Birth and Life of a Mistruth

Professionals who work in the business of public perception—politicians, advertisers, PR consultants, entertainers—know there are many ways to win a public debate without having to resort to telling the truth. One of the simplest and more effective is obfuscation, a strategy familiar to anyone who saw or read Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking. You don't have to prove your case, or even disprove your opponent's, just confuse the terms of the argument until committed partisans on either side wrestle each other to a stalemate. The press, of course, often plays along by resorting to formulaic, he-said, she-said reporting.

This strategy has been remarkably successful for global warming skeptics in particular, whose talking points have shifted over the years, but whose strategy has remained quite consistent. Take a recent example that's been popping up in opinion columns and cable news recently: The canard that since 1934 was "the hottest year on record," reports of warming over the past century must be, if not wrong, then seriously exaggerated.

First, the facts: 1934 was not "the hottest year," as conservative provocateur Glenn Beck recently claimed on his radio show. That fallacy began in early August when a blogger at, a site dedicated to challenging global warming science, examined NASA's climate records and found that 1934 was the warmest year on record in the U.S., rather than 1998, as the agency had previously reported.

NASA has since fixed the error but, not surprisingly, commentators grasping for new ammunition in their fighting retreat against science continue to trumpet the correction ad infinitum in order to imply that warming isn't taking place. (Rush Limbaugh went even further, asking "Did they do this on purpose? How long have they known that it was erroneous and haven't corrected it?"). Conservative media outlets like the London Telegraph, The Washington Times, and FOX News blatantly misreported the finding. Last Friday, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the man who famously called the threat of global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," quoted the statistic in a statement challenging the danger of climate change.

Never mind that the hottest year within the borders of the US is a poor measure of a phenomenon known as global warming. And never mind that, judged by average global temperature, the hottest year on record remains 2005, followed by 1998, 2002, 2003, and 2006. As even Al Gore has admitted, the truth is of little importance in the battle of public perception.