Surprise, surprise, 60 Minutes put a thinly researched controversial report on the air and based the whole thing on an "expert" of questionable veracity.
On the surface, Professor Tim Kusky might appear to be a legitimate person to interview for the controversial story that New Orleans will sink into the sea on 90 years. The problem is that even after the slightest research, he appears to have studied it very little. In fact, his own web page lists his research interests as "Tectonics and Geodynamics, Structural Geology, Precambrian Geology and Crustal Evolution, Evolution of Orogenic Systems, RemoteSensing and GIS, Tectonics and Mineral Deposits.
Did he ever study New Orleans? Has he written any papers on the Mississippi Delta? On what did he base his theory which became the centerpiece of the 60 Minutes piece which was even titled "New Orleans is Sinking."
From the Times-Picayune
On Monday, "60 Minutes" posted a response on its Public Eye Web page, in which Pelley defended the report to CBS's ombudsman.
Pelley told the ombudsman "that '60 Minutes' called the Geological Society of America to check out Kusky's claims. '60 Minutes' was put in touch with three scientists, Pelley says, all of whom backed Kusky's argument. One even said he was being too conservative in his estimate concerning how quickly the city would sink, he adds." [More unnamed "experts" from CBS- Sound familiar? -ed]
In an interview Monday, Kusky said his projection of the city becoming an island was "based on a statement made by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey" in 2000. [He based his whole report on a single statement? ed]
But University of Texas at Austin geology professor Charles Groat, who was then director of the U.S. Geological Survey, flatly disagreed with Kusky's conclusions.
Groat said Kusky relied on "an offhand comment that has often been repeated" that was included in a University of New Orleans magazine piece that compared New Orleans to Atlantis.
"No, no, no," Groat said of Kusky's island image. "You've got a lot of things between the city of New Orleans and the edge of the sea, and they're not going away."
He said that in an ultimate worst-case scenario -- if global warming were to raise sea level several dozen feet-- the city might be flooded, but such a scenario is not thought to be realistic by many scientists.
So, some guy at a conference makes an offhand remark that if sea levels were to rise SEVERAL DOZEN FEET that New Orleans will be in trouble and 60 Minutes reports that people should pull out of New Orleans because it will sink in the next 90 years. Good journalism if I've ever heard it. Not!
I've heard all my life that if "The Big One" hits California that it will break off and fall into the sea... Is 60 Minutes going to report that as fact too? And urge people to leave?
Just when you thought that it couldn't, it gets worse for the professor:
Roy Dokka, a Louisiana State University geologist who developed subsidence estimates as part of efforts of the National Geodesic Survey to set height benchmarks throughout south Louisiana, said that if Kusky relied on their past estimates of subsidence to predict the future, he missed the warning in his subsidence paper that past estimates cannot be used to predict the future.
If anything, Dokka said, in the past decade, the rate at which land is sinking in south Louisiana slowed considerably.
"If he's using NOAA's NGS data as his guide, I'm the co-author for that subsidence paper and it says explicitly in there that rates are not constant over time," Dokka said. "The measurements we've made of subsidence for the last 10 years show subsidence slowed by half..
We know now that the professor (by his own words) did not look at the science, he based his findings (cough) on a single statement. But as I outlined earlier, to make that 90 year prediction, sinking would have to accelerate incredibly quickly.
But what exactly were 60 Minutes "experts" qualifications?
Some scientists have questioned Kusky's credentials for making his statements.
Kusky said Monday that he has conducted no basic research in Louisiana's coastal wetlands.
"I've worked down there a number of times, mostly field trips with my students, showing them what people are doing," he said. [Bourbon Street doesn't count Professor ;-)]
His expertise actually is in hard rock geology, especially the study of ophiolites, hard rock that was once part of mid-ocean undersea plates, but was thrust up onto the edge of continental plates.
So 60 Minutes takes a guy who has never researched the topic, who only heard one passing statement about a hypothetical and then runs a story saying that people should pull out of New Orleans and the government should not allow them to rebuild.
Priceless, just freaking priceless.
It amazes me that after their "handwriting expert" 60 Minutes would run this piece and it amazes me even more that this professor, who clearly knew he was so out of his element, would make such ridiculous statements on camera.
And where did the number "90 years" come from? Why not 100? On what did professor base this very precise number? We'll never know. My suspicion it that the professor knew it would make a more compelling story than if he said 100. It was more about the Hollywood lights than science.
All of this could have been avoided of course if CBS's Scott Pelley had asked Kusky one simple question, "Have you ever studied New Orleans geology?" Of course that would be called journalism and 60 Minutes appears to actively avoid such messy endeavors.