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The Uncertainty Monster

January 23, 2017

Robert Tracinski writes about climate change at The Federalist. (My emphasis below.)

This is the point that Judith Curry makes when writing about climate.

Why NYT Hid The Numbers For The ‘Hottest Year On Record’

When you read a science report claiming that 2016 was the hottest year on record, you might expect that you will get numbers. And you would be wrong.

They say that mathematics is the language of science, which is a way of saying that science is quantitative. It is moved forward by numbers and measurements, not just by qualitative observations. “It seems hot out” is not science. Giving a specific temperature, measured by a specific process at a specific time, compared to other systematically gathered measurements — that is science.

So when you read an article proclaiming that, for the third year in a row, last year was the hottest year on record, you might expect that right up front you will get numbers, measurements, and a statistical margin of error. You know, science stuff. Numbers. Quantities. Mathematics.

And you would be wrong.

I just got done combing through a New York Times report titled, “Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year.” The number of relevant numbers in this article is: zero.

We are not told what the average global temperature was, how much higher this is than last year’s record or any previous records, or what the margin of error is supposed to be on those measurements. Instead, we get stuff like this.

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016—trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.
Note to the New York Times: “trouncing” and “blown past” are phrases appropriate to sports reporting, not science reporting. Except that no sports reporter would dare write an article in which he never bothers to give you the score of the big game.

Yet that’s what passes for “science reporting” on the issue of global warming, where asking for numbers and margins of errors apparently makes you an enemy of science. Instead, it’s all qualitative and comparative descriptions. It’s science without numbers. […]

It’s almost like they’re hiding something. And that is indeed what we find. I finally tracked down an exception to this reporting trend: the UK newspaper The Independent gives us the relevant numbers.

They should have been in the first paragraph, but at least they’re in the third paragraph: “This puts 2016 only nominally ahead of 2015 by just 0.01C — within the 0.1C margin of error — but….” There’s stuff after the “but,” but it’s just somebody’s evaluation. Even this report can’t give us a straight fact and leave it alone.

For the benefit of science reporters and other people who are unfamiliar with the scientific method, let me point out that the margin of error for these measurements is plus or minus one tenth of a degree Celsius. The temperature difference that is supposedly being measured is one one-hundredth of a degree—one tenth the size of the margin of error. To go back to sports reporting, that’s like saying that the football is on the 10-yard line — give or take a hundred yards. […]

When I was learning lab technique, a lot of time was spent on the importance of margin of error because that’s the limit of what you can know. In fact, I had a professor who would take credit off when people carried more decimal places in their results than the margin of error would allow.

It was one reason he preferred slide rules to electronic calculators. (Yep, it’s been a few decades.) The people with slide rules would skip those gratuitous digits because of the extra work, but people with calculators wanted to keep those extra digits because they were “free”.

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