Quote Mining, Near and Far

I’ve been asked to review a couple books about global warming. Climate change and evolution, which I mainly write about, are intimately related, since life is a potent source of greenhouse gases (methane from bacteria, etc.) and abrupt climate change has triggered profound changes in the biosphere. This assignment has me taking a particularly close look to all the new research and political news emerging these days.

And I’m getting a funny sense of deja vu.

Those who pay close attention to the work of creationists know that they have a penchant for quote mining–for snipping out a passage from a scientific paper that conveys a completely different message once it’s taken out of context. Typically, this qutoe mining makes it sound as if a scientist is admitting the evolutin is one big hoax, but if you actually look at the full context, you see that it’s part of a consideration about what sort of mechanism is more or less important in some particular aspect of evolution. You can see over 100 examples here.

So today I come across an article on Fox News in their “Junk Science” column, by Steve Milloy. He endorses the US’s refusal to budge on carbon dioxide controls at a meeting in Montreal, casting worries about global warming as hysteria.

A more sober reality, though, is that whatever slight impact humans might have on the climate, it is too small to measure – a point made in a study just published by Swiss researchers in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews (November 2005).

The study reviewed prior efforts to reconstruct global temperatures of the last 1,000 years. It concluded that natural temperature variations over the last millenium may have been so significant that they would “result in a redistribution of weight towards the role of natural factors in [causing] temperature changes, thereby relatively devaluing the impact of [manmade] emissions and affecting future predicted [global climate] scenarios.”

“If that turns out to be the case,” the researchers stated, “agreements such as the Kyoto protocol that intend to reduce emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, would be less effective than thought.”

So senior U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson was on very firm ground when he stated this week in Montreal that, “I reject the premise that the Kyoto-like agreement is necessary to address the issue.”

It didn’t seem to me that the quotation was fitting very tightly into Milloy’s claims, so I wondered if I could get hold of the paper itself. In about five seconds I had it (pdf). It hardly makes Fox News’s case. The quoted passage comes at the very end of this 3-page review. But Milloy drops the last sentence. Here’s the full final paragraph, with bold face added:

So, what would it mean, if the reconstructions indicate a larger (Esper et al., 2002; Pollack and Smerdon, 2004; Moberg et al., 2005) or smaller (Jones et al., 1998; Mann et al., 1999) temperature amplitude? We suggest that the former situation, i.e. enhanced variability during pre-industrial times, would result in a redistribution of weight towards the role of natural factors in forcing temperature changes, thereby relatively devaluing the impact of anthropogenic emissions and affecting future predicted scenarios. If that turns out to be the case, agreements such as the Kyoto protocol that intend to reduce emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, would be less effective than thought. This scenario, however, does not question the general mechanism established within the protocol, which we believe is a breakthrough.

Hm. Do you think he couldn’t fit that last sentence in because he ran out of space?

Now I’m sure that global warming skeptics don’t like to be put in the company of creationists. But if that notion really does bother them, they should not take a page out of the creationist handbook. And when it comes to creationism, there’s one more interesting connection to make here. You can look through the Junk Science archive at Milloy’s previous columns, which attack all sorts of things Milloy claims are nonsense. And yet, despite all the headlines about intelligent design in the news these days, nowhere in the archive can I find a single column attacking creationism. Deja vu all over again.

Update: To be fair and balanced, The Day After Tomorrow was nuts.

0 thoughts on “Quote Mining, Near and Far

  1. FoxNews is singular among news organizations in that it has a ‘junk science’ section, but no science section.

    Their motives for that are obvious.

  2. Not surprising that fundamentalists are so blithe and blatant at slicing scientific papers into pieces that suit their purposes…their entire modus operandi is that they have a truth for which the inconvenience of contrary facts is no obstacle. They are basically processing all of their life experiences in this fashion.

    BTW, I think this is one of the very best science blogs on the net.

  3. Milloy is a supporter of equal time for creationism and is pretty cagey about his own position on the topic. I’ll try to dig up some links on this.

  4. Steve hits it right on the nose. (Uh, Steve the poster that is, not Steve of Fox News). Robert Carroll over at the skeptic’s dictionary took a look at Milloy’s so-called “junk science” web site a few years back and found it didn’t live up to the claim: http://skepdic.com/refuge/junkscience.html

    Carroll notes that Milloy even quoted Phillip Johnson of the ID fame in a favorable light, which is probably why you couldn’t find any criticism of ID.

    I think this type of thing is representative of the sort of psuedo-skepticism preached by libertarians these days (although Milloy seems more of a conservative of the Rush Limbaugh type). Like religious critics of evolution, they misrepresent or dismiss science that doesn’t back up their own belief in unrestricted markets and limited government, then claim they’re the level-headed skeptics of the debate. The only difference is instead of attacking evolution, they usally go after environmental science. You see this in Reason, a libertarian magazine, quite a bit, and I think John Strossel on ABC (or CBS?) is another example.

  5. The British newspaper The Independent, for example, reported in its Nov. 30 article about the Nature study that “the real evidence does point to a possible one degree Centigrade cooling over the next two decades.” But the newspaper reported in another same-day article that, “the [record hot] summer of 2003 was triggered by global warming caused by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.” Such contradictory reporting casually ignores the reality that greenhouse gas emissions can’t simultaneously cool and warm Europe.

    Why do I have the feeling it possible future cooling in Europe, but that the planet overall, in average, is warming up?

  6. The Quote Mine Project is a fantastic idea. I wonder why there is not a site for “Lies, Damned Lies and Quote Mines” in re Golbal Warming and Climate Change.

    I could also imagine a Quote Mine site dedictated to the Bush Administration, Congress, Mayors, etc.

  7. Quote mining is all the rage in political circles. Just listen to some of the so-called fair and balanced talk show hosts that are out there. They take quotes out of context all the time.

    Of course, the readers and listeners that frequent these types of people will never investigate sources on their own so they can do whatever they want.

    I guess that ignorance really is bliss.

  8. If you ask me, the Fox excerpt improves the quality of the quotation. That bit about how great the Kyoto protocol is sounds like scientists afraid to stand by their conclusion and reasserting their fealty to the conventional line. Like some Marxist concluding, “If the foregoing economics holds true, communal economies ought to decline. However, we do not deny the gloriousness and inevitability of Marxist revolution!”

  9. Please note, however, that the last paragraph of the publication in Quaternary Science Reviews, minus the last phrase, is the result of a *scientific* study, whereas the last phrase

    “This scenario, however, does not question the general mechanism established within the [Kyoto] protocol, which we believe is a breakthrough.”

    ostensibly expresses just an *opinion* about a political document, the Kyoto Protocol.

    Unfortunately, the authors do not explain in what way the Kyoto protocol is a breakthrough (and why did they felt it necessary to mention it at the very end of the article), which is a pity, because Kyoto is based on the assumption of a – mainly – man-made climate change, whereas the study questiones precisely this assumption.

  10. I sent an email along enticing him to step up to the plate.

    I’ve been following your Junk Science articles at Fox News and enjoy the readings that come out of the Cato Institute, with which I understand you are associated.

    I’m interested in reading about your thoughts on Intelligent Design and the political/religious machinations of incorporating it into our public schools. This would seem to be a perfect example of the inculcation of political views into the biology curruculum without regard to its scientific validity…. wouldn’t you think? I’m surprised you haven’t addressed it yet.

    By Cato’s Letters,

  11. I wonder what particular scientific discipline Milloy’s degree is in? I’m sure he wouldn’t try to tell junk science from good science unless he had at least the same amount of education and training as those he is judging.

  12. Noumenon’s comment is amusing, but the skeptical commenters are missing the point here.

    The main argument of the review is that the variability of the climate over historical time was greater than some paleoclimatologists believe, mainly due to problems with the data sets used.

    Think of the climate change as a time series over time, the sum of a signal (anthropogenic greenhouse gas warming, which the authors don’t question) and noise (non-anthropogenic ongoing climate variability).

    If the noise is high relative to the signal, changes in the signal (e.g. greenhouse gas reductions) make less difference to the overall trend than they would if the noise were low.

    Accordingly, for instance, we might eliminate all greenhouse gases tomorrow, but ongoing climactic variability might be enough to push us into a warm period, with all the usual disruptive consequences (sea level rise, drought, etc.)

    In other words, it’s hard to say whether the climate change risks are greater or less under the Swiss group’s scenario. What is certain under their scenario is that relatively minor, Kyoto-style reductions won’t do as much as under the standard scenario. More drastic cuts might be necessary (hence, the idea that Kyoto is a breakthrough).

  13. If natural variability is greater than had been commonly thought, then this is an even stronger reason to push geoengineering over emissions reductions as a way to control climate. Geoengineering solutions tend to allow control on a shorter time scale. They also may very well be cheaper, possibly by orders of magnitude, if the cost estimates from LLNL are to be believed.

  14. The entire “issue” here was a speculative statement about the consequences of research data that have not even been derived yet, let alone verified (cf. “If that turns out to be the case …”)

    I also fault the Quaternary Science authors for not discussing the consequences of a smaller variation in temperature– a scenario they admit is just as possible as a large variation. The paper compounds this error by then using a purely hypothetical conjecture as a platform to comment on a highly controversial scientific/political policy debate even though they have no hard data to proffer.

    Lastly, the authors inaccurately cast the Kyoto protocols and other efforts to reduce air pollution as only reducing CO2 emissions; and imply that CO2 emissions are the only impact of the world’s air pollution. Any person knows that industrial sources of C02 emit all types of other harmful substances including acid-precipitation precursors, mercury, soot etc. These pollutants can have profound and long-term impacts on the biota, including making entire river systems sterile from acidification (ie. southern Nova Scotia); reducing the breeding viability of many large animals due to mercury poisoning; and harming human beings especially young children (mercury).

    To claim the only potential benefit of air pollution reductions through Kyoto protocols or other efforts is a reduction in CO2 emissions is rather baffling. The enormous increase in fossil fuel use worldwide and its impact on the biota due to non-CO2 pollutants is justification alone for as much air pollution reduction as physically possible in the short term.

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