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Global Warming Blog

An Inconvenient Oversight
NASA admits to mistakes in global temperature readings
Posted September 12, 2007 by Nathan Cool

NASA Admits Temp Errors At the beginning of August, some intriguing news concerning global warming fell silent throughout the realm of mainstream media. The news was controversial to say the least, and by publishing such a story, one might be chastised for hopping off the sky-is-falling bandwagon and going against the grain of Gore et al. The news was an admission by NASA that their temperature recording methods, used to gauge the warming of our planet, were a bit overdone in recent times, and that temperatures have in fact been cooler than they originally thought. As a result, NASA conceded, among other things, that 1998 was not the hottest year on record; 1934 was. NASA asserts that the error was effectively insignificant. But was it?

NASA's newly published data (which you can find here) shows that not only is 1998 now superseded by 1934 as the hottest year on our planet (since 1880), but that 2006 can no longer be noted as the third hottest year either; instead, that title now belongs to 1921. Additionally, three of the five hottest years on record are now known to have occurred before 1940, and six of the ten hottest years happened before 90 percent of the increases in green house gas emissions during the last century*. NASA's about-face on these discrepant temperature presentments was—unfortunately—not initiated from within; instead, it took an outsider—in fact, an oftentimes-perceived foe of the space agency—to bring this issue to light. Stephen McIntyre, a man who's had plenty of back-and-forths with NASA, noted this mistake (you can read McIntyre's response here).

McIntyre, as I mentioned in chapter 4 of Is it Hot in Here?, is a well-known skeptic of the human-induced view of global warming, and has—with credibility—argued with NASA's climate polymaths and other renowned scientists in the field for years. On more than one occasion, McIntyre has successfully presented his case, forcing many scientists to declare inaccuracies in their research, which are then subsequently corrected. The recent NASA blunder is no different, and NASA has agreed (although ever so quietly) that they indeed made a mistake. The essence of NASA's newly found erratum though may seem, as Richard Allen of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences told The Register*, "not important," since the temperatures in question differ only by a hundredth of a degree. But, in the realm of climate change science, seemingly small events can have catastrophic consequences.

As I so often point out in Is it Hot in Here?, there are more than two sides to a story. There rarely is a clear-cut, binary choice of either reason A or reason B. The litigious issue of NASA's temperature readings is no different. As soon as word leaked out on this issue, naysayers were quick to tout "I told you so" as the gloom-and-doom crowd pooh-poohed the whole thing. But the middle ground between these adversarial apogees is vast, and deserves attention. Sadly, as so often happens with these kinds of issues, only extreme views were discussed in small circles, and since the topic swayed toward skepticism, mainstream media, avoiding public backlash, didn't want to touch this topic with a ten-foot pole. I though will.

First off, it's important to note that the inaccurate temperature readings can't be construed as proof that Earth is not heating up. Climate change is a reality. We know that glaciers are melting and myriad other harbingers abound, sounding a signal that times, they are a changin'. But this does cast a shadow of doubt over other climate change studies that assess the human-induced versus natural elements of global warming. Many of these studies, which are in turn used in policy-making decisions, have referred to these now dubious temperatures as the foundation for other findings. This brings me to my second point:

This new, seemingly insignificant temperature discrepancy was indeed quite consequential in that it changed a cogent bellwether for climate change science and policymaking: worldwide temperature trends and records. Changing the hottest year on record from 1998 to 1934 is not what you'd call "insignificant," especially when that statistic is used as a cornerstone in climate change debates and subsequent decisions on emission policies. Solid science sells; dubious research though cries wolf. It's important that, during this crucial time of dealing with our changing climate, momentous milestones and climate markers be confidently solidified before presenting a case concerning drastic change to the public, and especially to decision-makers drenched with doubt. Lest we forget, it was only thirty years ago that Time and Newsweek published articles fearing we were heading into another ice age, which still fuels doubt among many in policy-making positions.

This then brings into question not the things that we know we know, but instead, things we don't know that we don't know, often referred to as Black Swans. Until the 17th Century, Western culture thought that all swans were white, until one day, an Australian species was found to be nearly black as night. This set the Western field of ornithology (bird study) on its head (or beak), and forever changed the way many waterfowl genera were determined. Hence, we often don't realize those things in the unknown, especially in the field of science. Yet when they occur, they take us by complete surprise, which has happened more than once this year in the field of climatology. Within just the past few months, more doubt has been cast upon the amount of anthropogenic (human-induced) influence on global warming, which I discussed a bit in two blogs that you can find here and here. And now that the crux of climate change (temperatures) has not only come into question but also found to have endured a scientific faux pas, what else could be lurking in the land of Black Swans and other unforeseeable climate change unknowns?

As humans, once we've made a decision, we innately seek out things that'll confirm our conclusions. We also tend to avoid things that'll disconfirm our beliefs, thus avoiding the dissonance of being wrong. It's human nature, and this trait, also known as confirmation bias, plagues us all—scientists and laypeople alike. So when it comes to news containing even the slightest hint of skepticism, the story is often unheard—not because of some ominous conspiracy, but simply due to individual confirmation bias mixed with the fear of losing headline ratings. No news agency wants to take the leap and be the Doubting Thomas, thus becoming singled out as a public whipping boy that could lose journalistic integrity (and subsequent ratings, sales, and advertising revenue). If though the media is reluctant to alert we the people of such news (as in the case of the questionable NASA temperatures), does this not escalate global warming bias into policy predilection? If we're not informed on the whole truth, then what kind of decisions can be expected from those in high places in whom we trust? Is it fair to promote only those things that fit within the media's story du jour and seen as in vogue? This kind of half-truth reporting has another name: propaganda.

The media though is not entirely to blame. NASA can shoulder onus as well, as the information concerning their miscalculations has been kept in obscurity; no press releases were issued by the space agency, and no public announcements were made either, even after NASA conceded to McIntyre's findings and subsequent tweaks to their climate data. While NASA in the past has been quick to highly publicize "hottest year ever" kind of news (like this and this), the reversal of their original record-breaking claims has yet to be announced.

The media, as well as researchers affected by confirmation bias may opt to ignore controversial issues that go against the grain of headline popularity, but I, for the sake of searching for the whole truth, won't. Our planet deserves better.

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