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The current “climategate” attacks on science must bewilder many scientists. Why the hysteria? Why the wild claims? The facts don’t warrant that sort of reaction!

One is tempted to see a conspiracy – and no doubt there are all sorts of links between organisations and campaigns are easily plotted. But I think what we have is something a bit more uncoordinated. More an accident of history.

A conspiracy of sorts

I think what we are seeing a coming together of three things:

  1. The climate deniersphere – blogs, conservative newspapers, denier and sceptic organisations – international and well linked to New Zealand;
  2. The ultra conservative US Republicans (pro-Palin) “teaparty” “revolution” against President Obama, climate change, science and anything liberal;
  3. A growing effectiveness of social media like Twitter in communicating propaganda.

Do I sound paranoid to you? Have a look at twitter searches for “climategate.” Most of these are in the hysterical denier mould. Many are disseminating links to very recently published articles. And most distort the content of the articles.

Finally – check out the hashtags used (these help identify communities involved in propagating the messages). Here is a list with their description (from tagdef) – in decreasing order of use:

  • #tcot – Top Conservatives on Twitter is a coalition of conservatives on the Internet. This hashtag has over 1 million followers.
  • #teaparty- Tax protests held nation-wide against the spending for TARP, stimulus, and big-budget government.
  • #ocra – Organized Conservative Resistance Alliance
  • #cot – United Conservatives On Twitter
  • #sgp – Smart Girl Politics – A Conservative Women’s Movement.

Hatchet job on Phil Jones

The “climategate” treatment of a recent BBC interview of Phil Jones by conservative social media entries, blogs and newspapers provides an example of this in action.  See Q&A: Professor Phil Jones & ‘Climategate’ expert Jones says data not well organised for the original articles.

One could question Jones’ decision to be interviewed, particularly as the questions were largely selected by climate change sceptics and Jones got little chance to put his answers in context. However, his responses were balanced and open. He expressed some regret at language used in the emails and his treatment of freedom of information requests. However, in no way did he back away from the science of climate change.

But the resultingconservative headlines were complete dishonest. For example American Thinker - Climategate’s Phil Jones Confesses to Climate Fraud; Daily Mail – Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995; Gateway Pundit – It Was All a Lie: Climategate Scientist Admits There Is No Global Warming; News Busters – ClimateGate’s Phil ‘Hide the Decline’ Jones Admits Manipulating Data. And, of course the twitters with #tcot and similar tags were just as misleading and hysterical – fo not worse.

Along the chain the conservative bloggers took up the “message,” with varying degrees of deception in their post titles. And in New Zealand we get local conspiracy theorist Ian  declaring BREAKING NEWS: CRU’s Jones admits climate data problems, and Medieval Warm Period and ADMISSION: No statistically significant warming since 1995. Poor old Ian – he does tend to overuse words like “breaking news” and “admission”, doesn’t he. The New Zealand Conservative asked sarcastically No kidding Professor; and the Climate Conversation Group declared Phil Jones: ’No global warming since 1995″.

“In an interview with the BBC, Phil Jones, the embattled director of the British Climatic Research Unit, said that an observed warming trend of 0.12 degrees C per decade between 1995 to 2009 was ’not significant at the 95% significance level.’ On the other hand, he said, it was quite close to being statistically significant.

Predictably, the deniosphere jumped all over this. For example, here was Marc Morano’s headline at Climate Depot:

The Jig is Up! Climategate U-turn as Phil Jones admits: There has been no warming since 1995.

Either Marc knows nothing about statistics, or he is deliberately twisting the facts – or both. Phil Jones simply did not say that there has been no warming since 1995.

A 95 percent significance level simply means there is actually a 5 percent chance of a particular finding occurring purely by chance. So here’s what Jones is saying, in essence: There is a very slightly greater than 5 percent chance that the measured warming of 0.12 degrees C per decade between 1995 and 2009 was a statistical fluke – in other words, not real.

Or flop it around: There is a slightly less than 95 percent chance that the observed warming actually happened.

By convention, 95 percent significance often is considered ’good enough to be believed.’ But this is purely arbitrary, and it does not mean that something with a 94 percent significance level is categorically untrue. If a doctor told you that there was a 94 percent chance that you would die of cancer unless you underwent a particular treatment, what would do? Would you say, ’Well doc, if there was a 95 percent chance, I’d accept the treatment, but since it’s just a 94 percent chance, I’ll decline’?

Somehow, I doubt it. I think you’d probably take the treatment.

The problem with the temperature record between 1995 and 2009 probably is not that there has been no warming during that period. The problem, as Jones told the BBC, is this: ’Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.’

You probably won’t hear that important statement from skeptics like Marc Morano, or from the news media for that matter. But it’s important, because it emphasizes a crucial fact: Climate change is best documented over the course of decades, not years. And over the course of decades, Jones told the BBC, the trend is very clear: The global climate has warmed at a rate of approximately 0.163 degrees C per decade since 1860.”

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