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Lies, Damn Lies, and @&$!^!! Lies
Lying about the Media Lying
Welcome to this week’s newsletter, a couple days later than I wanted. I started to go down the rabbit hole on this next topic, realized I was getting into a lengthy research project, and decided to put out a shorter version sooner because it’s important. Even at that it’s long!
Here’s what sucked me in:
Michael Shellenberger (look him up) wrote a piece on Substack called “Media Lying About Climate And Hurricanes.“ He asserts that the “mainstream media” is lying when it reports that extreme hurricane events are being fueled and exacerbated by climate destruction:
“Over the last several weeks, many mainstream news media outlets have claimed that hurricanes are becoming more expensive, more frequent, and more intense because of climate change.
· The Financial Times reported that “hurricane frequency is on the rise.”
· The New York Times claimed, “strong storms are becoming more common in the Atlantic Ocean.”
· The Wasington [sic] Post said, “climate change is rapidly fueling super hurricanes.”
· ABC News declared, “Here’s how climate change intensifies hurricanes.”
· Both the FT and N.Y. Times showed graphs purporting to show rising hurricane frequency using data from the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
All of those claims are false.”
Then he goes even farther at the end of the article to say:
“The media are consciously and deliberately misleading the public about the relationship between climate change and hurricanes. That means they are lying. Mainstream news reporters, and their editors, at The Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, and other outlets know perfectly well that hurricanes are not increasing in either frequency or intensity and have decided to mislead readers and viewers into believing the opposite.”
This is extremist nonsense that pinned my BS detector in the red, so I investigated his claim and the basis for it.
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Hurricane frequency has been on the rise, as seen in the NOAA data (see graph below.) The 1980 – 2021 data is clear and pronounced. There is an even longer trend clearly visible dating back to the 1930’s and 40’s. Shellenberger claims that the media reports only recent data and not older historical data because they are “cherrypicking” it to intentionally mislead. Of course that’s preposterous. What’s the reality, the story behind the historical data?
It is true that hurricane data dating back to the 19th century exists. And the data shows hurricane statistics at levels that may be within the margin of error relative to the present -- IF you adjust for assumed changes in reporting capabilities. Here’s a graph from NOAA:
They describe the graph thus (with my emphasis added):
“Existing records of past Atlantic tropical storms (1878 to present) in fact do show a pronounced upward trend, … However … a substantial number of storms would likely not have been directly observed [by ships]…We find that, after adjusting for such an estimated number of missing storms, there remains just a small nominally positive trend (not statistically significant) in tropical storm occurrence from 1878-2006.”
There is so much wrong with jumping from that description to “the mainstream media is lying” that it’s hard to fit it into a newsletter.
What is the adjustment for the estimated missing data? It’s an effort to make up for a lack of real data from before the satellite era by modeling it statistically based on a set of assumptions.
· “We assume that all ships and land points to be perfect measurement platforms, and that ships do not alter their course in response to the presence of a hurricane”
· “We adapt the methodology of [measuring] hurricane intensity…from its original application… by adopting a stochastic [i.e. random] model for the storm detection radius”
· “[We assume] the stationarity of statistical relationships between basinwide tropical storm frequency and other measures (e.g., Landsea 2007; Mann et al. 2007), by modeling the impact of changes in the observations (e.g., Chang and Guo 2007; VK08), or a blended approach”
The VK10 paper adds further qualifications (emphasis added):
· “Our hurricane count adjustment suggests the fraction of basinwide hurricanes making U.S. landfall may not have exhibited a secular change since 1878”
· “Although we have assessed the impact of some of the uncertainties in the long-term Atlantic hurricane database, other issues undoubtedly remain. It seems unlikely that we will ever know with certainty how many Atlantic hurricanes actually occurred in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century”
And the Vecci paper from Nature:
· “Does this work provide evidence against the hypothesis that greenhouse-gas-induced warming may lead to an intensification of North Atlantic HUs? Not necessarily.”
Those are just some of the qualifications and caveats in the research.
I am not saying the adjustments are wrong or misleading - but they certainly are based on assumptions that can be debated, and subject to significant error.
Shellenberger makes his iron-clad accusations of intentional journalistic misconduct without bothering to parse these nuances. He ignores possible sources of error and the researchers’ caveats. Despite the injunction that data is missing, and that human-caused climate damage can’t be ruled out, Shellenberger proclaims “The Media Lies! Falsehoods! Misconduct!”
In other words, he is guilty of what he accuses the media of, cherrypicking data. This is projection, a common manipulation technique.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that data is missing from the era before we had modern instrumentation to provide accurate counts. It’s not unreasonable to point out that attribution very complex and uncertain.
But in this case much uncertainty is based on models that simulate and reconstruct data that doesn’t exist. Climate doubters dismiss complicated climate modeling when it doesn’t comport with their viewpoint, yet are ready to adopt them when they seem to show the “what me worry?” version of events.
If we look at the data we actually have, and not the data we wish we had, we see what the media has reported:
Is the trend of hurricane count and intensity increasing?
- Yes, for at least roughly the last 40 years, based on actual recorded data.
Is the trend a rebound from a low point that followed an earlier peak in the 19th century?
- We don’t know for sure!
Is the current observed hurricane activity within the range of normal variability?
- We don’t know for sure!
But is global temperature rising?
Is the ocean becoming warmer?
Does warmer water add energy to cyclonic storms?
Is the trend due to human-induced climate change?
- Based on a preponderance of all the data, very probably. As always there is more to learn.
The media could equivocate in their reporting, something like “Hurricanes have been increasing in frequency and intensity for at least the last 40 years according to modern detection and analysis methods. Historical data before the mid-20th century is incomplete and some models suggest that hurricanes in the mid-19th century may have been on par with what we observe now.”
But Shellenberger’s entire argument is much more fallacious than the media’s un-nuanced reporting. His thesis is: “There are studies that simulate missing historical data from the 19th century, and those models show there may have been just as many strong hurricanes then as now. Therefore increased hurricane activity over the last 40 years isn’t caused by climate damage and the media is deliberately lying when it asserts that it is.”
Shellenberger is not a climate scientist, and he is not publishing research. He’s a storyteller selling a narrative meant to create doubt about the truth of climate destruction.
Even more fundamental than debating about missing data or how far back we should go to define a “trend” is the argument that because we don’t really know, we should err on the side of mitigation because global habitability might depend on it.
If you assume the historical data is modeled accurately enough, and that past activity was roughly equivalent to now, would it mean that everything is fine, and climate change doesn’t matter? Of course not.
Here’s an illustration of why not, by analogy with another complex process known to exhibit strong “stochastic” or random behavior, but which is also influenced by human activity. The dotted lines show “raw” data, and the solid black lines are moving averages. The source of the data will be revealed in a subsequent post.
Perhaps the peaks at A and B are “within the range of normal variability” – analogous to the peaks in hurricane activity from the NOAA paper. But notice: those data points show no indication that there will be a new peak at C, at double the levels at A and B. The prior peaks have no predictive power.
This graph is more recent – and C’ represents where we are, in real time, right now, today:
Again, there are two earlier peaks, and the point of the exercise is: what’s going to happen at C’? We don’t know.
This is analogous to our understanding of climate destruction and its effects. We can look at history and make some very uncertain projections based on an incomplete picture. But climate destruction is happening and the systems in play are so intense and unpredictable that NOAA’s curve may easily continue on an unsustainable trajectory upward.
The question is, how would you manage that risk at C’ if your health was at risk? Your finances? Your planet?
Something to Think About
Or how about this analogy: Your kids are growing up like normal kids and they have the usual colds, flu, and so forth. Their temperatures are maybe 101, 102, 103 if they’re really sick. Then you hear there’s an outbreak of typhoid. Then one of your children shows a temperature of 104. Do you say, “it’s within the range of normal variability?”
Something to Do
People need to be savvy about fallacies and propaganda, and vocal about pushing back on inept, misleading, deceptive, and ignorant mis- or dis-information. Be vigilant, look outside your comfort zone so you aren’t just living in your happy place bubble. And when you see something, say something.