As you may recall, last Friday there was a lot of discussion about revisions to the GISS global warming series of estimated average temperatures in the United States--a revision that changed the hottest year to date from 1998 (which in the old data was 1/100 of a degree hotter than 1934) to 1934 (which in the new data is 2/100 of a degree hotter than 1998) http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/08/why-oh-why-ca-1.html. One surprising thing was that the New York Times's Opinionator weblog http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/, run by the thoughtful and intelligent Chris Suellentrop, went way overboard on the story:
Among global warming Cassandras, the fact that 1998 was the “hottest year on record” has always been an article of faith.... James Hansen, the climate scientist who has long accused the Bush administration of trying to “silence” him.... [A] Y2K bug played havoc with some of the numbers.... Michael Ashe... explains.... "The changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as recordbreaking) moves to second place.... [T]he effect on the U.S. global warming propaganda machine could be huge...
This surprised me: "effect... huge," "havoc," the scare quotes around "silence," "data meltdown," et cetera seemed very out of place for a three-one-hundredths of a degree shift--either complete mendacity or total innumeracy, or both. So I swung by the Opinionator, and found:
- The Opinionator is no longer written by Chris Suellentrop alone, but also by Tobin Harshaw, who wrote the post in question.
- Tobin Harshaw also served as an enthusiastic stenographer for last Friday's Stupidest Man Alive nominee, Tom Nugent of National Review, who slipped a decimal points and wrote a totally off-the-rails piece about taxing university endowments http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/08/sell-victoria-c.html overestimating how much money such a tax might raise by a factor of ten.
It seemed that Harshaw had failed to do the slightest amount of quantitative due diligence on either story before he committed fingers to keyboard and thus electrons to the noosphere.
It struck me that here I had an interesting angle: an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot, and find out why the New York Times has employees for whom it is unthinkable that they eyeball a graph or look at a table or even add up twenty numbers to see if what they are about to say makes any sense at all. The quantitative innumeracy of so many journalists is a big problem, and it would be nice to gain more insight into why innumerate journalists don't regard it as a problem.
So I called Toby Harshaw. I don't think he did himself any favors: it seems to me that he and the New York Times have much bigger problems than simple innumeracy:
Brad DeLong: Good afternoon. I'm Brad DeLong, an economics professor calling from UC Berkeley. I read your Cassandra post about global warming data revisions, and had a couple of questions. Can you help me out?
Tobin Harshaw: Certainly.
Brad DeLong: Did you eyeball the data--either in a graph or a table--before you wrote your "Cassandra" post about GISS global warming data revisions?
Tobin Harshaw: Are you writing something about this?
Brad DeLong: I will be, yes.
Tobin Harshaw: Then no, I cannot speak to you. You will have to speak to our public relations department.
Brad DeLong: Why won't you talk to me?
Tobin Harshaw: Because I am not authorized to speak to the press.
Brad DeLong: Because?
Tobin Harshaw: Because that is our policy. Our policy is that editorial staff are not allowed to speak to the press.
Brad DeLong: Seriously? Why is that your policy?
Tobin Harshaw: I am not authorized to speak. You will have to speak to our public relations department.
Brad DeLong: So you cannot even explain why your policy is that you cannot explain what you write?
Tobin Harshaw: I will have to transfer you to the operator.
Brad DeLong: But surely you can at least give a reason for the policy that keeps you from explaining...
Tobin Harshaw: I've spoken to you clearly.
Brad DeLong: You have not.
Tobin Harshaw: I've explained to you that our policy is that I am not authorized to speak to the press.
Brad DeLong: Why aren't you authorized to explain and elaborate on what you wrote?
Tobin Harshaw: I am not authorized to say why I am not authorized. It is our policy...
Brad DeLong: You are sure?...
Tobin Harshaw: Goodbye Mr. DeLong.
I thought about calling public editor Clark Hoyt, but he picks up his voice mail about once a week.
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?