"Quoting John Christy On Climate Change Is Like Quoting Dick Cheney On Iraq"
A defining characteristic of modern journalism is a lack of judgment, an unwillingness — or inability — to disqualify anyone as a credible source on a subject no matter how thoroughly discredited they have been by reality. Take the media’s ongoing bromance with Dick Cheney and other neocons … please. As the New Republic put it, “Media Malpractice: Iraq War Blunderers Keep Getting Invited to Criticize Obama With No Disclosure of their Past Incompetence.”
As for the media worthiness of the Politico’s puff piece profile of the Cheney family, I cannot possibly add anything to Esquire’s take-down, “Things In Politico That Make Me Want To Mainline Antifreeze, Part The Infinity.”
I do get that there has long been a fascination with smart people who could have been heroic but instead made tragic errors and dumb choices. Heck, that is the plot of half of Shakespeare’s masterpieces — and the first three episodes of Star Wars. Dick Cheney is, of course, less Hamlet and more Anakin Skywalker.
John Christy is no Dick Cheney, but he has been as decisively wrong as the former VP. How wrong? Skeptical Science debunks four dozen errors/myths from Christy in the past 6 years alone here. Several scientists debunked his myriad erroneous claims about climate science made in a 2014 Wall Street Journal piece.
Christy has been wrong for decades
It surprises no one in the scientific community that Christy is still so wrong today. Christy, and University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) colleague Roy Spencer, famously screwed up the satellite temperature measurements of the troposphere. Indeed they consistently underestimated global warming:
Here’s why Christy is someone you can program your mental DVR to fast forward through, as I’ve written before. First off, he (and Spencer) were wrong — dead wrong — for a very long time, which created one of the most enduring denier myths, that the satellite data didn’t show the global warming that the surface temperature data did. As RealClimate explained a few years ago:
We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming, and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.
Amazingly (or not), the “serial errors in the data analysis” all pushed the (mis)analysis in the same, wrong direction. Coincidence? You decide.
Climatologist Michael Mann wrote me about Christy’s temperature analysis, “There was no scientific validity to their claims at all. And what makes matters worse, other scientists have stated that Christy seemed to do everything in his power to prevent other scientists from figuring out how they got such a strange result. These scientists were forced to deduce Christy and Spencer’s errors through reverse engineering.”
As Mann explained, that is clear from what Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said to Christy at a House hearing about the experiences of Frank Wentz, a scientist from the group Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) who had been trying to reconcile the results they got (that global temperatures are warming) with the cooling trend Christy and Spencer were claiming. Christy’s written testimony said he had “provided sections of our code and relevant data files” to Wentz. Waxman said to Christy:
Well, I contacted RSS about your testimony and Mr. Frank Wentz sent me a letter last night, and he wrote to say, “Dr. Christy has never been willing to share his computer code in a substantial way,” and he provides the text of a 2002 e-mail exchange between RSS and yourself…. In light of this letter, Dr. Christy, I would be interested if you care to clarify your testimony because Mr. Wentz wrote further, “I think the complexity issue was a red herring. My interpretation of Dr. Christy’s response is he simply didn’t want us looking over his shoulder, possibly discovering errors in his work. So we had to take a more tedious trial-and-error approach to uncovering the errors in his methods….” What do you say about that? That sounds inconsistent with what you have told us.
The NY Times explains none of this in what one leading climatologist calls a “puff piece.” The Times does write this:
“John Christy has made a scientific career out of being wrong,” one prominent climate scientist, Benjamin D. Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote in one 2008 email.
But again, the Times doesn’t explain that Santer’s statement is true. Worse, the Times calls the dispute over the satellite temperatures “something of a scientific tit for tat.” It even quotes a Christy coauthor saying, “Show me two scientists who agree on everything” — as if Christy’s repeated lowball calculations were just some unresolved disagreement with colleagues — and not the serial blunders they turned out to be.
So it is beyond ironic for the Times to quote Christy saying, “I’m a data-driven climate scientist,” and “you have to know what’s happening before you know why it’s happening, and that comes back to data.” As Mann wrote me, “it takes some real hutzpah for John Christy to be criticizing other scientists,” given his track record.
Temperature data and analysis are precisely where Christy should be ignored. But instead, the whole Times piece is about … wait for it … how Christy still thinks that his underestimates of global warming and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are wrong.
Salon has a critique of the piece, “New York Times’ climate skeptic debacle: How a new profile sets back science” with the subhed, “Paper of record issues bizarrely sympathetic treatment of prominent skeptic John Christy, totally misses the point.”
The piece is worth reading, but I don’t agree with the use of the word “science” in the headline. The scientific community hasn’t taken Christy’s pronouncements on climate science seriously since he can’t or won’t break free of his biased and error-riddled views. So I’m not sure this piece sets back science.
It is journalism that is set back by taking Christy seriously — much as journalism is set back when the discredited neocons are taken seriously on Iraq. Or maybe it is just the New York Times that is set back, as the Christy piece is not an outlier but yet another example of how the New York Times is mis-covering the story of the century.
Salon is correct that the treatment of Christie is bizarrely sympathetic. Indeed, the NYT’s original headline (as the URL shows) was “Dr. John Christy Skeptic Of Climate Change Finds Himself A Target Of Suspicion From The Global Warming Fanatics” — as if Christy was somehow the victim in all of this, rather than a serial disinformer.
You’d never know from the Times piece that Christy is a guy who contributed the chapter “The Global Warming Fiasco” to a 2002 book called Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, published by Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leading provider of disinformation on global warming long funded by ExxonMobil!
So, yes, Christy is a key player, even a superstar, on team lowball and team disinformation — also known as team do-nothing and hence team self-destruction. That history seems as relevant to this NY Times piece as informing people about Cheney’s myriad tactical and strategic blunders on Iraq before quoting him on Iraq policy.
If Christy is wrong yet again, listening to him will prove catastrophic
The Times buries the lede:
Dr. Christy has drawn the scorn of his colleagues partly because they believe that so much is at stake and that he is providing legitimacy to those who refuse to acknowledge that. If the models are imprecise, they argue, the science behind them is compelling, and it is very likely that the world has only a few decades to stave off potentially catastrophic warming.
And if he is wrong, there is no redo.
“It’s kind of like telling a little girl who’s trying to run across a busy street to catch a school bus to go for it, knowing there’s a substantial chance that she’ll be killed,” said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “She might make it. But it’s a big gamble to take.”
Well, almost. Climate scientists don’t “believe that so much is at stake” — they know it. We don’t have “a few decades to stave off potentially catastrophic warming” — we have about one, mainly because politicians and the media have been suckered into listening to Christy and his fellow disinformers for a quarter century.
Time is also running out because many of the most worrisome impacts of global warming — such as the disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets — have been occurring much faster than anyone expected, which is the strongest evidence team do-nothing are wrong when they lowball current impacts and say with confidence we can handle future impacts.
How much clearer and more accurate the Times piece would have been if the author had merely added:
And if he is wrong for the umpteenth time, there is no redo.
Christy is simply not a guy you’d want to stake the future of humanity on.
As an aside, Emanuel didn’t mean Christy would give such bad advice to the little girl in that situation, only that Christy’s advice to the world on climate policy is analogously bad and consequential. Though I suppose it would be a fairer analogy to climate change if we were talking about a very large number of little girls planning to cross the street during, say, the running of the bulls and there were some disinformer shouting down the countless people urging those girls not to do it. But of course, Christy wouldn’t do that. What he is doing is, however, is analogously bad and consequential.
The Flat Earther
Earlier this year, Christy coauthored a piece in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal headlined “Why Kerry Is Flat Wrong on Climate Change.” As noted, the myriad scientific errors in it were debunked at the time by leading scientists.
Christy was upset that Secretary of State John Kerry characterized people like him — who reject the scientific consensus on human-caused warming accepted by 97 percent of climate scientists — as part of the “Flat Earth Society.” Christy thinks you should believe him, despite the fact that he has been consistently wrong.
Why? Because, Christy claims, the scientific consensus has turned out to be wrong throughout history. But all his historical examples were wrong. For instance, he wrote:
But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today’s scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?
Uhh, no. Completely backwards, in fact.
The flat Earth was, as Wikipedia notes, a myth “common in pre-scientific societies.” On the other hand, “The paradigm of a spherical Earth was developed in Greek astronomy, beginning with Pythagoras.” Yes, it was science that debunked the flat earth myth. The spherical earth then became fairly widely held. Christy seems to be relying on “The modern misconception that educated Europeans at the time of Columbus believed in a flat Earth, and that his voyages refuted that belief.”
Every year, John Christy finds new ways of being wrong. If one were to go by data, as Christy says we must, then the presumption should now be that whatever Christy says on climate change is most likely wrong. Perhaps it is time to stop listening to him.