The New York Times explains cherry-picking!


Too hard for the regular paper: Tuesday morning, three of our analysts came right out of their chairs.

The youngsters are assigned to the science beat. As such, they were scanning that day’s Science Times, the New York Times’ weekly science section.

What brought the young analysts out of their seats? In a report about climate change, Justin Gillis explained the practice of cherry-picking.

“The rise in the surface temperature of earth has been markedly slower over the last 15 years than in the 20 years before that,” Gillis wrote. And then, out of nowhere, he explained one way the public gets conned by folk who may have an agenda:
GILLIS (6/11/13): As you might imagine, those dismissive of climate-change concerns have made much of this warming plateau. They typically argue that “global warming stopped 15 years ago” or some similar statement, and then assert that this disproves the whole notion that greenhouse gases are causing warming.

Rarely do they mention that most of the warmest years in the historical record have occurred recently. Moreover, their claim depends on careful selection of the starting and ending points. The starting point is almost always 1998, a particularly warm year because of a strong El NiƱo weather pattern.

Somebody who wanted to sell you gold coins as an investment could make the same kind of argument about the futility of putting your retirement funds into the stock market. If he picked the start date and the end date carefully enough, the gold salesman could make it look like the stock market did not go up for a decade or longer.

But that does not really tell you what your retirement money is going to do in the market over 30 or 40 years. It does not even tell you how you would have done over the cherry-picked decade, which would have depended on exactly when you got in and out of the market.
Over the cherry-picked decade!

“Scientists and statisticians reject this sort of selective use of numbers,” Gillis wrote next, “and when they calculate the long-term temperature trends for the earth, they conclude that it continues to warm through time.”

We were impressed to see the Times explain the practice of “cherry-picking.” It was startling to see the practice attributed to one of the teams in a major debate.

Is Gillis allowed to say that?

More and more, cherry-picking is one of the ways our warring tribes conduct their “debates.” That said, the practice seems to be so complex that it can only be explained in the specialized Times science section, which, to be honest, is mainly devoted to health concerns of the paper’s older readers.

Just like on PBS!

At any rate, explaining this practice, and others like it, would apparently be too complex for regular parts of the New York Times. Once a week, in this one special section, an elite group of Times subscribers may be exposed to such arcana, perhaps for extra credit.

For even more extra credit: What would it be like to analyze the art of bad paraphrase?

Discuss and explain. Then, compare and contrast. At some point, throw in some examples.


  1. The Justin Gillis article was really trashy, no science just pretense of science. Joe Romm dealt with the article as it deserved to be dealt with.

    1. Let me be clear, you do understand that Gillis is here dismissing the importance of climate change? This article could have been written by a denier, and that was the point Joe Romm carefully made. Gillis is cherry picking and misleading. Read the article carefully if you fail to understand how deceptive Gillis is being.

    2. Watching the "scientists" mimic the deniersJune 13, 2013 at 9:51 PM

      While I strongly believe the evidence supports AGW, to say that Gillis was "dismissing the importance of climate change", and that the "article could have been written by a denier" indicates willful distortion on your part--if I generously, though hesitantly, rule out simple stupidity.

      Gillis correctly conveys the fact that the COMPLETELY UNPREDICTED failure of atmospheric temperatures to match the continuing rapid rise in greenhouse gases in the past 15 years is a baffling mystery, and while I remain convinced of the grave dangers of climate change, this unexpected development introduces the possibility of unsuspected feedback mechanisms that may significantly delay, if not prevent, the consensus projections from being realized. What is responsible for the plateauing of temps needs to be understood--not to shut up the deniers, but to create better forecasts.

      The attack you (Anon 7:25PM) launched upon Gillis is so sickeningly reminiscent of the assaults I've watched the deniers stage. Can you not see that? And don't you realize it makes our side (the sensible, fact-based, scientific side) look as bad as theirs?

    3. Read Joe Romm, then go play in the sand.

    4. Watching the supposed scientists mimic the deniersJune 14, 2013 at 2:17 PM

      If you were to read the response of "Enter the dragon" to deadrat (below), you'd see that even the UK Met Office is acknowledging the "warming pause".

      That the "warming pause" doesn't give YOU, supposedly of a scientific bent, pause is simply a reflection of the fact that denialism exists among both sides in this debate.

  2. No, I think you do not realize that Justin Gillis was cherry picking:

    June 11, 2013

    Climate Scientists Ring Alarm Bell, NY Times Hits Snooze Button
    By Joe Romm

  3. Gillis was wrong about the cherry picking. A trend period today beginning any time from 1997 forward will produce a very low upward trend or even a downward trend. You can see this for yourself at

    The prestigious UK Met Office has reporte that there's been no statistically significan upward trend since 1997.

    Bob does a great job of identifying education related errors in the Times. Well, the paper makes just as many errors in areas outside of Bob's expertise.

    1. What the heck, read the column by Joe Romm and the issue will be clear. Though I would be shocked if you had the slightest interest in, like, learning, still the matter is important enough for me to try:

      June 11, 2013

      Climate Scientists Ring Alarm Bell, NY Times Hits Snooze Button
      By Joe Romm

    2. What can one expect when TrollinCal's sole authority on global warming is a paid shill for carbon-producing industries?

    3. Watching the supposed scientists mimic the deniersJune 14, 2013 at 5:59 PM

      @anoniemus (happily, you're not seeking to remain quite as anonymous as the plethora of indistinguishable anonymice squeaking comments on this blog)

      Actually, to me, a more potent way of discrediting global warming “skeptic” Dr. Roy Spencer than citing his ties to carbon-producing industries is this: he's among the most prominent and certainly is the single most credentialed signatory to An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, which states that "Earth and its ecosystems – created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting". His bias is so self-evident, and so overwhelming, can you trust anything he says?

      However, you were unfair on two grounds to David in Cal. First, he was basing his comments on two sources not one, and the second one, the UK Met Office, is unimpeachable from the standpoint of a believer in Anthropogenic Global Warming such as yourself. If you scroll down to a reply of Enter the dragon to deadcat, you'll see a link that demonstrates that even that paragon of support for AGW, the UK Met Office, concedes the “warming pause”. We (I'm a firm believer that the vast bulk of evidence supports AGW) in the “global warming is dangerous and we must act” camp must acknowledge OUR OWN inconvenient truths, like the past 15 years of atmospheric temperature plateauing.

    4. Dr. Roy Spencer is a fraud which is why the California troll cited the guy.

      As for the plateauing stuff, try reading Joe Romm before running on. Of course, reading an actual critique by a climatologist of the New York Times article seems to be impossible. Oh well.

    5. Watching the supposed scientists mimic the deniersJune 15, 2013 at 12:48 PM

      @Anonymous 10:59 AM,

      Can we put aside the silly aspersions—both of us—and have a meaningful exchange? Because if you have even a slightly open mind, I have something very interesting, and genuinely horrifying, to tell you as a result of my following the link to Joe Romm's article at Climate Progress.

      First, let me remind you, that I am completely convinced of the extreme peril presented by global warming, and I am in favor of dramatic interventions. However, I try to be an honest, scientific assessor of the evidence—all of it, not just that which favors my pre-existing viewpoint.

      So, Anonymous 10:59, when I went to Joe Romm's article, I was immediately struck by—and initially puzzled by—the animated graph that Romm presented before he even wrote a word. It was a plot of global temperatures from NASA, from the mid-1970's to 2012. Running through the plot was a straight line, that showed continuous warming, at a uniform rate, from the beginning of the period to the end. Under the graph, Romm wrote the words, “The planet just keeps warming, as NASA data makes clear (via Tamino)”.

      I never doubted the temperature data, but I was struck by, and initially puzzled by, the “regression line” running through it, since I had seen the identical data presented very differently in terms of the “trend”.

      Here, Anonymous 10:59, I must pause to tell you that I have some familiarity with statistics. Yes, I admit I'm one of those odd birds that loves math, and thinks calculus is far more aesthetically pleasing than the Mona Lisa, far more awe-inspiring than the Grand Canyon.

      So for a second or two, as I contemplated the regression line in the graph Romm presented to his readers, I said to myself, “What the heck is THIS?” I quickly understood that Romm's readers had been the victims of a scientific fraud in a way I will carefully explain to you.

      I have to tell you something, Anonymous 10:59, about linear regression, which is what was done with the data Joe Romm presented. If you have data extending over a fairly long period of time, as in this case, and the first two-thirds or so shows a dramatic increase (as here), and the last portion shows essentially no increase (as here), you will still be able to draw a regression line through the entirety of it that shows an increase. But is that regression line a mathematically correct and truthful depiction of the data?

      The answer is no, if the question is: Has there been a change in the rate of increase of temperatures over the time period at issue? And of course, Anonymous 10:59, that is exactly the question that is being debated—has the dramatic global temperature increase from the 1970's through the late 1990's continued as predicted, or has there been an unexpected leveling off?

      To answer THAT question, you must do two separate regression lines, using the data from the earlier period (the 70's through the late 1990's) and the data from the last 15 or so years (or you can use other forms of regression analysis that don't rely on a single straight line).

      And Anonymous 10:59, in this instance, you don't even need to formally do the math—your eye alone can see the flatness of the data from the last 15 or so years, compared with the earlier period.

      So Joe Romm presented to his readers a regression line in a graph that deliberately misled them into believing temperatures have steadily risen from the mid-1970's to the present. I say “deliberately” misled them because a quick look at Romm's credentials convinces me he must fully understand the nature of the scientific fraud being perpetrated.

    6. "However, you were unfair on two grounds to David in Cal."

      You can't be "unfair" to David in Cal. The guy is a despicable, sleazy, smarmy troll. You can be "unfair" to his arguments, but "David" itself deserves every kind of abuse that one person can visit upon another.

    7. Watching the supposed scientists mimic the deniersJune 16, 2013 at 1:16 PM

      Awakening alert and energetic, I decided to actually do the comparison of regression lines I discussed in the previous comment. Using the official NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) data “Global Land-ocean Temperature Index in .01 degrees Celsius”, I compared many different pairs of regression lines (comparing rates of temperature increase over time, in this case), so as not to be accused of “cherry-picking”.

      My method: The null hypothesis was the contention of Joe Romm and others that there has been no “warming pause”, no lull in the temperature rise that began in the 1970s—to use Joe Romm's words, “The planet just keeps warming, as NASA data makes clear (via Tamino)”. So what I did was compare the rate of temperature rise over various periods starting in the 1970s and ending in the late 1990s (or 2000) with the rate of temperature rise over periods starting in the late 1990s to 2001 and ending in 2012. So the question is, “Does the comparison of regression lines allow us to reject the null hypothesis (the claim that there is no “warming pause”)?

      My results: Virtually every comparison of regression lines was statistically significant. That means that virtually every analysis justified rejecting the null hypothesis, rejecting the contention that there is no “warming pause”. The few comparisons that didn't reach statistical significance barely fell short. On the other hand, many of the comparisons were HIGHLY statistically significant. For example, comparing the temperature rise from 1975 to 2000 with the rise from 2001 to 2012 had a p-value of .0221. The rise from 1974 to 1997 versus the rise from 1998 to 2012 was p=.011.

      The comparison that Joe Romm featured in his article, displaying in black the period from 1975 to 1999 and displaying in red the period from 2000 to 2012 was rejected with p=.0438. So think about it--Romm presented a single regression line for the period 1975 to 2012, which meant that the entire period had experienced a common warming regime (with any differences due to chance variation), with the red (recent) period no different from the black, but a statistical analysis shows Romm's presentation to be absolutely contradicted by the evidence—those two periods were shown NOT to have a common slope, or temperature rise—i.e. the difference in temperature rise between the two periods was much too large to be accounted for by “chance variation”.

      So what does all this mean, at least to me?

      Several things: First, I'm still convinced of the extreme, even catastrophic dangers of global warming, and I'm still passionate in believing we need to ACT NOW to prevent them.

      Second, I'm curious as to what is responsible for the apparent “warming pause”--there are many possibilities, from changes in solar radiation to multi-decadal oscillations in weather patterns to a rather strange conjecture that involves the ozone hole—and others. Scientists may have overestimated the role of greenhouse gases in the warming from the 1970s to late 1990s—some of it may have been due to the warming-enhancing effect of the factors now opposing the warming, i.e. those factors are now in a different phase of their cycle, cooling instead of warming, and thus off-setting the warming effects of the greenhouse gases.

      Third, I feel a kind of moral nausea as I realize the extent to which people are willing to engage in outright deception to further their viewpoint. Thank you, Anonymous, for insisting that people read Joe Romm's article—if you hadn't I wouldn't have realized that even scientists “on my side” can lack integrity. When the Climate-gate scandal occurred a few years ago I rationalized away the behavior of the scientists “on my side” because the evidence of wrong-doing was equivocal. But the denial of the “warming pause” through the use of deliberately misleading graphs is disgusting and contemptible, and my conclusion is not based on “he said, he said” but is mathematically demonstrable.

    8. "When the Climate-gate scandal occurred a few years ago I rationalized away the behavior of the scientists “on my side” because the evidence of wrong-doing was equivocal."

      In fact, the behavior was not "equivocal." It was found, rather conclusively, and by a broad array of investigative bodies, that nothing wrong was done. That you would use this one incidence of Romm and a couple of others doing some shoddy work as an excuse to do your own revisionist recasting, of "climategate" and call it "equivocal" puts you about on a par with David in Cal. I can easily see you, with much regret and anguished handwringing, of course, typing out posts like, "I was once a passionate believer in anthropomorphic climate change, and it just breaks my itty bitty poor little mathematically-inclined heart to say this, but now ...."

    9. Watching the supposed scientists mimic the deniersJune 16, 2013 at 2:40 PM

      @til, you take my breath away!! When I have access to the actual evidence, I make up my own mind—I don't defer to “investigative bodies”, which, to be blunt, have a very mixed track record of uncovering the truth. I didn't conduct an exhaustive examination of every element of Climate-gate, but certain comments in those emails raised questions in my mind about the objectivity of the work of the scientists involved. But, as I said, I did NOT conclude that the scientists were guilty. And I'm honest enough to admit that I myself may have been guilty--of giving them the benefit of the doubt solely because they were on my side.

      As to future posts where, you predict, I will disavow my current belief in AGW—how ridiculous you are! It's not just the evidence in support of AGW, but the theoretical underpinnings of it that make it virtually impossible to refute.

      Why don't you do a little introspection and examine your own attacks/mockery with me as the object, all because I am trying to honestly assess all the evidence, including that which makes things a little difficult for my side? It's not “shoddy work” by Romm that I was assailing, it was deliberately dishonest work. And that's why I brought up Climate-gate—obviously, in that case too, the accusations involved dishonesty not shoddiness. Truthfully, til, I was stunned when I saw that graph on Romm's site, and even more so this morning when I FULLY grasped how outrageously dishonest it was. Remember Romm is a very smart, very well-informed person—he didn't put that graph on his site because he does “shoddy work”, but because he wanted to deceive his readers into believing his position was supported by the evidence.

    10. "Why don't you do a little introspection and examine your own attacks/mockery with me as the object, all because I am trying to honestly assess all the evidence..."

      Translates to,

      "I'm just so stunned and hurt -- Romm's poorly constructed graph personally wounded me -- and now you're MEAN to me as well. Woe is me. Let's stop looking at all the evidence, and focus instead on Romm's graph, and my interpretations of it -- trust me, I'm objective -- and then, let's use those interpretations to cast doubt on everything else, including settled topics like 'climategate.'"

      This is on a par with David in Cal, with more "trust me, I like math," and, sleazy unctuousness thrown in. I hadn't thought it possible to be more sleazily unctuous than DinC, but you managed that, if nothing else.

    11. Watching the supposed scientists mimic the deniersJune 16, 2013 at 5:23 PM

      You know, til, I actually perceive, beneath the billowing cloud of insults you surround yourself with, an intelligent person. So how about our actually having a meaningful conversation about these issues instead of all the silly invective?

      Let me explain why I don't lightly dismiss, as you seem to, the behavior of Joe Romm.

      First, let's suppose, as is certainly possible, this “warming pause” continues for a few more years, to the point that even Romm can no longer maintain his stance of denial. Yes, you and I will recognize that, even if it lasts for ten more years, it is still a “pause”, a brief cessation in a lethal long-term warming. But what about the large percentage of Americans (whose support is crucial if we are to actually DO anything about AGW) who are uncertain what to believe? The global warming deniers will invoke the false, and more importantly, the deliberately dishonest claims of people like Romm about the warming pause to argue that people shouldn't believe it's just a “pause” but a vindication of their belief that AGW is a myth. til, if scientists on our side are caught in deliberate deception, incalculable harm is done to our position's credibility with the tens of millions of Americans who are undecided about AGW.

      But apart from the “strategic” foolishness of tolerating Romm's behavior, it's simply wrong to advance one's position, particularly a scientific one, through dishonest means, even if they're effective. Unless you have a “postmodern” view of morality, I think you'll agree with that.

      One thing I've found quite amazing is your decision that I'm “the enemy”, simply because I'm willing to openly acknowledge some vulnerabilities in claims made on the AGW side. Must I march in lock-step to be a member-in-good-standing among believers in AGW? This parallels what has happened to liberals like Glenn Greenwald, who's been pilloried by many on the left because he is, justifiably in my view, horrified and disgusted that Obama has embraced, and sometimes advanced, the assault upon civil liberties begun by George W. Bush.

  4. The prestigious UK Met Office that says "“... [W]hat is absolutely clear is that we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000-2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850. Depending on which temperature records you use, 2010 was the warmest year on record ...."

    That prestigious UK Met Office?

    1. Deadrat, you disappoint me. Instead of seeking the truth, as I expected from some of your previous comments, you appear to be interested in making cheap rhetorical points by, yes, the notorious, much-discussed-lately “cherry-picking”. If you go to the UK Met site, and look under “Research”, you'll find the following:

      In that article, the author CONCEDES that there is a 'warming pause', though, quite sensibly, he doesn't believe this undermines the fundamental evidence for AGW. He says, “The 'warming pause' over the recent decade does not show that climate change is not happening. And it certainly does not mean that climate scientists are "backing away" from our fundamental understanding.”

      That is my position, that is the position of anyone who is objectively looking at ALL the evidence—from previous centuries of course, BUT ALSO from the last 15 years.

      Scientists, like everyone else, are loath to modify long-held, strongly expressed, highly public positions. It's embarrassing. And even scientists who haven't themselves taken these public positions are reluctant to publish research that undermines the well-established consensus. Deadrat, you might be interested in this highly apposite, quite fascinating story by Richard Feynman, the now-legendary Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, in “Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman”:

      “We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.”

      Well, Richard Feynman may be right that “now we don't have that kind of a disease”, but we have many other diseases that produce the same symptoms—an inability to acknowledge “disturbing” new facts. And, deadrat, I'm distressed to see you are a sufferer.