Climate Fail: California Governor’s Office

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.

43 responses to “Climate Fail: California Governor’s Office

  1. In mitigation: the graph is correctly labelled and sourced, and is not referred to in the text. It is purely illustrative.

    And it’s impossible to get a sensible graph from the NOAA source page. It’s a dynamic graph created for some obscure reason, and it isn’t user friendly in any way at all. Even the graphs it creates are cluttered with moving averages and extra axes. If there is any blame here, I would aim it at NOAA for creating the world’s least helpful graphing tool.

    So, it’s a poor choice, but to suggest that it is wrong is… wrong.

    It is what it is.

    [Response: I agree that the NOAA page doesn’t make it easy to get a relevant graph. That said, let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Suppose Watts did exactly the same type of thing but in a way that minimized warming. Would we cut him slack because the graph is properly labelled and sourced and not referred to in the text?

    I suggest that we set a higher standard for our side than for the opposition.]

  2. Me thinks they did not understand what “Year-to-Date-average” means.
    I am also not surprised that they did not pick up on their error because of the “Jan – Apr” header.
    The text above the plot controls says “Data are available from January 1895 through July 2012.” and one might think that this is reflected in the header, i.e. “Jan – Apr” just denotes the first and last months in the series. After all the header does not say “Jan – Apr average”
    Note that “July 2012” above would have read “April 2012” when they hit the site at the right time.


  3. jasonpettitt

    I always feel a bit, ya know, strange about clicking on wuwt. But then this happened and it’s much better now.

    • jasonpettitt

      Actually, given that this post is in some way about not laughing *at* people who just think the wrong thing (something that isn’t unknown even for super smart people, sometimes) perhaps I should have saved that for later :/

      It did cheer me up though.

  4. I must say Tamino, that while I disagree with you on most issues, I commend you for this post. There’s not a word in it with which I would disagree. I have argued similarly for years for people who are more allied with me to get their house in order.

  5. Funny things is that Watts recognises he WOULD do something like this…

    • You mean Watts does this sort of thing all the time! He squeezed this article about Brown between two such articles implying global warming isn’t real/bad, using his usual phony ‘arguments’.

      Just have a look – the article Watts posted immediately before the one about Brown’s website, and the article he has just posted immediately after it are prime examples of Watts doing exactly what he complains that the Governor’s website did – only Watts’ are worse examples.

  6. I’d rather see a chart of global surface temperature or other global indicator than US temperature, no matter what the period.

    I also agree that a straight up reporting of climate change and its implications is preferable on an official website. There are ample local changes in or near California, in the rest of the USA and even more so around the globe. And it’s important to spell out what climate change means in terms of ecology, economy, what we’ll need to adapt to, how we can minimise it and what is currently being done about it.

    There are enough people like me and others that the Governor can rely upon to be snarky towards and about deniers. Leaving the Governor to take the high road.

    Despite picking this up, I doubt that Watts is about to start debunking denier nonsense. He’d have to start with himself. (That’s a very mild snark!)

  7. Jim Pettit ("Neapolitan")

    What separates us, the scientific, from them, the deniers of scientific fact, is that we strive at all times for intellectual honesty and openness. We show data that don’t support our positions right along side those data that do (though there are, obviously, far more of the latter than the former). The others? Well, not so much. The denialist interweb is full–overflowing, in fact–with Watts-ian graphs and charts carefully selected to build “skeptic” mountains out of scientific molehills. Or no-hills. We expect that, and denialists never fail to sink to those expectations. So when I see things like that cherry-picked (or seemingly cherry-picked) graph from the State of California site–that is, from people who apparently agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus–I cringe, and I cry “foul” just as loudly as I do when denialists do it.

    Bottom line: the science supports our position, not the denialist one. Thus, we never need lower ourselves to duplicating their tactics. So whether using that graph was intentional or not, it needs to be shown with detailed explanatory text, be displayed adjacent to others that illustrate the entire range of temperature data, or be removed.

    And, yes, Gov. Brown should accept Tobis’ offer.

  8. 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.

    I’m adding a gripe that a literal application of a “9 point binomial filter” wouldn’t have a value for the first and four points. Of course, that’s directed at NCDC folks and only secondarily at people who use their data. Unfortunately, it’s also common practice.

    I do commend Gov. Brown for enabling consensus among the climate blog community. [Response: LOL!] I’m looking forward to his next faux pas. Living in New Hampshire, I can do that. :-)

  9. How did they do it? An aide was assigned the task, and the aide dragooned people ignorant of the issues to do the work.

  10. I can’t see the name “Jerry Brown” without thinking of the Dead Kennedys and “California Über Alles” but has anyone ever come back into the same major office after such a long break, 1983-2011? I wouldn’t have believed it possible after 28 years.

    But anyway, my vote is for carelessness/incompetence. It makes no sense to show Jan-Apr USA-only when the full year figures for the planet make the point honestly. Why stop at USA-only? Why not California-only?


  11. Horatio Algeranon

    “Although I object to characterizing my readers as “Lord of the Flies followers,”

    Well, logically that would make you a pig’s head on a stick swarming with “followers”

  12. Doug Proctor

    Good response and a very good point about causing the interested few to educate themselves. I was uninvolved until Climategate and then used the resources of the blogosphere to become educated (you might call it “misinformed”). Regardless of the conclusion one comes to, and we both must agree that there are enough assumptions involved that belief or disbelief in some is required to make ANY course of discovery, the self-education of the private individual about this issue is the most important aspect of the climate change dispute. For the first time – excluding Viet Nam, as that was a call for a moral and ethical position, not technical – large numbers of laymen have been forced to do their own homework on a knowledge-based subject, in order to determine their position on an authority-proposed situation. AGW has opened up the future for a truly democratic input into decision-making at the highest level.

    This has got to be the reason Gore refuses journalists to his presentations, recording devices and questions from the floor. All subjects have some measure of internal inconsistency (as William James might have said, we approach truth rather than capture it, so it is natural that some points are “off”). Doubt will always occur to the diligent (or nitpicker, some might say), even in the most certain of all things. The average, interested person now has enough background and confidence to point out the “problems”, whether significant or not to the overall situation, problems that cannot be answered, but which, when observed, detract from the messages and especially the dramaturlugical aspects of the presentation.

    • Doug Proctor,
      So what is your position on String Theory? On the implications of the Higgs Boson? How about whether quasi-particles are real or not?

      No? Nothing?

      So, why is it that you think expertise does not matter when one is attempting to interpret complicated data? And why do you think it might be that every expert who publishes on a regular basis on the subject you are pontificating about says you are wrong?

  13. I am proud to be counted as one of your “Lord of the Flies” followers!!!!! Best regards, Jim Cliborn

  14. Rob Honeycutt

    I would have to suggest the “Lord of the Flies” reference is a tad bit of projection on Anthony’s part. Perhaps Tony hasn’t actually read the book, or if he has, he does not understand the overall meaning of the story. It has to do with morality and social structure. Ironically, Tamino’s post here represents more about “moral integrity” found in Ralph’s group of kids, while Anthony is better characterized by Jack’s second group of “hunters.” (Interesting how that fits perfectly with Anthony’s “hunters” who track down and photograph weather recording stations.)

    If anyone reads Lord of the Flies, or has read it already, it’s very clear who represents Ralph and who represents Jack.

  15. I take also issue with the “Many receive funding for their efforts from industries with a financial interest in ignoring climate change.” claim. I agree that a lot of the infrastructure is funded like described (Monckton tours, Heartland conference, Watts 88k USD for his expertise in what again(?) , …), however there are way more willing parrots who do the work of spreading the disinformation pro bono.

  16. Doug Proctor:

    I was uninvolved until Climategate and then used the resources of the blogosphere to become educated (you might call it “misinformed”).

    This is the most ass-backwards approach to learning science I’ve ever heard of. It’s akin to trying to learn chemistry by reading blogs devoted to homeopathy.

    Yes, I’ll call you misinformed.

  17. Horatio Algeranon

    Maybe the California governor’s office should focus more on un-polaricing issues like this.

  18. Doug Proctor
    “I was uninvolved until Climategate ”

    You don’t have to go any further than that, for me to know you are misinformed. What I read from it, is that you then proceeded to get more misinformed.

    a little “informative” reading for you

    series of seven articles at Skeptical Science called
    “The Fake Scandal of Climategate”
    “The Real Story of Climategate”

    {read it at Climate Sight blog}
    How to be a climate auditor, part 1: Pretty pictures

    “Do you have what it takes to be a climate auditor? Try the following fun test and find out. And at the same time, you can’t help but learn something about the fine art of argumentation from charts as practiced by the master himself, Steve McIntyre, and refined in his most devoted media outlet, the U.K. based Mail on Sunday”

    Mann Fights Back Against Denialist Abuse

    “There has been subsequent scientific debate regarding the statistical methods used in Mann et al. 1999. It was after all a groundbreaking study – one of the first northern hemisphere millennial temperature reconstructions, so of course subsequent research has resulted in improved methodologies, even by Mann himself in Mann et al. 2008 …………..

    there is zero evidence that there was any fraudulent behavior whatsoever Mann et. al 1999, and in fact every subsequent millennial northern hemisphere temperature reconstruction has confirmed the general ‘hockey stick’ shape”

    Yamalian yawns

    “Steve McIntyre is free to do any analysis he wants on any data he can find. But when he ladles his work with unjustified and false accusations of misconduct and deception, he demeans both himself and his contributions. The idea that scientists should be bullied into doing analyses McIntyre wants and delivering the results to him prior to publication out of fear of very public attacks on their integrity is ludicrous.
    ………………Worse, McIntyre has claimed in his appeal that the length of time since the Briffa et al (2008) paper implies that the regional Yamal reconstruction has been suppressed for nefarious motives. But I find it a little rich that the instigator of a multitude of FOI requests, appeals, inquiries, appeals about inquires, FOIs about appeals, inquiries into FOI appeals etc. is now using the CRU’s lack of productivity as a reason to support more FOI releases. This is actually quite funny.”


  19. Horatio Algeranon

    “Love at first email”
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    Until Climategate
    Finally got hitched
    It’s never too late.

  20. I just hate it when people get their sum of scientific understanding from blog interpretations of blog interpretations (etc etc) of snippets of stolen emails. It’s frustratingly useless trying to engage in any science discussion with them.

    (Being realistic, how could one ever get a rational discussion going with such a person? It’s like trying to talk about microbiology with an anti-vaxxer or the intricacies of plant breeding with an anti-GMO person. I expect people get equally frustrated trying to engage me in a discussion about nuclear energy :))

  21. Jeez, Tamino, for the reasons mt listed? Only, he listed nothing beyond a vague handwave (wrong, polarizing and superficial — that’s it!). Plus, as was pointed out above, the graphic in question isn’t even discussed in the text. So maybe now would be a good time (for you and Michael) to read the text and see what you think of it. I have, and I like it. It’s pithy and to the point.

    Re taking a conciliatory tone with deniers, I think we’re a bit beyond that, although if you have some plan to make such an approach work I’m all ears.

    BTW, and I have no idea if this is the reason for the selection of the graphic although I strongly suspect it is, January-April is indeed a period of great concern in California because it’s the period of greatest precipitation/snow accumulation. Our reservoir system is designed to handle a substantial snow pack that melts slowly; too much warming and that snow turns to rain or melts too fast, and if/when that happens on a large enough scale we have big trouble. The state has funded rather a lot of research on that very point.

  22. Oops, posted too quick. Of course it’s U.S. not CA data graphed, isn’t it? So it needs a correction, but I suspect I’m right about the source of the confusion. We’ll see what correction(s) get made.

  23. Sara Pay Lynn

    It’s time ro refudiate Jerry’s web site.

  24. “Sara Pay Lynn” …


  25. Louis Hooffstetter

    Thank you Tamino for the excellent commentary. Slipshod data only fuels conspiracy theories and brings out the worst in all of us. We may never agree on anything else, ever again but I’m happy to know that at least once, I can say you’re spot on!

  26. My immediate thought is the same Steve Bloom posted above — the months covered by “the January-through-April average” are when California gets its snowpack if the cold weather lasts past the end of the “rainy” season — or, when instead rainfall melts the snowpack, California gets floods followed by water shortage.

    Someone likely had that chart for a good reason, for real concerns.
    Someone mistook and misused it thinking the slanty line looked slanty.

  27. So, where _is_ the problem chart? I haven’t found the original yet, just the copies elsewhere. Was it fixed?

    [Response: Evidently it was removed.]

  28. While I suspect I disagree strongly with Doug Proctor’s conclusions regarding climate science, the 2009 hacking and the sociopolitical fallout was also the event that motivated me to read up on climate change.

    The difference, I suspect, is that I ended up finding Skeptical Science and its reliance on the pertinent scientific literature.

  29. > removed

    Bravo. Should’ve done the strikeout-and-correct-public thing, of course.

    Were other problems identified they still need to fix?