Distortion, Exaggeration, and Cherry Picking

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September 13, 2008

By Bob Difley
Distortion, exaggeration, and cherry picking by news sources, pundits, and bloggers are affecting how we (the generic “we”) think about global warming, rising fuel prices, and alternative energy sources according to physicist Richard A. Muller, whose book, Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines is meant to look at these world wide problems from a physics perspective. Using a purely scientific approach, based on hard physics, he urges us to take an unbiased, unemotional look at the proven facts on these issues before making up our minds.
What we read or hear in the media or on the internet is at least somewhat biased by the reporter and his agenda, no matter how much he/she attempts to take a neutral—just the facts, ma’am—approach.
For example, you’ve probably seen the report that the cost of hurricane damage has been rising exponentially in the last 30 years as a result of global warming. Pretty strong proof when you see it on a chart. But wait a minute. If you dig a little deeper–according to Muller–you will find that the figures used are not adjusted for inflation. Not only that , it was not taken into consideration that there are now more people living along shorelines where hurricanes hit, and beach property has become very desirable, pushing property values to very high levels and therefore giving a distorted view of the actual physical damage and destructive power when cost of damage is the method of measurement.
This is an example of distortion that some use to prove the their theories, such as the existence of global warming. The problem with distortion, is that once the facts are straightened out, others use the original mis-use of those facts as proof that global warming doesn’t exist. That kind of thinking is just as wrong. Just because those facts turn out to be distorted, does not mean the problem is not real. Instead we need to look closely at the data, and not just accept it as “absolute truth” even when it supports our personal opinion.
You also hear that Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have increased greatly in the last quarter century. Again, Muller says it is more likely that the increase is caused by improved detection of tropical storms and hurricanes through the use of satellite images, not just from observations by ships at sea or counting them only when they hit land, the methods used in the past. When balancing out the data, for instance, counting only those storms that touch land (eliminating those out at sea that don’t come ashore and were possibly not detected before) you find that there is no obvious trend, either up or down. But these facts don’t necessarily prove that global warming doesn’t exist. It just means that you can’t use hurricane frequency and strength as proof.
There are many other areas, with stronger facts based on physics and science that indicate that climate change is taking place, without the necessity of exaggerating data to make the theory look more definitive.
Cherry picking is another device to watch out for. This is where someone trying to present his hypothesis offers only those points that support his position, conveniently ignoring those that don’t. This again does not mean that his position is not a good one, just that he chose only data that supported the position, rather than opening it up to further discussion and review by presenting all the data, possibly resulting in a revised hypothesis that could be closer to reality.
The true scientific method is valid because a credible scientist publishes his work–his hypotheses and theories–before his peers, who then try to either reproduce the same results or refute them with their own research. The beauty of this method is that you seldom hear a credible scientist declare anything with absolute certainty, because there is always that possibility, however slim, that some of the data could change or that other data may change his results.

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  3. George Miller

    Bob, I asked you on a previous post if you believed that water vapor was responsible for 95% of global warming. I lost the connection so I don’t know how you responded. I did find the National Geographic article that described the composition of green house gases and omitted water. I assume they were dissecting the 5%. It was misleading to the max. George Miller

  4. Earl Killian is a green advocate who “walks the walk,” as he and his wife both drive electric vehicles and are building a solar powered straw bale house. His Web site is a greenie’s source list of links, books, and commentary on living a responsible, environmentally friendly life. You can review Earl’s Web site at http://www.killian.com/earl/.
    He has also posted an extensive review of Muller’s book on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/review/product/0393066274/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?_encoding=UTF8&showViewpoints=1
    Though Earl’s comments are a welcome addition to the discussion, I would disagree with his opinion that “readers are left poorer in knowledge from having read Professor Muller’s book.” Those who are way to the other side of Muller may find his arguments bringing them closer to the center, from which Earl Killian’s commentary can take over.

  5. Earl Killian

    Professor Muller gave a 1 hour talk promoting his book, which I attended, and I have reviewed the book. He revels in attacking “It’s not what we don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” It is entertaining, but unfortunately Professor Muller teaches a lot of “ain’t so”s himself. He has clearly gone overboard, and engages in distortion, exaggeration, and cherry-picking. I think entertainment comes before truth in this book.

    In the climate chapters, Professor Muller teaches little about climate itself. He presumes the reader knows all about the subject, and only needs to have some “ain’t so”s punctured. This is not right. He seems at his worst when he wants to discredit Al Gore. It appears the global warming activist irks Professor Muller quite a bit. Take his discussion of CO2 and temperature and which leads and lags. He turns something that is well understood in a mystery. It seems unlikely that he doesn’t understand the notion of positive feedback, in which temperature affects CO2 and CO2 affects temperature, so that either can start the warming or cooling process. So why does he mislead his readers into thinking that it must be one or the other, a false dichotomy? I think it is only to attack Gore. Clearly the paleoclimate record includes instances where temperature kicked off climate change, and it clearly includes instances where CO2 did the same. I could go on with many more examples, but this should give you an idea. I think readers are left poorer in knowledge from having read Professor Muller’s book.

  6. Rick – Global Warming, or for that matter Climate Change–both terms are used but Climate Change includes the cooling periods–theorists do not deny that there are successive periods of warming and cooling. These cycles are predictable and spread over a hundred thousand years. You would probably not want to live in one of the periods when the earth experienced maximum heat, nor when it was in the middle of an ice age. The problem now, is, that we are warming too fast, faster than the predictions from natural causes. The apparent cause of this is the excessive amount of man-made CO2 in the atmosphere, trapping greenhouse gasses, and preventing the heat from the sun from escaping as it does during normal times. This will not cause us all to die, baked to a crisp, nor will we see much of a change in the climate–though that is not definite–in our lifetimes. Providing you don’t live in Galveston, coastal Georgia, or other low-lying areas, it probably won’t change your life. It’s the subtler things that happen, like disruption of wildlife and more frequent flooding of highly populated coastal areas, that will be the effect of a rapidly warming earth. When scientists look long term, its the accumulation of these subtle changes that cause alarm, and concern that we could prevent what might happen if we made the effort, and didn’t just try to blame the warnings of people that study these phenomena on “environ-mental-ists.”

  7. Rick

    The fact that history shows that there were warmer periods than that which we are currently experiencing and that they occurred well before mankind had the supposed technology to influence the climate is conveniently and consistently overlooked by all global warming theories. And to make sure you cannot dispute it, the proper term is no longer “Global Warming” it is “Climate Change” so that no matter WHAT happens, we the people will be at fault for it and thus be expected to pay more for what ever the environ-mental-ists want to charge us.

  8. Bob

    I might add that a theory is not proven fact. It’s sort of a best assumption based on available evidence and subject to change or revision as additional evidence becomes available.