Quote Mining, Near and Far

I’ve been asked to review a couple books about global warming. Climate change and evolution, which I mainly write about, are intimately related, since life is a potent source of greenhouse gases (methane from bacteria, etc.) and abrupt climate change has triggered profound changes in the biosphere. This assignment has me taking a particularly close look to all the new research and political news emerging these days.

And I’m getting a funny sense of deja vu.

Those who pay close attention to the work of creationists know that they have a penchant for quote mining–for snipping out a passage from a scientific paper that conveys a completely different message once it’s taken out of context. Typically, this qutoe mining makes it sound as if a scientist is admitting the evolutin is one big hoax, but if you actually look at the full context, you see that it’s part of a consideration about what sort of mechanism is more or less important in some particular aspect of evolution. You can see over 100 examples here.

So today I come across an article on Fox News in their “Junk Science” column, by Steve Milloy. He endorses the US’s refusal to budge on carbon dioxide controls at a meeting in Montreal, casting worries about global warming as hysteria.

A more sober reality, though, is that whatever slight impact humans might have on the climate, it is too small to measure – a point made in a study just published by Swiss researchers in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews (November 2005).

The study reviewed prior efforts to reconstruct global temperatures of the last 1,000 years. It concluded that natural temperature variations over the last millenium may have been so significant that they would “result in a redistribution of weight towards the role of natural factors in [causing] temperature changes, thereby relatively devaluing the impact of [manmade] emissions and affecting future predicted [global climate] scenarios.”

“If that turns out to be the case,” the researchers stated, “agreements such as the Kyoto protocol that intend to reduce emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, would be less effective than thought.”

So senior U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson was on very firm ground when he stated this week in Montreal that, “I reject the premise that the Kyoto-like agreement is necessary to address the issue.”

It didn’t seem to me that the quotation was fitting very tightly into Milloy’s claims, so I wondered if I could get hold of the paper itself. In about five seconds I had it (pdf). It hardly makes Fox News’s case. The quoted passage comes at the very end of this 3-page review. But Milloy drops the last sentence. Here’s the full final paragraph, with bold face added:

So, what would it mean, if the reconstructions indicate a larger (Esper et al., 2002; Pollack and Smerdon, 2004; Moberg et al., 2005) or smaller (Jones et al., 1998; Mann et al., 1999) temperature amplitude? We suggest that the former situation, i.e. enhanced variability during pre-industrial times, would result in a redistribution of weight towards the role of natural factors in forcing temperature changes, thereby relatively devaluing the impact of anthropogenic emissions and affecting future predicted scenarios. If that turns out to be the case, agreements such as the Kyoto protocol that intend to reduce emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, would be less effective than thought. This scenario, however, does not question the general mechanism established within the protocol, which we believe is a breakthrough.

Hm. Do you think he couldn’t fit that last sentence in because he ran out of space?

Now I’m sure that global warming skeptics don’t like to be put in the company of creationists. But if that notion really does bother them, they should not take a page out of the creationist handbook. And when it comes to creationism, there’s one more interesting connection to make here. You can look through the Junk Science archive at Milloy’s previous columns, which attack all sorts of things Milloy claims are nonsense. And yet, despite all the headlines about intelligent design in the news these days, nowhere in the archive can I find a single column attacking creationism. Deja vu all over again.

Update: To be fair and balanced, The Day After Tomorrow was nuts.