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Wall Street Journal: Get a Fact Checker

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I don't want to enter into polemics today with the Wall Street Journal editorial page. There is time enough for that. Today I just want to talk about fact checking. The Journal editorial board is egregious in its misuse of data. It writes what it wants without fact checking. Where is the journalistic profession to call them out?

There are two editorial pieces this weekend of note. The story on "Europe's Bankrupt Welfare State" asserts that, "the European way of welfare is bankrupt." This is easy to check. Look at European countries with large welfare states, and see how they are doing in terms of debt, deficits, unemployment, and other indicators of "bankruptcy." I do this in Table 1 here comparing the U.S. with Europe's five leading welfare states: the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany.

For all six countries, I use the IMF data easily available on http://www.imf.org. The IMF reports data on key macroeconomic variables. I chose the estimated data for the year 2012, which is still preliminary. One can just as easily use the data for 2010 or 2011 and find the same results. The IMF reports fiscal and debt data for "general government," meaning the combination of federal, state, and local levels. That is handy, as it enables comparisons across countries without distortions by the level of government or fiscal-federal definitions and practices.

Looking at Table 1, the conclusion is simple. The European welfare states tax and spend more than the US as a percent of GDP, yet also have lower budget deficits as a share of GDP, lower debt-GDP ratios, and lower unemployment rates. Note that the government sectors of Norway and Sweden have net assets rather than net debt. Some bankruptcy!

The second comment is by editorial board member Holman Jenkins, Jr. Mr. Jenkins tries to debunk global warming by writing that "the warmest year on record globally is still 1998 and no trend has been apparent globally since then."

His claim is both false and irrelevant. It is false because most data point to more recent years as being warmer than 1998. (For the National Climatic Data Center, for example, 1998 comes in third, behind 2005 and 2010.)

The claim is also irrelevant, since 1998 was an exceptionally strong El Nino (essentially, a tilt of Pacific warm water towards the west coast of Latin America). The El Nino made 1998 an exceptionally warm year both because of El Nino and because of long-term human-induced global warming. Comparing subsequent years to a very strong El Nino year mixes up trends and inter-annual variability.

It's not hard to strip away the El-Nino fluctuations (since the El Nino -- Southern Oscillation is directly observable independent of global temperatures) to get a sense of the underlying global temperature trends. There is no doubt that the temperatures of the recent 10 years have been among the hottest of the entire climate record. These years are much warmer than in earlier decades, even if temperatures have jumped around year to year as one would expect. The long-term trend is clear.

The Wall Street Journal editors have failed to notice that even the climate skeptics have come around. Interested readers might look at the reports of one such skeptic, Professor Richard Muller, physicist at Berkeley, whose team recently re-analyzed the global climate record in very great detail. They summarized their main conclusions as follows:

"Berkeley Earth has just released analysis of land-surface temperature records going back 250 years, about 100 years further than previous studies. The analysis shows that the rise in average world land temperature globe is approximately 1.5 degrees C in the past 250 years, and about 0.9 degrees in the past 50 years."

And:

"Many of the changes in land-surface temperature can be explained by a combination of volcanoes and a proxy for human greenhouse gas emissions. Solar variation does not seem to impact the temperature trend."

See the results of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, here.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board needs a fact checker plain and simple. It's a major paper, with excellent news coverage, and should not destroy its integrity by an editorial board that flouts the basic process of checking the facts.

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