Forbes Still Publishing Heartland’s Climate Nonsense

by Jocelyn Fong, via Media Matters

A recent Forbes column alleges that federal scientists are “doctoring” temperature data to fabricate a warming trend, after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the last 12-month period was the warmest on record for the continental U.S.

But what the column paints as a nefarious conspiracy is actually just proper science — NOAA painstakingly applies peer-reviewed adjustments to account for errors and gaps in the raw data from thousands of temperature stations across the country. The resulting temperature record has been independently evaluated and corroborated.

The column is by James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, the libertarian group that recently made headlines with a short-lived billboard campaign tastelessly invoking the Unabomber. This is not the first time Taylor has used his platform at Forbes to  malign scientists and spread bad information about climate research.

At issue are the corrections NOAA uses to eliminate errors and known sources of bias from the raw weather station data (which Taylor likes to call “the real-world data”). Keep in mind that the U.S. represents just 2% of the Earth’s surface so the data we’re talking about are a small part of the evidence of global climate change.

The scientists (or as Taylor calls them, “bureaucrats”) know that the raw data have flaws — stations are moved, natural disasters knock stations offline, measuring instruments change — so NOAA performs quality control using methods that are published in peer-reviewed papers. Taylor concedes that “it is, of course, possible that certain factors can influence the real-world temperature readings such that a correction in real-world temperature data may be justified.” But when he doesn’t like the results, he concludes that the adjustments aren’t valid corrections but “doctored data.”

Against NOAA’s rigorous science, Taylor offers his “common sense,” which tells him that any corrections should, in fact, reduce warming:

Common sense indicates that if the real-world data need adjustment, the proper adjustment is to further reduce recent temperature readings. Yet the bureaucrats who oversee the data have instead doctored the data to show a false, long-term warming pattern.

How does Taylor, a lawyer, know what “the proper adjustment” is? He simply asserts that if there are factors biasing the data, “The most important such influence is the growth of towns and cities around temperature stations.” The urbanization would cause the raw data to show more warming than actually occurred and the adjustment should decrease that warming, according to Taylor. But a quick search on NOAA’s website shows Taylor is wrong. The most important bias is not urbanization, as Taylor assumed, but a change in observation times. NOAA explains:

The most important bias in the U.S. temperature record occurred with the systematic change in observing times from the afternoon, when it is warm, to morning, when it is cooler. This shift has resulted in a well documented increasing cool bias over the last several decades and is addressed by applying a correction to the data.

It may not be common sense, but if common sense were good enough, we wouldn’t need science.

NOAA’s David Easterling also said via email that “Urban warming is a very small part of the overall warming, which also has been documented in the peer reviewed literature.” Easterling added, “The conclusions of the column sound like pure speculation on the part of the writer.”

Still suspect a giant conspiracy or massive incompetence at NOAA? Take it from physicist Richard Muller, who led an independent assessment of the surface temperature record last year. The study was partly funded by the Koch family, the oil tycoons who, incidentally, have also supported the Heartland Institute. Muller said via email that “it would be ridiculous” not to adjust the raw data. While noting that “some of the adjustments were made by humans using criteria that are somewhat subjective,” Muller said his own study produced “results that are very similar to those of the NOAA and NASA groups,” which indicates that the corrections “done in an unbiased way.”

Muller’s research also showed the effect of urban heat on the data “is minuscule because the urban heat islands are very small in area, and they contribute little to the overall land average.”

As outlined by a comprehensive report commissioned by the George W. Bush administration, climate change in the United States shows up in several other observations aside from the temperature data:

Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

If we’re in ” long-term cooling trend” as Taylor claims, he’s got a lot to explain, and flimsy charges of “doctored data” aren’t going to cut it.

Jocelyn Fong is a member of the Research Department for Media Matters. This piece was originally published by Media Matters and was reprinted with permission.

18 Responses to Forbes Still Publishing Heartland’s Climate Nonsense

  1. caerbannog says:

    Folks, what happens if you take the raw data (i.e. the data without any of those nasty “adjustments”) and run it through a straightforward gridding/averaging procedure that could be taught to first-year programming students?

    You get global-average results that look almost identical to the results that NASA gets:

    Seriously folks, this doesn’t require anything that you wouldn’t learn in a first-year programming class. Maybe that explains why Anthony Watts can’t do it.

  2. caerbannog says:

    Following up: Performing basic “sanity checks” on the temperature results produced by NASA/NOAA/etc. is not that complicated — it is something that could be explained to a jury in a civil case (should NOAA scientists get fed enough to take James Taylor to court).

    And putting Anthony Watts on the stand as a “hostile witness” would be icing on the cake.

  3. Maybe along with “war on terror” we should start putting quotes around the word “libertarian”? (and mabye around “conservative” too..)

    “There isn’t much point arguing about the word “libertarian.” It would make about as much sense to argue with an unreconstructed Stalinist about the word “democracy” — recall that they called what they’d constructed “peoples’ democracies.” The weird offshoot of ultra-right individualist anarchism that is called “libertarian” here happens to amount to advocacy of perhaps the worst kind of imaginable tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny. If they want to call that “libertarian,” fine; after all, Stalin called his system “democratic.”..
    Noam Chomsky

    Now, the Libertarian Party, is a Capitalist party. It’s in favor of what I would regard a particular form of authoritarian control. Namely, the kind that comes through private ownership and control, which is an *extremely* rigid system of domination — people have to… people can survive, by renting themselves to it, and basically in no other way… I do disagree with them *very* sharply, and I think that they are not..understanding the fundamental doctrine, that you should be free from domination and control, including the control of [not only the State and Religion but also of] the manager and the owner.”-Chomsky

  4. In fact, the NOAA/NCDC adjustments have actually reduced the anomalies for the record-breaking heat so far this year. The latest week was reduced by over 50% from the raw average:
    Weekly Weather Wee View: 27th Consecutive Warm Week

  5. TonyLoman says:

    I wrote to Forbes a couple of years ago telling them I intended to stop reading anything in the the magazine until they got rid of Taylor and Bell. It is hard for me to accept that Taylor actually believes what he writes. I think it is highly likely that he is disingenuous, like a lawyer pseudo-passionately defending a client (Heartland, his employer) but not really believing what he is writing. Bell, on the other hand, is just a reactionary. Both write well and they have a following on Forbes, although a good sign is that the comments to their columns always include a smattering of people calling them to task.
    Nonetheless, good work! Forbes should be explicitly linked to the Heartland extremists. If they perceive that this may hurt their bottom line Taylor may have to go.

  6. David F. says:

    How is Taylor allowed to publish blatant falsities? This is journalistic malfeasance, bordering on the libelous.

  7. dana1981 says:

    Forbes regularly publishes BS climate articles from various Heartland non-scientists. Taylor is a regular, but just one of the Forbes Heartland contributors. Their articles are universally denialist propaganda nonsense.

    Every so often Forbes will also publish a good climate article, as they used to do with Peter Gleick, no doubt to create some semblance of “balance” and allow them to continue publishing Heartland propaganda.

  8. David Goldstein says:

    hmmmm…is it time to call for a boycott of Forbes magazines or their advertisers? This seems by far the most effective method in our economic system to get companies/organizations to change their ways. It seems that publishing what amounts to libel of scientists deserves such treatment.

  9. SecularAnimist says:

    Jocelyn Fong wrote: “… Heartland Institute, the libertarian group …”

    Please stop dignifying the Heartland Institute by calling them a “libertarian” group.

    The Heartland Institute is not a “libertarian” group. They neither practice nor preach anything resembling libertarianism.

    What the Heartland Institute is, is a propaganda mill, and a lobbying and political pressure shop, bought-and-paid-for by corporations whose products cause immense harm to the American people. Their fake, phony, trumped-up, Madison Avenue-scripted pseudo-ideology is as bogus as their pseudo-science and pseudo-economics.

    I’m not a libertarian, and I find libertarianism to be an extreme and rather juvenile ideology. I certainly don’t defend it. But it is, at least, a genuine ideology, which has real values and real principles.

    And the Heartland Institute’s corrupt and mendacious BS — exemplified by Taylor’ blatant lies — has nothing to do with it.

    Indeed, any real, principled libertarian should be at least as offended by the Heartland Institute’s use of that term as climate scientists have been by Heartland’s ludicrous Unabomber billboard.

  10. Unfortunately, you can’t cancel an already-canceled subscription.

  11. Martin Vermeer says:

    Who would want to read Forbes (or any number of similar rags) anyway?

    Don’t even imagine you’re the customer. You’re part of the product. The advertiser is the customer.

  12. Chris Winter says:

    Forbes is reported to have a circulation of around 900,000. I suspect most of this subscription base is resistant to a boycott such as you suggest.

  13. Chris Winter says:

    Indeed, and the comments section is filled with people taking him to task for it. But of course this won’t affect Mr. Taylor’s views or dissuade Forbes from publishing them in the future. It all just boosts their flagging revenues.

  14. You could try sending a message to The Boss:!/SteveForbesCEO

  15. quentinp says:

    My response on Forbes:

    Er……not very much of what you say is actually true. Your use of the words “and” “but” and “the” areas one might expect but the rest is either willful or shockingly ignorant (for a journalist).

    Let’s consider for a moment if your ramblings WERE true. Then after all the qualified scientists in the world have had **** thrown at them for 12 years by Koch/oil-funded organizations like yours (Heartland), they STILL make errors so basic that even you can see them. Or all the scientists are in a massive, hermetically sealed, super-secret, 100% efficient conspiracy to maintain their second-hand-car-staycation-small-apartment ‘lifestyle’.

    (You’d think they’d create an easier mass hallucination going – without the need for terrabytes of climate data, complex models, theories etc. – maybe that cheese causes cancer or something).

    And they managed to con every single national science body int he world, The Pentagon, The US Air Force, IBM, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Swiss Re, Munich Re, Wal Mart and Coca Cola.

    That Forbes print this drivel to get a ‘controversy’ boost is pathetic. That you wrote it is……worse.

    Time to let the adults (see list above) do the big math, huh? The few Heartland funders that are left after your mass exodus this month are all fossil fuel companies – but there is even a future here for them if they would only stop denying which way gravity works.

  16. Nick B says:

    All you have to do to realise how stupid the Forbes family are is to read a book called ‘Billionaires Vinegar’ – these idiots are brain-dead from the scalp down. If they’re prepared to spend $150,000 on fake wine then they’d no doubt try and tell you everything is normal with the climate when they’re trying to find Miami beach in a submarine.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Taylor puts me in mind of the old joke about replacing lab rats with lawyers in certain experimentation. You see, there are more lawyers than rats, so they are cheaper, you tend to get emotionally attached to the rats, and there are certain things that rats just will not do.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Heartland, Forbes, the Kochtopus, the oil industry, the Republocrats and Democraticans et all are not ‘libertarian’, ‘conservative’ or any other euphemism. They are capitalist ie they put money above everything else, including human life and they are insatiably, sick in the soul, greedy.