Thursday, 30 September 2010

BBC misrepresented scientists behind empirical paper - Fact.

Have sent a follow up to my unanswered complaint about BBC Online's report of the Anderegg paper.

Hello, I sent a complaint about this article on August 9th and I have not received a reply. Paragraph 12 says that the motivations of the researchers was in part a response to 'recent scandals, such as "climategate" at the UK's University of East Anglia and the use of non-peer reviewed literature in the IPCC findings.' The press release from Stanford University does not cite these events, and I have to put it to you on that evidence alone the author of your report is speculating rather than quoting facts. But I have since been in touch with one of the authors of the scientific paper Mr Jim Prall of Toronto University * who states that Dr Anderegg contacted him in August 2009 and they began working on their paper the following month. It was not until November 2009 that the UEA emails were released . Ergo your reporter's speculations about the motivations behind this study amount to a factual error.
Needless to say, I also stand by my earlier remarks about your reporters sceptical commentary .

Or to put it more simply the BBC reporter made up the bits about motivations behind the paper, this can be proved by looking at the dates Anderegg and Prall had begun work on the paper.

So why am I so hot under the collar about this pissy little article? Well, it's about a very important scientific paper that could not be ignored, which gives empirical evidence for public understanding of climate science . The reporter is keen to present it as a 'he said she said' argument, when it is nothing of the sort.  The report introduces what sceptics have to say in the third paragraph and concludes with the sceptics too. But the BBC report also suggests that the media bias is only as recent as , and limited to, the recent peccadilloes highlighted . The press release from Stanford University clearly suggests the paper is motivated by much wider and deeper frustrations.

"It is sad that we even have to do this," said the late Doctor Stephen Schneider. "[Too much of] the media world has just folded up and fired its reporters with expertise in science."

* Correpondence available in comments at

UPDATE: Phoned BBC 15th November to chase it up, was given a reference number, was told I would get a reply in ten days.

UPDATE: Phoned BBC 6th December to chase it up, was given a reference number, was told I would get a reply in ten days.

P.S. And for those that want to see how a science article should be written, Martin Robbins of The Guardian helpfully provides a pro-forma.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Manufacturing Ignorance

In "Manufacturing Consent" Noam Chomsky laments that the attention span of television news reporting is so short that only conventional thoughts can be expressed. Chomsky's brand of dissent is undermined by insufficient airtime, in the parlance of TV journalism it is called 'concision'.  Global warming advocates are particularly susceptible to concision because of all the uncertainties and unravelling decades of misinformation .  In short the unfolding narrative goes that the scientists present a dire prediction then the skeptical mass media ask how bleak? When the scientists express uncertainty the media move on. The effect is one of uncertain scientists rather than the bleak outlook.

This trick was skilfully played when Kirsty Wark on Newsnight (23rd August 2010)  asked are the floods in Pakistan due to climate change?  It's not a yes or no question, that unfortunately was posed as a yes or no question. Before we look at Newsnight's effort let's consider some informed opinion , here's Dr Kevin Trenberth on the subject:

“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”

Then there's Dr James Hansen who fairly observes essentially changing the climate is like loading a dice.  A more unstable climate is more likely to give us extreme weather events and hence there will be more extreme weather events. But nailing a specific extreme weather event and asking if it is down to climate change is a different ball game*, and whilst the science, and effects of climate change are so hotly disputed one has to ask what purpose does Kirsty Wark's question serve?

Imagine you are in a casino and your suspicions lead you to say out loud that the roulette wheel might be loaded . And the croupier's response is to claim that the last spin might not have been different if the wheel weren't loaded; the sensible gambler should not find such a remark comforting and conclude it was time to give up.

Perhaps, when BBC producers commissioned this particular debate, they expected all critics to give up. So here's my two cents worth.

BBC news programmes habitually present climate related matters as two sided , a duel between skeptics and everyone else. For expert opinion the BBC chose Dr. Ghassem Asrar, a man with academic credentials in climate science as long as your arm who was cited as from the World Climate Research Project but is also from NASA. a doctor with membership of five professional societies and numerous awards was not enough for the BBC so they called on Andrew Montford a chartered accountant from Kinross. An odd choice for the question at hand because Montford's credentials are that he cannot agree on what the climate has been over the last millenium. Montford largely agreed with the eminent doctor, so was he on the programme for balance or for concision?

A chilling theme of the debate was that now that climate change is upon us, mitigation is obsolete and the question becomes how to adapt.Wark suggested proacive work be done in the form of local levees. But carbon was not mentioned once.  The word mitigate was used only once, by Montford, erroneously or mendaciously suggesting that local adaptive measures were mitigation.

The consensus inevitably reached was that you can't say that these particular floods in Pakistan are due to climate change. But that is due to the 'crooked croupier's proposition' given above. Never did they mention the caveat that the extreme weather events we are beginning to witness now are just the kind of thing scientists would expect in a global warming world .

For no good reason at the end of the debate Wark asked after climategate are scientists becoming more cautious in pronouncing on what could be aspects of global warming? Montford was asked "do you accept climate change is a grave risk facing us all," to which he blustered "errm from my perspective I think the answer is I don't know. I think mankind is affecting the climate but whether it's a little or a lot , I think , in reality we really just don't know"

'We really just don't know' is the so called informed opinion they would like to leave you with on climate change. You've got to hand it to those folks at the BBC  - they are skilled propagandists.  Wark deserves particular opprobrium for fronting this angle, which seems trivial with two million homeless and thousands dead . Of course it's anything but trivial , such is the twisted nature of the media's reporting of our changing climate. 

* A sensible discussion of the question is offered by Michael Tobis in 'When it Rains it Pours'