Blowing Smoke About Clouds

Last week an International Business Times article stopped me short: “Alarmists Got it Wrong, Humans Not Responsible for Climate Change: CERN“.

“Wow,” I thought. “CERN. Not some Exxon/Koch-funded stooge. CERN, where the real scientists are. There’s the CERN logo right in the article. I’d better read this and rethink my opinion on climate change.”

I read the article and I learned a lot. But not about science, about propaganda.

Occasionally you need to know some science to spot the BS in a newspaper science article, but most of the time you just need some common sense. Start with: Does the content of the article justify the headline?

Not this time. The article discusses new research about cloud formation that CERN scientists recently published in Nature (another one of the biggest names in science). But nobody at CERN is quoted saying, “Humans aren’t responsible for climate change.”

In fact, the article doesn’t quote anybody from CERN (or Nature). Who are their sources, then? Lawrence Solomon, David Whitehouse, and Nigel Calder. If you’re just skimming, you might assume at least one of them represents CERN, but they don’t.

Who are they? In the Age of Google, that’s an easy question.

So a more accurate headline would be: “Global-Warming Skeptics Claim New CERN Research Vindicates Them”.

Well, of course they claim that. But then any real journalist would have to ask: Does it?

Journalism — even journalism about rocket science — is not rocket science: Punch “CERN cloud experiment results” into Google, and in seconds you’ll be looking at the CERN press release and its supporting press briefing. Spend a few minutes chasing links, and you’ll see the lead author of the Nature article (Jasper Kirkby) quoted in Scientific ComputingLive Science, and — oh, look at this! – Nature News, which is put out by the same people who publish Nature.

So it isn’t hard to find sources closer to the action than Solomon, Whitehouse, and Calder. Do any of them say “Humans are not responsible for climate change”?


So what is this experiment and what does it really show?

CERN made a cloud chamber that simulates Earth’s atmosphere, and tried to figure out where atmospheric aerosols — tiny particles that cloud droplets form around — come from. They discovered that previous theories only accounted for a small fraction of the aerosols observed in the atmosphere. They could account for more when they added cosmic rays to their simulation, but they still couldn’t form a complete theory.

The CERN press release quotes Kirkby:

It was a big surprise to find that aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere isn’t due to sulphuric acid, water and ammonia alone. Now it’s vitally important to discover which additional vapours are involved, whether they are largely natural or of human origin, and how they influence clouds.

The press briefing concludes:

that cosmic
the additional 
been confirmed.

Nothing in the press release quantifies this possibility. Kirkby told Nature News: “At the moment, [our research] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.”

Live Science also talked to Kirkby:

The research doesn’t call into question the basic science of greenhouse gas warming, Kirkby emphasized, but rather refines one facet of the research. … “It’s part of the jigsaw puzzle, and you could say it adds to the understanding of the big picture,” he said. “But it in no way disproves the other pieces.”

None of that stops Solomon from claiming (in the Financial Post — again published with no comment from the actual researchers) that

The science is now all-but-settled on global warming, convincing new evidence demonstrates, but Al Gore, the IPCC and other global warming doomsayers won’t be celebrating. The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun — not human activities — as the dominant controller of climate on Earth.

Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog responds:

There’s only one problem: that’s completely wrong. In reality the study shows nothing of the sort.

BA goes on to explain why you shouldn’t expect any future research to support Solomon either:

The problem here is two fold: there doesn’t appear to be a large variation in Earth’s temperatures with solar activity, and also that temperatures are rising extremely rapidly in the past 100 years, when solar activity has been relatively normal.

So, who do you think the conservative media outlets go with: science publications that have done the legwork and talked to the CERN researchers, or a long-time global-warming denier who makes unsupported claims in an opinion piece in a financial newspaper?

Do you have to ask?

Fox Business Channel’s Tobin Smith:

We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it’s the sun’s rays, not human activity, which controls the earth’s climate. Now, that, of course, is horrible news for the greenies who’ve used, you know, for years questionable science to justify more and more regulations against fossil fuels like coal and oil, all the while arguing for more and more for the renewable energy sources they just love so dearly. So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?

Media Matters collects similar statements from CBN, the Washington Times, and Investor’s Business Daily — all clearly repeating Solomon’s interpretation rather than CERN’s.

So this is what you need to hijack the well-deserved prestige of a research organization like CERN and a journal like Nature:

  • three zero-credibility cranks to “interpret” the research by making stuff up,
  • two newspapers willing to ignore anybody connected to the research, and instead source their articles to the cranks,
  • an echo chamber of news outlets willing to accept the first two papers as reliable sources, do no independent checking, and instead let false claims grow in the telling,
  • opinion leaders in the echo chamber who shift the onus away from the cranks onto their opponents: What’s wrong with those greenies, that they still hold out now that they’ve been proven wrong?

Result? Rank-and-file conservatives hear the same message from multiple directions. When they confidently tell their friends and  co-workers that CERN has proved Al Gore wrong, people who get their news from the New York Times know nothing about it — because an accurate assessment of these tentative results was not deemed sufficiently newsworthy.

And the conservative nods knowingly: It’s that liberal media, constantly suppressing anything that doesn’t fit its biased worldview.

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  • davidgmills  On September 25, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    I certainly don’t think the evidence puts an end to the “cosmic rays cause clouds thesis” by any means. To poo-poo the galactic ray thesis as you have done is not smart. Kirkby has said that galactic rays haven’t been proven to affect the climate yet. Yet. He uses the word premature to describe the proof of the theory. But after having his toes stepped on for many years, Kirkby is going to be very conservative about what he ultimately says. Just a good scientist awaiting to see what the evidence shows.

    But obviously the Cloud experiment has some noteworthy findings. And if they find what the additional nucleating vapors are, they may yet prove that galactic rays are the dominant creator of climate if galactic rays affect these additional nucleating vapors. I think Caulder is predicting they will yet prove the link between cosmic radiation and climate based upon the previous research of Svensmark and upon what the graphs CERN published in its online addendum to the Nature paper show.

    Caulder is no ordinary denier either. He was instrumental in getting Kirkby to take Svensmark’s work further. He’s in the thick of things.

    I do think you are correct in saying that the reporting of this so far has not been satisfactory. Depending on who’s reporting, it seems stilted one way or the other.

  • davidgmills  On September 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    You might want to read Nir Shaviv’s take. He’s another astrophysicist with skin in the game.


  • By Strategies « The Weekly Sift on September 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

    [...] Blowing Smoke About Clouds. If you have enough media power, you can hijack the prestige of the biggest names in science and use it for your own purposes. Witness how climate deniers just hijacked the coverage of an article in Nature by researchers at CERN. [...]

  • By Turn the Crank « The Weekly Sift on September 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    [...] (8000). But though last week’s Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence (231) and Blowing Smoke About Clouds (165) posted much more modest numbers, both did well when reposted on Daily [...]

  • [...] I attacked a bunch of those things head-on in Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say, the year’s most popular post. Other specific issues got hit in Voter Suppression 101 and Blowing Smoke About Clouds. [...]

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