A Correction: I’ve Been Misquoted

On Thursday, 3 February of this year I was called by Saginaw News reporter Deborah Brown, who asked me, among other things, about claims made by folks like Al Gore that global warming was responsible for this year’s cold and snowy weather.

I am contacted by reporters frequently enough, but I usually insist that they put their questions to me in writing so that I can answer them similarly. However, this time I made the mistake of talking on the phone because I was in a hurry. I won’t do this again.

The error Brown made in misquoting me is minor enough, but it is still irksome. I spent about fifteen minutes on the phone with Brown carefully explaining the statistics of how to count the number and intensity of storms and so forth. None or little of this conversation made it into her eventual story.

The story introduces Neil Mower, a Professor (she incorrectly says “associate professor”) of meteorology at Central Michigan University. She quotes Neil as saying that the warming we’ve seen has been caused by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, a familiar empirical claim. As I’ve said many times, few dispute this: we only argue about the magnitude of the change. Besides having Mower say that he once shared an office with Roy Spencer, that is all we hear from Neil.

Brown then introduces me and says that I am “a former student of Mower’s, a statistician and a research associate at Cornell University in New York, and a former statistics instructor at Central.” I am a former student of Neil’s, I am a statistician. I am not, nor have I ever been, a “research associate” at Cornell. I am also not a “former statistics instructor”: I am a current Adjunct Professor of statistics, and I teach each summer in the ILR Masters of Professional Studies program. I am a former Assistant Professor of biostatistics at the Cornell Medical School.

Brown paraphrases me as saying, “Mower is more certain of himself than he has a right to be.”

I absolutely, 100% never said that. What I did say was that those people who said that the latest storms were caused by global warming were too certain of themselves. I explained to her how you can’t point to any one storm, how you have to look long-term, etc.

She next quotes me as saying:

“We have not seen an increase in the number of storms, nor an increase in their intensity,” Briggs said. “It is true that some models would predict that as the surface gets warmer, more energy is available, but statistically we can’t say we’ve seen it.”

I did say something close to this, and stand by it.

She then has me say:

“It’s been very cold, but it would be an absolute mistake to say that global warming causes weather,” Briggs said.

Which I did not say, nor anything close to it. It the exact opposite of what I believe. Climate is weather; rather, climate is the average (suitably taken) of weather. I did jokingly say that it would be an “absolute mistake to say that global warming causes global cooling” as some activists have been saying of this winter. Never make a pun to a reporter out for a story.

What angers me is that it appears that Brown tried to make the story personal, a common reportorial trick, by mentioning that I was once Niel’s student but that we now disagree and so forth. We might very well disagree, but that is nothing.

Niel is an honorable man and there cannot be a better instructor in meteorology anywhere. His synoptic and dynamics lectures are filled with brilliant physical insight and are so clear that the equations pour right into your head. He insists his students work hard and never settles for inferior work. I remember, fondly, how he would berate me for writing my mathematical proofs backwards. When I matriculated as a graduate student at Cornell, I retook dynamics for my Masters. The course there was reputedly tough and arduous, but was nothing compared to Neil’s, where I learned better and more.

I wrote Niel and found, lo, he had the same experience I had: a long conversation and his printed quotations a weak reflection of his spoken words.

No one who has dealt with reporters will find anything unusual in this story. And it’s probably silly for me to spend so much effort to correct such a small error. But this subject is already more than contentious, so it’s best to get things right.

16 Comments

  1. A reporter is that grinning person from middle school watching a fight- knowing the melee is the result of careful orchestration-both fighters being told the other said some bad things about their mama.

  2. If one talks to reporters, then it is best to ensure that you have a tape recording of the conversation.

    Slightly off topic, the current kerfuffle over how Gavin Schmidt responded to an invite to a Lisbon conference is a good example of how easy it is to come up with multiple interpretations of the same set of words.

  3. “And it’s probably silly for me to spend so much effort to correct such a small error.”

    Not at all, in my opinion. It may count as a small error but only in comparison with what seems to be the norm in today’s journalism: sloppy and emotive writing/reporting in which fact, opinion and prejudice are routinely confused.

  4. I am sure everyone has had the experience of being at an event and later reading a reporters version of the event in the newspaper and wondering what alternate universe the reporter inhabited. It’s like NY Times reporter Jason Blair writing interviews of people he never met in places he had never been.

  5. It has been said that everyone who has in-depth knowledge of any subject of public interest soon learns how inaccurately the media representation of it is.

    But the same people seem to think that the media accurately report all the other things about which they do not have in-depth knowledge.

    Note how Fox news gave our dear Professor the title ‘climate scientist’ (see the post-before-last). Perhaps he should sue for libel.

  6. I see you have admitted your mistake. Let this be a lesson to you, professor.

    Never, never, never, never, never give an over-the-phone oral interview to a journo-lista.

    You have written extensively on the topic, in a very public fashion — displayed for all to see on the Internet. If the morons can’t read, then they certainly can’t write, and can’t possibly do dictation, and are lazy slobs, and are not worth one second of your precious time.

    They want you to their job for them, for which they get paid and you do not. You might as well attach leaches to your neck. Poisonous, infected leaches.

    I get calls all the time from journo-listas. Every single one is a braindead liberal. Smart people, and/or conservative people, do not become journo-listas. I refer them to my websites, which have search applets, which admittedly they are too stupid to use.

    So I also, on rare occasion, consent to a written interview. Send me your written questions and I will write answers. Mostly I refer the leach again to my sites, giving specific links. Which they still misquote!!!!!!

    Many years ago my friend Bob taught me to say, “If you want me to do job, then send me your paycheck.” Memorize that. Use it. Maybe next time you won’t get burned.

  7. You have discovered a new emprical — “journalists” NEVER get it right. It is not a mater of statistics. It is a 100%-of-the-time thing. They represent the laziest, most ridiculous profession extant. They tell the story the way they want to tell it, and it is only the story that counts.

    Don’t believe anything you read and hear from these low lifes.

  8. m. Dawson:

    given how widely and variously the term “climate scientist” is applied, m. Koprowski of Fox News can legitimately claim that the good professor “is” a climate scientist aas the term is used. If Gavin Schmidt is considered a climate scientist (and he is frequently so identified) then there is no reason the good professor shouldn’t be also, heck Schmidt is not infrequently called a “climatologist”.

  9. Unfortunately, a journalist’s job is to entertain. They will forever misquote people as long as they are aiming for entertainment over truth.

    Also, hahahahahahahaha at “global warming cause weather”! That’s ridiculous that she didn’t use your original quote, it would have made complete sense…

  10. Matt: I speak to reporters every month. There’s definitely an art to it. You have to be prepared to give them “quoteable bits”, otherwise they’ll slice and dice what you’ve said and make their own. Sometimes it’s out of laziness, sometimes malice, but most of the time they’re just trying to write an interesting story. So make their job easy.

    It’s best to come prepared with some pithy quotes in your pocket:

    “People in Dallas aren’t going buy global warming when they’re shoveling snow out of their driveways, if they even have snow shovels. It’s just silly to blame cold weather on global warming. ”

    “The important scientific question is not if CO2 increases cause warming, but rather how much warming, and if it is enough to overwhelm natural variations.”

    Having read your writing the past couple of years, I’m sure you can do much better. 🙂

    With regard to your name (including proper spelling), credentials and title, it is best to communicate those in writing or e-mail prior to the interview, and insist (yes, you can insist on things) that the reporter repeat those things back to you at the conclusion of the interview. I do this on every interview, and good reporters want to get the easy stuff right.

  11. Dear Mike B,

    I beg to differ. There is no such thing as a “good” reporter. There are good, even great writers. They don’t do daily journalism.

    Yes, newspapers print whatever sells newspapers. In essence they are in the wood products business. Most print reporters are too stupid to even realize that. They insist they are in some other business entirely.

    It is time to move past newspapers, in the same way humanity has moved past smoke signals and the Pony Express. There is a better medium out there for communication.

  12. Mike D

    Most of the reporters I work with write 2-3 articles a week based on dozens of interviews. Some for wire services (Reuters, Bloomberg, AP), some for daily newspapers (WSJ, NYT, LAT), and some for “New Media” (AOL). So when I say “print” I mean “written” instead of Radio or TV (which I’ve also done some of as well). And I can personally falsify your claim that there “are no good reporters”. Yes, there are. I work with some regularly.

    To refuse to talk to reporters as some have suggested is to waste an opportunity.

  13. This reminds me of a quote I read in Michael Lewis’ book, “Liar’s Poker”:

    “Foolish names
    and foolish faces
    find themselves
    in public places.”

    You can trust even a well-intentioned reporter to mess things up.

  14. “And it’s probably silly for me to spend so much effort to correct such a small error.”

    From a Kimberly A. Strassel interview with Donald Runsfeld in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Everyone has their slice of history and you need to write yours one day so that it is part of the records.”
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576130172848389628.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEADTop

    As “news” publication has gotten easier and cheaper, so has correcting the record. You would be silly not to.

    Related …
    When AGW morphs from an emergency to an embarrassment there will be plenty of people trying to walk back their pronouncements. Thanks to the internet that will be difficult.

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