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The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation

18 February 2009

Summary:   At some point during the 1970’s a large part of the mainstream media decided to abandon journalism to become the Ministry of Truth.  Advocacy journalism, instructing the peons and elevating their consciousness.  The slo-mo but accelerating business disaster that resulted followed — loss of audience, fading profits, layoffs — should not detract from their considerable success at mastering the techniques of propaganda.  This post does a post-mortum on one example.  For more information see the links to related articles at the end.

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The original FM articles about climate change discussed the selling of global warming.  These were greeted with cries of the “science is settled.”  After 44 points describing the debate among scientists (see my posts here, literature citations here) we return to the original theme — with an example of skilled agitprop.  Professionals at work, keeping America misinformed.

This post discusses three articles:

  1. Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979“, Michael Asher, Daily Tech, 1 January 2009
  2. Statement related to Daily Tech article of January 1, 2009“, published at The Cryosphere Today
  3. Is the Cryosphere Crying Wolf?“, Nina Shen Rastogi, Slate, 10 February 2009 — Disinformation about the 1st two.

Also note the follow-up to this post:  George Will: climate criminal or brave but sloppy iconoclast? 23 February).

As usual, we will examine each in sequence.

(1)  The Daily Tech article:  polar sea ice unchanged since 1979

Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979“, Michael Asher, Daily Tech, 9 January 2009 — “Rapid growth spurt leaves amount of ice at levels seen 29 years ago.”  Excerpt:

Thanks to a rapid rebound in recent months, global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago, when the year 1979 also drew to a close.

Ice levels had been tracking lower throughout much of 2008, but rapidly recovered in the last quarter. In fact, the rate of increase from September onward is the fastest rate of change on record, either upwards or downwards.   The data is being reported by the University of Illinois’s Arctic Climate Research Center, and is derived from satellite observations of the Northern and Southern hemisphere polar regions.

Each year, millions of square kilometers of sea ice melt and refreeze. However, the mean ice anomaly — defined as the seasonally-adjusted difference between the current value and the average from 1979-2000, varies much more slowly. That anomaly now stands at just under zero, a value identical to one recorded at the end of 1979, the year satellite record-keeping began.

… Earlier this year, predictions were rife that the NorthPole could melt entirely in 2008. Instead, the Arctic ice saw a substantial recovery. Bill Chapman, a researcher with the UIUC’s Arctic Center, tells DailyTech this was due in part to colder temperatures in the region. Chapman says wind patterns have also been weaker this year. Strong winds can slow ice formation as well as forcing ice into warmer waters where it will melt.

… In May, concerns over disappearing sea ice led the U.S. to officially list the polar bear a threatened species, over objections from experts who claimed the animal’s numbers were increasing.

Update:  Cryosphere Today posts a graph of daily global sea ice area from 1979 to now here.

(2)  A response posted at The Cryosphere Today

Excerpt from “Statement related to Daily Tech article of January 1, 2009“, published at The Cryosphere Today, published by the Dept of Atmospheric Sciences at the U of Illinois (no author listed, undated) — Emphasis added in red.

One important detail about the article in the Daily Tech is that the author is comparing the GLOBAL sea ice area from December 31, 2008 to same variable for December 31, 1979. In the context of climate change, GLOBAL sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator.

Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N. Hemisphere reduction.

… Arctic summer sea ice is only one potential indicator of climate change, however, and we urge interested parties to consider the many variables and resources available when considering observed and model-projected climate change. For example, the ice that is presently in the Arctic Ocean is younger and thinner than the ice of the 1980s and 1990s. So Arctic ice volume is now below its long-term average by an even greater amount than is ice extent or area.

(3)  From the above nuggets Slate brews a stew of disinformation

Excerpt from “Is the Cryosphere Crying Wolf?“, Nina Shen Rastogi, Slate, 10 February 2009 — Comments are inserted into the text.  Emphasis added in red.

For the past month or so, news has been circulating around the Internet that global levels of sea ice — i.e., the floating ice that forms on top of ocean water — are back to where they were in 1979. In particular, Arctic sea ice, which was supposed to be melting rapidly, reportedly “rebounded” in 2008. This argument, which originated on the Website Daily Tech, rests in large part on the reported “rebounding” of Arctic sea ice in 2008 and is being held up by climate-change contrarians as a “gotcha” to Al Gore-ish Chicken Littles. Scientists who study the cryosphere, however, say that the latest data on sea ice does nothing to refute global warming — unless you willfully misread it.

In her powerful opening, Rastogi refers to Asher’s “arguement” — she puts rebounding in quotes (indicating doubt)  — and implies that Asher gives a “gotcha” rebuttal to Al Gore (more on this below).  As we will see, the experts she cites at The Cryosphere Today confirm Asher’s statement, there was a rebound, and he does not discuss the wider implications of sea ice trends.

Back to Slate:

… Now, let’s go back to the Daily Tech article. It states: “Earlier this year, predictions were rife that the North Pole could melt entirely in 2008. Instead, the Arctic ice saw a substantial recovery.” First of all, the predictions that the article refers to were in regard to summer sea ice — no one is claiming that the Arctic will see ice-free Christmases anytime soon.  Also, the scientific community isn’t nearly as unified as the article suggests; predictions as to when those watery Arctic summers might commence range anywhere from 2013 to 2100. Some scientists said it was possible that the summer of 2008 would be ice-free, but those statements weren’t made as decisively as the Daily Tech piece asserts.

Asher said “predictions were rife that the North Pole could melt entirely in 2008.   Rastogi’s qualifier of “decisively” seems intended to weaken the accuracy of Asher’s statement.  Was Asher correct?  Here are four examples of predictions about the melting ice.

(a)  Expert: Arctic polar cap may disappear this summer“, Xinhua, 29 February 2008 — Excerpt:

“The polar cap in the Arctic may well disappear this summer due to the global warming, Dr. Olav Orheim, head of the Norwegian International Polar Year Secretariat, said on Friday. … “If Norway’s average temperature this year equals that in 2007,the ice cap in the Arctic will all melt away, which is highly possible judging from current conditions,” Orheim said.

(b)  North Pole Could Be Ice Free in 2008“, ABC News, 27 April 2008 — Excerpt:

“The set-up for this summer is disturbing,” says Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). A number of factors have this year led to most of the Arctic ice being thin and vulnerable as it enters its summer melting season. … “There is this thin first-year ice even at the North Pole at the moment,” says Serreze. “This raises the spectre – the possibility that you could become ice free at the North Pole this year.”

(c)  North Pole May Be Ice-Free for First Time This Summer“, Aalok Mehta, National Geographic, 20 June 2008 — Excerpt:

Arctic warming has become so dramatic that the North Pole may melt this summer, report scientists studying the effects of climate change in the field. “We’re actually projecting this year that the North Pole may be free of ice for the first time [in history],” David Barber, of the University of Manitoba, told National Geographic News aboard the C.C.G.S. Amundsen, a Canadian research icebreaker.

… But the North Pole’s current plight stems from a much more startling reduction in sea ice that took place last summer. That extensive melt shattered all previous recordsand destroyed a significant portion of the Arctic’s multiyear ice. “We lost 65% of the ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere all in one year,” Barber said. “So it was a whopping decrease. We didn’t even think it was possible for the system to lose so much ice all at once.”

(d)  Exclusive: Scientists warn that there may be no ice at North Pole this summer“, The Independent, 27 June 2008 — Excerpt:

Seasoned polar scientists believe the chances of a totally ice-free North Pole this summer are greater than 50:50 because the normally thick ice formed over many years at the Pole has been blown away and replaced by huge swathes of thinner ice formed over a single year.

… “The issue is that, for the first time that I am aware of, the NorthPole is covered with extensive first-year ice – ice that formed last autumn and winter. I’d say it’s even-odds whether the North Pole melts out,” said Dr Serreze.

… Ron Lindsay, a polar scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, agreed that much now depends on what happens to the Arctic weather in terms of wind patterns and hours of sunshine. “There’s a good chance that it will all melt away at the North Pole, it’s certainly feasible, but it’s not guaranteed,” Dr Lindsay said.

Back to Slate:

As for the “substantial recovery” claim — well, sea ice always “recovers” in the winter, in the sense that it grows back after it melts. And, yes, September 2008 did show more ice than September 2007 — but the Lantern would argue that going from the worst summer on record to the second-worst is nothing to crow about.”

Again notice the how Roastogi attributes emotionalism to Asher — “to crow about” — with no quotes, since it is her invention.  And finally she gets to the point of Asher’s article:  that ice cover was similar to its extent 30 years ago.  It’s not just the primary point of his article, it is almost the only subject discussed.

Back to Slate:

… The “miraculous recovery” argument makes the classic mistake of confusing short-term changes with long-term trends. The rate at which sea ice melts or freezes is determined by a complex mix of variables: not just atmospheric temperature but also wind patterns, ocean currents, saline levels, and the amount of open water surrounding the ice. So looking at a single data point is bound to skew your analysis if you ignore the clear and persistent long-term changes, as this blog post wittily demonstrates.

Rastogi uses a false quote to exaggerate Asher’s words.  Asher says nothing about a miraculous recovery; the only adjectives he uses are “rapid” and “substantial”.  Then more dancing by Rastogi, as she ignores Asher’s valid observation that whatever the “trend” the levels were unchanged point-to-point.  The logical rebuttal to his observation would be to show that the “clear and persistent long-term” trend, which she does not even attempt (perhaps for good reason).

Back to Slate:

The Daily Tech piece also sows confusion about the meaning of global ice levels. In a global-warming scenario, it’s possible that Antarctic sea ice might rise as Arctic sea ice plummets. Looking at the combined ice area of both regions doesn’t tell us much about the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, as this response to the Daily Tech item — written by the scientists whose data the piece cites — explains. …

Attributing to Asher things he did not say — and then than rebutting  this fiction.  Asher does not “sow confusion about the meaning of global ice levels” because he does not discuss the meaning.  The closest he comes to such a thing is the conclusion (a brief factual statement of the recent public policy actions about bears).

Rastogi is “a writer and editor in Brooklyn, NY”  Obviously a skilled writer, as she writes 1100 words about Asher’s 360 word article and manages to effectively disguise that the point of his article is correct.  That’s a professional at work!

Update

Email from Michael Asher:

For the record, neither Rastogi nor Slate contacted Dailytech in regards to their article, and in fact refused us any rebuttal or reply when we learned of it independently.

This raises an important point, one that shows why the mainstream media has lost its vigor:  allowing Asher to post a response at Slate would generate free content and buzz — and contraversy.  Readers.  Media lives and dies by the size of its audience.  Slates preference for the ideological purity of its pages over traffic is a bad sign for its longevity as a business.

Also note Asher’s comment posted below.

Conclusions

With such disinformation saturating the mainstream media, we see a possible explanation for the oddities of comments on the FM site by pro-AGW (anthropogenic global warming) enthusiasts.  Articles like Rastogi’s supply no factual basis for their beliefs, so their comments seldom provide any.  Instead Rastogi gives both the illusion of certainty and a feeling of righteousness.

The science will sort itself out eventually.  Until then I believe we should adequately fund climate science research — including review of research (as done in new drug approvals), and prevent public policy mistakes based on incomplete or premature conclusions.  For more about these recommendations see My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009.

Propaganda, like this Slate article, is part of the problem, not the solution.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Some posts on the FM site about disinformation and propaganda:

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. 4GW at work in a community near you, 19 October 2007
  3. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  4. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  5. “Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable”, 8 June 2008 – About Debkafile
  6. Does reading Debkafile make us smarter, or dumber?, 15 June 2008
  7. Psywar, a core skill of the US Military (used most often on us), 26 November 2008
  8. Concrete evidence of government info ops against us, but it’s OK because we are sheep, 2 December 2008
  9. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 February 2009

Some posts on the FM site about the sociology and politics of climate science:

  1. A look at the science and politics of global warming, 12 June 2008
  2. President Kennedy speaks to us about global warming and Climate Science, 7 August 2008
  3. “Aliens cause global warming”: wise words from the late Michael Crichton, 15 November 2008
  4. My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
  5. Apostasy against core leftist doctrine at the Huffington Post!, 13 January 2009
  6. Peer review of scientific work – another example of a flawed basis for public policy, 22 January 2009
  7. Obamaopens his Administration with a powerful act that will echo for many years, 4 February 2009
  8. Science in action, a confused and often nasty debate among scientists, 5 February 2009
  9. Richard Feynmann, one of the 20th centuries greatest scientists, talks to us about climate science, 12 February 2009

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51 Comments leave one →
  1. anna nicholas permalink
    20 February 2009 12:04 am

    In defence of journalists, trying to write something understandable. There are papers and the internet *but* there are also our own observations and those of ‘ordinary’ people we meet, who nowadays can be from any part of the globe. In 1800 n’ something Jenner , a country doctor ,his travels limited by his work and his horse, noticed that milkmaids who had had cowpox, were protected against smallpox .
    Surely we are now working towards understanding how to look after our only home, as we came to understand smallpox. Scientists , now ,have to produce complex statistical stuff. They have to be funded; their publishings have to be peer-reviewed. Their peers are funded too. Look back at the people whose fresh ideas leaped science foreward, their backgrounds nd day-jobs, their observation of events in daily life, trying to build patterns of truth in a sea of folklore and superstition. Perhaps it will be a journalist, who finishes his day-job column, lets the mouse drop from his tired hand and suddenly has the Next Great Insight .

    Like

  2. 20 February 2009 3:08 am

    Update: Cryosphere Today posts a graph of daily global sea ice area from 1979 to now here.

    Like

  3. Erasmus permalink
    20 February 2009 1:02 pm

    Here (seems to be) a recent example of the current state of journalism, from the occasionally upright Telegraph no less.
    * A blog describing the changes: Not a Sheep.
    * The current redacted article from that first link without any mention of the figure that is in the saved title

    I remember reading that article a week or so ago and looking for the figure (which was still in the title) in the article to see how they arrived at it and being puzzled that it was no longer there.

    To redeem the Telegraph somewhat here is a Feb 15 article discussing how serious the situation in wider Europe is. Here is Rockwell’s Gary North analysis of this entire affair including the editorial dance of the 16.3 trillion article.

    Here we see an official organ backtracking, evidence still around on the net that is picked up by bloggers, and so on. Twenty years ago this would not have been analysed this way so quickly, so on balance perhaps things are improving.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is just wrong, innumeracy by people who have no idea what these numbers mean. The most likely explanation is that the original Telegraph article mis-interpreted the report, since $25 trillion would be the bank losses from a nuclear war in Europe, not any financial crises.

    For comparison, the total of all loans and leases by US commercial banks is $7.1 trillion (from the 4 February H8 report of the Fed; there are a few $T in other banks). So total losses of commercial banks cannot exceed that figure even if the US burns to the ground (even in the worst year of the Great Depression loss rates were only roughly 10%). The total for the EU is probably similar in magnitude.

    BTW – nothing you cite implies that an “offical organ”. The Telegraph is a newspaper, not an agency of the EU.

    Like

  4. Erasmus permalink
    20 February 2009 5:29 pm

    The Telegraph is an ‘official organ’ of the mainstream press. No need to quibble about semantics.

    FM: “This is just wrong, innumeracy by people who have no idea what these numbers mean. The most likely explanation is that the original Telegraph article mis-interpreted the report, since $25 trillion would be the bank losses from a nuclear war in Europe, not any financial crises.”

    Let’s hope you are right. The secondary Telegraph article leads to a very similar conclusion, however, without the ‘leaked’ figure. Personally, I suspect you are wrong.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The Telegraph is not an official organ in any meaningful sense. First, the concept is nuts, this is not the Soviet Union. Second, it’s not even the premier newspaper — their version of the NY Times is The Times. The Telegraph is more of a 2nd tier paper, running crusades against elite opinion in the UK – such as the EU and EMU.

    Nor is this just semantics. These distinctions are essential for meaningful communication. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of monkeys gibbering at one another, as at so many sites on the Internet.

    “a very similar conclusion, however, without the ‘leaked’ figure.”

    It is a “similar conclusions” only to people to whom numbers have no meaning. A loss of $2.5 would destroy Europe’s banking system. They cannot lose $25 trillion because they do not have $25 trillion in assets, so the statement is absurd.

    For comparison, total assets of America’s homes and businesses (excluding farms and financial firms) is aprox $100 trillion. Total loans are aprox $26T, of which bank loans are $1.6T and mortgages $11.4T. Even if all mtgs were held by banks (which they are not), total losses if every loan went to zero (as in a nuke war) would be about $13T — roughly 1/2 the number mis-cited in the Telegraph article. (numbers from the Fed’s Flow of Funds report, Q3 of 2008)

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  5. Erasmus permalink
    21 February 2009 4:57 pm

    ” A loss of $2.5 would destroy Europe’s banking system. They cannot lose $25 trillion because they do not have $25 trillion in assets…”

    That is exactly what they are saying too, i.e. that they might soon be insolvent. There is such a thing as leverage, meaning you can end up owing more than you have. Apparently, many of the EU banks involved in this are leveraged at 50-1 versus some of the more aggressive US 30-1. Also, these things were not invested in by many institutions outside the EU (as is/was the case with US mortgage securities) so they are more on the hook.

    In any case, my point with the post was about media coverage – the thread topic – not the content per se, the point being that a mainstream press organ (and as an ex-Londoner I beg to differ with you that the Telegraph – in the UK – is very much mainstream/establishment) retracted something it had published, then others picked up on it in which process a certain ‘transparency’ of information occurred, which is interesting.

    (Of course in the old days, once a paper had put something into print (on paper) it couldn’t be retracted!)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You should not write about things about which you understand so little, and then come back with yet more misinformation. When you make a loan, you cannot lose more than the amount of the loan. That was the point of the numbers in my last two replies; they cannot lose $25 trillion.

    If you loan more than your asssets — the meaning of “leverage” for banks — you can become insolvent (owe more than you are worth). That’s not news. Banks have gone broke for centuries.

    “as an ex-Londoner I beg to differ with you that the Telegraph – in the UK – is very much mainstream/establishment”

    Please do not make stuff up and attribute it to me. I said:

    “The Telegraph is not an official organ in any meaningful sense. … it’s not even the premier newspaper. The Telegraph is more of a 2nd tier paper”

    Instead of just making stuff up and writing rebuttals to it, please use quotes in the future on this site.

    Like

  6. underscore permalink
    24 February 2009 3:38 pm

    Looks like mainstream media isn’t completely off it’s head when analyzing global warming, though the NYT seems to lay spin directly at the feet of activist scientists.

    “But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.””

    Politics in the Guise of Pure Science“, John Tierney, in the Science section of the New York Times, 23 February 2009 — Excerpt:

    Why, since President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in Washington, do some things feel not quite right?

    … Well, I suppose it never hurts to go on the record in opposition to a billion imaginary deaths. But I have a more immediate concern: Will Mr. Obama’s scientific counselors give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats? To borrow a term from Roger Pielke Jr.: Can these scientists be honest brokers?

    Dr. Pielke, a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, is the author of “The Honest Broker,” a book arguing that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they’re jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.

    Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.

    But climate change, like most political issues, isn’t so simple. While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090). And while most members of the public want to avoid future harm from climate change, they have conflicting values about which sacrifices are worthwhile today.

    A scientist can enter the fray by becoming an advocate for certain policies, like limits on carbon emissions or subsidies for wind power. That’s a perfectly legitimate role for scientists, as long as they acknowledge that they’re promoting their own agendas.

    But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

    “Some scientists want to influence policy in a certain direction and still be able to claim to be above politics,” Dr. Pielke says. “So they engage in what I call ‘stealth issue advocacy’ by smuggling political arguments into putative scientific ones.”

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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, this interesting article deserves to be read in full.

    Like

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