Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cats and Dogs - It's Raining Opinion

A Bad Survey Results in Bad Reporting
Today, The New York Times published "Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming," a story based on a new survey from George Mason University that concludes there are "tensions between two groups that might be expected to agree on the issue [climate change]: climate scientists and meteorologists, especially those who serve as television weather forecasters."

In brief, only about half of the 571 TV weathercasters surveyed believed global warming has occurred, fewer than a third thought it was "caused mostly by human activity" and more than a quarter agree with the statement that "global warming is a scam." Here are some important under-appreciated facts:

Climate scientists and meteorologists are like cats and dogs, apples and oranges. College degrees versus graduate training and research. Predicting the weather tomorrow versus studying decades of data.

Not all TV meteorologists are created equally. Half don't have degrees in meteorology -- they simply report the weather. Sadly they are often the de facto local science expert because 94 percent of TV stations don't have a full time science reporter. Thus, misinformation and junk science can be easily perpetuated.

Politics forms the backdrop, not the science. I hate this but, as I've said before, the facts sometimes don't matter (Do the Facts Matter? Of Course They Do, Of Course They Don't). There's 130 years worth of information to conclude that CO2, driven up by human activity, is linked to climate change. Unfortunately, those now famous emails from a British group that allegedly tried to suppress some climate data have given climate change deniers a new reason to cast suspicion and doubt on the collective work of the field. It is also notable (and not reported in the NYT story) that 37.9 percent of the survey respondents identified themselves as somewhat or very conservative, 35.1 as moderate, and 27.3 as somewhat or very liberal (1.6 didn't know).

I really don't care where one stands on the political question -- my friends stretch across the spectrum -- as long as there is an open mind and a respect for the facts. But it would interesting to see how the survey might have changed if 1) political leanings were neutralized and 2) sorted by true expertise in the field/years of education. The bottom line is that The New York Times may be making a mountain out of a mole hill by elevating the visibility of a flawed survey.

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.

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