If a public opinion poll showed that the difference between the support for political candidates was less than the survey's margin of error, most people would understand that the candidates were effectively tied.
But when it comes to climate change, the public's appreciation of uncertainty seems to vanish. This is partly due to misinterpretations of the data by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
For example, last week NOAA headlined their home page, "It's official: 2014 was Earth's warmest year on record." NASA proclaimed in their Jan. 16 news release video, "2014 was the hottest year on record."
But these announcements are highly deceptive.
NOAA's data shows that the record for the year was set by only four one-hundredths of a degree Celsius over the previous record warmest years, 2010 and 2005, while the uncertainty in the temperature statistic is nine one-hundredths of a degree, or more than twice the amount by which the supposed record was set (NASA showed a record being set in 2014 by only two one-hundredths of a degree). In fact, NOAA temperature statistics for seven previous years-2013, 2010, 2006, 2005, 2003, 2002, and 1998-are all within nine one-hundredths of a degree of 2014's level. So they all tie with 2014. No new record was set.
The same applies to NOAA's announcement that, "December 2014 was warmest December on record for globe." December 2014 was one one-hundredths of a degree hotter than December 2006, the previous warmest December, which was one one-hundredths of a degree warmer than 2003. The uncertainty is seven one-hundredths of a degree, so the December temperature statistic for all three years-2014, 2006, and 2003-are effectively equal. No new December record was set.
Rather than support the notion that global warming continues unabated, the data from NOAA and NASA reinforce the observation that we are in the midst of an 18-year pause in planetary warming.
If NOAA and NASA made grand announcements of temperature records set by hundredths of a degree, many people would laugh, appreciating that such changes cannot even be felt, let alone present problems.
So instead, they emphasizes the amount by which temperature statistics exceed "the 20th century average." But to know this difference to hundredths of a degree, as they claim to do, requires that we also know the average for the 20th century to hundredths of a degree. And this in turn requires that we know the 'global average temperature' in each year during the 20th century to a similarly high degree of accuracy.
Historical climatologist Dr. Tim Ball, former professor at the University of Winnipeg, explains, "Typical accuracies of temperature measurements throughout the 20th century were between one and one-half degree Celsius. Therefore it makes no sense whatsoever for NASA and NOAA to claim differences from a 20th century average in hundredths of a degree."
Ball explains that even modern "instrumental data is inadequate. There is are virtually no data for the 70 percent of Earth's surface that is oceans. There is practically no data for the 19 percent of land area that are mountains, 20 percent that are desert, 20 percent boreal forest, 20 percent grasslands, and 6 percent tropical rain forest.
"So NASA just invents data to complete the picture," continues Ball. "They do this by making the ridiculous claim that a single station temperature represents all land temperature within a 1200 km radius region."
So, it is not possible for NASA and NOAA to determine a meaningful average temperature statistic for the planet based on surface readings, as they pretend to do. It is only through the use of satellite-based instruments that we can hope to get a meaningful overview of planetary conditions. Satellite data shows that 2014 did not set a record at all, with computed temperatures statistics merely extending the current plateau.
NOAA chief scientist Richard Spinrad boasted in a Jan. 16 news release that "NOAA provides decision makers with timely and trusted science-based information about our changing world..."
In reality, Spinrad's agency is all about PR spin when it comes to temperature records. Science be damned.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa-based International Climate Science Coalition.