The Hottest Yeah Evah! Really?

Or a yet another example of activism masquerading as science?

By William M Briggs Published on January 19, 2017

Assume for a moment, as the press with triumphant glee is reporting, that 2016 was the hottest year evah! Believe the claim for the sake of argument. Swallow the idea, for at least the next minute, that the media and government really do have your best interests at heart and are reporting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the world’s temperature.

How much hotter than previous years was 2016? Bare your wrist and blow a huh on it from about half a foot away. Don’t blow—stay with me here: this is a genuine scientific experiment — but utter a soft ugh so that your breath wafts over your wrist gently. Feel that increase in heat? Well, that boost to your skin was much hotter than the increase supposed to have happened to the atmosphere in 2016.

Here’s a better experiment. You are likely reading this article sitting down. Sense the temperature around your face: it might help to think about your cheeks. Now stand up. Take a second mental reading. Feel the difference? That same tenth or so change in degree, which was probably imperceptible to you, is about the same as the change in temperature scientists say they measured over the entire globe, including over the salty seas from last year to this.

Yes. Climatologists gathered measurements from buoys at sea, from thousands of thermometers at airports and other locations, from balloons, even, and then took their average — sort of. That number was then declared as the Official Temperature of Earth for 2016.

The “sort of” is important. Because the places and methods of measurement used in 2016 were not exactly the same as those used in 2015; and those used in 2015 were not the same as those used in 2014; and so on. And those used in, for instance, 1914 are completely different than in 2014. A century ago, mercury-in-glass thermometers were in a different class than the digital complexities in use today. Too, 100 years ago the places of measurement were few in number. Vast areas of the globe went unmeasured. And at places which were the same, well, thermometers out in the woods in 1914 now have a cities grown up around them. Even in modern times, thermometers break and are serviced. Buoys corrode. And so on. Things change.

And then we have to consider the devices used to measure temperature are imperfect. They are only accurate to, say, a tenth of a degree; and this plus-or-minus uncertainty varies from instrument to instrument, and even at the same instrument from year to year (consider how efficient your joints are as you age). The accuracy of thermometers even fifty years ago was not the same as it is today. Shipboard measurements 100 years ago were of an entirely different nature than now.

What is it that we are comparing year to year? The answer to this most important question is: we are comparing the results from statistical models.

So if the way of measurement changed from year to year, and often times the places of measurement changed from year to year, and the accuracies change from year to year, and therefore the average compiled each year is not the same average, what is it that we are comparing year to year? The answer to this most important question is: we are comparing the results from statistical models.

At this point — and this is what the media and activists rely on — eyes begin to glaze over. Interest wanes. The details are too many to keep in mind, and the procedures scientists use become complex and murky. Everybody (usually rightly) hates statistics, so it’s much easier to just assume the headlines are right.

The headlines are not right. We do not know, with anything approaching certainty, what the exact temperature averaged over the globe was last year. Not to a tenth of a degree.

The headlines are not right. We do not know, with anything approaching certainty, what the exact temperature averaged over the globe was last year. Not to a tenth of a degree. We do know what the average was using the ways and places of measurement from 2016. It is extrapolating this handful of measurements to represent the globe as a whole that is difficult and uncertain. And since these ways and places were not the same in 2015 as they were in 2016, the certainty we have in comparing year to year is nowhere near enough to state authoritatively and with complete certainty that temperatures have increased.

Uncertainty in temperatures, as you can now see, was much greater a century ago. Thus, comparing 2016 to 1916 is not simple: it is nowhere near simple. The plus-or-minus uncertainty in any change from 1916 to 2016 is great, even greater than the majority of climatologists realize (for those in the know: climatologists report on the statistical models’ parametric uncertainty, when they should be using the much larger predictive uncertainty).

And if the uncertainty in reporting change from 1916 to 2016 is greater than thought, the change from, say, 1516 (where we have to rely on proxies and not direct measurement) or 516 to 2016 must be much larger still.

Thus to claim, with the brute simplicity of the media and bureaucracy, that 2016 was the hottest year evah! is misleading and dishonest. It is also bad science. The headlines led atmospheric scientist Richard Linden, late of MIT, and a man who knows more about the atmosphere than any activist, to say, “The hysteria over this issue is truly bizarre.” Surely he’s right.

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