Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Hot or Not: When Media Allows Opinion to Confound Climate Science

Welcome to the 21st century, an age in which more than 97% of published climate scientists and 200 international science organizations are in consensus that the climate is changing due to human activities.

And yet, one week prior to the New York Times breaking the story about 2015 being the hottest year on record, a Forbes blog published a piece by climate change denier and Contributor James Taylor, who denigrated current climate data and haughtily insisted that no, “2015 was not even close to hottest year on record.” 

So, how exactly did NASA and NOAA scientists – not the “global warming activists” whom a seemingly very confused Taylor continues to insist are the voices behind the science – reach the conclusion that 2015 was the hottest year on record? And what exactly was Taylor trying to say, in his jargon-laden, confusing argument? Let’s examine.

Taylor claims: “Satellite temperature readings going back to 1979 show 1998 was by far the warmest year in the satellite era…”.

When Taylor keeps saying “satellite”, he actually is referring to those big machines that orbits around us in space and are able to measure things like temperature. El Nino describes “a temporary change in the climate of the Pacific ocean”, usually leading to ocean warming.

However, in determining the global average temperature,  scientists follow the temperature of the Earth’s surface, not the lower atmosphere. Furthermore, a previous study found that “the satellite trends could be off (too cold) by perhaps 30%“.

What about that giant graph with garish blue lines and dots? Taylor attempts to a illustrate a historical record of global temperatures using a difficult-to-read graph showing temperatures from the Earth’s lower atmosphere. Again, the problem with this is, scientists use Earth’s surface temperatures, not lower atmosphere temperatures to measure warming. Furthermore, the graph was pulled from a blogpost written by a climate change skeptic. If I’ve learned anything from college, it is to make sure your sources are credible.

The final piece of “evidence” cited in this opinion is a report written by S. Fred Singer. Ah yes, the same man notorious for denying the negative health impacts of secondhand smoke, and for whom Naomi Oreskes wrote about in Merchants of Doubt. Singer is another ardent denier of anthropogenic climate change.

An audacious Taylor concludes his story by attributing the report to a bunch of baloney courtesy of “global warming activists”, before also baselessly accusing them of misleading head-fakes and doctoring temperature records. He also throws a jab at the “compliant media”, I’m guessing, for responsibly informing the public about such inconvenient truths.

When the Times broke the story a week later, Forbes did publish an article, written by Staff writer Alex Knapp,  covering what NASA and NOAA scientists reported. It can be found under the technology section. But as of Jan. 25, Taylor’s Opinion piece has racked up nearly 30,000 views to the news article’s 2,347.  

When Forbes launched the blogging platform used by Taylor, Forbes Chief Products Officer Lewis DVorkin said that accepted Contributors are “vetted by our editors and our staff. We look at their experience, we look at their credentials and what they’ve done. And we turn many people away.” Unfortunately, this appears to be an example of what happens when people like Taylor can using the  prominence and influence of the platform to disseminate junk science.

1 Comment

  1. This is an excellent blogpost, Dora! I could see this at a major national digital outlet as a rebuttal to Taylor’s piece. You could try bringing in other dissenting voices, too, or pepper this with tweeted reactions by climate scientists and journalists? Nice work.

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