Nov
19
2008

OK, Science Buzz writers! Time for a pop quiz. Let’s say you were writing a blog post based on the following two facts:

  • Arctic sea ice, 2007: 1.59 million square miles (the lowest on record)
  • Arctic sea ice 2008: 1.74 million square miles (the second-lowest on record)

What would your headline be?

Well, you could give it a positive spin and say something like, Sea ice grows, but that would rather miss the big picture, doncha’ think?

Or you could go all negative and say Sea ice near historic lows, which again would be accurate, but overlooks the dynamics of the situation.

A nice fair-and-balanced approach would be to say Sea ice grows, but remains near record low. That covers all your bases.

The one thing you cannot do is lie and say Arctic sea ice shrinks to 2nd-lowest on record Because it’s not, actually, you know, shrinking. It’s growing.

Lying is a bad idea, even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the Ninth Commandment.

  • Lying is bad for journalism. People look to journalists to give them the straight dope. If a newspaper can’t be trusted, why bother reading it? (This may explain the recent precipitous decline in newspaper readership.)
  • Lying is bad for the environmental movement. When the lies are exposed – and they always are, though usually not in the second freakin’ paragraph – it confuses those who are undecided as to where they stand on this whole global warminging thing, and it gives ammunition to the skeptics who say it’s all a hoax and a scam.
  • And most of all, lying is bad for the Earth. Governments are setting policies in response to climate change. If we take action based on the belief that sea ice is shrinking, when in fact it is growing, it could very well mean the end of life on this planet.

Just a little something to keep in mind as you compose your Buzz posts. Be careful out there.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Thor's picture
Thor says:

Gene, your post brings back to my mind the immortal words of noted newspaper expert Dave Barry who once observed: "TV news can only present the bare bones of a story; it takes a newspaper with is capability to present vast amounts of information to render a story truly boring."

posted on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 10:32am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I suppose... but if those figures were for summer ice levels, then you could say that they had shrunk. Because sea ice expands every winter and shrinks every summer. And the extremes on either end are probably significant figures, right?

I don't think it's totally fair to say that a writer is actually lying when they say "Arctic sea ice shrinks to 2nd-lowest on record," because the ice did in fact shrink this year to the second lowest on record.

That said, I'm with you for the most part. While the headline is technically accurate (I think), it omits the important words "summer" or "seasonal" (or whatever) and I guess that can give the article a misleading swing. As you say: it rather misses the big picture, doncha’ think

*I only just clicked on that link now, and they are summer ice levels. The article does go on to explain the seasonal change in sea ice, but, really, who wants to read beyond the headlines (that's not a jab—I'm saying I don't want to read beyond the headlines)

posted on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 10:44am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

It seems completely accurate to say that the sea ice "shrinks" to second lowest level. That is the process that people watch, the cyclical change over the year and what it reaches at its high and low points. Check out the National Snow and Ice Center's data sets on the web. You'll see that, in fact, it did shrink to its lowest level on record.

I guess if you aren't a scientist and aren't accustomed to looking at data, you might look at that and say it grew. That's why the journalist explained about the significance of those two numbers...they are part of a data set.

posted on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 10:49am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Though I see your points, I disagree. The comparison is year-to-year, and over that period, the ice grew. If the article gave us the figures for winter ice, then I would agree that "shrinks" would be appropriate. But as it stands, it is at best deeply misleading.

posted on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 3:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

"Deeply misleading" describes your post best. The comparison is year-to-year, taking into account that there is a yearly cycle (that's how we scientists make use of data sets—we look at them in meaningful context). If a million whales migrated past a point off the CA coast, peaking at a certain date each year and if you looked at yearly data, noticing that the whales counted decreased in number, you might notice a trend of decreasing whale numbers. If they hit a low in September 2007 and then that number increased slightly in 2008, you would still be worried about the trend of decreasing numbers. Did you look at the data sets at the National Snow and Ice Data Center? If so, you will see that, in fact, sea ice is shrinking and yes, it has recently shrunk to the second lowest level on record. Perhaps "Stats 101" should be pre-requisite to those interpreting science.

posted on Thu, 11/20/2008 - 4:25pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I took Statistics 101 and aced it, thank you very much.

When looking at a cyclical phenomenon, the meaningful comparison, as you note, is intercycle, not intracycle. That is the context. Comparing January 2008 to July 2008 doesn’t tell you anything about the year-to-year trend. It tells you about the dynamics of that given year, whether the annual ice melt was particularly large or small, slow or fast, but it does nothing to illuminate the multi-year trend.

I must also disagree with your whale analogy. If the number of migrating whales counted in September decreased every year for, say, ten years, and then in the 11th year the number went up, I would not “still be worried about the trend of decreasing numbers,” for the very simple reason that the numbers are no longer decreasing. Now, I may be worried that they are still desperately low – that was, in fact, one of the options I offered for the sea ice headline. I may be worried that the recovery is too small, or that it may be only a temporary blip. But I could not be worried about the downward trend, because the numbers have, at least temporarily, stopped trending downward.

We have had discussions of sea ice statistics before, including animations of the yearly growth and shrinkage.

I will concede that sea ice shrank from winter to summer, as it does every year. However, I still maintain that the article and its headline were implying a year-to-year shrinkage, and that is wrong.

posted on Thu, 11/20/2008 - 7:38pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Of course, if you'd like to discuss month-to-month variation in sea ice, we can do that, too.

posted on Thu, 11/20/2008 - 11:03pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Worldwide, sea ice has "shrunk" to the point where it is the same size as in 1979, the first year satellite records were made, and the year before the recent global warming spell began.

posted on Mon, 01/12/2009 - 6:09pm

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