Monday, February 15, 2010

The Limbaugh Manipulative Media Machine: #1

Is it a lie, deception, or merely misleading? There is a difference- according to Merriam-Webster, to lie is "to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive;" deceive "implies imposing a false idea or belief that causes ignorance, bewilderment, or helplessness;" and to mislead is "to lead astray; give a wrong impression" (not necessarily intentionally).

That is the context in which to evaluate most of what Rush Limbaugh has to say. He is someone we periodically need to listen, and call out, given that he is the de facto head of one of the two major political parties, which he aims to make the only political party. If Republicans Michael Steele, Mark Sanford, Rodd Tiahrt, Jim Tedisco, Eric Cantor, and Zach Wamp, and recently, Sarah Palin have had to apologize, deny what they said, or maintain a double standard (see Palin, Sarah) because they may have had offended Limbaugh, he's a force to reckon with.

As with most lawyers and politicians, Rush usually does not lie- he generally is careful not to state clearly, definitively, and without equivocation what he knows to be false. Still, it is worthwhile, in this first installment of what will be a periodic effort, to consider whether a particular statement made by the bloviating talk-show host is merely misleading, deceptive, or an actual lie.

Yesterday, Limbaugh ranted about climate change, referring apparently to the interview conducted by the BBC of Phil Jones, the director of the Climactic Research Center at the University of East Anglia. Among the claims made by Rush were

Well, we just had Phil Jones, the architect of all of this, and Michael Mann, the guy at Penn State who put together the bogus hockey stick graph, have admitted -- Well, Jones has admitted - - there hasn't been any warming since 1995. The Medieval period was in fact warmer than it is today....

Charge #1: "The Medieval period was in fact warmer than it is today."

Here is the exchange between Roger Harrabin, reportedly the BBC's environmental analyst, and Jones on the issue of the climate of the Medieval period:

G - There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not. If it were to be conclusively shown that it was a global phenomenon, would you accept that this would undermine the premise that mean surface atmospheric temperatures during the latter part of the 20th Century were unprecedented?

There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. The MWP is most clearly expressed in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia. For it to be global in extent the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.

Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today (based on an equivalent coverage over the NH and SH) then obviously the late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented.

We know from the instrumental temperature record that the two hemispheres do not always follow one another. We cannot, therefore, make the assumption that temperatures in the global average will be similar to those in the northern hemisphere.

Apparently, there are records indicating it was very warm during the medieval period "in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia." But "there are very few paleoclimatic records" of "the tropical region and the southern hemisphere."

Nonetheless, Joe Romm of Climate Progress notes

We already have major studies concluding it was not warm in the Arctic.... and plenty of other analyses showing that it did not extend over many large regions of the planet. It appears the tropical Pacific was actually on the cool side.

What little data there is of the southern hemisphere, observed the National Research Council in its 2006, indicates it "does not appear to show much of a medieval warm period," And The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research reported in September of a study which incorporated geologic records and computer simulations, "Arctic temperatures in the 1990s reached their warmest level of any decade in at least 2,000 years, new research indicates."

Rush, then, had insufficient data, or reason, to argue that the medieval period was warm- much less that it was warmer than the current age. His statement, nevertheless, that "the Medieval period was in fact warmer than it is today," is merely misleading.

But wait- immediately prior to that remark, Limbaugh said "Well, Jones has admitted - - there hasn't been any warming since 1995." In full, that would be "Well, Jones has admitted - - there hasn't been any warming since 1995. The Medieval period was in fact warmer than it is today." The juxtaposition was an obvious attempt to say- and certainly was an inference- that Jones himself had said "the medieval period was in fact warmer than it is today." He did not say that, Rush implied that he did, and the statement thus was deceptive, imposing a falsehood that caused ignorance or bewilderment.

But what of

Charge #2: "Jones has admitted - - there hasn't been any warming since 1995?"

This is quite different. The question from Harrabin and the answer from Jones:

B - Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

Rush said "Jones has admitted there hasn't been any warming since 1995." If one ignores a portion of the question- "statistically significant"- one might conclude that Jones has "admitted there hasn't been any warming." But the question did specify "statistically significant" and Jones' response referred to "significance level" twice and "statistical significance" once. And it wasn't a long answer- his three references came in the midst of a measly five sentences; it was difficult nearly impossible to miss.

Further, asked "how confident are you that warming has taken place and that humans are mainly responsible?" Jones replied

I'm 100% confident that the climate has warmed.

Regardless of Jones' definitive statement that he believe "the climate has warmed," within his short response to the issue Rush addressed- global warming since 1995- Jones did not say there has been no global warming, only that achieving statistical significance for such a short period of time is extremely difficult. John Cook of Skeptical Science explains

Phil Jones is saying there is a warming trend but it's not statistically significant. He's not talking about whether warming is actually happening. He's discussing our ability to detect that warming trend in a noisy signal over a short period.

Phil Jones said twice that he believes global warming has occurred. In the latter response, he was "100% confident;" in the former response, he said "the trend is positive" and "is quite close to the significance level." And three times in that response he referred to statistical significance. Phil Jones clearly "did not admit there hasn't been any warming since 1995." Here, Rush Limbaugh did not merely mislead or deceive. He lied.

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