More Science Without Numbers

Recently, I noted the basic pattern of science reporting on global warming, particularly as practiced by the New York Times: feeding you an overall conclusion, illustrated with pretty pictures designed to make you feel like you’ve been given information—but withholding from you the real numbers you would need to actually evaluate and understand the issues.

I can’t overstate how important this is. There is no science without numbers. Science can’t get by on qualitative descriptions. If you say the average global temperature in 2016 was “higher” than in 2015, that’s not science. It could be a lot higher or a little higher. It could be a number that is enormous, or it could be a number that is literally insignificant. (And if they don’t tell you the number, guess which of those it is likely to be.) So to impart information of actual scientific value, a reporter needs to give you a specific number and a margin of error.

But the New York Times thinks you’re too dumb to understand that.

Now they’re at it again. Remember what I said about pretty pictures? They’ve got a big new article, not by one of their science reporters, but by their graphics editor. The article is about the shrinking of the glaciers at Glacier National Park.

This is kind of a big deal if you’re a park ranger, because that’s the draw to bring people to the park. It’s right there in the name. On the other hand, glaciers have been in decline in North America for—well, for a very long time. During the last Ice Age, they covered most of the continent and came as far south as Virginia. But they’ve been in decline since the big natural global warming of 10,000 years ago, so they’ve been reduced to hiding out in a few mountains in Montana.

We can already suspect this is a long-term, natural decline. But nothing can be attributed to mere natural causes any more. It all has to be because of global warming. And that’s what the New York Times report claims.

Yet if the glaciers at Glacier National Park are declining because of warming temperatures, there’s one thing we would expect to know: how much have temperatures increased in Glacier National Park? How much warmer has it gotten, in order to melt all of those glaciers so fast?

That number, you will not be surprised to know, is not given in the New York Times article. At all. And you will probably be even less surprised to find out what the numbers actually show: that temperatures in Glacier National Park haven’t warmed.

Here’s the data from alpine weather stations in the park for roughly the past 20 years.


It goes up and down a bit, but it’s a flat trendline. Here’s a longer data set from nearby weather stations, which shows the same thing.


Isn’t it amazing that global warming has managed to melt the glaciers without actually warming up the local weather?

Keep this in mind when you go back and read the New York Times article. Suddenly you see how the article acknowledges that the glaciers in the park “have been shrinking rapidly since the late 1800s, when North America emerged from the ‘Little Ice Age,’ a period of regionally colder, snowier weather that lasted for roughly 400 years.”

Cue that record-scratching sound. The little what? The Little Ice Age was a period of colder temperatures in Europe and North America from about the year 1300 to 1850. Because accurate, systematic global thermometer measurements don’t go back that far, we know about the Little Ice Age from contemporary accounts, which describe significantly colder conditions, and from estimates based on other measurements (like tree ring growth) that can be used as proxies for temperature. At any rate, the last 150 years or so have been a slight natural warming from the temperatures of the Little Ice Age.

Since it takes hundreds or even thousands of years for a glacier to accumulate, building up the snowfall from many winters, it stands to reason that it can also take hundreds of years for a glacier to disappear after temperature and precipitation levels change. All of the evidence we’ve been given here is that this is exactly what is happening.

Against that, all we have are a few assertions that the glaciers have been receding much more quickly—really, we assure you—than they otherwise would have. But we have no numbers, no projections, and no cause and effect. All we get is a link to a single paper in Science, which—if you bother to go through the registration process—you discover is not about the glaciers in Glacier National Park at all. It is based on computer models “not of individual glaciers but of all the world’s glaciers outside of Antarctica combined.”

So the New York Times may want to make Glacier National Park into a symbol of the impact of global warming—but they haven’t given us a single scientific reason to think that this is actually true.

In short, it’s the basic method of “science reporting” on global warming in the mainstream media. They’ve handed down to us the conclusions that we are supposed to hold, without giving any evidence to back it up.

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