" series.


I didn't watch much of the interview, but what caught my attention was the claim by Mr. Suzuki that when he was a boy growing up in London Ontario, winter used to set in at the end of October, but now it's warmed up so much winter arrives a lot later. Global warming, you see. It's not the ups and downs but these rapid warming trends we need to worry about.


So the next day I looked up the temperature records for the weather station at London's airport. The data are spotty prior to WWII, but there's a continuous record after 1940, ending at 1990. I'm guessing at Dr. S's vintage but I figure this is early enough.


I don't think much of running trend lines through averaged temperature data as a way of measuring "climate," but this is how the debate often gets framed. And it shows the October-November average temperature in London fell from 1940 to 1990 at a rate of -0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. "Fell," as in cooling. As in, October and November are now colder, on average, than when Dr. Suzuki was a lad awaiting winter in London. The annual average also shows cooling, at about 0.1 degrees C per decade.


Unfortunately the temperature data are not posted after 1990, at least not at the NASA collection where I was looking (http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/update/gistemp/station_data/). But across the lake at Erie, Pennsylvania, there is a weather station that continues to post its data. The October-November temperature average there fell by 0.26 degrees C per decade from 1940 to 2001 (see chart). The annual average fell by about 0.13 degrees C per decade from 1940 to 2001. In other words the area has gotten colder, not warmer.


Incidentally it is a real annoyance that Environment Canada no longer gives its temperature data away. Almost all the Canadian weather stations reporting into the NASA data base stopped releasing the post- 1990 numbers for free use by the public. You are expected to pay for it now. This is a government that brags about spending billions of dollars on climate change initiatives, including $350 million in the most recent budget for its so-called "Sustainable Development Technology" slush fund, not to mention tens of millions for the Climate Change Action Fund, and however many hundreds of thousands to put those asinine commercials on TV telling people that sealing their windows and turning down the heat will stop global warming. Yet they won't spend the money to make available the basic data that would allow people to see long term, up-to-date records of local temperatures.

Makes you wonder what they don't want people to know.


Global warming and Kyoto have, mercifully, been out of the public eye for a while. Some commentators who never grasped the issue in the first place have triumphantly used this as evidence that the anti-Kyoto concerns were all overblown.

In reality the story is quiet here in Canada because the feds have all but abandoned any intention of implementing Kyoto. How that came about is a story for another day. Stateside, the global warmers are still sore about Bush's decision to reject Kyoto, and are laying the groundwork for a new political push to bring it back. Since the idea that Kyoto would somehow benefit the global climate was always a fiction, it is only fitting that the entertainment industry is taking the lead.


The story suddenly looks rather different, does it not? Far from cherry-picking, McKitrick was explicitly testing the hypothesis that Suzuki had advanced, namely that the local weather had warmed in the autumn. Suddenly Schneider's nastiness seems a whole lot nastier. He gave a wholly wrong impression of McKitrick's point to his correspondents. His email being secret until last week, none of us knew about this -- least of all McKitrick.


Notice, in passing, that the leaking of this email does not do McKitrick a favour, so it gives the lie to the idea that the leaker is picking emails that make sceptics look good. Only with McKitrick's explanation of the background do we know just how distorted was Schneider's attack.


This is a glimpse of the sort of thing that those who are sceptical about dangerous climate change have had to put up with over the years -- without even knowing it.
Yuk.