David Rose has penned an article in the Mail on Sunday about the Arctic sea ice, and it’s buzzing around the denial-o-sphere like a bumble bee on crystal meth. The thrust of his piece is that the ice is more abundant this summer than the record low of last year (as the vast majority of scientists predicted) and that climate change can therefore be declared bogus.
His trick is a pretty familiar one if you follow his work. He’s cherry-picked a single year (2013) that looks like good news only when compared against the disaster of last year’s extraordinary ice loss, then he’s presented that single piece of data as definitive. Climate sceptics have gone borderline loony, with UKIP MEP Roger Helmer declaring that Arctic ice is now at record levels, and David’s thesis being shared more than a hundred thousand times online.
Meanwhile those of us who continue to inhabit the reality-based community know very well that Arctic sea ice is actually in remarkable decline. If you measure it by volume, it’s lost 75% since summer 1980. If instead you measure it by extent (the amount of the Arctic ocean surface covered by ice) then it looks like 2013 will be the sixth or seventh worst year on record.
But if you’re David Rose and the Mail then that single recent spike in a relentless long term downward trend is somehow evidence that the slide is over and that climate change is therefore a myth propagated by communists bent on world domination by stealth.
So we wondered what David would have written about various other historic downward trends.
For example, say, the Mail’s own circulation figures.
Last week the Mail reported a month-on-month sales increase of 1.13%, up to 1.8 million sales. Now of course that’s in the context of a long term downward trend of -5% year-on-year, and a decrease of 718k (35%) since 2003.
But if David was reporting on those latest numbers he’d no doubt be telling us that in this month – September 2013 – the printed word was finally saved, that the historic slide in his newspaper’s sales was ended, and that circulation was now at a record high. And looking at the graph below, you suspect he’d have reported the same thing in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, twice in 2010 and then in 2012, when there were upward ticks in an otherwise relentless record of sales losses. And God alone knows how many times he would have declared an end to the circulation slide at the Sun, whose figures look a little like the trend in Arctic ice loss.
And what if David had been reporting on the Great Depression? It was the unprecedented economic crisis that foreshadowed the Second World War. Unemployment in the United States soared to 25%, global trade plunged by half and the New York stock exchange lost 90% of its value in four years. The huge slide in living standards created the conditions in which Hitler seized power and the globe was engulfed in conflict. But for David Rose and the Mail, glancing at the graph below, the New York stock market slide actually bottomed out in late 1929, just weeks after it began. Then ended again, twice in fact, in 1930. Then twice in 1931, again in 1932. The Nazis then faded into obscurity and Hitler rekindled his passion for landscape watercolour painting in a sanatorium just outside Würzburg.
Finally, you may be under the impression that digital downloads have transformed the music industry, and that sales of CDs are about as rare as a dodo rodeo. In reality (in the world of David Rose and the Mail) the decline in CDs was actually reversed in 2002 and the compact disc was saved. It was also saved two years later. Ditch iTunes, it’s just a fad.
The point is, if you’re serious about science then you look at the trend, not what experts call ‘noise’ – the inevitable spikes that occur in most long-term declines. The remarkable disappearance of the Arctic sea ice was never going to occur in a straight diagonal downward line. But the Mail and David Rose look at a graph like the one below – which maps the decrease in Arctic sea ice measured by volume since summer 1980 – and they see nothing whatsoever to concern themselves or their readers.
But consider this. In summer 1980 the Arctic sea ice measured about eighteen thousand cubic kilometers. This year – the year the Mail declares the Arctic to be in rude health – it is one quarter the size it was just a generation ago. Either David and the Mail are fooling their readers, or they’re fooling themselves. But don’t let them fool you. The retreat of the Arctic sea ice continues to occur at a remarkable rate, and it has profound implications for all of us.
As does a brazen denial that’s even happening at all.
P.S. If you want to know how David Rose did report on an historical event, check out this article on his journalism in the run-up to the Iraq war, when he acted as an unfiltered conduit between the discredited Iraqi National Congress and you the public, injecting a remarkable array of misinformation into the debate.