Spinning Science

February 28th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

We have had a lot of discussion here about the process of producing press releases. Last month, I participated in a congressional hearing in which several scientists argued strongly that official press releases should be faithful to the science being reported. A press release put out by the University of Wisconsin today is a case of a press release completely misrepresenting the science in the paper that it is presenting. I am going to speculate that because the press release errs on the side of emphasizing a global warming connection where there is in fact none indicated in the paper that there will be little concern expressed by the scientific community about its inaccuracies.

UPDATE: NSF issues its own release “New Information Links Atlantic Ocean Warming to Stronger Hurricanes” compounding the misrepresentation. The NSF release (like the UW version) contradicts its own headline:

The Atlantic is also unique in that the physical variables that converge to form hurricanes–including wind speeds, wind directions and temperatures–mysteriously feed off each other to make conditions ripe for a storm. But scientists don’t understand why, Kossin adds.

The press release is titled: “New evidence that global warming fuels stronger Atlantic hurricanes.” The first paragraph of the release says:

Atmospheric scientists have uncovered fresh evidence to support the hotly debated theory that global warming has contributed to the emergence of stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

The paper, by Jim Kossin and colleagues appears in today’s Geophysical Research Letters and actually says nothing like this (paper here in PDF). It does say the following:

**Over the past 23 years there are no global trends in tropical cyclone activity in any basin except the Atlantic. This is an important finding because it contradicts the findings presented in 2005 by Webster et al. that there have been global trends. Kossin et al. call into question a straightforward relationship of SST and tropical cyclone activity. This is news.

**The paper does find the Atlantic to be more active over the past 23 years. No one in the world has ever questioned whether or not the Atlantic has been more active over the past 3 decades. Any assertion that the Atlantic has become more active is hardly “fresh evidence.” This is not news.

*The paper does not engage in attribution, and openly admits that a 23-year record is too short for attribution studies (i.e., that indicate causes of trends).

Here is what Kossin et al. say in their conclusion:

Efforts are presently underway to maximize the
length of our new homogeneous data record but at most
we can add another 6–7 years, and whether meaningful
trends can be measured or inferred in a 30-year data record
remains very much an open question. Given these limitations
of the data, the question of whether hurricane intensity
is globally trending upwards in a warming climate will
likely remain a point of debate in the foreseeable future.
Still, the very real and dangerous increases in recent
Atlantic hurricane activity will no doubt continue to provide
a heightened sense of purpose to research addressing how
hurricane behavior might change in our changing climate,
and further efforts toward improvement of archival data
quality are expected to continue in parallel with efforts to
better reconcile the physical processes involved. If our
23-year record is in fact representative of the longer record,
then we need to better understand why hurricane activity in
the Atlantic basin is varying in a fundamentally different
way than the rest of the world despite similar upward
trends of SST in each basin.

The University of Wisconsin press release is either a cheap publicity grab or a deliberate attempt to spin the paper’s results 180 degrees from what it actually says.

24 Responses to “Spinning Science”

  1. Chip Knappenberger Says:

    My thoughts exactly. Unbelievable.

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  3. Chip Knappenberger Says:

    I also thought it was interesting that in reading Kossin et al., they specifically make reference to Emanuel (2005) and Webster et al. (2005) when they matched Kossin’s results in the Atlantic, but did not specifically refer to Emanuel or Webster et al. when the Kossin et al. results were at odds with those of Emanuel and Webster et al.–which they were, more or less, for the other 85% of the world’s tropical cyclone activity and in their ultimate conclusions.

    Is this a case of extreme cordiality, or does it have anything to do with Webster being mentioned in the Acknowledgments?

    Just wondering.

    But since we’re rarely been accused of being overly cordial, we thought we’d point out the larger-scale differences and the implications:



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  5. Benny Peiser Says:

    It would appear that the press release also doctored some of the quotes:

    “The average conditions in the Atlantic at any given time are just on the cusp of what it takes for a hurricane to form,” says Kossin. “So it might be that imposing only a small (man-made) change in conditions, creates a much better chance of having a hurricane.”

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  7. Peter Webster Says:

    Two replies:


    Don’t you think it is the scientist him/hersefl who should determine if the paper was misprepresented? You are aware of emails about this issue.

    Dr. Knappenberger,

    Cheap spots are easy! I commented on an early version of the statistics used in hs paper. Not everyone has a sinister motivation although you might want to believe it to be the case if they disagree with you.

    I don’t know you biut I think you can do better than this.


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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Peter- Thanks for commenting. I won’t discuss what is or is not said on the TS list.

    Do you think this is a fair representation of what is reported in Kossin et al?:

    “Atmospheric scientists have uncovered fresh evidence to support the hotly debated theory that global warming has contributed to the emergence of stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.”

    And as long as you are here, how should we interpret Kossin et al. 2007 in light of Webster et al. 2005? Does it render your paper obsolete?


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  11. Indur Goklany Says:

    It’s inevitable. Hurricanes and spin are inextricably linked!

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  13. Dan Hughes Says:

    What a long strange trip this is turning out to be.

    I think that the author of the paper should have been closely involved with writing the ‘public consumption’ aspects of the press release. Maybe even actually writing it. At the least the author of the paper should have been given an opportunity to peer-review the press release.

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  15. Chip Knappenberger Says:

    Dr. Webster,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on this new result by Kossin et al. Although it may seem reasonable to let the individual scientists’ decide on whether their work is being misrepresented, in some instances, their personal opinions may differ somewhat from what they write in the scientific literature. In this particular case, I would be interested to know if Dr. Kossin stands by the headline and opening paragraph or two in the University of Wisconsin (or the NSF) press release. If so, his support must arise from a personal opinion that lies outside of the scope of his paper. For in the Kossin et al. GRL paper, there is no effort to relate changes in hurricane intensities to anything. The purpose of the paper is simply to apply a standard intensity measurement across time to better estimate temporal trends. There is no assessment of what is or is not causing these trends or the lack thereof. There is simply a citation of a few scientific articles that suggest that both natural causes as well as anthropogenic global warming may be at play. A strong trend in the Atlantic and little trend elsewhere, hardly seems to lend evidence for a detectable effect of global warming. Further, it lends even less support to your (Webster et al. 2005) conclusions that increases in intensity in basins worldwide served as support for a link to anthropogenic global warming. It is hard for me to imagine that upon anyone’s reading of the paper, that the reader would think that Kossin’s results lend new and additional support for notion that anthropogenic global warming has led to a detectable increase in worldwide hurricane intensity. And yet that certainly seems to be the gist of the accompanying press release. I am virtually certain that this will be another in the countless string of instances where the lead scientist will claim that they weren’t involved in the headline writing. But little will be ever done to correct that disconnect.

    As far as my ability to do better, perhaps I should try to work on keeping my private musings just that. If I felt that everything currently going on concerning the issue of global climate change was on the up and up, perhaps I wouldn’t have these kinds of thoughts in the first place. I am glad to learn that Kossin et al.’s citation decisions were largely their own. I must admit, that If I had reviewed the paper, I would have suggested that they follow-up on the good association between their results and yours in the Atlantic, by specifically calling to attention the disparity with their results and yours in some of the other basins as well as the overall global average. After all, they tailored portions of their analysis in an attempt to be able to directly compare their results with yours and those of Dr. Emanuel. It seems to me to be an oversight that they did not summarize their complete results in light of those earlier studies.


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  17. David Low Says:

    I think that Dan Hughes raises an very interesting point. Are editors and professional science communicators peers in the sense that Dan has in mind? Typically not in my opinion, as they do not have to be responsive to criticism of their spin. Should they be? I think so, and the new information technologies (such as wikis and blogs) make it possible to undertake the kind of extended peer review needed.

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  19. Chris Mooney Says:

    It seems to me that one issue raised by Roger’s post is whether it’s appropriate for a press release to go beyond the findings of the latest study so as to provide a broader context for interpreting those findings, perhaps drawing upon other research to do so. Press releases would be sterile indeed if they had to be purely technocratic recaps of the latest findings, and nothing more.

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  21. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Chris-

    You’ve got this just about right. Three quick comments:

    1. Context and accuracy are not trade-offs. If the press release was indeed referring to Kossin’s other work (which I doubt, but lets just assume it was), then it should simply have said so, right?

    2. The press release, as written, misrepresents the paper, especially the headline and open paragraphs. There isn’t a single scientist who questions whether the North Atlantic has become more active over the past 3 decades … to suggest that Kossin provides “fresh evidence” is just wrong. Further, Kossin’s paper deals with the statistics of trends and says absolutely nothing about attribution (it even says that 23 years is too short for attribution!).

    3. The most important conclusion of this paper is that it completely contradicts Webster et al. 2005 around the world. I know you know this, but reporters reading the press release easily would not.

    For someone who parses language very closely when President Bush is speaking, you are giving a lot of leeway on this issue, which in my view is a slam dunk. It is a badly written press release that mischaracterizes the paper it is promoting. Period. Why not simply admit that and move on? Whatever one’s views of hurricanes global warming or political preferences, surely we should all agree that the public communication of science by universities and the NSF should not mischaracterize the work being represented (?)

    Finally, let me note that Jim Kossin is a great researcher and this is an important paper.

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  23. Chris Mooney Says:

    Thanks, Roger. As you’re more responding to my blog post on this rather than my comment…I’ve answered you back over there. We are indeed mostly in agreement.

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  25. Thucydides Says:

    Roger -

    Thanks for flagging this, I think it raises some very interesting points on the whole muzzling of scientists and the appropriate role of public affairs.

    The whole topic of public affairs offices editing or blocking press releases has been well covered, but what about the flip side of the argument, which is ensuring that what information is put out by a Government Agency (in this case the NSF release) accurately portrays the information presented?

    NSF specifically chose an image of Katrina, and one that was clearly labeled as such (as you know there are hundreds of images that you could pick from). To me, someone was looking to accentuate and create an alarmist story. Yet nowhere in the paper is there a mention of Katrina. If they wanted to focus on the Atlantic basin, perhaps a more appropriate image to have presented would have possibly been a montage of Atlantic basin hurricanes. But then again, as you point out, others could easily pick images associated with other basins and written an equally questionable but attention grabbing headline such as “Are hurricanes endangered by global warming?”

    As you point out, the research by Klossin is very good and raises some interesting points, and the public affairs officers, especially taxpayer funded ones, should be ensuring that these points are pulled forward and presented accurately.

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  27. Jim Clarke Says:

    Alright, let’s stop beating around the bush. This is obviously the exact same behavior that a low level admin guy in the Bush Administration was guilty of with a Jim Hansen paper. Recall the righteous indignation in the blogs, television and the print media; the rally cries for the protection of the integrity of science; the demand for inquiry and the eventual Congressional Hearings! Such behavior was not to be tolerated if the sanctity of science was to be preserved.

    On January 29th, the day before those hearings began, I wrote the following on this website:

    “I know Congressman Waxman would like all of us to take this seriously, as if it really was about the integrity of science, but it isn’t. I am quite sure that if the flunky changed the words to be more alarming (in line with Congressman Waxman’s views) then we would not be having these hearings. There is no other purpose here than to trump up accusations against the Administration for the purpose of regaining control of the White House and strengthen Democratic control of Congress.”


    So now we have a test. The exact same thing has happened again, only this time the summaries are not ‘toning down’ the research, but blatantly exaggerating it! Will the same bloggers attack UW and the NSF in defense of the integrity of science? Will there be newspaper stories and CNN packages about how the truth is being suppressed by these organizations? Will Congressman Waxman demand hearings to straighten out the NSF and protect the sanctity of science? Will anyone be fired over this?

    NO!!! Because this is not about science! It is about politics!

    No one doubts that the Bush Admin guy did what he did for political reasons. Likewise, there is no other explanation for the behavior of the University of Wisconsin and the NSF. AGW is money and power to both organizations. It is in their best ‘political’ interests to spin the science the way they did.

    The scientific community should not tolerate such behavior from the Bush Administration, Congress, UW or the NSF. The fact that scientists are not only tolerant, but actually defending these latest infractions reveals that the integrity of science is very much secondary to the funding of science.

    This realization calls into question the very foundations of the AGW argument!


    Thank you for adhering to the ideals of scientific research and discovery! Oh…and watch your back!

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  29. Joe Bradley Says:

    Dear Mr. Webster,

    I have to disagree with your assertion “Don’t you think it is the scientist him/hersefl who should determine if the paper was misprepresented?”. People other than the author, with different perspectives, might very well be able to provide insights that the author him/herself may have missed. However, in this particular case in section 4 the authors directly contradict the press release.

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  31. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Since has come up here and elsewhere, on Peter Webster’s submission suggesting what Jim Kossin may or may not believe, let me first say that it is a violation of the Tropical Storms list to share what is said there in public.

    In my view Peter’s comment here violates that policy. But I won’t compound his violation by doing the same thing. Let me just say that his comment is misleading at best.

    Were I a judge I’d tell the jury to disregard that submission;-) Really, it adds absolutely no information of use to these discussions and is more likely to mislead than anything else. The press release is a misrepresentation of the paper (as anyone who reads both can see).


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  33. Tim Clear Says:

    While it is certainly interesting that Dr. Kossin has not responded here, Joe Bradley also raises a very good point – co2science frequently has alternative but valid analyses from studies that have different “conclusions” from their data…

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  35. Henry Molvar Says:

    Roger Peilke Jr. to all

    Are you referring to the Tropical Storms Mailing List (TSML) of William Thorson?

    I don’t see anything in the Peter Webster comment regarding what Jim Kossin may or may not think. If anything, your comments bringing up the TS list are out of order, don’t you think?

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  37. Nick Savvudes Says:

    I’m quite impressed with even handed analysis showed here. It is fortunate that we have the electonic reasources to be able to distribute and dicuss such issues. This sort of discussion really demonstrates the strength of diversity in science and highlights that monocultures are bad for science and progress in general. Tim Clear and Joe Bradley raise valid points, the source or funding of science shouldn’t matter if the science is strong enough to stand up to scrutiny. This concept though seems alien to the mass media.

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  39. Henry Molvar Says:

    Correction to link.

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  41. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Henry- Thanks for your comments. Yes, PW’s email weas referring to Kossin and the TS list, how do I know this? I am on the TS list and that is the only place that emails have been exchanged on involved both me and PW.

    It is indeed unfortunate that PW made that allusion on our site, but it is out there and being discussed not only on this blog but elsewhere. My efforts to clarify seek to stay well within the bounds of the TS list, so yes, absolutely I think my comments are in order. I respect that you might have a different view.

    Thanks for your participation.

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  43. Paddik J Says:

    I’m a newbie to these discussions, so first, what is a “violation of the Tropical Storms list . . .” and why is it some kind of crime?

    Second, I have to rather less politely second Roger’s assessment of Chris Mooney’s comments. For a guy who regularly flogs Bush-Cheney, Inc. for its anti-science policies and mealy-mouthed rhetoric, his indefensible defense of clearly distortionistic spinning is just plain disingenuous. Jim Clark is also on the money: Misrepresentation should not be tolerated from any quarter, per-i-od.

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  45. TokyoTom Says:


    “I am going to speculate that because the press release errs on the side of emphasizing a global warming connection where there is in fact none indicated in the paper that there will be little concern expressed by the scientific community about its inaccuracies.”

    And I am going to speculate that you are right, largely because the scientists are not PR experts focussed on the intricacies of press releases, and are more concerned about actually discussing the science.

    There is of course a healthy discussion of the science described in the kossin et al. piece over at RealClimate, with nary a mention of the press release:

    Are you suggesting we need greater government regulation of press releases, and greater review of press releases, especially those relating to hurricanes? More government funding for public policy experts?

    When you say that this is a case of “a press release completely misrepresenting the science in the paper that it is presenting”, are you saying that exaggeration is perfectly appropriate in public policy blogs discussing press releases?



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  47. TokyoTom Says:

    Jim, nice try. First, what the Bush administration has done to manage information is doesn`t like has been pervasive and comes from the very top. We have here one press release that that eagle eyes Roger has caught and rightly criticized, with you and others playing precisely the role of righteous indignation.

    But the actual underlying paper was released and is available to all. Is this the start of an avalanche showing how “AGW” has been cooked up by scientists looking for handouts, and that it is contradicted by all of the actual underlying published work? Hardly. If this was a real problem, presumably all of the inquiring minds out there would have been able to sift through all of the smikoing guns over the past 30 years.

    “This realization calls into question the very foundations of the AGW argument!”

    Okay, show me all of the scientists lining up to support Kossin. But anyway, explain to me again how you reach this conclusion? All this does is show how desperately you want not to accept the foundations of the AGW argument. I bet Roger could send you a few links that supports why HE accepts them, even while he can fairly criticize Kossin`s press release. A little perspective may be in order.