Deconstructing another typical climate story

This article came my way from the Guardian and it’s a perfect example of so many similar stories that I see every week.


from the story:

“Climate change caused by humans has made the likelihood of extreme rainfall similar to that seen in England this winter significantly higher, according to analysis seen by the Guardian.”

It’s unfortunate for Fiona Harvey’s credibility and professionalism that I can spend a minute and a half on the internet to disprove this with observational data.


Above:  data from the UK MET office.  Observations shows no trend in rainfall

Below:  data from the UK MET office. No increase in large rain events either.



What about the first part of that sentence?


Above: Central England Temperature data set shows no warming during peak precipitation months in winter.

So everything Fiona Harvey breathlessly declares in proven false by simple observation.  She claims:

1) (human produced) CO2 is making it warmer

2) warmer makes bigger rainfall.

The above observational data shows neither of these to be the case.

So why does she write the story?  For one, her interview subject is none other than Oxford University.  I suppose that in the absence of any experience in science herself, Fiona assumes that a researcher from Oxford must surely know what they are talking about.  At least that’s how I account for a lack of critical thinking skills.  I guess J school is but a distant memory for her.

The problem arises in two simple words.   “Reasearch shows…”  In fact, the Oxford team is playing with a computer model.  The result of a computer model run is not data nor is it an observation.   A computer model result is a regurgitation of their theory.  The model is programmed with a set of assumptions so the output is only as good as those assumptions.  It doesn’t show you a new phenomenon and it’s not an experiment.  If you don’t understand something complex like regional weather variations, a model will not help you predict anything. Computer climate models only work a few days out because actual climate involves sets of currently unsolvable equations like the Navier-Stokes smoothness equations.  You would have thought that people who grew up in the computer era, would at least know how they work, what they can do, and what they can not do.  My cell phone displays who is calling, provided I enter the contact info for that number.  The phone can’t do that by itself.   It’s pretty depressing that someone who works in a science field doesn’t seem to understand this.  A climate model is more complex than my cell phone but the principle is exactly the same.

After interviewing the Oxford researchers, Fiona would have imagined herself to be pretty presumptuous to check their work.   Except for the fact that it requires no science background to simply ask how the Oxford team tests their computer model to see if it is correct!  As it turns out, their model has no validity test prompting a rational person to wonder why it is even in the newspaper in the first place?  Now the Oxford team will claim it’s been tested, but if there is a process they don’t understand or know about, then the output will be incorrect.  Claiming any validity test is to claim they know all unknowns.  The fact that weather forecasts are only good for a few days is proof of the complexity of the problem.  Climate modelers will say what they do is different but they can’t get around the fact that we don’t understand the processess, and what we do understand involves solving unsolvable equations.  Mathematician Chris Essex says you have to believe six impossible things before breakfast to take climate models seriously.

I hope, but I don’t expect a journalist to undestand good science from bad.  But the most basic questions are missing  here.  Why should I believe the model? Is it actually warmer in the UK? Is it getting wetter if it is indeed getting warmer?  Is one causing the other?If it’s true, how do you know this isn’t natural?  Luckily, I live in an age where I don’t need to trust Fiona, I can check these things myself in a mere minutes.

Looking at the data above, there is no correlation between warmer years and wetter years, and it’s not getting warmer in the UK, and it’s not getting wetter in the UK.  The last obvious question is whether Fiona is

a) lazy and couldn’t be bothered to fact check her assumptions.

b) time pressed and had no time to fact check her assumptions.

In other journalism subjects neither of these would be acceptable conduct.  Now I realize that the place to question the Oxford researchers is from an editorial perspective, not a reporting piece.  However, given that made up assertions are used in lieu of readily available facts, it seems that this is an editorial, just disguised as a report.  Fiona can’t excuse herself by claiming “I only reported what they told me”  She can believe this only if she thinks there is no responsibility to report facts.  I see this constantly in climate reporting where otherwise arcane postulations of researchers are unwittingly passed off as facts with made up nonsense rounding out the story.  This is the mold the CBC uses in their countless, baseless, scare stories.  When a story has no consequences to the reader, I can be more generous but when no one fact checks a catastrophic prediction, you’ve made yourself a moral agent in its dissemination. Once upon a time you were not alowed to falsely yell fire in a crowded theatre.  Yes, budgets and deadlines are tight, but the observations that falsify this story were found in a minute.

Meanwhile in the real world, the RSS satellite temperature data set was updated this week for the month of April.  As always, the media treats real data like the plague.

april 2014 rss

rss v co2


Above: No relationship between CO2 and global temperture in the 21st century.  Surely there is a climate story in there?

Here is a science lesson for Fiona.  If you think phenomenon A is caused by B, plot one against the other to see if there is a correlation.  Then investigate whether that correlation implies causation or whether some else could have caused phenomenon A.  In the graph above we have CO2 compared with global temperatures. At higher CO2 levels, there is no commensurate increase in temperatures.  Never mind causation, we don’t even see correlation!  Why did Fiona not ask the Oxford researchers about this.  Why didn’t she take the 55 seconds to pull up some temp and precip numbers for the UK before or after her interview?  Surely just a minute of research would allow her to ask the right questions at the very least.

Like I said, you don’t need to be a scientist to write about this stuff.  But you do need to be a journalist. 









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