Simple Sam Learns to Talk Science

Posted on January 29, 2010


Simple Sam was wearing his denial slippers the other day.  I think he likes the way they clop-clop on the lino whenever he’s hurrying over to me with new evidence of what he calls “liberal global climate change perfidy”.

I heard his clop-clop, and a moment later he poked his head in all full of smirks and sniggers over a recent report from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

“Your liberal scientists are always shooting themselves in the foot,” says Sam.

Now this is puzzling, Sam.  The NASA report says the last decade was the warmest on record.  That’s exactly the same as the recent report issued jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization.

Why would a denialist like you be crowing over a report like this?

“Ignore that part,’ says Sam, impatiently.  “Look at that paragraph there.”

Which said that 2009 was the second warmest year on record, after 2005.  So, what’s the problem, Sam?

“‘After 2005,’” Sam quoted, dancing with impatience.  “Whatever happened to 1998?  I distinctly remember some egghead climate organization claiming that 1998 was the warmest year on record.”

I think we’ve all heard that too, Sam.  You’re referring to reports from the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change in the UK.

“So how come NASA is different?” asks Sam.  “Aren’t all these climate scientists supposed to be singing in the same choir?  Don’t you call it scientific consensus.”

[Notice the slight intrusion of metaphor into Sam’s speech here.  I suspect that he is starting to think like me now, helplessly changing in the face of my relentlessly rational arguments.]

“You think I can’t see into your italics?” asked Sam.  “Don’t get distracted.  Which was the warmest year, 1998 or 2005?  And why can’t these global warming gurus keep their stories straight?”

Sam—being simple—doesn’t understand, of course.

But let’s try to teach him anyway.

You see, Sam, nobody in the scientific world actually thinks of the Met Office Hadley Centre and NASA reports as contradicting each other.  When scientists talk to each other they tend to say something like “based on the following data, analyzed according the following criteria, these are the results we came up with.”  Both the Met Office Hadley report and the NASA report do this.  The difference between the reports is in the details.

based on the following data

Both Hadley Centre and NASA analyze publicly available climate databases, satellite records and so on, in making their reports.  The main difference is that NASA makes more use of comparatively sparse data from remote Arctic and Antarctic locations.

analyzed according to the following criteria

In order to incorporate data from remote northern and southern regions, NASA has to make the assumption that remote areas which are unmonitored are more the less the same as remote areas which happen to have a weather station.

“Ah ha!” says Sam.  “Liberal scientists doctoring the data again.”

Pretending that these remote northern and southern regions don’t exist also skews the results, Sam.  According to both theory and observation, the closer to the poles you are, the more radical the effects of climate change, meaning that to leave these regions out of the equation is to ignore those regions where the most radical climate change is taking place.

Regardless, you have a choice of whether to accept NASA’s criteria and results, or that from the Hadley Centre.  Aside from some variation in “hot or hotter” yearly rankings, both reports have virtually identical messages.

“Are you saying it doesn’t matter that these scientists can’t make up their minds about which year is hottest or not?” asks Sam.

Climate is not about year to year rankings, Sam, but about long term trends.  The last decade was warmer than the one before.  The one before was warmer than the one before that.  And so on.  For the last three decades, the average world temperature has risen 0.2o C. per decade.  That’s climate.  It happens over the long term, and there is no doubt at all that a radical change is now happening.  All the scientists are singing in the same choir with this one, Sam.

“I still say it hasn’t warmed since 1998,” says Sam.

So you’re still going with the Hadley Centre data, then, Sam.  You know they produce their reports in conjunction with the climate people at the University of East Anglia?

“The “climate-gate” people?” asks Sam, aghast.

Yes, I would have thought that with all the things you denialists have to say about “climate gate” that you’d want to disassociate yourself from anything emanating from the University of East Anglia.  That leaves you with the NASA analysis.  No more 1998.  Enter 2005.

I expect anytime soon to be hearing a shift in denialist discourse asking, “How come, if global warming is happening, global temperatures haven’t gone up since 2005?”

You’ll be sure to alert the other denialists, won’t you, Sam?

. . .

Dear reader,

Sam left before I could tell him about the splashing baby metaphor.  Maybe in the future.

I think the clop-clop of his slippers had a kind of peevish sound to them as he huffed back to his hidey-hole.

But I might be interpreting.

—Father T


The NASA reports can be found at the following places: