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Debunking the NYT's Sloppy Hit Piece on Gore

03/13/2007 12:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday, Drudge breathlessly reported a coming "hit on Gore" from The New York Times. Today that hit has come, in the form of a state-of-the-art piece of slime from Bill Broad.

This may be the worst, sloppiest, most dishonest piece of reporting I've ever seen in the NYT. It's got all the hallmarks of a vintage Gore hit piece: half-truths, outright falsehoods, unsubstantiated quotes, and a heaping dose of innuendo. As usual with these things, unless you've been following the debate carefully, you'll be left with a false impression -- in this case, that scientists are divided over the accuracy of Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth.

I find it difficult to believe that Broad doesn't know exactly what he's doing here. (See RealClimate for a discussion of one of his previous travesties.)

I could go almost sentence by sentence, but let's just run through some of the highlights. I apologize for the length, but there's really a lot of trash here to shovel through.

Here's the central thrust: "... part of [Gore's] scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous."

All right, so let's see some exaggerated and erroneous claims, right?

Things start promisingly, as the article names one of these critics: Don J. Easterbrook, professor of geology. Easterbrook said, "there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing [from Gore], and we have to temper that with real data." What inaccuracies? Astoundingly, the article doesn't cite a single alleged inaccuracy until 28 paragraphs later. It's this:

[Easterbrook] hotly disputed Mr. Gore's claim that "our civilization has never experienced any environmental shift remotely similar to this" threatened change.

Nonsense, Dr. Easterbrook told the crowded session. He flashed a slide that showed temperature trends for the past 15,000 years. It highlighted 10 large swings, including the medieval warm period. These shifts, he said, were up to "20 times greater than the warming in the past century."

But Gore never said (as far as I know, no one has ever said) that the temperature swing in the last century is the widest temperature swing ever. Gore's point is that the global average temperature has never shifted so much so quickly -- about ten times faster than previous swings. That speed, after all, is the primary evidence of human involvement.

So we have exactly one "inaccuracy," and it's based on a thuddingly obvious misunderstanding.

Here's something else you never hear about Easterbrook in the piece: he doesn't believe human GHG emissions are causing current global warming. That's fine. More power to him. But it puts him way outside the scientific mainstream; the recent IPCC report put confidence in the culpability of human GHGs at between 90-99%. Does Easterbrook's ... idiosyncratic stance on the basic science of climate change not warrant a mention, since he is the critic most prominently featured? Apparently not.

Moving on. Many of Gore's critics, the piece says, "occupy a middle ground in the climate debate, seeing human activity as a serious threat but challenging what they call the extremism of both skeptics and zealots."

Sound familiar? You just know what's coming next, right? Yup, brace yourselves for Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee:

Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, said he sensed a growing backlash against exaggeration.

...

"[Gore]'s a very polarizing figure in the science community," said Roger A. Pielke Jr., an environmental scientist who is a colleague of Dr. Vranes at the University of Colorado center.

Let's be frank here. Vranes -- Robin to Pielke Jr.'s Batman -- is a climatologist only under a strained definition of that term; he's published little peer-reviewed work and mainly blogs (like me!). The only reason anyone knows his name is that he once had a "sense" that scientists had "oversold" climate science -- a sense not shared by other climate scientists. Why is Vranes' sensation worth reporting? God knows, but google around a bit and you'll see it's made Vranes famous.

As for the next 'graph, where to begin? First, Roger Pielke Jr. is not an "environmental scientist." He's not a scientist of any kind, though he's got a track record of encouraging that misapprehension. RPJr. is a policy guy who spends most of his time blogging and getting quoted in the media. Given that he's not a scientist, why should anyone care what he thinks is going on "in the science community"? Shouldn't we hear from an actual scientist about that?

I know Gore "polarizes" the conservative political community, with whom RPJr. incessantly plays footsie, but as this trainwreck of an article illustrates, there aren't too many mainstream scientists willing to talk about how polarizing Gore is.

OK, let's take stock. So far, to establish that "part of [Gore's] scientific audience is uneasy," we have a gross misunderstanding from one scientist who doesn't believe GHGs cause global warming, and the unsubstantiated quotes of two well-known media hounds. And that's what Broad led with.

Some 12 paragraphs in, we finally hear from mainstream climate scientists. What do they say?

"He has credibility in this community," said Tim Killeen ... director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a top group studying climate change. "There's no question he's read a lot and is able to respond in a very effective way."

Kinda puts a new spin on things, huh? At least for the three people who read this far into the piece.

Then, after a few paragraphs showing that the mainstream scientific community largely supports Gore's movie, and that neither they nor he senses any "backlash," we come to ... the skeptics. Richard Lindzen. Bjorn Lomborg. Naturally, they say what they say. But didn't Broad promise earlier that criticism came "not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists"? I'm still waiting for the rank-and-file to show up.

Then comes another cheap shot: "Some of Mr. Gore's centrist detractors" -- Who? No names offered. -- "point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ... [which] portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process." But Gore, "citing no particular time frame, envisions [sea level] rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent."

Notice that all the work here is being done by the weasel phrases "citing no particular time frame" and "at least visually." Of course, as those awake during the movie know, Gore cited no time frame because he was talking about what could happen if the Greenland and/or Antarctic ice sheets pass a tipping point and melt quickly, as many scientists fear. As Gore noted -- you know, verbally -- nobody knows when or if that tipping point will be passed. But I guess he "implied" otherwise. Visually.

Another cheap shot: "So too, a report last June by the National Academies seemed to contradict Mr. Gore's portrayal of recent temperatures as the highest in the past millennium." Did the NAS report contradict Gore? No, it did the exact opposite. Here's a quote from the report:

The basic conclusion of Mann et al. was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence ... Based on the analyses presented in the original papers by Mann et al. and this newer supporting evidence, the committee finds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium.

At this point Broad appears to be regurgitating right-wing talking points without even, as they say, using the google.

If you can believe it, it gets worse. Next we hear that "other critics" take issue with Gore's claim that fossil fuel companies have conspired to obscure evidence of climate change, and that "virtually all unbiased scientists agreed that humans were the main culprits." Remember, in the movie Gore cited a study by Naomi Oreskes that showed that out of 928 peer-reviewed scientific articles on some aspect of climate change, exactly ... none disputed the basic consensus. But, Broad tells us:

Benny J. Peiser, a social anthropologist in Britain ... challenged the claim of scientific consensus with examples of pointed disagreement.

"Hardly a week goes by," Dr. Peiser said, "without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory," including some reports that offer alternatives to human activity for global warming.

Oh? Devotees of this debate will recall that when Peiser tried to dispute Oreskes' study, he fell on his face, spectacularly, and eventually admitted as much. Yet he's still getting quoted in The New York Times -- without citing any of these allegedly numerous "examples of pointed disagreement."

All right. That's enough. I doubt anybody's still reading.

For those who are, let's summarize: Bill Broad took to the pages of the paper of record to establish that there is significant concern in the scientific community about the accuracy of Gore's movie. To do so, he trotted out scientific outliers, non-scientists, and hacks with discredited arguments. In at least two cases (Pielke Jr. being a scientist and the NAS report contradicting Gore) he made gross factual errors. As for the rest, it's a classic case of journalistic "false balance" -- something I thought we were done with on global warming. I guess when it comes to Al Gore, the press still thinks it can get by on smear, suggestion, and innuendo.

Broad, and The New York Times, should be embarrassed.