Ted Smayda was a 28-year-old assistant marine biologist, “just one of the rinky-dinks,” he says, when he first started gathering data on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay more than 50 years ago. Smayda chugged into the bay on the University of Rhode Island’s research boat, the Billie II, to a monitoring station near tiny Fox Island. There he collected water samples to measure levels of salt, nutrients, and plankton. He also measured the water’s temperature on the surface and at 5 and 10 meters deep. He kept up his weekly “Monday sample” for four decades, adding many more measurements over the years. His Phytoplankton Survey, as it came to be known, became one of the longest running and most valuable coastal data sets on phytoplankton growth conditions in the world.
From Smayda’s careful measurements eventually unspooled an unlikely climate change controversy involving a passionate Boston University ecologist, an outspoken US senator, and a prominent watchdog website. The controversy demonstrates how hard it can be to clearly communicate science to the public, especially when it involves a hot-button topic like climate change. Unpacking this episode offers a chance to examine how scientific data is collected and interpreted, and what can go wrong when the results go mainstream. It’s a story with no villains, but many lessons.
The senator and the scientist
From Ted Smayda’s first samples, fast-forward 50 years to April 9, 2013. On that day, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) stood on the Senate floor and presented a 15-minute speech on the perils of climate change. This was familiar territory for the senator, who delivers one of his “Time to Wake Up” speeches every single week. The weekly speeches are a high-stakes move in Congress, where climate change skeptics—most famously Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.)—argue that more environmental regulation will only hurt the US economy and put Americans out of work. Whitehouse stands clearly in opposition. The Huffington Post says that Whitehouse’s “ever-changing, ever-present floor speeches—warnings over rising sea levels, warmer oceans, eroding coastlines, and more—make him the Senate’s loudest, most persistent voice on the dangers of climate change.” They also make him a target for critics. Former Weather Channel meteorologist Herbert E. Stevens, for instance, writes frequent opinion pieces to the Providence Journal poking fun at “warmanistas” and picking apart Whitestone’s “misguided pronouncements.”
On this particular day, after sounding the alarm on rising sea levels and the dwindling winter flounder catch, Whitehouse offered a statistic that would spawn a controversy: “Narragansett Bay waters are getting warmer,” he said. “Four degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the winter since the 1960s.”
The number came from a 2009 study published in Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, citing temperature data collected between 1960 and 2006. The study was coauthored by Robinson W. (“Wally”) Fulweiler, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of earth and environment and of biology; the lead author was Scott Nixon, who had been Fulweiler’s thesis advisor. Fulweiler studies how nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus flow from land into coastal waters and how humans have changed that flux through agriculture and development. In her work she examines things like phytoplankton blooms and sediment chemistry. “We spend a lot of time with our head in the mud,” she says. That 2009 study focused on decreasing phytoplankton growth in Narragansett Bay during the winter, related to warmer water and cloudier skies. The study included a plot of Smayda’s temperature data.
A few weeks after the senator’s April 9 speech, PolitiFact Rhode Island, a partnership between the Journal and PolitiFact.com, evaluated Whitehouse’s claim. Politifact.com is an independent, Pulitzer prize–winning website that scrutinizes statements from politicians, advocacy groups, and other public figures and ranks them on its Truth-o-Meter somewhere between “true,” “false,” and the dreaded “pants on fire.” One of the Journal’s PolitiFact reporters, C. Eugene Emery, Jr., after examining and analyzing the temperature data himself and consulting with an ecologist not involved with the study, determined that the rise in temperature was closer to 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit. “This was off by enough that I had cause for concern,” he says. He drafted an analysis and three PolitiFact judges—all editors in the Journal newsroom—labeled the senator’s statement “half true,” which is defined on the PolitiFact website this way: “The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.” Emery’s accompanying article noted that “the trend is certainly correct, but Whitehouse is too far off the Truth-o-Meter to register true. It is, pardon the pun, a matter of degree.”
But the reporter’s conclusion was half-true as well. He had inadvertently analyzed a different set of data than that used in the 2009 report, coming up with a different number. While the reporter’s analysis wasn’t necessarily incorrect (more on that later), by comparing the apples and oranges of two different data sets, it unfairly tainted the senator—and by association, the scientists—as dissemblers.
After the “half-true” story came out, Wally Fulweiler, the scientist, and Seth Larson, Whitehouse’s communications director, both spoke with the reporter separately. “It was frustrating, because we, and the senator, felt like his speech had accurately represented the findings of the Nixon article,” says Larson. “We argued our case to PolitiFact, but they ultimately made their own decision.” Reporter Emery says he also reached out to the ecologist he had previously consulted, the one not involved with the study, to clarify additional details, but did not hear back. He did not change the story.
Nixon, the lead author on the 2009 study, had died in 2012, and Fulweiler felt personally responsible for clearing his name. Scientists stake their careers on data: collecting it carefully, analyzing it methodically, and taking pains to omit any personal bias. The “half-true” label not only stung, but threatened reputations. “Scott Nixon was this wonderful man, and he didn’t do bad science,” says Fulweiler. “I felt like the reporter was implying that we did, and that bothered me because Scott wasn’t here to defend himself.” Instead of fuming in silence or firing off an angry op-ed, Fulweiler chose to fight back with the best weapon she had: peer-reviewed science. She and her colleagues turned the episode into a case study in scientific communication, which they published online in Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science in February 2015.