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Hotter than the hottest thing ever

22 Jan 2020 | News Roundup

So 2019 was hotter than anything ever was hot, except 2016 which was itself the hottest thing ever. We’re all going to die! Unless we don’t because it wasn’t. As Anthony Watts observes, if you measure from the depths of the natural Little Ice Age you get an upward line. But if you take a longer perspective you get ups and downs, within which our era is not remarkable. Even worse, as Watts also shows on a graph, the most credible numbers from the United States, which has the best temperature measurements in the world, show 2019 as cooler than 2005… and 2006… and 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. But hey, who’s counting?

Alarmists frequently assert that they rely on science whereas “deniers” rely on oil money and slippery rhetoric. But in addition to the contradictions between reasonably complete American temperature records (that, among other things, show the number of really hot days falling over the past century) and very patchy records from most of the rest of the planet, Watts raises some very basic statistical issues that the Armageddon types do not seem eager to discuss.

For instance, Watts’ Jan. 15 post objects to suspect statistical selectivity in the findings. Particularly glaring is an inconsistent baseline for comparisons because NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) clings to the coolest available period (1951-80, though without wishing to discuss why there was a cooling from around 1920 even as the atmospheric CO2 that supposedly drives temperature increased) whereas the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), equally alarmist in its views, uses 1981-2000.

His Jan. 17 post makes another point that deserves far more attention than it usually gets. He takes aim at “a press release session that featured NOAA and NASA GISS talking about how their climate data says that the world in 2019 was the second warmest ever, and the decade of 2010-2019 was the hottest ever (by a few hundredths of a degree).” But as every competent statistician knows, results can never be more accurate than inputs. And since nobody claims to be measuring temperature in hundredths of a degree outside a laboratory, there must be a lot of people within NOAA and NASA writhing in shame at this claim.

It gets worse. As we were told in high school math, and some of us even listened, if you measure two things to one decimal place and multiply them correctly, you may very well get a number with two decimal places. Thus 0.5 times 0.5 is 0.25. And that second decimal place yields an apparent increase in precision. But it’s worse than apparent, it’s deceptive, unless you know the two factors are exactly right. If I give you exactly half of a buck and a half, that is, exactly 0.5 times 1.5 dollars, I give you exactly 75 cents. But if the two factors are just estimates, if I try to split the leftover doughnut and a half from the meeting evenly between us, giving you about .5 times roughly 1.5, it is fatuous to say you got exactly .75 of a doughnut which beats the measly .73 you had last week.

The right procedure in such cases is not to keep two decimal places or even one. It is to round it to a whole number to accommodate the growing uncertainty as you combine uncertainties. “I got most of a stale doughnut again” is the best way to characterize what happened.

Such spurious precision is a chronic feature of climate science as of a great many things in the modern world. Thus David Middleton mocks a publication called The Anthropocene for asserting that death will get worse due to climate change including “an additional 1,603 deaths from injuries each year in the United States”; as Middleton rightly asks, “Are they sure it’s not 1,602 or 1,604?” And since the actual piece said “Global warming of 1.5 °C could result in an additional 1,603 deaths from injuries each year in the United States, an international team of researchers reported yesterday in the journal Nature Medicine” there’s an Ossa of estimated temperature rise beneath a Pelion of “could result” medical modeling that ought to have shamed the authors into saying “about 1,500”.

When it comes to global temperature, no sane person would ever claim to have measured the temperature anywhere outside a laboratory within a few hundredths of a degree. So there is no possible way that we know the temperature of the entire Earth, most of which has no temperature stations at all, to within even a few tenths of a degree let alone a few hundredths.

Putting all this legerdemain together, if that press release that galloped around the world while the statistics were pulling on their boots was not a lie then, to borrow a phrase from Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls, it will do until a lie comes along.

2 comments on “Hotter than the hottest thing ever”

  1. We live about 100 Kim’s southeast of Calgary. Our temperature is often 10 to 20 degrees colder than Calgary. Has that been accurately recorded in the hundred or so years since the homesteaders have been there? Where are temperatures taken? In the middle of big cities?

  2. "the United States, which has the best temperature measurements in the world,"
    Dude! The U.S. Has the best everything! We're in good hands! We're saved! Hallelujah!

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