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Daily Howler: Apples and oranges litter the highway as Broad fails the nation again
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FRUIT TRUCK DOWN! Apples and oranges litter the highway as Broad fails the nation again: // link // print // previous // next //

BACK TO SCHOOL: On Tuesday, we saw the way the Washington Post is schooling its readers RE two White House hopefuls (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/13/07). Candidate Clinton’s the fake, we were told. Although Candidate McCain is in the same position as Clinton regarding ethanol subsidies, the Post gave the great saint a pass.

To see this process semi-continue, check out Michael Spear’s front-page profile of McCain, in this morning’s Post.

There’s nothing horribly wrong with this profile. Spear adopts a fairly obvious framework: In Campaign 2000, McCain won New Hampshire in a rout, but now he trails Giuliani. But note the frameworks Spear promotes—and the themes he seems to avoid—as he explores McCain’s problem. Start with the Post’s headline, for example:
McCain Fighting to Recapture Maverick Spirit of 2000 Bid
There you have it! Once again, McCain is “fighting” for that “maverick spirit.” Indeed, right in his opening paragraph, Spear revisits other favorite imagery, even as he describes the problem the sainted solon now faces:
SPEAR (3/15/07): In the seven years since John McCain and his "Straight Talk Express" nearly derailed George W. Bush's White House ambitions, the blunt-spoken senator from Arizona has become the very picture of the highly managed presidential candidate he once scorned.
According to Spear, McCain has become “the very picture of” something “he once scorned”—“the highly managed candidate.” But Spear recalls the name of that famous bus—and he semi-calls McCain “blunt-spoken.” Soon, Spear quotes two “GOP activists” who no longer support McCain. Here are the nugget paragraphs in which Spear describes McCain’s current problem:
SPEAR (pghs 6-7): Their defections raise a question: Can the man who waged what Time magazine labeled "The McCain Mutiny" in 2000 do it again?

As McCain departs today on a five-day jaunt across Iowa and New Hampshire in his campaign bus (actually four buses, two in each state), he is hoping to regain the front-runner status that has slipped away from him and rekindle the insurgent spirit of his first presidential bid.
According to Spear, McCain is “hoping to rekindle the insurgent spirit” of Campaign 2000; he’s trying to “wage” another “McCain Mutiny.” Let’s just go ahead and say it—in the language of modern politics, these are quite friendly frameworks.

As he continues, Spear speaks to a wide array of Republicans, including many McCain supporters, about the sanctified solon’s chances. But uh-oh! McCain won New Hampshire (and other states) in 2000 in large part thanks to independent support. (Independents can vote in party primaries in many states, including New Hampshire.) And why has McCain lost independent support? In large part, because of his endless flip-flops! But go ahead—look through this piece, and see if a reader would ever know that this blunt-spoken fellow has lost a good deal of support and appeal because of his string of reversals. Instead, we are given to believe that McCain is down in the polls because he has been so “steadfast” on Iraq—and because another Republican, Rudy Giuliani, is even more wondrously straightforward. (“The GOP presidential landscape is also very different. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has crafted a no-nonsense, take-charge image that has him leading in most national polls.”) McCain’s reversals are AWOL here. At one point, Spear even mentions the way McCain “lashed out at” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in 2000—without noting the fact that he has kissed and made nice with these very same folk in recent years.

No, this isn’t a horrible report. Most of what it says is fair and accurate. But put it together with Tuesday’s report and you’ll see how readers get schooled about candidates. On Tuesday, the Post devoted 21 paragraphs to a Clinton “reversal,” suggesting it showed that she is “calculating”—and it only gave McCain two grafs, although he has made the exact same reversal on ethanol, the matter in question. (Clinton also ranked a huge photo.) Today, we get a profile of McCain which again omits his endless reversals—and which continues to picture him, in the headline, as a “fighting” “maverick.” Tuesday’s report was truly gruesome; today’s report is much more solid. But Post readers just keep getting schooled about the traits of these two White House hopefuls. Reversals, thy name is Hillary Clinton, readers might think from these two reports. By contrast, McCain’s reversals are smudged away. He’s down because he’s been “steadfast.”
Tuesday’s report was astoundingly bad; this report is mostly fair. But favorable imagery clutters this piece. Don’t expect to see future reports in which Clinton is similarly showered.

FRUIT TRUCK DOWN: Note: For part one of this report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/14/07.

Are there shortcomings—imperfections, even errors—in An Inconvenient Truth? We can assume that shortcomings do exist—they always do in this life, after all—and it would be a very good thing if William Broad, a New York Times science writer, could help us understand them. Indeed, we pretty much know there are some imperfections in Gore’s work. In Tuesday’s lengthy, woeful report, Broad quotes warming wizard James Hansen, a major supporter and admirer of Gore. And Hansen cites a part of Gore’s work which he thinks could be better:

BROAD (3/13/07): Some backers concede minor inaccuracies but see them as reasonable for a politician. James E. Hansen, an environmental scientist, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a top adviser to Mr. Gore, said, ''Al does an exceptionally good job of seeing the forest for the trees,'' adding that Mr. Gore often did so ''better than scientists.''

Still, Dr. Hansen said, the former vice president's work may hold ''imperfections'' and ''technical flaws.'' He pointed to hurricanes, an icon for Mr. Gore, who highlights the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and cites research suggesting that global warming will cause both storm frequency and deadliness to rise. Yet this past Atlantic season produced fewer hurricanes than forecasters predicted (five versus nine), and none that hit the United States.

''We need to be more careful in describing the hurricane story than he is,'' Dr. Hansen said of Mr. Gore. ''On the other hand,'' Dr. Hansen said, ''he has the bottom line right: most storms, at least those driven by the latent heat of vaporization, will tend to be stronger, or have the potential to be stronger, in a warmer climate.''

According to Broad, Hansen says Gore should be “more careful in describing the hurricane story” (while noting that Gore’s “bottom line” is right). But what exactly does Hansen mean? What has Gore said that is inaccurate or misleading? In keeping with the intellectual squalor of his piece, Broad doesn’t ever manage to say. Instead, he includes that utterly silly—and utterly irrelevant—sentence about the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic last season. No, Gore didn’t predict nine storms—and only a fool would think that these data have any real relevance to the questions raised in Gore’s book and film. But throughout this report, Broad writes like a fool—much as he does in that sentence. And omigod! This is the caliber of work that is now being down at the very top of our national press corps.

Indeed, is there any substantive matter in this report which Broad doesn’t hopelessly mangle and bungle? Consider the most striking part of the Davis Guggenheim film—the part of the film where we see what will happen if the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves break loose. So you’ll know what Gore actually says in the film—you rarely learn that in Broad’s hapless piece—we’ll quote from his book, which is largely a transcript of the Oscar-winning movie:
GORE (page 196): If Greenland melted or broke up and slipped into the sea—or if half of Greenland and half of Antarctica melted or broke up and slipped into the sea, sea levels worldwide would increase by between 18 and 20 feet.

Tony Blair’s advisor, David King, is among the scientists who have been warning about the potential consequences of large changes in these ice shelves. At a 2004 conference in Britain, he said: “The maps of the world will have to be withdrawn.”
This is the part of the film where we see what would happen to certain land-masses if this catastrophe were to occur. (The land-masses in question include those of Florida, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Netherlands, Beijing, Shanghai and Calcutta and Bangladesh. In Manhattan, “the site of the World Trade Center would be under water,” Gore says, as we look at the visuals.) Again, this is perhaps the most striking moment in Gore’s film. On TV, these are the excerpts which were used most often to promote (and highlight) the film.

If those ice sheets did break loose, it would produce a catastrophe. But is it likely that this will occur? Is it likely to occur in our lifetimes? These questions aren’t discussed in any detail in Gore’s film; it would be extremely helpful if a writer like Broad explored such questions more fully. Most likely, a capable science writer could devote a full report, of this report’s length, to these very questions. (Broad’s report appeared in the weekly “Science Times” section, where the work is often quite detailed.) But the hapless Broad did no such thing in his woeful report this week. Instead, as with almost everything else, he almost seemed to go out of his way to confuse this important question. What follows is bad, woeful work:
BROAD: Some of Mr. Gore's centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [the IPCC], a United Nations body that studies global warming. The panel went further than ever before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe's warming since 1950, part of Mr. Gore's message that few scientists dispute. But it also portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process.

It estimated that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches—down from earlier estimates. Mr. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent.

Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician and political scientist in Denmark long skeptical of catastrophic global warming, said in a syndicated article that the panel, unlike Mr. Gore, had refrained from scaremongering. ''Climate change is a real and serious problem'' that calls for careful analysis and sound policy, Dr. Lomborg said. ''The cacophony of screaming,'' he added, ''does not help.”

Good God! According to Broad’s presentation, Gore says sea levels may rise 20 feet—and the IPCC says 23 inches! From that presentation, you might well find yourself thinking that Gore is “scare-mongering.” In the process, you will have been vastly misled about the nature of those two dueling estimates.

Is Gore “scare-mongering” in this part of his film? Here at THE HOWLER, we can’t really say—thanks to the work of people like Broad. In this passage, Broad makes a classic apples-to-oranges comparison, misleading his readers and utterly failing to push our understanding forward. How foolish is the comparison he cites? Just consider two excerpts from the New York Times’ front-page news report about the IPCC’s report, which was released on February 2. This report was written by Eleanor Rosenthal and Andrew Revkin. In this first passage, the writers present that 23-inch upper estimate:
ROSENTHAL/REVKIN (2/3/07): Even a level of warming that falls in the middle of the group's range of projections would be likely to cause significant stress to ecosystems, according to many climate experts and biologists. And it would alter longstanding climate patterns that shape water supplies and agricultural production.

Moreover, the warming has set in motion a rise in global sea levels, the report says. It forecasts a rise of 7 to 23 inches by 2100 and concludes that seas will continue to rise for at least 1,000 years to come. By comparison, seas rose about 6 to 9 inches in the 20th century.
Wow! There’s that “maximum of 23 inches.” It’s the data point which makes Gore sound like a scare-mongering dope—if you’re willing to trust William Broad. But a bit later on, the two Times writers explained a key (and elementary) distinction. Five weeks later, Broad deep-sixes this part of his paper’s report:
ROSENTHAL/REVKIN (2/3/07): Should greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at even a moderate pace, average temperatures by the end of the century could match those last seen 125,000 years ago, in the previous warm spell between ice ages, the report said.

At that time, the panel said, sea levels were 12 to 20 feet higher than they are now. Much of that extra water is now trapped in the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, which are eroding in some places.

The panel said there was no solid scientific understanding of how rapidly the vast stores of ice in polar regions will melt, so their estimates on new sea levels were based mainly on how much the warmed oceans will expand, and not on contributions from the melting of ice now on land.

Other scientists have recently reported evidence that the glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic could flow seaward far more quickly than estimated in the past, and they have proposed that the risks to coastal areas could be much more imminent. But the climate change panel is forbidden by its charter to enter into speculation, and so could not include such possible instabilities in its assessment.

Michel Jarraud, the secretary general of the United Nations World Meteorological Organization, said the lack of clarity should offer no one comfort. “The speed with which melting ice sheets are raising sea levels is uncertain, but the report makes clear that sea levels will rise inexorably over the coming centuries,'' he said. ''It is a question of when and how much, and not if.''

Let’s make this simple: In his “20 feet” estimate, Gore was talking about what will happen if the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves break loose. In its “23 inch” estimate, the IPCC is discussing what will occur if that doesn’t happen. Rosenthal and Revkin explained this fairly clearly in their initial, page-one news report. (For the Washington Post’s explanation, see below.) But five weeks later, the distinction is gone as Broad types up his lengthy think piece. Result? New York Times readers get baldly misled—are left uninformed—about the real issues involved in this matter. Instead, they are given a pie in the face—a silly, apples-to-kumquats comparison which serves little purpose except to encourage ridicule of Crazy-man Gore. And make no mistake—kooky, script-reading pseudo-con talkers were quick to seize on this misleading point, using it as the latest club with which to bang Stupid Gore.

A question came to our analysts’ minds as they worked their way through the endless jumbles of Broad’s report. Here it is: Could a college student present such work without being rebuked by his Teaching Assistant? One would hope that the answer is no—that American teens are held to a higher standard than Broad observes in this report. And yet, amazingly, we see such work misleading the public at the very highest levels of American journalism! For reasons only the gods can explain, Broad is part-owner of two Pulitzer Prizes, and his piece appears in “Science Times”—a section which would surely count as one of the headiest regions in all of American newspapering. But his work is an utter failure—a joke. Adding the insult to injury, its honored author—aided by overpaid editors—writes sentences like the one we now highlight:
BROAD: [The IPCC report] estimated that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches—down from earlier estimates. Mr. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent.
Gore “impl[ies], at least visually, that inundation is imminent!” Presumably, that fruit-truck wreck of a sentence means something like this: Since Gore cites no particular time frame, a viewer of his film might walk away thinking that this inundation could come at any time. But how about it? Could the inundation come at any time? What time frame might we sensibly expect? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. In part, that’s because Gore doesn’t offer such time frames in his film, as Broad notes. But in much larger part, it’s because Broad makes such a total joke of this part of his own report.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’d love to see a fuller examination of the question of those ice shelves. How likely is it that they will break loose? Why did Tony Blair’s science advisor think this matter was worth discussing? What would the UN’s Jarraud—allowed to speculate—say about possible time frames? (See quoted excerpt above.) Broad could have asked-and-answered these questions, thereby informing his readers more fully about the most striking part of Gore;’s film. Instead, he offered a clownish, deeply misleading treatment. His treatment doesn’t further his readers’ knowledge—quite the opposite. Mainly, it gives Gore’s dumbest and most dishonest “critics” a new way to mislead their viewers.

This is truly horrible work—work that would be hard to imagine even at the college level. But this is the work which is now being done at the highest levels of our broken “press corps.” Indeed, it’s much like a question Gore asks in his book: “Is it possible that we should prepare for other serious threats in addition to terrorism? Maybe it’s time to focus on other dangers as well.” In fact, the pseudo-journalism of Broad’s report is an ongoing threat to our way of life. But the Times has functioned this way for decades. This fact, of course, is deeply counterintuitive—and our hapless liberal leaders just keep refusing to face it.

TOMORROW: More jumbles. And oh yeah: Just who are these guys?

IN THE POST: Here’s the way Juliet Eilperin explained the question of the ice shelves on page one of the Washington Post. This was part of her own new story on the IPCC report:
EILPERIN (2/3/07): The authors concluded that Earth's average temperature will increase between 3.2 and 7.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, while sea levels will rise between seven and 23 inches.

IPCC scientists also said that global warming will not trigger a shutdown within the next 100 years of the North Atlantic ocean current that keeps Northern Europe temperate, though they do not predict whether it might occur in future centuries. In a similar vein, the authors said they did not have sophisticated enough computer models to project how much melting of the Greenland ice sheet would boost sea levels over the next century, but they suggested that over several centuries the ice sheet's disappearance could raise sea levels by a devastating 23 feet.
RESISTING THE COUNTERINTUITIVE: At The Plank, Noam Scheiber also criticized Broad’s inclusion of the number of Atlantic hurricanes. He notes the irrelevance of these data. But we were struck by one thing he said:
SCHEIBER (3/13/07): I know almost nothing about global warming science, so that last line could be meaningful in a way I'm not seeing. But I do know a little bit (okay, a very little bit) about statistical inference. And everything I've been taught tells me that trying to draw inferences from a sample size of one is a pretty hopeless exercise. Which is to say, I have a hard time imagining how this past year's hurricane season matters one way or the other to any serious analysis of global warming. It reminds me of all the laughs conservatives had when a congressional hearing on global warming recently got cancelled on account of snow. Get it? It snowed one day this winter so global warming must be a myth.

Anyway, I'd expect that sort of thing from The Corner. I expect a little more from the Times. Maybe it's worth pointing out, though, that The Corner doesn't expect more from the Times, for whatever that's worth.
But why? Why on earth would such a smart liberal “expect a little more from the Times?” The Times has been playing the fool for decades, especially in its political work. Broad’s work is exactly what we have come to expect, especially when political figures are involved. It is worth saying that others at the Times do quite capable work.

It’s the question we just keep asking: When will liberal leaders come to terms with the actual world in which we all live? We realize that this is counterintuitive, but our press elites are badly broken; indeed, they’re more clownish the higher you go. Scheiber seems to think that Broad’s irrelevant data inclusion is some sort of aberration. He also seems to have missed the larger howlers which litter Broad’s gruesome piece of work.