Earlier this week the Old Farmer’s Almanac came out with its prediction that the United States will have a colder than average winter this year. An Associated Press article by Russell Contreras is the version of the news that most people will read about this annual rite of fall, mainly because for most non-business, non-local news nowadays, virtually all small-town and many big city media republish the Associated Press version of this type of feature story.
And if all the websites and newspapers that used the AP version of this story included the headline, as Yahoo did, then they have perpetrated what amounts to a hoax.
The story itself is quite well done. Contreras contrasts the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction of a colder than usual winter with two other predictions: 1) the Farmer’s Almanac, which predicts a much gentler winter than last year; and 2) the National Weather Service, which predicts a warmer than normal winter in some parts of the country and a colder than normal winter in other parts of the country. The story also discusses the rivalry between the two almanacs.
The headline: “Old Farmer’s Almanac: Global cooling to continue.”
This headline is misleading in so many ways that it turns a fine feature story into a piece of propaganda for global warming deniers. Let’s start with the obvious:
- The story concerns predictions of weather in the United States only, whereas global weather patterns take into account the entire Earth.
- The story talks about predictions of a one season’s worth of weather, which as has been discussed before in OpEdge, is subject to a number of local factors. You can’t judge global weather trends by analyzing one year, or even one decade. You have to take a look at long-term trends over many decades, which once done, reveals that our planet has been getting consistently warmer for almost 200 years. It’s like saying that Reggie Jackson or Babe Ruth were bad ballplayers because they suffered a week-long slump. Or using the bad acts of one paroled criminal to condemn a highly successful parole program, as Bush I did in his infamous “Willie Horton” ads during the 1988 presidential elections. The propaganda technique is called “argument by anecdote,” and it’s one of the most powerful tools of propagandists because people tend to latch onto stories more readily than statistics.
- Of the three “expert” sources discussed in the article, only the one featured in the headline has predicted a colder winter than normal.
- The words of the headline, “global cooling will continue,” assumes that there has been global cooling, a view shared by less than a handful of scientists and based on an analysis of short-term and medium-term trends related to a reoccurring cycle in the activity of the sun. What that means is that solar activity may make things cooler or warmer for a few decades and thereby act temporarily against a long-term trend on Earth.
The pernicious impact of this headline derives mostly from the way in which people read the news. Most people skim stories, going from headline to headline until they find something of interest, and then perusing the first few paragraphs of some stories and very infrequently reading the entire story.
In other words, for most people, the headline is all they will read. And the headline “Global cooling to continue” is a distortion not only of the story that follows, but of what the preponderance of scientific evidence and climate experts say is actually happening.
Unless perceptive editors substitute a headline that would be both more truthful and more accurate to the story, it’s this distortion that most people will see. We know that Yahoo!’s editors just ran with it. Let’s hope others showed higher journalistic standards.
By the way, I found 379 stories on Google news about the Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions for this winter in the United States, and all the ones I checked out either repeated the AP story and headline, or were based on the inaccurate headline and not the story itself.
Before I close, I want to exonerate Contreras from his role in communicating this “big lie.” I am assuming that like most newspapers, a special headline writer and not the story writer composes headlines at AP. The theory has always been that writing headlines is a specialized skill that many fine writers don’t have. It’s therefore likely that Contreras submitted his interesting story and a headline writer and the editors turned it into a misleading propaganda piece. If I were Contreras I would be completely pissed off to see my work distorted.