Junk Science on the Front Page

September 9, 2000 • Commentary

Junk science from Harvard, purveyed by a senior official from the United Nations and printed on the front page of The New York Times. Who would have thought such a thing possible?

James J. McCarthy, a Harvard oceanographer, recently took a summer tourist cruise to the North Pole. When his ship, a Russian icebreaker, followed open water ever northward (as icebreakers do), it eventually wound up in a few‐​square‐​mile patch of water at 90 degrees North.

McCarthy didn’t publish this in the peer‐​reviewed literature. It would not have been accepted, because it is not at all unusual. Instead, he called The New York Times, which dutifully ran a front‐​page story on Aug. 19 by John Noble Wilford, whose first words were, “The North Pole is Melting.” The Times went on to note that “the last time scientists can be certain that the pole was awash in water was more than 50 million years ago.”

This is all nonsense, and especially troubling because McCarthy is co‐​chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) section on “adaptation and impacts” of climate change. The Times report is not science; we scientists don’t take a single observation of anything and then draw large systematic conclusions. The famous Supreme Court decision on junk science, Daubert v. Merrell Dow, identified this type of statistical irrelevancy as trash.

Why didn’t McCarthy get online and check IPCC’s own temperature histories for the region? They are probably no more than four mouse clicks away. Had he done so, he would have found that summer North Pole temperatures are no different than they were for several decades in the early 20th century, long before dreaded economic growth could have warmed the region. Further, based on fossil evidence, most climatologists think the period from 4,000 to 7,000 years ago averaged at least 2 C warmer than the current era at high latitude. That’s three millennia. It seems pretty obvious that the summer polar ice back then would have been considerably more abraded than it is today, and maybe even gone completely in certain years. The climatic consequences? No one can find them, except that the period was noteworthy for the flowering of agriculture and the rise of civilization.

McCarthy could have also read the latest issue of the scholarly journal Climatic Change, in which University of Colorado climatologist Mark Serreze writes that not only has there been no net change in summer North Pole temperatures over the last 70 years, there has been no change in annual North Pole temperatures.

Times reporter John Noble Williams could have done this too. Instead, after receiving a firestorm of criticism for the irresponsibility of his first report, he tried to back down in a modified, limited hang‐​out sort way. His August 29 Times article notes that McCarthy now “would not argue with critics who said that open water at the pole was not unprecedented.”

Instead, he went to the Serreze article and disgorged another distortion: “The data scientists are now studying reveal evidence that on average Arctic temperatures in the winter have risen 11 degrees over the past 30 years.”

This is more junk. Both Serreze and the IPCC winter data show that a) 30 winters ago, in 1969, temperatures were around their lowest for the entire 20th century, and b) the net rise since then is 1.5 C. In terms of the departure from normal, they are currently running around 0.7 C above the standard reference mean, an inconsequential number. Wilford picked a small region of the Arctic where temperatures rose a great deal and said that this area applied “on average” to the entire Arctic. But that warm spot is balanced by many areas in which temperatures have fallen, which is how we achieve the unremarkable average change that has been observed.

These things are not difficult to check. But it’s easier to unquestioningly print the pronouncements of a Harvard professor bearing U.N. authority, even if he’s speaking from a cruise ship with a sample size of one. If I were McCarthy’s dean at Harvard, I’d be livid. And if I were Robert Watson, head of the United Nations’ climate panel, I’d find a new co‐​chair for the section on “adaptation and impacts” before the current one completely destroys the panel’s credibility.

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