climate change · Climate communication · climate science · Politics · Rhetoric · subjective · Uncategorized

Puffery and Climate Communications – Knock it Off

I’ve been meaning to write something on this for a while. It’s about the topic of puffery and how much it is seen with climate communications.  “Puffery?” Puffery is simply an claim that expresses a subjective rather than an objective view. It’s an opinion that is “puffed up” in order to exaggerate some image or idea.

Puffery cannot be proven false. It is, by its very nature, not subject to any form of review. An example would be a used car salesman saying, “This is the best car on the lot.” Or, “skydiving is the most dangerous thing you can do.”  “This energy drink is extreme!”

water puffery
Ice Cold?

Which is a lead-in to discussions about climate change.  What is frequently heard? That storms will be “more extreme.” There will be “more suffering.” Wildfires will be “more destructive.” Heat wave will intensify.  All in all, things will be worse.

These Make Nice Headlines, But Science is Quantifiable

One thing that is a recurring theme is the emphasis on science. But science has certain characteristics. Science seeks to find and demonstrate fact. Science has a process wherein a hypothesis is formed, the hypothesis is tested via experiment, the observations are noted and analyzed, and a conclusion is reached. This is known to any 8th grade junior high school student.

We can work this out.  Take the Tom Brady football.  One can say that a lower pressure football is “easier” to throw.  Or that it is “harder” to fumble. Is this science? Well, it might be an opinion BASED on science, but it’s an opinion. What science can do is tell us what measurable effects that cold temperature will have on a football.

PV=nRT. The math can be done and the answer can be figured out.  Going from 72 degrees and 12.6 psi, dropping temperature 5% (by Kelvin after conversion) would drop the pressure 5% – about 11 psi. Or, one can simply run an experiment with the footballs to directly measure the temperature of the footballs.

Science will give us an objective answer, such as, “the interior air pressure will drop.” It can give us a pretty certain figure.  Something that is objectively verifiable and quantifiable.

Correlation does Not Equal Causation

Science doesn’t say “the football will be softer.” Softer than what?  Before? We might conclude that, but the leather may harden. There are other variables. Science will not say, “The footballs will be more catchable.” Science will not tell us, “A quarterback will prefer a low psi ball.”

These are opinions. What are some examples of opinions that we see with regard to climate change?  “Extreme” is a word used frequently.  Extreme rain, storms, hurricanes, etc. Even the absence of these things, such as extreme drought.

We also have seen reports about the “record shattering” 2015 global temps. Shattering? Okay. Why not just call them “record breaking?” Science tells us, “The GISS dataset demonstrates that 2015 was the warmest year in its instrument record.”

Other forms of qualified statements are found in news stories.  We can see this frequently with such terms as, “may,” “might,”or “could” in news stories. “Scientists warn that sea level may rise 6 feet by 2100.” Sure. This says the same thing as, “Scientists warn that sea level may not rise 6 feet by 2100.” Will it? We don’t know.

Thus, the attempts are to keep the public engaged by appealing to emotion.  Puffing up a story that relates to a “possibility” as opposed to a “probability.” We find stories where some effect is “linked to” climate change.  Or another big one over the last couple of years was, “such an effect is consistent with human caused climate change.”

Bill Nye will Tell Us that Piracy is Caused by Climate Change

It has gotten to the point where people are arguing that climate change is responsible for ISIS and world terrorism.  Bill Nye will go on news shows and argue about a series of correlated events climate change can cause water shortages, water shortage in Iraq, ISIS rose in Iraq during the water shortage. Ergo, climate change is responsible for terrorism.

The thing is, Bill Nye will say that science supports this. He cloaks himself in science, puts out a spurious correlation, says it’s supported with science.  No, Bill.  It is puffery, if not outright political nonsense.

Even Factcheck.Org Fact Checks Opinions with – Opinions!

We are entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.  It’s a well known statement.  The issue is that opinions and facts are so mixed together that people don’t seem to know the difference, anymore. Not even People aren’t entitled to opinions, any more.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski pulled the trick with a statement that “the latest research” shows “polar bear numbers are strong and healthy.” Now, one might be able to easily respond to such a statement with something like logic.  “Sen. Murkowski: show me the research and let me make some conclusions of my own.”

So decides to do two things: (1) treat an opinion as a fact; and (2) rely on an opinion to counter it! I mean, science says that it really doesn’t get any better than this.

The author cites lawyers and courts to opine that Alaska polar bears are neither strong nor healthy. Remarkably, factcheck only ever used the terms “strong” and “healthy” in quotes. Like Senator Murkowski, factcheck never attempted to provide any metrics for “strong” or “healthy.”

I expect a Senator to think that his or her opinions are fact. If people are duking it out over opinions, then I can expect people to duke it out.  But I also would expect to be checking up on “facts” and not opinions.  And when fact checks”c opinions with other opinions, I will take a greater issue with that.

Climate Reporting is Almost it’s Own Beast

Puffery is used in marketing.  It is designed to inflame people’s passions. It is a wholly subjective exercise. Look at nutritional supplements. Show some actor in a lab coat who says that, “Lipid Burner 2050 is based on the latest science that, when combined with diet and exercise, will help you burn fat and lose weight – fast!”

Climate reporting is the same way. Only we find terms used such as the following.  “Leading climate scientists tell us.” We see images of a flooded earth. We see images of dried earth and sand dunes.

But it’s the headlines that are truly bothersome. Said Eric Holthaus at Slate, “James Hansen’s Bombshell Climate Warning Now Part of Scientific Canon.” Um, slow down there, sir. I understand that headlines should grab attention. But this is also where I think climate science reporting should take a step back. Indeed, there is now a blowback in the whole climate community about the media anointing Hansen’s study as the most important act of science since the Principia.

Climate reporting has gotten to the point where the science itself is secondary.  A bombshell report? It’s a paper. Still subject to follow up.  It may be correct. It may not. Time will tell.

Compare this to the reports that gravitational waves were confirmed.  The reports were of a “breakthrough.” “Einstein was rnobeight.” The gravitational waves were big news.  It caused excitement among the general public not seen since Higgs Boson was discovered.  Might pick up a Nobel Prize.  But exciting because of what it reported.

Some in the climate community are also taking some issue with the reporting. Hansen’s paper is being reported by the climate press in a similar way to the Pope’s excitement over LeMaitre’s theory of the primeval atom. Time to back off.

Climate Science Reporting Sensationalizes Rather than Inform

The earth is warming.  Okay. I get it. Does the climate science and climate reporting community really believe that the public needs to be told how terrible it is? Is the climate reporting community so distrustful of the public that merely stating, “The report concludes with a warning that immediate action mus be taken to keep the earth below 2 degrees warming” is not enough to get the public’s attention?

Must the public be told that this is a bombshell?  Must the public be told that the warning is dire? Do the climate reporters and communicators really believe that unless the report is spun and characterized hat the public won’t get it?

Compare to reports of gravity waves that came out last month. There was no need to puff up a report of gravity weaves being discovered. There is no need to tell people that it was a bombshell.  People could read about it and if they wanted more information they could look more into it.

The public is smart. They are engaged. Anyone who doesn’t care won’t read it. Anyone who does care will form his or her own conclusions.

Climate Science is Personal, so it Will be Discussed Subjectively

Interestingly, one of my favorite blogs is “Bad Astronomy.” Phil Plait’s passion for astronomy is infectious.  This stuff is cool, and he will show you and tell you things. He thinks it’s cool.  It’s neat.

But then he will move into climate science topics. His tone changes. His affect changes. It’s not the Bad Astronomer informing, any more.  It’s the Bad Astronomer lecturing, and sometimes I can see some inconsistencies. For example, he had an interesting comment on WMAP, and use of remote sensing to measure the temperature of the cosmic microwave radiation at between 2.721 and 2.729 kelvin. And a couple of weeks later, on the same blog, comments that satellites and remote sensing are inaccurate for measuring the earth’s temperature.

I have much respect for Plait as an astronomer and as an informer.  He takes an image and explains what is going on in a positive way. But when climate comes in, along comes frustration and negativity.

Because it isn’t just about science.  Climate is a deeply personal thing to people. I understand that. I get that. People on both sides are always pissed off.  Good news to an alarmist pisses them off.  Good news to a denier pisses them off.  No matter what side, there is trouble.

It is difficult to not argue with people over personal subjects. I thus think that it is incumbent upon informers to inform. Reporters are becoming part of the story. Scientists are becoming the story as opposed to the science. Scientists are

Kudos to Hansen, et al. for Explaining Their Opinion on “Danger.” 

I was prepared to rip into Hansen, et al, for their paper released yesterday.  The title of the paper?  “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 C global warming could be dangerous.”

Immediately, I saw the opinion right in the title.  “2C global warming could be dangerous.” There it is.  An opinion right there in the TITLE!  And boy, was I going to let Hansen have it! So I read the paper.  You can find it here.

A few comments from a lay person without a degree.  I had a good understanding of what the authors were talking about.  It was laid out in an understandable way. It was not loaded with jargon. It was richly footnoted, and hit on lots of concerns I had as I was reading it. It broke some ground that made things a bit clearer. Whenever I thought, “this just doesn’t make sense” it pointed out that it was counterintuitive.  It’s conclusions were fascinating, such as the conclusion that surface air temperatures are a flawed metric.

But what I appreciated the most was the start of section 6.9 “Practical Implications.” After citing the UNFCCC, 1992, the paper stated, “‘Dangerous’ is not further defined by the UNFCCC. Our present paper has several implications with regard to the concerns that the UNFCCC is meant to address.” Then it stated, “We conclude that, in the common meaning of the word danger, 2◦C global warming is dangerous.”

While I have my issues with the reference to a political body, I understand what the paper is trying to do. While this is a scientific review, this paper is also someone of a call out to a political network.  While I generally have issues with regard to scientific papers taking on policy statements, I understood this.

Hansen, et al, understand that politics is crucial in climate science. Politics and climate science are adjuncts for each other. Yes, the authors DID dial back from their initial volley to a more neutral language.

On the other hand, the paper ended with the statement:

We conclude that the message our climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: we have a global emergency. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions should be reduced as rapidly as practical.

This is direct lobbying and policy advocacy.  This moves from “scientist” to activist. In my opinion (yes, “opinion” so should ignore it) this takes it too far.

In my next article, I will discuss why it is that this is not only a step too far, but is reflective of ignorance of balanced needs.  Because the final words, “as practical,” are EXACTLY the crux of the issue.



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