Three Ways Fox News Misleads its Readers on Sea Level Rise

, climate scientist | December 20, 2017, 3:18 pm EST
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Last week I was quoted in a Fox News article with the headline of “‘Arbitrary’ adjustments exaggerate sea level rise, study finds.” Out of the dozens of news pieces I’ve contributed quotes to this year, this one stands out as one of the few–if not the only–written with a climate denial stance. I’ve asked myself “How did this happen?” when reading the news every day since November 2016, but the question became much more pointed when faced with an article with my name in it. So as we close out this year of wondering which social networks, media outlets, and leaders to believe, I want to highlight three ways that this particular Fox News piece misleads its audience on the science of sea level rise.

Fox asks us about sea level rise

First, a bit of backstory. Early last Tuesday morning, a reporter from Fox News contacted UCS  about a piece he was planning to write. The piece was to feature a new study about sea level rise published in the journal Earth Systems and Environment, and the reporter wanted to “get a general response from you as to whether you see the paper in question as credible and whether you think its claim that sea level rise has been exaggerated is plausible.” “The authors say [their results] call into question the broader claim that sea levels are rising rapidly,” he wrote.

Astrid Caldas and I both read the paper then decided I would respond within the reporter’s deadline in about 90 minutes. The email I sent to the reporter made four main points: 1. Sea level rise is extremely well-established; 2. One cannot use any one tide gauge record (or any one region) to infer a global trend; 3. It is difficult to determine long-term trends from tide gauges with large data gaps; 4. The paper in question had some telltale signs of a suspicious peer-review process.

The reporter clearly took this information with more than a few grains of salt.

Three ways this Fox story misleads its readers

    1. Writing a headline that contradicts well-established science.

We’re awash in news, so it’s no surprise that 60% of Americans report that–in the week surveyed–they had only read headlines, not any of the accompanying articles. Given that fact, it’s also not surprising that news outlets try to hook their readers with enticing, often exaggerated, headlines.

Fox’s headlines, however, have a tendency to exaggerate or cherry pick to the point of distortion, and this particular article is a good example. The headline implies that broader estimates of sea level rise have been exaggerated by ‘arbitrary’ adjustments. According to the reporter’s email, this is precisely the message the study’s authors were hoping to convey. 

So what are these “adjustments?” And are they “arbitrary?” The authors of this study are examining the raw data from three tide gauges in the Indian Ocean. The data from one in particular, at Aden, Yemen, spans over 100 years, but there are large gaps in the record. There’s no data for the years 1970 through 2010, for example. The measurements were stopped at various points in time, and when they were restarted, they were referenced to a different baseline. Because of this, the data need to be adjusted so that all of the different chunks of data are referenced to the same baseline. Far from being arbitrary, these adjustments are based an understanding of how the reference baselines have changed over time.

Were an already climate-skeptical reader to be headline surfing, however, this kind of headline would shore up his or her belief that climate scientists have been overly alarmist.

2. Cherry picking one study to make sweeping conclusions. 

As I made very clear in my email, it is inappropriate to draw conclusions about global sea level rise rates from a small handful of tide gauge records. It is well-established that sea level rise rates vary from region to region, the global trends that have been reported by meta analyses such as the IPCC and NCA reports reflect a global average. For example, if we used the sea level rise rates in Louisiana–which are heavily influenced by local sinking of the land–to infer global trends, we’d conclude that global sea level is rising at about three times its actual, observed rate.

So even if we take the results of the study at face value, the published results suggest that sea level rise has been overestimated at three tide gauges in the Indian Ocean out of hundreds worldwide. That hardly merits a sweeping generalization about global sea level rise rates.

 

Because rates of sea level rise vary considerably worldwide, one cannot infer global trends from just a few gauges.


Interestingly, the paper itself makes no claims that the underlying data should be used to infer a global trend. So where in the process the Fox reporter got that notion is unclear. But they clearly decided to run with it.

Even after the clickbait headline, the article’s first sentence–“A new study by Australian researchers says that data on how sea levels are rising, relied upon by the United Nations, was adjusted upward in “arbitrary” ways”–makes no mention of the limited scope of the study.

3. Turning valid discussions of credibility into a fight. 

When a scientific manuscript goes through the peer review process, reviewers are tasked with assessing scientific credibility as well as things like whether the manuscript is decently written, whether the conclusions are supported by the data, and whether the figures adequately convey the data.

Again setting the issue of credibility aside and taking the authors’ data at face value, there are hallmarks of a cursory-at-best peer review at work here:

      • The paper’s introduction section cites all eight of its figures. Usually figures, the charts and graphs that explain a paper’s data, calculations, and conclusions, are cited throughout a manuscript in such a way that the reader can follow the narrative from introductory material through methods, results, discussion, etc.
      • The figures contain series of data in different colors, but with incomplete labeling of what those colors represent.
      • Multiple instances of one-sentence paragraphs that read more like bullet lists.
      • Statements not backed up by evidence, such as “Contrary to what is claimed in PSMSL (2016), there is no reason to expect that Aden may have a strong correlation to Mumbai and Karachi. In addition, these other two tide gauges also suffered of arbitrary corrections Parker and Ollier (2015) and Parker (2016).” (Note also the references to the authors’ previous studies–no external validators there.)
      • The study was published one month after being received by the journal. While the time between first submitting a manuscript and having it published varies widely from journal to journal and from manuscript to manuscript, a recent review of of how long the entire process took for thousands of articles in the PubMed database as well as in the journals Nature and PLOS-ONE suggests that just over three months is typical for PubMed articles while articles in Nature and PLOS-ONE take more like four to five months. I recently waited nearly 6 months just for a round of peer-review at PLOS-ONE. So one month from submission to publication is an extremely short period of time in which to solicit, receive, review, and respond to comments from careful scientific reviewers. 

Do any of those things disqualify the data? No. But they should all raise red flags during the peer-review process. The fact that they didn’t makes me wonder how rigorous the review process was. With these glaring peculiarities, questioning the quality of the peer-review process is a valid thing to do, particularly when a reporter asks you to weigh in on the credibility of the study. But Fox took my questions about the credibility and said I was being “critical of the study for citing too few locations and for being published in a low-tier journal.”

To be clear, I never claimed that the article was in a “low-tier journal.” Fox quotes the lead author as saying “‘This specific journal is new but well above average,’ said Albert Parker, one of the co-authors – a retired scientist and former automotive engineer who has written many papers on sea levels and also goes by the name Alberto Boretti.” There is nothing wrong with publishing in a new journal–my colleagues and I did so earlier this year, in fact. When a journal has published fewer than 30 articles, however, as this journal has, it is impossible to say whether it is “well above average” or not. All of this serves to turn valid questions of credibility into a fight, which detracts from the issue that this study cannot be used to infer global sea level rise rates. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of scientific papers over the last 15 years, and this one was odd.

We are what we consume

A 2014 study looking at media exaggeration of findings in the health sciences suggests that “the cumulative effect of everyday misreporting can confuse and erode public trust in science and medicine, with detrimental consequences.” In other words, articles that spread misinformation do a disservice to all of us. And while we like to pin the blame for our country’s polarization on social media, recent studies indicate that polarization is most prominent among groups least likely to use social media. Rather, the information we consume via major media networks has been put forth as one of the primary drivers of polarization.

At a time when we as a nation desperately need to galvanize our efforts to address the impending impacts of sea level rise on our coasts, surveys show that since the 2016 election, acceptance of the basic facts that climate change is happening and that humans are the predominant cause of that change has declined among registered Republicans.

Yet Fox’s opinion pages are hotbeds of climate denial. While the network also picks up a good number of scientifically sound pieces from the AP and Live Science, Fox also peddles content rife with climate denial–like the piece I’m quoted in–that glosses over scientific reality to achieve the headlines they’re looking for. The network can better serve its readers and viewers with information based on sound science that communicates the need for proactive climate solutions.

Oh, and were any readers trying to access the original paper from the Fox News article, good luck…the link is broken.

Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL)

Posted in: Global Warming, Science Communication Tags: ,

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  • Robert Golden

    If oceans absorb 90% of the earth’s, excess heat, and heat causes water to rise, shouldn’t sea level be rising in general, except for certain circumstances?

    • Digital

      …”heat causes it to expand, thus rise in relation to the sea-bed containing it”

      • Robert Golden

        Thanks!

    • Kristina Dahl

      Yes, Robert, you’re right that, in general, sea level should be rising due to ocean warming. But that warming isn’t taking place uniformly in the oceans, so there are differences due to that. And other local factors such as tectonic uplift or isostatic rebound (the springing up of the land after it was depressed by, say, a large ice sheet) can cause sea level to fall locally.

  • Vexed Reprobate

    Noice