Torturing the Data and the Facts

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there they go again. The so-called Partnership for Responsible Growth is running a series of ads in the Wall Street Journal that attempt to make the case that human activities like heating, cooling, and lighting our homes and factories and reaping the rewards of mobility are causing climate change, which it asserts will cause an environmental disaster. It provides citations for each of its comments to lend an air of credibility but they are more like the drunk who use the lamppost for support and not illumination.

In one recent ad, it makes the following assertions:


  • “Sixteen of the last eighteen years were the hottest on record and 2015 was confirmed as the hottest ever by far. Despite what you may have heard, there has been no “pause.”


  • “And not surprisingly, CO2 levels and temperatures track together in the geologic record”.

In spite of the use of citations, these statements are a manifestation of Darrell Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics. The first statement is technically correct but misleading, while the second statement is just wrong.

Since the 1998 high of 54.9 degrees, there have only been two years that exceeded that le3vel according to NOAA—2010 and 2012. The other years have ranged between 52.4 and 54.8 degrees. The data, government data, clearly show a pause. Annual temperatures in the 54 degree range are not unusual. They occurred in 1931, 1934, 1938, 1939, and 1953.

When advocates cite specific years as being the hottest or one of the hottest, they are relying on changes of tenths of a degree but implying much larger changes. The exceptions were 2010 and 2012, which were the hottest since the end of the Little Ice Age. Further, the averages reflect adjustments to correct for the heat island effect, changes in measurement devices, and locational factors. Mercury thermometers, which have been used in the past and record temperatures twice daily, are being replaced with electric devices called thermistors, which provide continuous readings. And, there is evidence that thermisters, which are more accurate, read warmer than the devices they replaced. So, the adjustments and change in devices introduce confounding variables that should produce interpretative caution, not bold pronouncements.

About all that can be concluded with confidence is that it has warmed since the late the end of the Little Ice Age and temperatures have shown a cyclical pattern since that time. From 1805 until the late 1930s, temperatures increased. From 1940 until the mid 1980s, they declined and then started increasing until the end of the 1990s. Since then, there has been no significant increases. The patterns observed over the past century are not consistent with the assertion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are causing dangerous warming and climate change.

The statement that CO2 levels and temperatures “track together in the geologic record” is not even grossly right; it is precisely wrong. A report by the CO2 Coalition, Carbon Dioxide Benefits the World: See for Yourself, contains a figure, CO2 Levels on Earth, that shows CO2 levels 600 million years in the past.   The following figure clearly shows that over the course of geologic history, CO2 have been declining, while temperatures have increased and decreased.


Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance contains a graph that was contructed to show almost constant levels of CO2 and temperatures until the recent past when they appear to go almost straight up. Of course, Gore’s graph was constructed to bolster his message; not to provide accurate information. When his data were plotted in a non-biased way, they reveal that there have been periods when CO2 has risen but not temperatures, when temperatures rose but not CO2, periods when temperatures have risen in tandem with CO2, periods when temperature declined and CO2 levels rose, and periods where temperatures rose but CO2 levels remained constant or declined.

There is a saying in analysis that clearly applies to the Partnership’s advertising campaign: torture the data until it confesses; torture it too much and it will confess to anything.


Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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