The California governor’s office has a web page about climate science. It leaves a lot to be desired — to say the least. Among other things, there’s one glaring problem which has done the near-impossible — made me agree with Anthony Watts.
Michael Tobis had this to say about the overall tone of the site:
I would like to say that I think it gets the whole situation wrong and may do more harm than good by being polarizing and superficial.
If the governor wants to get in touch with me about how to do something useful on the web given actual resources, he not only could do worse, he already has done.
I strongly urge the governor’s office take Tobis up on his offer.
But there are problems besides the tone. What Watts points out, rightly so, is that the page doesn’t even portray the temperature data appropriately. It does so with this graph:
The graph comes straight from NCDC (National Climate Data Center), so what’s the problem? It shows, not annual average temperature, or monthly anomalies (either could be considered appropriate), but the January-through-April average. Frankly, that makes no sense at all.
Furthermore, the trend in the January-through-April average (1.9 deg.F/century) is quite a bit higher than the overall trend (1.33 deg.F/century for monthly anomaly through July 2012, 1.24 deg.F/century for annual averages through end-of-2011). That makes it misleading. I doubt that it’s deliberately so (although it’s possible), but it’s still misleading. Watts goes so far as to say
If I made a dumb mistake like this one below in a time series, Tamino and his Lord of the Flies followers would be all over me, pointing and jeering stoopid!
Although I object to characterizing my readers as “Lord of the Flies followers,” if Watts did something like this then yes, I’d rip him a new one.
Not only does the web site do more harm than good for the reasons pointed out by Michael Tobis, it likewise isn’t helping to exaggerate the observed warming trend — whether intentional or not. So how did this happen?
Most likely explanation: back in May (when the April data were available) whoever put together the web page looked around the internet for temperature data, found the NCDC page, and copied the first temperature graph that appeared. They didn’t even notice that it was January-through-April averages. At best that’s sloppy, after all it says “January-April” at the top of the graph. Really — this is the California governor’s office, they should be more careful. They could also have consulted someone who actually knows about this stuff — I’ve heard that they do have some actual scientists in California.
Far less likely, but not impossible, explanation: whoever put this together didn’t want to use annual averages because that would exclude the scorching hot U.S. temperatures in 2012 (which isn’t complete yet). So they played around with various settings until they hit one which not only gives an exaggerated trend rate, it also shows the super-high Jan-through-Apr 2012 average as that extreme high point at the end. Honestly I doubt this is the case — laziness seems much more likely than intentional deception — but the site is provocative, so I can’t absolutely rule it out. And the mere fact that I — an advocate if ever there was one — can’t rule it out, says a lot.
If you want to be provocative, confrontational, adversarial, fine. Get yourself a blog and do it as a private citizen. Watts does, so do I. But this is the California governor’s office. A conciliatory tone, an appeal to consensus (among the voters) and unity, and enough effort to portray the data accurately, are what’s called for.
It’s easy to blame the office of the governor for this. And I do. But maybe there’s another important lesson in this. Here I am busting my ass to combat misinformation, to raise the bar for accuracy in public knowledge about global warming, but I have to wonder: have we — the advocates for mitigating global warming — utterly failed? Have we educated only those who are interested enough to do the work required to educate themselves, but failed to reach the mass of Americans, even those who are on our side?
We shouldn’t let this mistake go unrefuted. It’s more important, in my opinion, to put our own house in order than to complain about the shack down the street. That’s especially true for elected officials, government policy makers. We need to raise the bar for communicating accurate scientific information to those who might actually have the political clout to do something about it.
I’m open to suggestions about how to do that. And if anyone here wants to complain to the California governor’s office, feel free to refer them to this blog post.