How to Mislead and Undercut While Appearing to be Writing a News Story

A friend who is an avid reader of the New York Times sent me a link last night to a piece by New York Times reporter, and my friend asked for what I think. I started to write him and realized that my thoughts might be of more general interest.

The background is that Justin Gillis, a New York Times reporter on the environment, wrote a piece pointing out that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

Much of the piece is unobjectionable: it’s a report by a reporter who finds that some scientists are worried by the increased concentration of CO2. But at key points, Gillis outright misinforms or misleads the reader.

Consider his opening paragraph, which is arguably the most important paragraph of any news story:

The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.

Do you see anything wrong? I do. The most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere is not carbon dioxide, but water vapor. Here’s what Thomas G. Moore writes in his entry on global warming in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

Water vapor, the principal molecule that keeps us warm, accounts for almost all (98 percent) of the natural heating of the world.

A later sentence in Gillis’s story:

Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent.

Notice three things.

First, they’re not just “skeptics” now; they’re “contrarians.” Hint: don’t pay attention to these people; they’re just contrary.

Second, in case you didn’t get the hint, they have little scientific credibility. So he doesn’t seem to feel the need to name them. And the only reason we have to note them is that they’re “politically influential.”

Third, the most important point these “contrarians” make is that CO2 is only a tiny fraction of the air? One would think so since that’s the only argument of the skeptics that Gillis highlights. But the skeptics have made much stronger points. They have, for example, noted that CO2 is not the most important greenhouse gas. They have pointed out that if there is as tight a connection as the believers (I guess that’s the opposite of contrarians) believe, then the earth should have warmed in the last 10 years. In fact, the earth has neither warmed nor cooled.
If you want to see, by the way, a hilarious attempt by a global warming believer to deny this fact, see Peter Gleick’s article here. Gleick claims that statements that the globe has not warmed are “scurrilous deceptions and falsehoods.” Whoa! That’s strong stuff. How does he back it up? By pointing to the fact that global warming has been “noted by every climate research institution tracking temperatures, the US National Academy of Sciences (over and over and over), every other national academy of sciences on the planet, and every professional society in the geosciences.” But, probably remembering that he is a scientist, Gleick does feel the need to show the actual data. So he does. And what does it show, from 2002 to 2011? That’s right. The line is flat. In case you think it’s flat, he wants to reassure you that we’ve really had warming. So he quotes the British Met Office’s statement that “we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000-2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850.” Of course that doesn’t contradict the “no warming in the last decade” claim at all. If a temperature rises and then stays steady for 10 years, then those 10 years will be the warmest decade. If real GDP had grown from 1940 to 2000 (which it did) and then stayed at its 2000 level until 2010 (which, fortunately, it didn’t), then the decade of the highest real GDP would have been, you guessed it, the first decade of the 21st century. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, actually, I guess you can.

Back to Gillis. Next sentence:

“The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.

So, you might argue that I was wrong above in my claim that Gillis doesn’t feel the need to name any contrarians. Cleary, he has named one: Dana Rohrabacher. But what are Rohrabacher’s scientific credentials? He’s a Congressman. I’ve known Dana since July 1970 and I can believe that he said this. (I can also believe that Gillis took him out of context.) But the bigger point is that this is the best Gillis can do in finding a “contrarian?” Has he heard of Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen, to name only two? Of course, the answer must be, given that Gillis is not just a random person but an environmental reporter for the New York Times who has covered this issue for a long time, that he has heard of both Michaels and Lindzen. So why not mention them? I think it’s obvious. Gillis wants the reader to associate “contrarianism” with “politically influential” Congressmen rather than with actual climate scientists who actually have reasons for what they say. The latter would not fit the narrative.