Caution: Pretty Pictures Can Fool You

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen



In today’s digital and Internet-of-Things  world, it is easy to transform information into images — graphs, charts and other visuals that are colorful and informative.  Modern math and statistical software packages can do it all for you with a few clicks of your mouse or taps on the screen.  These visuals can be very powerful in conveying your message to the public.  That’s on the upside.

On the downside is the fact that  these visuals can be very powerful in driving false or misleading messages into  the public consciousness.

These all-too-easy-to-create visuals are “a Blessing and a Curse”.

We have seen this in the last few days with the scandal of the Twit-o-verse banging on about fires in the Amazon promulgating photos that are more than a decade old (not of this time) or even  of some other place.   One of the results of the twitter-storm has been a special meeting at the G7 about Brazil’s fires and shock at the fact that the U.S.  President didn’t attend that meeting.  In the case of the fires in Brazil, it turns out that the numbers have become more important, in the public mind, than the what.

From my comment to Les Johnson’s  “Amazon Fires are in…the Amazon”:

“Take a look at the Forest Fires Map at Global Forest Watch.

“Like the NY Times piece , mentioned above, the map makes it looks like whole countries are on fire. This is an artifact of the size of the dots marking fires. ZOOM IN ON BRAZIL. Zoom in until you can see the Federal District of Brasilia clearly. See how the fires clump together in agricultural areas — sometimes, close enough, you can see that it is a series of [burning] local fields or pastures that [it] records [as] fires.”

“Now, zoom out and find the Dominican Republic — the island of Hispaniola — just to the west of Puerto Rico. Looks awful doesn’t it, island on fire. Zoom in and in and in and you will find that it is not prime cane harvest yet, only a few cane fields burning — all set intentionally as a necessary part of the cane harvest. Some may be rice paddies — where the rice stubble is burnt off after the harvest of the rice and rice straw.”

“My point here is all these alarming stories require local knowledge and local ground truthing….” “.


I recently saw an article in some news outlet (memory fails me…) that led me to chase up a graphic used — about the number of natural disasters.  This is the graphic:


The image comes from a site called Our World In Data.   They announce themselves as having  “Research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems. Scroll to all research.  2989 charts across 297 topics.  All free: open access and open source.”   The Our World In Data web site tells us that they are based at Oxford and are trusted in research and media and used in teaching.

Yet, there is something that does not seem right in that “Number of reported natural disasters” graphic.  And there is something that is a clue (and thus its saving grace…).  It is the word “reported”.   The second clue is the gray text at the bottom giving the source of the data as EMDAT.

Trust me, I checked up on them.  First to see who Our World In Data was, with the results above, and then checked out who EMDAT is.

Our  first question is:  Who supplied the data?   Answer:  EMDAT or, more completely, Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters – CRED   School of Public Health at the Université catholique de Louvain (and in their native tongue:  Centre de Recherche sur L’Epidemiologie des Désastres Institut de Recherche Santé et Société).   They research and maintain databases about Emergencies and Disasters around the world.  They are respectable and respected.

Then I checked the data itself —  I wrote to EMDAT:

[After introducing myself and under a copy of the bar graph of Reported Natural Disasters above]

“The data shown does not align well with my understanding of Global Natural Disasters, in that it shows a HUGE increase from 1970 to about 1998.  My guess would be that 1970 to 1998 represents an increase in REPORTING and not in actual Natural Disasters. 

Can you confirm this please — or correct me if I am wrong”.

I received a pleasant reply, albeit nearly a month later, as follows:

“Thank for your e-mail.  You are right, it is an increase in the reporting.  I share your e-mail with your director, Prof. D. Guha-Sapir, who may want to add her input.”

(this reply is from the database manager at EMDAT)

our_world_bragThe importance of checking the data becomes shockingly clear.   EMDAT data and Our World In Data visuals are used — and reportedly trusted — by major media outlets — as shown in this graphic at Our World in Data  — New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNN, PNAS, The Guardian, Science, BBC, Nature, and more ….. you see the depth of their penetration into the media and journals.   When these outlets use Our World in Data graphics, or re-use the data underlying the graphics, it may well be that the journalists don’t check the data itself.

The result is that when a news organization Googles “natural disasters world”  it gets the image below:


There we see it again.  Huge rise in natural disaster since the 1970s to the turn of the century — and it is an entirely a false impression.  The Google search makes it  look like the data is from the World Health Organization — and who would doubt them?   Of course, the actual data is correct — in its own way — those are the numbers of reported natural disasters and everything before the 1998 or so was due to spotty, incomplete reporting and the rise is solely an increase in the reporting.”

Once reporting infrastructure was set up properly by the late 1990s, we see the opposite —  a decline in reported natural disasters.

Readers are urged to guess how many journalists will have taken time and made the effort to check the data purported to come from the World Health Organization?

Just one more:


Geography of loss—a global look at the uneven toll of suicide by Meagan Weiland and  Nirja Desai (Aug. 23, 2019).  “This paper is part of Science’s special series on unraveling suicide.”

How much trust should we invest in the data on the graphic?  Is it factual that suicide rates are plummeting in China and Greenland and India, and rising in the US and Argentina?

We needn’t look too far — starting with the graphic first:

“Mauritius:  …is the only sub-Saharan country the that consistently records and reports suicide rates. “   (emphasis mine — kh)

“India:   even though its overall suicide rate has decreased, India accounts for more than 35% of female suicide deaths worldwide.”

“Greenland:  Although Greenland’s rate has declined dramatically,  it remains the highest in the world”.

Now, does anyone think that countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which current has a raging ebola epidemic,  are carefully recording each death of their citizens with ICD-10 (cause of death) codes for each death?  And then reporting them to some international record-keeping organization? What about Venezuela?  — which is currently in total political and social disarray?  Ridiculous ideas, of course they are not recording  and reporting suicide deaths because they cannot.

From the paper:

“Suicide is a worldwide problem, but its effects are uneven. Although suicide rates—all rates noted here are annual deaths per 100,000 people—are rising in some countries, including the United States, most countries are seeing declines, for reasons that include restrictions on access to lethal means and improved mental health care. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most countries do not collect detailed data on suicide; data for many countries here were drawn from rates estimated by organizations such as WHO and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease project.

Only the more modern countries, with functional national health organizations and modern hospitals backed by medical bureaucracies,  can even hope to accurately record and report suicides.  In many nations, suicide is stigmatic, and coroners and other medical professionals have often erred on the side of compassion (for the families) and recorded suicides as “natural death” or “heart attack” — anything but suicide.  As reported in this paper “Comparative Analysis of Suicide, Accidental, and Undetermined Cause of Death Classification” —  It is likely that suicide may be under reported due to both the social stigma associated with suicide as well as the reluctance of a medical examiner or coroner to make this classification if supporting data are uncertain (Timmermans, 2005).”

So, what of the suicide rate map from SCIENCE magazine and the Weiland and Desai paper?  It appears most countries should have simply been marked “Not Enough Data”. No mention is made of any confounding factors such as “improved reporting” in the United States and other western countries.  Guesses are not appropriate for the purpose of guiding International Policy decisions.

The effort put into the graphic for Science has possibly been wasted as it only serves to misinform readers about the rates of suicide in the various nations.

Bottom Lines:

1.  Pretty graphics and fancy images do not mean that information/data is correct or dependable.  They may not convey a factual visual impression of the data.

2.  Just because a fancy image or graph comes attached to the name of a respectable organization is no reason to accept the data as it has been presented to you.  If it is important to you — check it.

3.  Pretty graphics can easily overcome or slip past readers’ critical thinking skills and thus misinform them.

4.  For my money?  The prettier the picture, the closer I look at the underlying data.

# # # # #

Author’s Comment Policy:

It is not my intention to disparage any of the organizations mentioned in this essay.  EMDAT particularly has been civil and co-operative in sharing the facts about the reporting of natural disasters to their database and graphics others have made from it.

We see in the suicide paper how easily researchers can be fooled into accepting data that is not reliable in any scientific sense.  How do WHO and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease project estimate suicide rates in countries that don’t even record cause of death?

However, I have worked with the World Health Organization and its regional Pan American Health Organization and out there, on the ground,  where poverty and despair rule, they have dedicated people and they do great work!

As the news media spins further and further out of control, abandoning real journalism (often out of [seeming] necessity — there are too many stories and so few journalists and so little time in the 24-hour news race) and social media twists and transmogrifies every bit of news into some surreal monster, news consumers (you and I, dear reader) must supercharge our critical thinking skills and fact-checking routines.

Share your experiences and your best tips for ensuring that “we don’t get fooled again”.

# # # # #

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August 27, 2019 6:20 am


Terrific article and great sleuthing.

Every day’s a school-day on WUWT as far as I’m concerned.

The work all you guys contribute is much appreciated and applauded.

Reply to  HotScot
August 27, 2019 7:40 am

Hot Scot ==> Thank you — nice to be appreciated.

Question: What kind of “hot” are you? Hot under the collar? Hot as in a real ‘hottie”? And, are you a Scot, as from Scotland?

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 8:30 am


The name HotScot (engineering) was taken from the name of a company in Scotland that belonged to my friends Dad before he closed it many years ago.

I used it as the name for a business I set up which didn’t germinate so I just kept the email address which gets blokes worked up because they jump to the wrong conclusion (RedHotScot).

And as a 6’2″ former Rugby playing policeman in Glasgow during the 70’s & 80’s, yes I’m from Scotland, and in my day some women considered me a bit of a ‘hottie’ although probably not so much now. 🙂

But it is a laugh watching some guys on line tying themselves in knots trying to figure it all out. LOL.

Mark Broderick
August 27, 2019 6:33 am

Kip Hansen

““Mauritius: …is the only sub-Saharan country the that consistently records and reports suicide rates. “ (emphasis mine — kh)

Reply to  Mark Broderick
August 27, 2019 7:39 am

Mark ==> Quite right — thank you for reading closely!

Ken Irwin
August 27, 2019 6:33 am

My own rules
Rule #1 – The scarier a statistic looks – the greater the likelihood that its been misrepresented or is outright falsified alarmism. Time to seek more information.

Rule #2 – Never react to, retweet, forward or disseminate any story or statistic without checking facts and alternate opinions – saves on making as ass of yourself.

Rule #3 – There are two sides to every story.

Reply to  Ken Irwin
August 27, 2019 7:34 am

Rule 4: If it’s in the Guardian it’s almost certainly false.

Reply to  Graemethecat
August 27, 2019 7:42 am

Ken and Graem ==> Look like good rules to me….

Reply to  Graemethecat
August 27, 2019 8:50 am

Rule 5: If they don’t report where they got their data, ignore it.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Graemethecat
August 28, 2019 6:58 am

Rule 5:

Any attempt at reporting accurate “suicide rates” for specific countries, states or whatever, ….. is akin to an attempt at reporting accurate “fornication rates” for specific countries, states or whatever.

Most fornicators won’t plead guilty, even if accused, ……. and dead people ain’t talking, period.

Reply to  Ken Irwin
August 27, 2019 7:44 am

Loydo puts up some of the funniest most distorted graphs I have ever seen because he does none of those things. On the plus side they are amusing and you do get a good laugh.

A A Ron
Reply to  Ken Irwin
August 27, 2019 12:49 pm

Rule #4 Sometimes there are even 3 or 4 sides to a story. Investigate thoroughly and run a frenzy filter or two on any breaking stories you hear.

Roger Knights
Reply to  Ken Irwin
August 28, 2019 6:58 am

“Rule #3 – There are two sides to every story.”

At least.

Roger Knights
Reply to  Ken Irwin
August 28, 2019 7:13 am

“The scarier a statistic looks – the greater the likelihood that its been misrepresented or is outright falsified alarmism.”

I’ve read that “advocacy research” exaggerates by a factor of five, based on an analysis of a half-dozen instances.

Al Miller
August 27, 2019 6:33 am

Wow, it’s enough to make you doubt the “authority’s” sincerity – or integrity.

Reply to  Al Miller
August 27, 2019 7:45 am

Al ==> I don’t know….to me it seems that people (journalists, scientists, big data fans) are just careless. Their carelessness puts all of us at risk of being misinformed about the world around us.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 9:47 am

Kip, Perhaps you are being to generous. Carelessness that seems to have a distinct bias IMHO is intentional carelessness…which isn’t carelessness at all.

Misleading graphs are merely another indication of statistical abuse.
“Some individuals use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp-posts — for support rather than for illumination.” – Andrew Lang

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Rocketscientist
August 28, 2019 6:31 am

“Kip, Perhaps you are being to generous. Carelessness that seems to have a distinct bias IMHO is intentional carelessness…which isn’t carelessness at all.”

Exactly. I’ve heard people say that Mann didn’t know statistics very well, that’s why he ended up with a hockey stick. When the exact opposite is true. It’s VERY clear he knew stats well enough to fudge the numbers, and make one proxy outweigh, by hundreds of times, all the others. Then he deliberately tried to hide what he did, and still refuses to acknowledge it.

Mark Broderick
August 27, 2019 6:39 am

Great post Kip, thanks….

Reply to  Mark Broderick
August 27, 2019 7:46 am

Mark ==> Thanks ….

François Riverin
August 27, 2019 7:24 am

Fantastic! I am a former journalist. I greatly appreciate your rigorous analyses. T’habiller you.

Reply to  François Riverin
August 27, 2019 7:54 am

François ==> Thank you — I’ve spent five minutes trying to find a translation for the colloquial French “T’habiller you.”

My editor (Ivy League degrees in both English and French) guesses: “Hat’s Off to You”

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 3:10 pm

Kip. I think “T’habiller you” was just the dreaded autocorrect striking again! (I speak French.) It happens to me all the time, especially when jumping between languages. Or were you just having a joke and I’m too po-faced to get it? 😉

Reply to  RobH
August 27, 2019 4:17 pm

Rob ==> I am suspecting that maybe it is a Quebecois phrase…?

HD Hoese
August 27, 2019 7:31 am

Statistically challenged types might be shocked to see how much is ‘control’ burned in the US. Wildlife refuges, sugar cane fields, Louisiana brackish marshes, the latter when the wind blows offshore (I have an early satellite photo showing smoke streams blowing out over the Gulf of Mexico), fields burned in Mexico producing haze in Texas, etc.

“Burning Simulations” might make a good title for a song.

Reply to  HD Hoese
August 27, 2019 7:56 am

HD Hoese ==> Do they still burn cane fields in Louisiana?

Reply to  HD Hoese
August 27, 2019 9:00 am

Farmers in England are lobbying to return the practice of stubble burning, a very effective method to control weeds and banned in 1993.

Curious George
August 27, 2019 7:37 am

Celebrities get fact-checked after sharing fake photos of Amazon rainforest fire:

Reply to  Curious George
August 27, 2019 7:59 am

Curious ==> Thanks for the link — great coverage from the Washington Times!

Curious George
Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 8:21 am

Maybe after the Notre Dam fire, French are extremely allergic to all fires.

Political Junkie
August 27, 2019 7:37 am


“The world already is nearly five times as dangerous and disaster prone as it was in the 1970s, because of the increasing risks from climate change.” This outrageous claim appeared in a February 18, 2019, Toronto Star article entitled “A carbon tax will save jobs — and lives” by Nate Laurie. This claim can be traced directly to a reporter’s error and has absolutely zero real-world significance.

The claim is a verbatim quote from the Guardian report by Suzanne Goldenberg. She wrongly took EMDAT’s report of increasing number of incidents to directly represent actual damage – just as pointed out in your post.

When I complained to the Star they flat out lied about having “alternate sources” to back up the story. Of course they could not produce these.

To further underscore the abysmal state of Canadian climate reporting the National NewsMedia Council (Canada’s guardian of journalistic integrity) fully backed the Star’s right to mislead the public. Sad.

Reply to  Political Junkie
August 27, 2019 8:04 am

Political Junkie ==> Thanks for sharing that news item. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

August 27, 2019 7:38 am

I once asked an older colleague, who had been around a lot, if he thought suicides decreased in time of war. His response was: “There are plentiful ways to die.”

Looking at suicide rates on a national level can be unenlightening. In Canada the suicide among the aboriginal people is through the roof. In America, the group suffering the most is undereducated middle aged white folks.

Robert B
Reply to  commieBob
August 27, 2019 4:44 pm

Categorisation of overdose deaths might be the difference between rising and falling rates. Suicide or mis adventure would be a 50:50 guess in many cases.

Reply to  Robert B
August 27, 2019 6:05 pm

In December 2015, TalkingPointsMemo wrote about a study that compared the health outcomes of white middle aged Americans with other demographic groups.

According to Case and Deaton’s study, the reversal in the overall mortality trend is driven by three causes: drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver disease. In other words, either literal suicide or the slow motion suicide of chronic substance abuse. link

When you think about it like that, the suicide rate among middle aged white Americans is rather high.

Reply to  Robert B
August 28, 2019 8:12 am

Robert ==> I have been following the “opioid crisis” and resultant deaths — and yes, I think hidden in that number are a great many suicides being ruled or recorded as “opioid overdose” . I believe it is literally impossible to discern between accidental overdose and intentional overdose.

There are quite a few deaths by unintentional fentanyl poisoning — where cheap-to-produce fen has been used to improve the kick of expensive heroin.

A large percentage of heroin users are “suicidal” — using heroin is death.

August 27, 2019 7:46 am
Reply to  joe
August 27, 2019 9:45 am

That was required reading in the statistics class I took in college.

Political Junkie
August 27, 2019 8:04 am


“The world already is nearly five times as dangerous and disaster prone as it was in the 1970s, because of the increasing risks from climate change.” This outrageous claim appeared in a February 18, 2019, Toronto Star article entitled “A carbon tax will save jobs — and lives” by Nate Laurie. This claim is a direct quote from the Guardian. It can be traced directly to a reporter’s error and has absolutely zero real-world significance.

Exactly as pointed out in your post, Suzanne Goldenberg mistakenly equated the increasing number of mainly small events reported by EMDAT to mean that the impact of disasters had increased.

I complained to the Star explaining the error. Rather than printing a correction they claimed to have “alternate sources” to back up the story. These they were subsequently unable to produce.

The guardians of Canada’s journalistic integrity, the National NewsMedia Council, supported the Star to the hilt. Sad.

Political Junkie
August 27, 2019 8:06 am

Sorry about the duplicate post.

I thought the bad word “lie” had trapped me in moderation!

August 27, 2019 8:16 am

This reminds of another factoid I often see, that I wish I had more time to research. I wonder how they come up with the amount of greenhouse gases per country. I would think that would be practically impossible to accurately measure. I suspect they are really using the amount of fossil fuels consumed

August 27, 2019 8:18 am

It could actually be used as a proxy for “increased reporting efficiency due to media coverage expansion” to adjust older data, something similar to that done with temp data.

James Clarke
August 27, 2019 8:33 am

Excellent post, Kip. Excellent!

Reply to  James Clarke
August 27, 2019 10:20 am

James ==> Thank you,sir!

August 27, 2019 8:37 am

“Just because a fancy image or graph comes attached to the name of a respectable organization is no reason to accept the data as it has been presented to you. If it is important to you — check it.”

So the next there’s a pretty graph showing global temp anomalies prior to the 1950s pull back the curtain and see how many places in the southern hemisphere actually recorded temps during that 70-year period (1880-1950). It’s only about 20 more than the 10 shown in this graphic, and those 20+ were mostly concentrated in SE Australia. Consequently, virtually all temperature data for (at least) half of the earth at that time is fake, computer-generated data.

comment image

Reply to  icisil
August 27, 2019 10:25 am

Left off a word – “So the next time”

Reply to  icisil
August 27, 2019 10:27 am

icisil ==> Thanks for the links — there are a lot of problems with early surface temperature.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 28, 2019 6:37 am

There are problems with EVERY surface temperature set that offers you a single line for “global temperature” or “global anomaly”.

Natalie Gordon
August 27, 2019 8:44 am

A simple and straightforward case of ascertainment bias being passed off as an increase in frequency by the ignorant and innumerate. It can be difficult to differentiate the two. This is a real problem with most journalists who are almost uniformly innumerate. Innumeracy among journalists is also a partial explanation for why they are so gullible when it comes to climate change alarmism.

Reply to  Natalie Gordon
August 27, 2019 10:32 am

Natalie Gordon ==> That interesting about journalists — is there a study or other more information on the numeracy of journalists in general? Or is this personal experience?

Thanks for your input — it certainly true that a majority of Americans are functionally innumerate about everything except elementary school arithmetic.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 1:31 pm

My experience it most people may be able to demonstrate an understanding of elementary school arithmetic when presented with a simple equation, yet they completely lack any ability to formulate even a simple equation when presented with a real world example of a “word problem”. Given this inability they shun professions where it is required.

Nowhere in the real world does nature present you with a prepackaged formulated equation.

Natalie Gordon
Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 2:46 pm

Kind of both. I did an informal survey of the math requirements for journalism schools a few years ago after a particularly frustrating interaction trying to explain prenatal diagnosis to a reporter and the requirement is nonexistent. I could not find a single school of journalism with curricula published on line that had any math or stats requirement except for a couple of places like University of Arizona which has a special math-free course on doing Science Journalism. It’s also personal experience. Because we were dealing with journalists due to public interest in our research work, we had to have interviews and write summaries “for the lay people”. I was frequently astonished by the innumeracy of the reporters I met, often worse than even most members of the general public. Rule number one of “for the lay people” summary was to never ever use any numbers. Instead you have to use phrases like “the chance of it happening are about the same as flipping a coin.” Even in science students tend to self sort in the first year into biological sciences which require very little math, (an introductory stats course, calculus course, maybe one or two other courses in introductory matrices and vector spaces) versus the hard sciences like physics. And where do most “environmental sciences” people come from? Biology. It’s a case of the extremely short sighted one eyed environmental scientist leading the blind journalists. Some of the worst offenders I have encountered in the torture of computer models have no idea they doing something wrong when they keep adjusting the parameters of their program until they get the answer they know is right with a P value they want. “I had to do this twenty times before I finally got a significant p=0.05!”

Reply to  Natalie Gordon
August 27, 2019 3:20 pm

Natalie ==> Thanks for the thorough explanation. Appreciated.

August 27, 2019 9:00 am

Am I missing something? The chart appears to show a declining trend in natural disasters.

Reply to  Mohatdebos
August 27, 2019 10:34 am

Mohatdebos ==> The left side of the chart shows a huge increase 1970 (start of chart) to about 1998-2000.

That part of the graph is acknowledged by EMDAT to be “an increase in reporting” not an increase in natural disasters.

August 27, 2019 9:12 am

You get what you pay for too.

August 27, 2019 9:20 am

When I was growing up in rural India in the 50’s and 60’s, embarassing deaths were reported to the District Commissioner as ‘snake bite’. This included things like a man bashing his wife a bit too hard and a death in a fight. I suspect that suicides were also reported this way if an investigation of circumstances could be embarassing. In 15 years in India, my parents only knew of 1 confirmed case of snakebite, although you could estimate cobra bites if you knew how many had had amputations of a limb – about 3/4 cobra bites result in amputation rather than death (from what I was told).

Reply to  Fran
August 27, 2019 10:36 am

Fran ==> Thanks for the personal history story — long standing past practice in the US to avoid declaring suicide if at all possible —

Roger Knights
Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 28, 2019 7:19 am

“long standing past practice in the US to avoid declaring suicide if at all possible ”

A case where a doctor refused to go along with that practice, annoying a local bigshot, was the theme of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Sammara (Samara?).

Roger Knights
Reply to  Fran
August 28, 2019 7:24 am

“about 3/4 cobra bites result in amputation rather than death”

That reminds me of a joke (probably untrue, possibly feminist inspired), but sort of true in spirit and therefore funny: 90% of rattlesnake bites received by women are below the knee, and 90% of men’s are below the elbow.

Robert of Texas
August 27, 2019 9:38 am

It isn’t so much a problem with data, but a problem with badly trained “professionals” whose agendas are more important then accuracy. I refuse to call these people “scientists”.

Whatever happened to trying to find problems with one’s own pet theory BEFORE publishing a result? Seems only the hard sciences and mathematics do this anymore, and then not always. Better then the soft sciences where it seems to never happen.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Robert of Texas
August 28, 2019 6:41 am

“more important then accuracy”


August 27, 2019 11:15 am

The natural disaster data are clearly contaminated by a reporting bias… or a changing definition of the word “disaster” bias…

Average Number of Disasters per Year
Earthquake Volcanic activity
1900-1975                  4.5                       1.4
1976-2018                24.4                       4.7
Multiple                      5                           3

The frequencies of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions haven’t quintupled and tripled, respectively, since 1975.

Reply to  David Middleton
August 27, 2019 12:07 pm

David ==> yes, exactly right — that’s what this essay is about…..

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 12:59 pm

Last November, I started to dig into the EM-DAT database because an article cited it as a source for increasing volcanic and earthquake activities. I wanted to try to correlate it with USGS Earthquake Hazards Program and the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program… But it was during the government shutdown. I set it aside and never got back to it.

Reply to  David Middleton
August 27, 2019 1:15 pm

David ==> So are those your now-updated figures?

I think we would find that the 1900-1975 data is all “under-reported” and does not represent actual numbers of volcanic eruptions or earthquakes — only REPORTED such. The same phenomenon as for Natural Disasters.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 2:12 pm

Those are from the EM-DAT database, linked to by Our World in Data.

The apparent increase in EF0 and EF1 tornadoes over the past few decades was due to improvements in radar detection, particularly Doppler. There really hasn’t been a similar “seismic” shift in our ability to detect earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, although satellites certainly help with remote volcanoes.

I think there are several things going on here. EM-DAT tabulates earthquake and volcanic “disasters,” not just the numbers of events. Since the death rates due to these geophysical hazards hazards have been declining, they have to be using a economic threshold for what qualifies as a disaster. While I agree that some of this is due to increased reporting, and some is due to improvements in detection technology, some, if not most, of it has to be due to the increase in value of property being damaged. We have the same phenomenon with hurricanes… As beachfront property increases in value and more of it is developed, the economic damages go up, even without an increase in disaster frequency or severity.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 3:27 pm

David ==> Didn’t now we were talking tornadoes — of course, it is well known that the weaker tornado counts are an artifact of new radar techniques. A lot of the disaster data is based on economics and insurance.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 6:14 pm

The EF scale used for measuring tornadoes is based upon property damage, not necessarily storm intensity. The same tornado would have different EF ratings depending on whether it struck a trailer park or high end retail district.

A Stats Guy in Texas
August 27, 2019 11:29 am

Another way pretty pictures can fool you is by the choice of window. The natural disasters chart starts in 1970, but if you go and download the underlying data (and good on them for making it available!), it goes back to 1900. Reproducing the chart with the complete data set makes it clear that the cause of the increase is in the reporting. Looking at the full chart, one can also make a case for the world becoming fully connected around the year 2000.

Reply to  A Stats Guy in Texas
August 27, 2019 3:30 pm

Stats ==> Thanks for your insight.

August 27, 2019 11:44 am

If you install a Qlik Sense server (Qlik is a very popular BI graphic analysis tool) it comes with a preselection of “interesting” presentations.

Of course no such collection could possibly be complete without a mandatory nod to climate political correctness and so it shows global temperature variations from around 1880 to 2015. Ignoring the inherent fuzziness of a global temperature reading, the graph centres about the 1980 (iirc) average and goes from a soothing blue-green at minus 0.75 of a degree Celsius, to an alarming red-orange at about plus 1 degree Celsius.

Just for a laugh I edited the scale to go from light green to dark green and saved it on the server for others to come across. I’m curious to note any reactions, but I can say it’s a whole lot less convincing as climate alarmist propaganda …

(Blog Policy: “Internet phantoms who have cryptic handles, no name, and no real email address get no respect here.”) SUNMOD

Reply to  SM
August 28, 2019 8:09 am

I beg your pardon, sir? My email address is absolutely real.
I use it every day.
You of all people ought to know why anonymity is essential to continued employment.

Political Junkie
August 27, 2019 11:57 am

This is an actual quote from a leading Canadian journalist:

“Most of us ended in journalism school because we couldn’t pass grade ten math!”

August 27, 2019 12:02 pm

My first encounter with this kind of false reporting concerned infant mortality rates. The published stats showed the US as having a terrible record. Then I did my own research. At that time the US was the only country on the planet that correctly and accurately reported infant deaths. Some countries would not report an infant death until after the child was at least one year old.

If it smells bad, check the sell by date, and do not consume.

Steve Z
August 27, 2019 12:25 pm

If one person committed suicide in Greenland, due to its small population, Greenland would lead the world in suicide rate per capita.

Reply to  Steve Z
August 27, 2019 2:00 pm

Steve==> To be fair, the rate is given “per 100,000 population per year.”

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 27, 2019 2:59 pm

Somehow I very much doubt that if the country’s total population does not exceed 100,000 souls, no suicides would occur. It’s just a means of placing the decimal point in dealing with very large numbers. However seeing that suicides must be counted in integers (no such thing as fractions of suicides) one must question the normalization of an abnormal phenomena.

Clyde Spencer
August 27, 2019 12:50 pm

“… for reasons that include restrictions on access to lethal means and improved mental health care.”

I suspect that their personal biases are showing. Approximately two-thirds of all US suicides employ a firearm. However, in Japan, where firearms are extremely difficult to obtain, the suicide rate has exceeded that of the US for decades. If someone really wants to die, they can do so by drinking too much water in a short period of time, or drive their car into a bridge abutment at high speed.

It is my impression that suicide rates in Scandinavia and other countries in high latitudes have always been high and often attributed to Seasonal Affective Disorder because of the lack of sunshine. They were so high that it wouldn’t take much to show a decline.

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
August 27, 2019 1:18 pm

Clyde ==> It is, of course, worse than we thought. ” …most countries do not collect detailed data on suicide” … Data NOT EVEN COLLECTED is being reported as definitive.

Gary Pearse
August 27, 2019 1:26 pm

Kip: Simple short and one of your best. I think there is likely a readership for a book expanding on the subject – it would also be a huge public service. There is no end of pretty but meaningless graphics on climate, medicine, social science. Even the hockeystick that disappeared the LIA and MWP is a candidate.

“Guesses are not appropriate for the purpose of guiding International Policy decisions.”

This is also clearly true re temperatures estimated for vast tracts of the Arctic and Antarctic on the basis of scattered singular weather stations around the periphery of these areas. A glance at the Danish temperatures north of 80N shows temperatures also average colder than south of this latitude.

You have done pieces on salt, fat and others(?) that also negatively impact policy and public health. Trudeau has just issued new diet guidelines for Canadians clearly intended to “save the planet” (which it wouldn’t do and with a growing suspicion that the planet is doing fine) and nevermind the people (oh it’s rationalized it will be better for people as an afterthought).

Reply to  Gary Pearse
August 27, 2019 1:58 pm

Gary ==> I covered salt and diet issues in the Modern Scientific Controversies series. (Most of them appear on this search page).

See “The Challenge of Reforming Nutritional Epidemiologic Research” by John P. A. Ioannidis

michael hart
August 27, 2019 2:00 pm

Well said and done.
The link in the last sentence doesn’t work for me. Another:

August 27, 2019 2:05 pm

Suicide rates in new Zealand are increasing, most notably in young and Pacific islanders.
The labour government has provided a grant of $575k specifically to study climate change distress, depression and sense of no future that is becoming pronounced especially in younger people.
The green party (part of the coalition), also the minister of climate change (James Shaw), only projects alarmism and model based forecasts. The media are totally complicit, disaster is on its way.

Here we have the government complicit in creating the problem and funding a study as to why these people are feeling distressed.
Any communication even in soft moderate terms to both the labour and green party is ignored. James Shaw openly calls anyone with an alternative view as a “new climate denier”.

Reply to  Ozonebust
August 27, 2019 3:34 pm

Ozonebust ==> It is an interesting point that native peoples seem to have (are reported to have) such high suicide rates. I have not seen any reasonable explanation from anywhere.

August 27, 2019 2:36 pm

Once the average person has been misled, he tends to stay misled – and then spread that misinformation far and wide. That would account for the millions of Democrats in America.

Roger Knights
Reply to  MikeyParks
August 28, 2019 7:38 am

“Once the average person has been misled, he tends to stay misled ”

Mark Twain, IIRC, said, “It is easier to fool someone than to convince him he was fooled.”

Michael H Anderson
August 27, 2019 2:49 pm

If you read into that page on the site, you’ll find that death rates from natural disasters have decreased dramatically over time, so frankly, what would be the big deal even if the frequency were actually increasing? Obviously humanity is very well prepared, the “existential threat” trope notwithstanding.

Interesting too that the greatest numbers of population displacements due to natural disaster have been in the US and China – not the poor third world as often claimed by the hysterical community, starting with the IPCC and now universally accepted as one of the pillars of hysterical gospel.

I’ve often gone to them as a source for statistics that actually refute mainstream pessimism, and though this particular use of graphed data is problematic, I’ll keep checking in on them now and then and just chalk this up to the simple fact that reportage of natural disasters has of course gone up, both because we have the technology and because there’s an audience hungry for it.

Reply to  Michael H Anderson
August 27, 2019 3:36 pm

Michael H Anderson ==> Yes, the Deaths from Natural Disasters graph look very like the one in the essay — but the deaths drop to almost nothing comparatively.

August 27, 2019 3:34 pm

Thanks are given to Kip Hansen for yet another look below the surface investigation of the reporting and presentation of events about which we are not fully informed by the Media.

August 27, 2019 3:47 pm

One of the flaws is studies is survival bias.

Take for example the stock market. If you use all current stocks to back test you have a survival bias because it doesn’t include the companies that went out of business.

Crispin in Waterloo
August 27, 2019 6:06 pm

“Guesses are not appropriate for the purpose of guiding International Policy decisions.”

It is important to understand that the Global Burden of Disease is “an exercise” based on death statistics and is used to inform health policy at national level. It is an exercise in attribution, not necessarily the summing and documentation of “causes”.

For example there are about 75 listed contributions to the deaths of everyone who is now dead, who was alive a year ago. Smoking might be an actual cause for 8% of all deaths in a year, but is attributed to be a contributing cause to the premature death (ie before the age of 86) of 70% of all deaths. That is an attribution, not a fact.

Does this need further explanation? Attributing air pollution as a contributing cause of the premature death of 7m people per year does not mean that any single person actually died from air pollution. It is just convenient for public health policy reasons to discuss the general impact as if it was a contributing cause of premature “departure” from this plane of existence.

There is a strange exercise called IHME which takes the GBD numbers (estimates) and pretends to calculate a number of people who “died” from that contribution. Essentially they say that if prematurity of deaths (before the age of 86) have a 1% contribution from tonsillitis, then they say 1% of all people died as a consequence of having tonsillitis, even if not one person actually died of it. They sort of work the GBD calculation backwards.

This is the difference between actual causes of death and attributions. Because the WHO has taken to citing IHME numbers, and dropping the terms “attributed” and “premature”, the public is being fooled into thinking that tonsillitis kills 1% of the total number who died last year. X-many deaths! Alarum!

A prof friend of mine cornered a WHO senior and asked why they were misrepresenting the facts so blatantly. The reply came saying, “If we don’t do exaggerate, we cannot raise money.” Simple as that. It pays to lie.

And that is our WHO. Can you think of any other field of endeavour that is as blatant in their misrepresentation of the facts, shouting alarm and emergency, in order to raise funds?

Michael H Anderson
Reply to  Crispin in Waterloo
August 28, 2019 8:51 am

Thanks for this, and thanks to Kip and saveenergy as well. We really are living in an era where the Big Lie dominates our entire cultural narrative. I just hope I live to see the way out. Problem being with so many millions of mediocrities demanding hefty compensation just for having made it alive out of the birth canal… Well, need I say more?

Farmer Ch E retired
August 28, 2019 5:49 am

Kip – Good article. It seems that reporting of half-truths and implying they are whole truths is the norm these days, whether with graphics or otherwise. With investing, I’ve been told never to invest in something I didn’t understand. Unfortunately, we are to this same point with journalistic reporting. We can’t trust what we see, hear, or read much of the time unless we do additional research. Makes one more skeptical.

Reply to  Farmer Ch E retired
August 28, 2019 4:12 pm

Farmer ==> It is the days of critical thinking, side-checking, fact-checking and ground-truthing….

August 31, 2019 9:41 am

Warming Antarctica by Paintwork – my website, dormant but still very relevant & valid!

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