In the last few months, two large studies have been published that warn about the dangers of global warming related to coastal flooding in the United States. Unfortunately, the media outreach by one study's authors and the national media's reports on the stories are extremely misleading.
Just Facts President Jim Agresti dissected the reports earlier this week. According to Agresti, "[m]ajor media outlets -- and in some ways the studies themselves -- have painted a distorted picture of past, current, and future sea levels. In fact, the studies actually conflict with each other, a crucial fact that has gone unreported in news reports that have mentioned both of the studies."
What kinds of distortions are present? Agresti writes:
The AP's claim about "scientists and computer models" predicting global sea-level rises by 2100 of "as much as 3.3 feet" could just as well have been worded "as little as 7 inches." This 3.3 feet figure is not from the study that is the subject of the AP article[.] ... The reality, however, is that a 2011 paper in the Journal of Coastal Research explains that such projections run as low as 7 inches. An honest way to report this would have been to provide a range of estimates[.] ...
The Los Angeles Times headline -- "California sea levels to rise 5-plus feet this century" -- is even more misleading...the study predicts a sea-level rise of 16.5 to 66 inches over this period. [T]he LA Times reporter walks back the headline and applies the qualifier "as much as" to the 5-plus-feet figure, but he fails to provide even a hint that this is the upper bound of a prediction that extends to as low as one fourth of this.
Reuters [claimed] that the East Coast study shows "sea levels from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod are rising at a faster pace than anywhere on Earth." This assertion appears to be completely fabricated. The study compares global average sea-level accelerations to those on the coastlines of the continental U.S. and southernmost portion of Canada. It says nothing about any other specific locations, and an email to one of the study's authors confirms that the study "does not make comparisons 'to anywhere on earth'."
Agresti also notes that both studies' own press releases -- at least one of which was funded by the federal government -- are misleading. To wit:
The official press release for the East Coast study states that "rates of sea level rise are increasing three-to-four times faster along portions of the U.S. Atlantic Coast than globally." This language is easily misconstrued, and this is exactly what has occurred in many news reports. In the context of this study, the word "faster" refers to sea-level acceleration, not to sea-level rise. ...
The press release for the East Coast study ... includes an unsupported assertion that isn't even from the study ... [and] adds another easily misconstrued statement [italics in original]:
During the 21st century, the increases in sea level rise rate that have already occurred in the hotspot will yield increases in sea level of 8 to 11.4 inches by 2100. This regional sea level increase would be in addition to components of global sea level rise.
Based upon these claims, one might conclude that the study predicts a sea-level rise in the Northeast of two-to-three feet plus 8 to 11 inches, which amounts to 32-46 inches. This is not the case, but one would never know it unless he or she took the time to scrutinize the study and a 25-page file of supplementary information...
The press release could have cited another projection from the study that is very easily understood, which is that the total projected sea-level rise for New York City during the 21st century is 15 to 18 inches. This is less than half of what could be construed from the press release. However, one can't find this projection even by reading the entire study because it was relegated to the very last page of the supplementary information.
Along the same lines, the West Coast study's press release states that "San Francisco International Airport could flood with as little as 40 [16 inches] centimeters of sea-level rise, a value that could be reached in several decades." What the press release fails to mention is that sea levels in San Francisco actually declined by 6 inches between 1992 and 2010.
In reading Agresti's analysis, I was struck by how these and other studies I've read about in the past really aren't as conclusive as the layperson (including myself) thinks. In order to get a better perspective, I contacted John Sears, a friend who holds a Master of Science in atmospheric and oceanic science from the University of Wisconsin and is part of the American Meteorological Association and the National Weather Association. In an e-mail, Sears offered a lengthy criticism of Agresti's article, including pointing out that media bias is present not just in favor of global warming -- it's also in favor of opposition to global warming:
There are two concerns I have with Jim's assessment of these studies. At the root, the misunderstanding comes in the lack of understanding in science and the scientific process. I agree that often sensationalism in the media is unchecked, unabashed and distasteful, but that's nothing new and present in both sides. After all, how many articles did we read about "Climategate?" (Which was debunked.)
Additionally, according to Sears, Agresti's depiction of bias in the studies and their corresponding press releases is inaccurate.
However, the press isn't particularly adept at understanding science, and certainly no more than the lay person. Admittedly, many scientists are poor at communicating, but we have to be careful not to misinterpret the press' oft flawed interpretation as flawed science. Science itself is self-correcting, as new data and new methodologies challenge existing ones. This fundamental principal guides research and finds flaws in older works. Presently, the existing data and our understanding of physical processes suggest that global sea levels will rise. Studies with different data and methodologies may disagree, but that doesn't invalidate them; neither does uncertainty in various aspects. Good science requires an admission of a study's weaknesses, but the conclusions an author draws from his/her analysis are his/her own. Behind them is a legion of experts perpetually working to overturn, codify or modify those conclusions with their own data and methods. Eventually, bad science will be rejected.
Skepticism and curiosity are wonderful, and I recommend reading as many manuscripts as one's interest permits, but drawing your own conclusions from data without the expertise and training that grants understanding of the data sets and psychical processes to forecast is a waste of time.
In response to Sears, Agresti e-mailed the following:
Sears' criticisms are baseless and avoid the crux of the issue, which is that the results of the studies were misleadingly presented. The fact is that a scientific study published in a prestigious journal produced two sea-level projections, but one projection was buried in a file of supplementary data, while the other projection was trumpeted in the abstract, deceitfully presented in the official press release, and widely misreported in the media. No amount of lecturing about how science is "self-correcting" can excuse this.
Other issues and contradictions exist within the studies (at one point, their projections contradict each other), but it is the media aspect that rightly deserves most of the attention, since that is where most Americans get their information on global warming and other technical public policy issues. Few people actually read global warming studies, so it would behoove the AP, the LA Times, Reuters, and the organizations conducting the studies to actually report straightforward, even-handed facts instead of cherry-picking. Not only does cherry-picking delegitimize their organizations when such bias is discovered, but it then takes away from the potential validity of their arguments and makes the presenters of said arguments appear dishonest.