Torturing the Data and the Facts

thermometerTo paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there they go again. The so-called Partnership for Responsible Growth is running a series of ads in the Wall Street Journal that attempt to make the case that human activities like heating, cooling, and lighting our homes and factories and reaping the rewards of mobility are causing climate change, which it asserts will cause an environmental disaster.

It provides citations for each of its comments to lend an air of credibility but they are more like the drunk who use the lamppost for support and not illumination.

In one recent ad, it makes the following assertions:

  • “Sixteen of the last eighteen years were the hottest on record and 2015 was confirmed as the hottest ever by far. Despite what you may have heard, there has been no “pause.”
  • “And not surprisingly, CO2 levels and temperatures track together in the geologic record”.

In spite of the use of citations, these statements are a manifestation of Darrell Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics. The first statement is technically correct but misleading, while the second statement is just wrong.

Since the 1998 high of 54.9 degrees, there have only been two years that exceeded that level according to NOAA—2010 and 2012. The other years have ranged between 52.4 and 54.8 degrees. The data, government data, clearly show a pause. Annual temperatures in the 54 degree range are not unusual. They occurred in 1931, 1934, 1938, 1939, and 1953.

When advocates cite specific years as being the hottest or one of the hottest, they are relying on changes of tenths of a degree but implying much larger changes. The exceptions were 2010 and 2012, which were the hottest since the end of the Little Ice Age. Further, the averages reflect adjustments to correct for the heat island effect, changes in measurement devices, and localization factors.

Mercury thermometers, which have been used in the past and record temperatures twice daily, are being replaced with electric devices called thermistors, which provide continuous readings. And, there is evidence that thermisters, which are more accurate, read warmer than the devices they replaced. So, the adjustments and change in devices introduce confounding variables that should produce interpretative caution, not bold pronouncements.

About all that can be concluded with confidence is that it has warmed since the late the end of the Little Ice Age and temperatures have shown a cyclical pattern since that time. From 1805 until the late 1930s, temperatures increased. From 1940 until the mid 1980s, they declined and then started increasing until the end of the 1990s. Since then, there has been no significant increases. The patterns observed over the past century are not consistent with the assertion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are causing dangerous warming and climate change.

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