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Is a graphic worth 1000 words? WashPost temperature chart & ClimateGATE

December 5th, 2009 · 3 Comments

The old adage: A picture is worth 1,000 words.  Does this apply to graphics as well?

Today’s Washington Post has a front-page article on ClimateGATE (more appropriately, perhaps SwiftHack) In e-mails, science of warming is hot debate. Showing the heat of the debate, the article already has 255 comments as of 7:55 on a Saturday morning. Expect there to be more.

While the words of the article merit examination, something jumped out visually with the article. That is, the graphic to the right. For any normal observer, this graphic shows bluntly that temperatures seem to have been relatively flat. Even though there are words that say otherwise (”nine of the world’s hottest years have occurred this decade” and, in the graphic itself, “2001 to 2009 among 10 warmest”), the clear message of this graphic: temperatures have been relatively stable.

However, there is no (NO!) serious person working in the climate world (whether scientist, activist, bureaucrat, economist, etc …) who would state that the Scientific Theory of Global Warming mandates that temperatures rise year-in, year-on, on a straight-line path. While the nature of modeling, with smoothing function might create an impression otherwise, there is a very (VERY) clear understanding that there are a multitude of contributing factors, with extremely complex interactions that mean that there will be variations in the pace and nature of changing climate even as, writ large, global temperature averages (both air and sea) will continue to mount due to the forcing functions of human activities (from fossil-fuel burning to land-use patterns (notably deforestration)).

Now, writ large, a general rule of thumb is that, when it comes to climate, a decade might be interesting, but you’re not really appropriate in discussion if you’re not speaking in the context of at least 30 years and, well, preferably longer.

The Washington Post chose to publish a graphic for a 15-year period, which seems to suggest (strongly) for those who won’t really absorb the 18 caveating words (after all, a picture is worth 1000 words, no?), that would lead casual readers (after all, who really has the time to study seriously all the serious issues on the table at any one time — thus, most are ‘casual’ readers when it comes to Climate Change) to have their suspicions increased as to whether there is Global Warming. Oh, that’s right, a graphic accompanying an article about the ‘ClimateGate scandal’.

Now, if a graphic is worth a thousand words, might Washington Post readers have come away with a different impression if the story had also had (updated to 2009) the graphic below?

Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences.

With this graphic, the 18 caveating words are no longer caveating, dissonant with the message the graphic sends, but are reinforcing. Looking at this, does “”nine of the world’s hottest years have occurred this decade” seem discordant with the image? When image and words battle, images typically win.

In the case of this graphic, in full substance The Washington Post is accurate. The question is whether, even though true, this is truthful.

Related items:

  1. While The Post put an overly Faux and Balanced news analysis article on ClimateGATE on the front page, the editors placed on page 8 the important news story that President Obama changed plans from being in Copenhagen in the first days of climate talks to the last day, when heads of state from around the world will be there.  For analysis of the importance of this change, see: David Roberts, In last-minute stunner, Obama changes plans to attend final day of Copenhagen talks; and Joe Romm, Obama’s Double Stunner.
  2. For the best material on ClimateGate, Enviroknow remains the go-to source. Well laid out and frequently updated discussion with 100s of links and many quotes.
  3. SwiftHack is looking increasing accurate. There are reports, with a criminal investigation underway, of illegal attempts to get into the Canadian government’s climate research center’s computing system. On that, see also this analogy of ClimateGate to Watergate.

Tags: Global Warming · Washington Post · climate change · climate delayers · energy efficiency · government energy policy

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lou Grinzo // Dec 5, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Nicely said. The one thing I like to point out to people who read too much into a too short a time frame is some variant of: Look at the first graph above. See that precipitous temperature drop from 1998 to 2000? What would you conclude if we had no data after 2000? Would you say that clearly 1998 was an outlier, and that there was no recent trend, etc.? And what would you say when the data for 2001-2005 came in?

  • 2 Introducing SwiftHack.com @ EnviroKnow // Dec 7, 2009 at 6:59 am

    [...] advocates, activists, bloggers and journalists have begun the important work of educating their audiences on the true story of [...]

  • 3 Washington Post washes its hands with passive voice re climate change confusion // Dec 22, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    [...] Maybe misleading Post graphics contribute to confusion. [...]

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