STATS ARTICLES 2006

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How Not To Poll Climate Experts on Global Warming Movie
June 28, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
Cheap journalism at the Associated Press reveals little about accuracy

“The nation's top climate scientists are giving "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's documentary on global warming, five stars for accuracy,” announces the Associated Press. But what does that really mean?

Well, for starters, it’s the polling equivalent of grade inflation as five stars doesn’t mean 100 percent accuracy.

"The former vice president's movie — replete with the prospect of a flooded New York City, an inundated Florida, more and nastier hurricanes, worsening droughts, retreating glaciers and disappearing ice sheets — mostly got the science right, said all 19 climate scientists who had seen the movie or read the book and answered questions from The Associated Press."

But that’s small potatoes when forced, by implication, to accept that there are only 19 “top climate scientists” in the entire United States.

The AP, apparently, “contacted more than 100 top climate researchers by e-mail and phone for their opinion. Among those contacted were vocal skeptics of climate change theory. Most scientists had not seen the movie, which is in limited release, or read the book.”

So why doesn’t the headline say – “nation’s top climate scientists have not seen Gore warming movie” – which is the salient lede in this bit of amateur polling? Or even "some climate scientists ok Gore movie's accuracy." The answer is that neither of these headlines makes for a compelling story.

But even if you accept the newsworthiness of 19 climate scientists, it is important to ask what is the probability that this very low response rate has resulted in selection bias? In other words, were those scientists who read the book or saw the movie more likely to agree with it from the outset - especially as Gore's position is no secret?

It's hard to imagine those who disagreed with the movie's widely-publicised claims lining up to pay for a lecture on science from an ex-politician. And the impression that the AP succeeded in polling only those who agreed with Gore's arguments is underlined by the quote from one scientist who, after watching a special presentation of the movie said, "Al, I'm absolutely blown away."

STATS is not in a position to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of what Gore claims, or what those scientists who gave it two thumbs almost vertical said in response. But we know a meaningless poll when we see one.

And the AP’s story follows on an op-ed in the June 26 Wall Street Journal by Richard S. Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, which was both critical of Gore’s movie and the idea of a consensus among scientists about the causes and nature of global warming.

Given that Lindzen has long criticized the consensus view of global warming, one wonders whether he was among the AP’s list of the 100-top climate scientists. If so, one would have expected him to have had something to say about the movie. And if he was not on the list, then why not?