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.