‘Global cooling’: A case study of niche science getting hyped by the media

One of the features of science is that most of the time the community of scientists in any particular sub-specialty will agree on the basic paradigms that govern that field. While there will always be some scientists who refuse to accept the paradigm, most work within the consensus. This changes when the paradigm begins breaks down due to the fact that anomalies start to proliferate and no progress is made on major problems. Then more and more scientists start to look for new paradigms that promise to radically change the way they view the world. Those periods of scientific revolutions are exciting but rare.

But even during the period when the existing paradigms are unchallenged, it is not the case that there is unanimity among scientists over every aspect because if there were, there would be no research. It is often the case that within the framework of the same paradigm there are disagreements about quite important questions.

A good example is the theory of evolution. While the community of biologists accepts evolution, there are a huge number of disagreements over specific aspects of its operation. People who want to discredit evolution (or other dominant paradigms) often take these internal disputes as if they are challenges to the paradigm itself when they are not. And they are often aided by media hype that seizes on the chance to claim that a major theory has been overthrown. How many times have you read breathless reports that Einstein’s or Darwin’s theories have been overturned?

While attempts to discredit evolution have faded into the background recently, climate change provides another good example. As the current summit on what to do about global warming continues in Paris, there is no disagreement among the nearly 200 countries or the global community of scientists that this is a real problem that needs to be addressed. But that does not mean that all the questions are resolved and John Shepherd of the University of Southampton, UK lists five things that climate scientists actually do disagree about:

  1. Do clouds intensify climate change?
  2. Sea levels are rising – but how fast?
  3. Should we be worried about carbon in soil?
  4. Will oceans keep absorbing carbon dioxide?
  5. Just how much are we responsible for all this?

These are all important questions but they are all within the climate change paradigm.

But in the US, only the Democratic candidates understand climate science at reasonable levels while all the major Republican politicians have appallingly low understandings of the basics.

When it comes to climate science, two of the three Democratic presidential candidates are A students, while most of the Republican contenders are flunking, according to a panel of scientists who reviewed candidates’ comments.

At the request of The Associated Press, eight climate and biological scientists graded for scientific accuracy what a dozen top candidates said in debates, interviews and tweets, using a 0 to 100 scale.

To try to eliminate possible bias, the candidates’ comments were stripped of names and given randomly generated numbers, so the professors would not know who made each statement they were grading. Also, the scientists who did the grading were chosen by professional scientific societies.

Ted Cruz scored at the very bottom.

“This individual understands less about science (and climate change) than the average kindergartner,” Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University meteorology professor, wrote of Cruz’s statements. “That sort of ignorance would be dangerous in a doorman, let alone a president.”

But in an interview on NPR Cruz acts like an expert, giving as his credentials that “I am the son of two mathematicians and computer programmers and scientists.” He flatly asserts that there is no global warming and that climate change alarms is a big fraud perpetrated by liberal politicians who want greater government control and scientists who want large grants. You can listen to the interview but I warn you that his shameless dishonesty and sophistry will be disgusting to listen to. You may find the transcript easier to digest.

He brings up the idea that in the 1970s people believed that the Earth was cooling as an argument that we cannot takes the current claims of warming seriously. He flatly asserts that this was the scientific belief of that time.

The idea that the scientific community as a whole believed that the Earth was cooling is false. So where did this ‘global cooling’ story come from? Doug Struck explained in 2014 in the pages of the Scientific American that this was a minor niche theory advanced by a few climatologists that got pushed by the kind of hyperbole that the mass media uses to sell their product. The media are abetted by some scientists who are eager to get publicity for their work and are thus willing to push the limits of speculation to make their work sound more revolutionary than it is.

Temperatures have plunged to record lows on the East Coast, and once again Peter Gwynne is being heralded as a journalist ahead of his time. By some.

Gwynne was the science editor of Newsweek 39 years ago when he pulled together some interviews from scientists and wrote a nine-paragraph story about how the planet was getting cooler.

Ever since, Gwynne’s “global cooling” story – and a similar Time Magazine piece – have been brandished gleefully by those who say it shows global warming is not happening, or at least that scientists – and often journalists – don’t know what they are talking about.

Fox News loves to cite it. So does Rush Limbaugh. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has quoted the story on the Senate floor.

The story observed – accurately – that there had been a gradual decrease in global average temperatures from about 1940, now believed to be a consequence of soot and aerosols that offered a partial shield to the earth as well as the gradual retreat of an abnormally warm interlude.

Some climatologists predicted the trend would continue, inching the earth toward the colder averages of the “Little Ice Age” from the 16th to 19th centuries.

“When I wrote this story I did not see it as a blockbuster,” Gwynne recalled. “It was just an intriguing piece about what a certain group in a certain niche of climatology was thinking.”

And, revisionist lore aside, it was hardly a cover story. It was a one-page article on page 64. It was, Gwynne concedes, written with a bit of over-ventilated style that sometimes marked the magazine’s prose: “There are ominous signs the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically…” the piece begins, and warns of a possible “dramatic decline in food production.”

“Newsweek being Newsweek, we might have pushed the envelope a little bit more than I would have wanted,” Gwynne offered.

This is the danger of media hype of science and something that scientists, science writers, and publications need to think carefully about. The sensationalist newspaper reporting of yesterday can become a tool in the hands of today’s demagogues.


  1. Johnny Vector says

    Warming beat cooling in scientific paper count from the very beginning. There’s a good summary at Skeptical Science: http://www.skepticalscience.com/ice-age-predictions-in-1970s-intermediate.htm

    If you want to see a list of the actual papers that predicted cooling, follow the link to William Connelly’s list of them at the bottom of that page. Best summary from that is “everyone agreed that CO2 emissions could produce warming and that particle emissions could produce cooling, but that lack of information precluded any definite conclusions about which was more important.”

    And indeed, we could delay the effect of CO2 by a couple decades if we decided we wanted our air to be like that of China’s cities. Is that what Cruz is suggesting?

  2. Nick Gotts says

    Is that what Cruz is suggesting? – Johnny Vector@2

    Actually, Cruz’s whole campaign is a noble effort to slow global warming, at the price of appearing to be a fascistic buffoon – but his understanding of the science is so faulty, he thinks filling the airwaves with poisonous and disgusting crud will help!

  3. Matt G says

    The same strategy used by creationists, intelligent design creationists, homeopaths, etc. Cherry pick your way to credibility!

  4. StevoR says

    Wonder how the Republicans will respond to the new Paris climate agreement and hopefully the long overdue fading away of the Climate Denier movement as the realities of an ever hotter globe make themselves ever more powerfully evident and ultimately indisputable? I think and hope that Climate Denialism everywhere esp. the USA and here in Oz has passed its peak of its popularity and political influence and is at the start of a rapid decline into “Flat Earth” crank status in public perception and the number of adherents – having long been at that level of scientific credibility.

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