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Fact Checking for Weasels

It's rare to see such transparent dishonesty as in this piece from E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The Cornwall Alliance is, according to its website,

a network of evangelical Christian scholars–mostly natural scientists, economists, policy experts, theologians, philosophers, and religious leaders–dedicated to educating the public and policymakers about Biblical earth stewardship (men and women working together to enhance the fruitfulness, beauty, and safety of the earth, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors), economic development for the poor (through private property rights, entrepreneurship, free trade, limited government, the rule of law, and access to abundant, affordable, reliable energy), and the gospel of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God by grace through faith in the atoning death and vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But most of their website—and their work—is devoted to climate change denial.

In a brief article titled “Fact checkers” who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Beisner expresses consternation over criticism of a Gregory Rummo article for Townhall, titled Apocalyptic Sea-Level Rise—Just a Thing of the Past? Rummo, incidently, is also a content contributor for the Cornwall Alliance website.

Rummo's Townhall article included this paragraph.

A graph of the Earth’s mean temperature over the last 2,000 years shows two previous periods when temperatures were warmer than they are now; from 1–200 A.D., an epoch called the Roman Warm Period, and more recently the Medieval Warm Period from 900–1100 A.D.

Scott Johnson of Climate Feedback, a "worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage", rated Rummo's claim "inaccurate", pointing out that available climate records show that the earth is now warmer than at any time in the past 2000 years; and further pointing out that even if it were warmer at some point in the past, that wouldn't support Rummo's underlying claim that human greenhouse emissions can't be affecting today's climate.

Beisner's objection is that Johnson did not quote the entire paragraph. The fact-check site stated the claim this way.

Earth’s mean temperature over the last 2,000 years shows two previous periods when temperatures were warmer than they are now; from 1–200 A.D., an epoch called the Roman Warm Period, and more recently the Medieval Warm Period from 900–1100 A.D.

As you can see by comparing the two quotes, Johnson omitted the opening clause, "A graph of the". This, according to Beisner, changes then entire meaning of the claim.

The graph in question appears in Roy Spencer's book An Inconvenient Deception: How Al Gore Distorts Climate Science and Energy Policy. Spencer, it happens, is on the Cornwall Alliance's Advisory Board. His graph comes from an actual published climate study, but is based on data for the Northern Hemisphere only. The two warm periods in question were offset by cool periods in the Southern Hemisphere, resulting in a global temperature that did not reach the level we're at today.

Beisner is blunt and concise in his objection to the fact checking.

All that’s necessary for what Greg said to be true is that there have been such a graph in Spencer’s book. And indeed there was.

At first blush, it's puzzling why Beisner would focus on such a narrow semantic disagreement rather than dispute the temperature data, if he thought the graph was accurate. But he leaves several telling clues.

First, Beisner chooses a curious analogy to support his case.

Suppose I told you that Santa Claus lived in Santa Barbara. Now suppose you reported in an article that I told you Santa Claus lived in Santa Barbara. Now suppose some “fact checker” slammed you for falsely saying Santa Claus lived in Santa Barbara.

Would the “fact checker” be right?

Obviously not. Because you accurately reported what I told you.

But, obviously, Santa Claus never lived in Santa Barbara. The Santa Claus character is based on the historical Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the late third/early fourth century in what is now Southern Turkey. He died on December 6, 342. The Santa Barbara Mission would be founded 1444 years later, nearly to the day, on December 4, 1786. Though the missionaries undoubtedly knew of St. Nicholas, he could not have possibly been aware of them, or of the land they settled.

So if you were a reporter and E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance told you Santa Claus lived in Santa Barbara, you'd already know it's not true. The only reason to report it would be to throw Beisner's character into question. But I can't say it's a flawed analogy.

To review, we have Beisner's colleague Gregory Rummo claiming a chart shows the temperature was warmer in the recent past. Scott Johnson of Climate Feedback provides evidence the global temperature was not warmer in the recent past. Beisner does not contest Johnson's analysis. But in his view, the temperature record is irrelevant; the only relevant point is that Grummo had seen a graph.

I know a little bit about this trick because I'm a long-time editor for Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Though Wikipedia is often criticized for its format that allows anyone to make changes to anything, we do have guidelines to keep bad actors from sabotaging good articles. If Gregory Rummo tried to insert the paragraph in question into a Wikipedia climate change article, it would be rejected and reverted. The tactic Rummo uses here is known as "weasel words" and is defined as attributing a controversial or biased statement to an anonymous authority. By adding the generic clause "a graph shows," Rummo can make a true statement from a false one.

And that's why Beisner's choice of Santa Claus from Santa Barbara is such a revealing analogy. Beisner appears to be admitting he knows Spencer's graph is misleading and anthropogenic global warming is real. But he also knows mitigating it could be costly, and that goes against the Cornwall Alliance's mission. So he'd rather hold on to what he must know is a false hope, courtesy of a graph that shows him what he wants to see.

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