James Fallows, Physics for Future Presidents, Al Gore, blogging journalists, and what will become of hockey sticks on an ice-free planet?

no-hockey.jpgA number of people asked me to reply to a blog post by Atlantic monthly columnist James Fallows in which he opines on a variety of climate-related subjects from Al Gore to the “Hockey Stick” graph.

Since I have known Fallows for a long time — we share mutual interests in rhetoric and the late Colonel John Boyd — I decided to zip him an e-mail, which he promptly turned into his first (of several) self-debunkings, “Climate pushback #1.”  Let me expand on a few of those dashed off points:

1)  Physics for Future Presidents. Fallows endorsed Richard Muller’s book.  Earl Killian long ago doubly debunked that book here (see “Confusing Future Presidents, Part 1” and “Part 2“).  ‘Nuff said.

2)  The Hockey Stick.  I wrote Fallows:

“The ‘hockey stick,’ was essentially vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences, and it is almost certainly correct.”  Cite here.

Few things excite the deniers more than the Hockey Stick graph because it allows them to wade deep into the analytical woods and entirely miss the forest [or is that “entirely miss the deforestation”].  I was trying to answer two separate questions quickly.  First, was the original analysis defensibly correct?  Yes (see NAS Report and  Second, were the conclusions correct [which could be true even if the analysis had flaws in it] — is the planet now as hot (or hotter) than it has been in a millenium?  Try two millennia (see “Sorry deniers, hockey stick gets longer, stronger: Earth hotter now than in past 2,000 years“).  See also J. Bradford DeLong commenting on Fallows here.

Perhaps more to the point, the Hockey Stick analysis is just the tiniest piece of our overall understanding of climate science, which is getting increasingly dire by the day.  In a few decades, not only will no one remember the Hockey-Stick controversy, many people won’t even be using hockey sticks anymore outdoors- it will just be too darn hot (see “Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year “” and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!“).

3)  Al Gore. OK, one guy does excite the deniers more than the Hockey Stick.  I wrote Fallows:

“Gore’s essential argument is correct and other than a very few technical quibbling with word choice, pretty every one on his major carefully crafted statements is accurate.  His Nobel Prize will, sadly, be vindicated by history.”

Gore should not be the centerpiece of any discussion of climate science because he is not a scientist nor does he claim to be.  He is, however, filling the role as the country’s leading climate journalist because the status quo media have utterly dropped the ball on the subject with their he-said/she-said stove-piped personality-driven stories, which continue even today (see Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” and countless examples in CP’s media category — and, yes, deniers, I am using the word “countless” figuratively here).

Like any journalist, Gore occasionally makes statements one can quibble with, but compared to 99.9% of the reporters writing on the subject, his careful word choice, his knowledge of the subject, and his basic premises are are dead on.  But because deniers like Roger Pielke, Jr. dislike how Gore has elevated this issue, they often misrepresent what he said in order to attack him — and those misrepresentations have then become circulated as fact, and before you know it even serious journalists like the NYT‘s Andy Revkin are repeating them (see Unstaining Al Gore’s good name 2: He is not “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements” and is owed a correction and apology by the New York Times).

4)  Blogging journalists.  Now that global warming and clean energy have become a first-tier political issue, every major journalist is writing about it.  My unsolicited advice: This is the story of the century, so you should be writing about it, but it has many mine fields so please do your homework before opining on it.  If you end up being as technically accurate and strategically correct as Al Gore, you will have distinguished yourself among every other major journalist writing on this subject.

One of the plus sides of blogging, of course, is that you can quickly correct yourself, as Fallows has done.  Now that he is back in DC, perhaps I’ll be able to get an interview or post from him on what he learned after his long stay in China.


6 Responses to James Fallows, Physics for Future Presidents, Al Gore, blogging journalists, and what will become of hockey sticks on an ice-free planet?

  1. Gail says:

    Coincidentally, I found this 2005 interview while searching the ‘tubes this morning, with Raymond Bradley, one of the originators of the hockey stick theory. He had quite a bit to say, even then, about the paid denial machine.

    “What he didn’t bargain for when he and his colleagues published those papers, but what he realizes in retrospect he should have anticipated, was the fury with which those having a vested interest in what he calls “the carbon economy” would attack not only his work but also him personally. The hockey stick “became the focal point of the venom and diatribe of the so-called climate skeptics,” said Bradley. ‘You publish a paper and you expect people to challenge it and ask questions, but you don’t expect to be personally attacked for what you are doing, your motives questioned and your competence questioned. That’s not the normal way of science.'”

  2. paulm says:

    BTW, it seems like we have hit some kind of threshold here with all the wildfires going down globally. They are everywhere even with the relatively cooler global temperature.

    Is there any comment on wild fires and threshold levels floating around?

  3. john says:


    I’m not sure what you mean by “relatively cooler” — the first 6 months of 2009 rank as the 5th hottest in NASA’s records: see

    The FAO keeps statistics on global wildfires, although there is a lag time so they haven’t got anything I could find on 2009, yet. But the decade trend is sort of like a hockey-stick.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    Francis: You’ve figured it out! James Hansen, who lives in a mountain top secret lair, sits on a throne made from a T-Rex skull, and eats babies for breakfast, has single-handedly fudged the climate numbers you refer to. It’s All A Plot, and you uncovered the truth!

    If only we had a champion, some courageous blogger who could rise from the pile of empty Doritoes bags and Dr. Pepper cans that surround his or her computer, shake one orange-stained fist at the sky, shout, “Damn you to hell, James Hansen!”, and then smite him with the sheer force of blog posts.

    It would be so much simpler to make all that nasty, you know, reality, just go away instead of having to deal with it and all that icky science stuff.

  5. Chris Winter says:

    Fallows endorsed Richard Muller’s book. Earl Killian long ago doubly debunked that book here.

    Yes, I was surprised when browsing Muller’s book in a bookstore to find he thinks (or thought) Mann’s work has been discredited. Let’s hope the past tense is now operative in that last statement.

  6. Susan Anderson says:

    I am soooooo grateful for all this information. Yesterday I was looking for something about Greenland and google pointed me to – sigh – its perversions are getting top usage. As an interested layperson with some scientific training, I am unable to contribute to the real work, but do spend a good bit of time trying to find ways to out the pseudo-skeptics who are extremely busy (after all, they have plenty of money). The Mann proven to be discredited meme is pervasive and has not gone away.

    Lou Grinzo, that is just hysterical (in every sense of the word). Would you mind if I quoted it the next time Hansen is insulted?

    yes, wildfires, Europe and Canada now …

    I’m going to try to get past the censor with my full name again (I think I was discouraged for no good reason the last two times).