Andrew Neil’s correction to the corrections

Last Sunday Andrew Neil interviewed Ed Davey on the Sunday politics show on BBC1. I thought it was a very poor interview and criticised it in a recent post. Dana Nuccitelli was also very critical and pointed out a number of errors in his Guardian blog. Andrew Neil has just published a correction to these corrections.

The basic premise of Andrew Neil’s response seems to be that the goal of his Sunday Politics show is to challenge those being interviewed. I have some sympathy with this view. There is, however, a subtlety to this that I think Andrew Neil has been unwilling to acknowledge. He, a political commentator, was interviewing a government minister about climate science. He wasn’t challenging government policies or the future plans of this government, he was challenging the science. This seems a little odd to me. If you want to challenge the science, interview a scientist. If you want to challenge government policies, interview a government minister. I know they’re related but a government minister isn’t really in a position to defend our current scientific understanding, but they should be able to defend the policies that are based on that science.

I thought I would comment on a few of the points made in Andrew Neil’s article. He comments on Dana Nuccitelli’s Guardian article by saying

Many of the criticisms of the Davey interview seem to misunderstand the purpose of a Sunday Politics interview.

This was neatly summed up in a Guardian blog by Dana Nuccitelli, who works for a multi-billion dollar US environmental business (Tetra Tech) and writes prodigiously about global warming and related matters from a very distinct perspective.

This might indicate one of the issues with Andrew’s approach. Dana Nuccitelli has a bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics and a Masters in Physics. What he writes is based on our current scientific understanding of climate change and global warming. He reads – and clearly understands – the scientific literature, has published papers in the area of climate science, and appears to be well-regarded by a number of high-profile climate scientists. If he has a perspective, it’s based on science. This isn’t politics where you expect there to be more than one side to every argument and where you expect different people to have different opinions (perspectives?); this is science. That’s not to say that there can never be disagreements, but simply that the kind of disagreements one would typically see in science would be different to what one might experience in the political arena.

Andrew Neil then goes on to discuss the graph of temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations that he used in his interview with Ed Davey.

The graph we presented illustrating the temperature plateau was not constructed by the Sunday Politics but taken from a website, produced by Phil Jones, a leading figure at the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, which works closely with the UK Met Office and whose work, especially on temperature measurements, has done so much to inform government policy here and abroad. The basis of the graph can be found here.

One immediate issue is that if you look at the source of the Andrew Neil’s graph, it makes no mention of a pause. The document to which the above comment links actually says Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activities are most likely the underlying cause of warming in the 20th century. The warmth or coldness of individual years is strongly influenced by whether there was an El Niño or a La Niña event occurring in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

Furthermore, the temperature line in the graph used by Andrew Neil appears to be decadally smoothed data. As I explain in this earlier post (and as Dana explains in his Guardian blog), this type of smoothing artificially enhances any slowdown in the last decade due to there being no data beyond 2013. Yes, this is Met Office data but you need to understand the limitations of this data if you are to use it to interpret what is happening with regards to global warming.

Andrew Neil then quotes the IPCC and then adds

The IPCC said in 2007: “The rapid warming observed since the 1970s has occurred in a period when the increase in greenhouse gases has dominated over all other factors.”

It said that, prior to then in the 20th century, any man-made heating was offset by other natural variations in the climate; but that human-released greenhouse gasses are the dominant explanation of the rise in temperatures post the 1970s.

I think this is a bit of a misunderstanding on Andrew Neil’s part. As we’ve added more and more CO2 to the atmosphere, the anthropogenic forcings have increased. In the first half of the 20th century, however, solar forcings were also increasing and anthropogenic forcings were lower than they are today. During this period anthropogenic forcings did contribute to the rise in global temperatures, but did not necessarily dominate. Since 1970, solar forcing has been decreasing while anthropogenic forcings have continued to rise and have become the dominant forcing. So fine, start in 1980 but it’s not really a particularly significant date.

Andrew Neil then mentions why they focused only on global surface temperatures and largely ignored the oceans.

Mr Davey said in his interview – and others echoed the point later – that we should not concentrate just on land temperatures, but look at what was happening to ocean temperatures and the polar ice melt for evidence that global warming was continuing unabated.

This is a reasonable point. But in a 15-minute interview we wanted to stick with the metric that most viewers would understand and which has been used most to judge the course of global warming in public debate i.e. surface temperatures, which are central to the science and, for viewers, the principle point of interest.

Okay, so it may well be true that the public debate has focused on global surface temperatures. This, however, has been partly (or largely) driven by the skeptic community. Many scientists have been trying to get the message across that at least 90% of the excess energy entering our climate system is going into the oceans and that only a few percent is associated with heating the land and atmosphere. This, together with the influence of natural variations, means that surface temperatures are a poor indicator of global warming. Andrew Neil claims that he hasn’t been influenced by deniers or skeptics, but focusing on surface temperatures alone would seem to indicate that he has, if only subconsciously.

Andrew Neil then goes on to discuss the Arctic sea ice, saying

For example, trends in Arctic ice decline and ocean warming are not necessarily irrefutable evidence of continued global warming, though many climate scientists believe they are indeed caused by global warming.

Others point out that satellite observations began in 1979 and caught a decline in Arctic ice already in progress. So the origin of the decline could be many decades ago, and might not have been started by man (though global warming could now be exacerbating a previous “natural” melting trend).

He could read an earlier post of mine that points out that there is no evidence that what we see today is simply a continuation of some natural event. He could also read this RealClimate post called Arctic misrepresentations in which the scientist (Ken Drinkwater) who’s work was used to make the claim that drop in Arctic sea ice was natural, actually commented to say that his work had been misrepresented.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about Andrew Neil’s article justifying the approach taken on Sunday Politics is that he mentions

A new paper by the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) suggest that Greenland ice sheet melting is related to solar activity and “a considerable fraction of the current withdrawal could be a natural occurrence”.

I discussed this “paper” a few days ago in a post called Watt about the remarkable correllation – Arctic sea ice?. This was also highlighted in a Watts Up With That (WUWT) post also a few days ago. The problem is, it’s not recent. It was written in 2005. It’s not actually a paper, it’s a report to the Danish Meteorological Institute. It is only based on data up until 1983 (so can’t be addressing current decreases in Arctic sea ice extent). And, it only considers observations taken from Iceland, which clearly cannot observe the entire Arctic region. Completely inappropriate for making any kind of assessment about the extent of Arctic sea ice. What’s maybe more interesting is where Andrew Neil got this from. The only two places that have highlighted this recently are my blog and WUWT. I’m pretty sure Andrew didn’t get it from here. Interestingly, one of the authors, Peter Thejll, has said on Twitter that he may comment on WUWT’s recent use of this report, so I’d be interested to hear what he has to say.

Andrew Neil also talks about the recent 97% consensus paper. He says

It was reasonable to point out that the methodology and conclusions of the survey have been fiercely challenged by Prof Richard Tol, a respected academic quoted extensively in the Stern Report. Other academics have their misgivings.

Rochard Tol has indeed attacked this work quite heavily on social media, but has not managed (despite trying) to publish anything critical of this study. I also saw a Twitter exchange between Andrew Neil and Richard Tol where Richard Tol told Andrew Neil that others (who wished to remain unnamed) where also critical. So, as far as I’m aware, the only known academic to be critical of the 97% consensus study is Richard Tol. Also, what Richard hasn’t mentioned to Andrew Neil is that he doesn’t dispute the result of the study, simply the method. The draft of his own paper (that was rejected by editor of the journal to which it was submitted) made this very clear.

So, this has all got rather long. In my opinion, there are few take home points for Andrew Neil. Firstly, this is science not politics. There aren’t necessarily two (or more) sides to every issue. If you want to discuss science, interview a scientist. If you want to discuss politics or government policies, interview a politician. Secondly, just because you download data from a reputable organisation doesn’t mean that you know how to interpret it. You need to understand how the data was collected, what it means and what are its limitations. Thirdly, just because the public debate has focused on one thing (surface temperatures) doesn’t make this the right thing to focus on. That’s why you talk to scientists. They can tell you what’s important and relevant and what isn’t. Fourthly, when you get something obviously wrong (Arctic sea ice) and the scientist quoted actually publicly states that his work was mis-represented, it might be best to simply put up your hands and admit you got it wrong. Nothing wrong with that. Would be commendable in my opinion. Finally – and maybe most importantly – if you don’t want people to think that you based your report on the views of climate skeptics/deniers don’t make it seem that you got information from WUWT and don’t quote Roy Spencer or Judith Curry.

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19 Responses to Andrew Neil’s correction to the corrections

  1. As for sea ice coverage, NSIDC provides observations since 1960 (ship based) showing that sea ice extent and area were in slow decline even then. The loss between 1960 and 1979 is about 10% (extent) adding to the stunning loss since 1979 of 50% to total nearly 60% over the past 53 years.

    The notion that Arctic sea ice was this thin before is nothing but myth spun out by the climate change deniers. And the fact that Watts and his ilk are using misinformation to support dangerous policy is simply unconscionable.

  2. Yes, I think that’s fairly evident in the figure (that I believe is from NSIDC) that I include in the Arctic sea ice post that I link to from this post.

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Thanks for this. Nicely put, and by no means too long. One minor quibble is that it would probably be better to describe GMST as an approximate indicator of overall warming, not a poor one.

  4. Thanks. Yes, you could be right about GMST. My reasoning for saying poor was that it is only associated with a few percent of the warming (excess energy) and is easily influenced by natural variability (ENSO events for example). However, it is still an indicator so clearly shouldn’t be ignored at all. It is also, of course, of interest given that it will play a big role in determining our climate, so it’s not that I think it should be ignored, just that it should be used and interpreted carefully.

  5. That one’s from NOAA, but it’s just as useful. I’d wanted to add the percent rate of loss as I believe it’s a good counter-point to what deniers usually claim.

  6. Okay, yes indeed NOAA – which I should have seen by simply reading the caption that I included with the figure in the first place 🙂

  7. talies says:

    My respect for Andrew Neil (and indeed the BBC) would be restored if he stopped trying to justify a mistakenly framed interview, and responded honestly to what you have written.

  8. Thank you. Likewise. I have no real issue with someone getting something wrong and acknowledging it. In fact, just recognising that some of what he presented mis-represented the current scientific evidence would be a good start.

  9. It would probably be fair to say that GMST is not a good indicator of the warming that’s already occurring due to the fact that the ocean is acting like a heat fly wheel and sucking up a lot of the initial forcing. Once that heat spins out, GMST will probably be a better indicator. But ocean inertia, at this point, is making it look like we have more wiggle room than is actual.

    It’s important to consider that GMST bakes in at around 3 degrees Celsius increases, long-term at 400 ppm (paleo climate). The climate change deniers completely ignore this precedent and it will haunt us terribly as time moves forward.

  10. dana1981 says:

    Exactly, the one point he acknowledged was an error (technically he just said it “should have been qualified”) was on this year’s Arctic sea ice melt. He stood his ground on all the other errors, then added a bunch of new ones.

    He could have admitted, for example, that while his smoothed temp data were taken from the Met Office, those data nonetheless are invalid after 2007 (or 2002 – I’m not sure which since they don’t specify the length of their running average), as I had pointed out. Instead he just said “the graph was … produced by Phil Jones”. That just dodges admitting the error. Which unfortunately makes more work for me in my response.

  11. Paul says:

    “start in 1980 but it’s not really a particularly significant date.”

    I believe Neil wanted to start at 1980 because that is when HADCRU4 temperature anomaly passes into positive territory. Either he doesn’t understand temperature anomaly, or it was just convenient as it fitted in with the doctored graph he was using.

    Also, it is exceptionally poor form to name Dana’s employer. It seems like an act of malice. No idea how he got away with that at the BBC. It’s a complete editorial failure.

  12. Yes, I’d missed that 1980 is when the HADCRUT4 data becomes positive. Hmm, does seem like that might be a reason.

    Very bad form to mention Dana’s employer. WUWT currently have a post about Dana’s “vested interests” which is doing the same. Does come across as remarkable malicious.

  13. bratisla says:

    Considering this talking point and the point about DMI report, seeing that WUWT published a blog note on this recently, it begs the question : did Andrew Neil read WUWT / got tips from a WUWT figure to do his interview and this answer, or did WUWT expand on Neil’s talking points afterwards ?

    I guess this is the former, and thus I consider this is pointless to argue with Andrew Neil if he becomes the voice of WUWT at BBC. He would always come with fallacies anyway – what he has written here is ample proof.

  14. JimBob says:

    The passage on the Arctic ice melts is particularly egregious, especially the reference to the “research paper” that is clearly lifted from WUWT. Actually, for the first time, this has prompted me to complain to the BBC on the bias of his blog entry. Here is the address:

  15. Thanks JimBob. I agree, including a discussion about the “new” DMI paper does make it seem like Andrew Neil is basing some of what he says on posts written at WUWT. Could be wrong, of course, but an difficult to find a sensible alternative.

  16. Latimer Alder says:

    ‘Okay, so it may well be true that the public debate has focused on global surface temperatures. This, however, has been partly (or largely) driven by the skeptic community’

    Umm, no, It’s been driven by the IPCC using those temperatures as the primary metric to demonstrate ‘global warming’ since its inception and including the most recent report. Plus the fairly obvious point that we (the biosphere) live and die and conduct all our business on the surface of the earth, so its the number of most relevance to us.

    That some scientists have been desperately divert our collective attention to some hidden unmeasured heat in the deep deep oceans seems to be a fairly transparent (and clumsily executed) attempt to move the goalposts once the IPCC’s favourite and still much-hyped number refused to cooperate.

    Not much to do with sceptics. This is an own goal of the scientists’ own making. You’d get some credibility back by acknowledging and moving on. We are not stupid and rewriting history (esp in the days of the Internet and Wayback) is foolish.

  17. So, it does seem that you have a point in that scientists and the IPCC have focused on surface temperatures in the past. Maybe I wrote that part poorly, although I do think that many skeptics are maintaining the surface temperature theme despite evidence today that it may not be providing a full picture. In some sense it’s based on what I’ve seen since becoming interested in this topic. However, maybe it is indeed something that can be attributed – in part at least – to climate scientists and to the IPCC. There you go, an acknowledgement of sorts.

    However, there is increasing evidence that the ocean heat content has continued to rise despite the slowdown in the rise of global surface temperatures. Global warming (or global heating as some seem to be suggesting we should use) is about an increase in energy in the climate system and is not only about global surface temperatures, and so the point I was trying to make is that focusing on surface temperatures alone doesn’t necessarily give you a good indication of whether or not global warming is happening.

    In some sense you’re right about the surface temperatures being important. I wasn’t suggesting that they’re not important, simply that they’re not necessarily a good indicator of global warming over short (decade or so) timescales. Clearly they’re important for determining much of our climate, but the oceans play a role here too, so ignoring them from a climate perspective would also seem wrong, in my opinion.

  18. This attack on my employment has really reached a fevered pitch. It’s not all Neil’s fault, he just jumped on the bandwagon. Watts did a whole post cribbing on the ‘Dana is funded by Big Oil’ BS. Then somebody sent a harassing email to my employer. I shouldn’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that I got a taste of the abuse that folks like Michael Mann have had to deal with for a long time.

    Deniers play dirty.

  19. Yes, I’ve noticed what’s going on and it seems remarkably malicious. For your sake, I hope it all calms down soon. I imagine that it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

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