Category Archives: IPCC

A line in the sand: calling journalists to account via formal complaint processes

[Hat tip Deltoid and Climate Progress]  

As I reported back in March, Sunday Times Journalist Jonathan Leake was under fire for misrepresenting the work of scientist Simon Lewis.  

Lewis, an expert on rainforsts and the impact of climate change on them, lodged a complaint with the UK’s Press Complaint Council (PCC).

This extract from his >30 page statement sums up how Leake totally misrepresented Lewis as the faux “Amazongate” scandal was breaking:

I spoke to Jonathan Leake on the afternoon of Saturday 30, a few hours before the article went to press, as he wanted to check the quotes he was using by me (checking quotes was agreed between ourselves on Friday 29 January). The entire article was read to me, and quotes by me agreed, including a statement that the science in the IPCC report was and is correct. The article was reasonable, and quotes were not out of context. Indeed I was happy enough that I agreed to assist in checking the facts for the graphic to accompany the article (I can supply the emails if necessary). Yet, following this telephone call the article was entirely and completely re-written with an entirely new focus, new quotes from me included and new (incorrect) assertions of my views. I ask the Sunday Times to disclose the version of article that was read out to me, and provide an explanation as to why the agreed correct, undistorted, un-misleading article, and specifically the quotes from me, was not published, and an entirely new version produced.

I’m not sure if the PCC has issued a ruling (I’ve searched), however the Sunday Times has retracted his article:

The Sunday Times and the IPCC: Correction

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

This is an embarrassment for Leake. He should never be allowed to report on climate issues again. Perhaps he can join the roster of deluded hacks over at “Watts up with that? ”

Indeed, when the paper you write for is forced to retract a piece it’s a sure sign you’ve compromised journalistic standards.

Says Lewis:

“The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments. This is extremely dangerous when we face serious environmental problems, like climate change, which require widespread scientific understanding to enable wise political responses to be formulated and enacted.” [1]

A line in the sand: calling journalists to account

Lewis – and by extension the scientific community – have scored a small victory.

However it is five months after the event, with the damage to the reputation of science and scientists has been enormous.

Nor will it seriously slow down the denial machine. They’ll simply move on to framing the next false scandal. Should we give up?

Traditionally scientists have been reluctant to engage in public debates with anti-science advocates or the messy business of “science communication”, as they’ve left to the journalists. However, science journalism is on the decline as papers cut back on reporting science issues.  

The result has been disastrous – a perfect storm of misinformation – with the public left at the mercy of peddlers of misinformation. Society should be debating a response to climate change, genetic engineering and peak oil.

Instead, the media pumps out a steady stream of celebrity “news”, faux scandals such as Climategate and puff pieces on “how to look younger in 10 easy steps”.

Sure, this is what the market wants – but the media help shapes what we want as well.

What can we do about it?

What can we do? Complain, and complain loudly.

Let’s start calling journalists, publishers and broadcasters to account.

Let send the market a strong signal. You may want to boycott publications that provide platforms for deniers. I no longer buy the Herald Sun or The Australian. Their reporting on science is atrocious, and they have done a great deal to mislead the public. [2]

What can you do?

There are a few other obvious things you can do. If they publish known falsehoods don’t just shake your head in disgust but:

  • Write a letter to editor
  • Comment in the online forums/discussion calling attention to errors in science reporting
  • Report it to me! I’ll expose it as best I can
  • Report it to other sites such as Deltoid, DeSmogBlog, Open Parachute and others.

However there may be an even more “radical” approach: a formal complaint with those authorities that are supposed to regulate the media.

Should we be officially complaining?

A more ambitious – or radical approach – may be to make greater use of the existing complaint mechanisms and/or authorities in most countries that regulate the media.

I’m not sure this is a the best approach, however I’m throwing it out there as an idea. No doubt the deniers will call this an attempt at censorship (my response, when you lie, you should be prepared to be called to account).

In the UK the PCC fulfils this role, while in Australia it is the Australian Press Council.

It’s statement on journalistic principles outlines the basis for complaints :

  1. Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.
  2. Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.
  3. Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication.
  4. News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.
  5. Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.
  6. Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest.
  7. Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.
  8. Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.
  9. Where the Council issues an adjudication, the publication concerned should publish the adjudication, promptly and with due prominence

Much of what is climate change denial appears under the the guise of “opinion”, and those provides a loop hole for the likes of Bolt to make outrageous and false claims (Point 6). Another loop hole is “fair and balanced”, a tactic exploited to great effect by the denial machine (Point 2).

Complicated issue, but worth investigating

By manufacturing a “debate” they confuse the public into thinking there are actually two sides on the issue. Still the question remains: by disparaging scientists and misrepresenting their work, is it a legitimate cause for complaint?

And who should complain: scientists, or the public? No doubt it’s a complicated issue that needs further investigation. Nor should we abuse the system with nuisance complaints. That only bogs down the regulators.

I also imagine the various bodies have a mish-mash of rules, guidelines and processes which makes it difficult to adopt a uniform approach to the issue in Australia, the UK, the States, Canada, NZ and around the world.

However in clear cases of fraudulent and dishonest behaviour I think we should be using bodies such as the PCC and APC as legitimate tools to correct inaccurate and shoddy reporting.

Climate Progress has stated we need more scientists like Lewis to stand up to the deniers – I second that.

It prompts the question: should more scientists take follow the example of Lewis?



[2] There’s an idea, an organised boycott of the Herald Sun!

Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap: “sceptical” journalist Jonathan Leake under scrutiny

Over the December 2009 and January 2010 period the denial movement went into over-dive in their attempts to tear down the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report.

The blogosphere and general media was “rocked” by Climategate (the stolen CRU emails) and then just as famously the supposed flaws in the IPCC report. First it was Glacier-gate, then followed Amazon-gate. The body blows to the scientific community came think and fast.

At the time Lord Monckton was touring Australia claiming the “times suited him”. Miranda Devine, the Sydney Morning Herald’s resident denier had this to say:

“…The latest revelation is that an IPCC claim about the Amazon rainforest was also drawn from a WWF report. The IPCC says it is simply a “human mistake” to parrot WWF press releases, as if they are credible science and not green propaganda, and no one bats an eyelid.”

Clearly there was a concentrated effort by the denial movement to mislead the public.

By trashing the reputation of the IPCC and the accuracy of the report, the denial movement hoped to shape public opinion. As I’ve noted, the vast majority of people have not taken the time to read the various documents that make up the Fourth Assessment report. As such, it is hard for them to understand it’s depth.

To be frank, the various “scandals” did create an impression that something was amiss at CRU and at the IPCC. But now that the hype is passed – or to choose another metaphor the rubble has settled – the truth is starting to emerge. It would appear that the actions of ethical behaviour of numerous journalists are now being questioned, and it does not look good.

Jonathan Leake, a journalist for the UK’s Sunday Times is now at the centre of a “scandal” (I promise to resist using Leake-gate) over the so called “Amazon-gate” affair.

Yet another “gate”?

One of the supposed mistakes the IPCC was to overstate the sensitivity of Amazon to climate change: the charge was that they relied upon non-peer reviewed materials and overstated the impact of climate change.

Well it seems the scientific expert on the issue – Simon Lewis in the UK – whose work informed the IPCC’s understanding of the issue is not taking it lying down. Climate Progress sums up the events nicely:

“The IPCC famously wrote:

Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.

This statement in the 2007 IPCC is “basically correct but poorly written, and bizarrely referenced,” as Lewis told the BBC in January.  Indeed, the underlying science is quite strong, as made clear in a recent statement by 19 top U.S., U.K., and Brazilian scientists, including Lewis, who point out “there are multiple, consistent lines of evidence from ground-based studies published in the peer-reviewed literature that Amazon forests are, indeed, very susceptible to drought stress.”

That didn’t stop the anti-science blogosphere and media from spinning this into another phony “gate,” as ClimateSafety explained in an excellent post, “AmazonGate: how the denial lobby and a dishonest journalist created a fake scandal.”  Anti-science Blogger Richard North spun up the story, and it was turned into “news” by anti-science reporters James Delingpole of the Telegraph and Jonathan Leake of the Times…”

Simon Lewis has lodged a complaint with the UK’s Public Complaints Commission which handles complaints against the media in that country. It’s a 33 page document, however reading it one is struck by the disingenuous behaviour of Leake. In particular I’d note the following paragraph:

I spoke to Jonathan Leake on the afternoon of Saturday 30, a few hours before the article went to press, as he wanted to check the quotes he was using by me (checking quotes was agreed between ourselves on Friday 29 January). The entire article was read to me, and quotes by me agreed, including a statement that the science in the IPCC report was and is correct. The article was reasonable, and quotes were not out of context. Indeed I was happy enough that I agreed to assist in checking the facts for the graphic to accompany the article (I can supply the emails if necessary). Yet, following this telephone call the article was entirely and completely re-written with an entirely new focus, new quotes from me included and new (incorrect) assertions of my views. I ask the Sunday Times to disclose the version of article that was read out to me, and provide an explanation as to why the agreed correct, undistorted, un-misleading article, and specifically the quotes from me, was not published, and an entirely new version produced.

Was this a deliberate attempt by Leake to mislead Lewis?

The email exchange documented in the complaint is revealing: it clearly shows that Leake was provided with references to the correct information. Lewis went out of his way to assist Leake, only to have his acts repaid with a story that distorted the actual science.

What the denial movement and creationists have in common: premeditated deceit

It very much reminds me of the tactics used by of creationists when they tricked scientists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers into “appearing” in the film “Expelled: no intelligence allowed”.

This is further confirmation of two things: that (a) these  movements share a disdain for science and (b) will resort to the same grubby tactics.

The PCC will obviously make a determination at some point in the future, yet even so Lewis’ complaint is revealing. This gives us first hand evidence of the tactics of “sceptical” journalists whose writings bolster – and lend credibility to – the denial movement in the mainstream media.

We are now starting to uncover the dirty trick and tactics of the denial movement. For too long the denial movement have had a free pass, freely casting aspersions against scientists, politicians and activists. Putting them under the microscope will expose just how they distort the science, and by extension mislead the public.

It’s now the turn of the denial movement to be concerned. The spotlight is on them.

What else will we find?

Asymmetric standards of evidence: how the deniers give a free pass to “sceptical grey literature”

The recent hullabaloo over the use of so called “grey literature” in the recent IPCC report points to the curious double standards used by deniers when it comes to the credibility of evidence. As anyone familiar with the debate knows, the IPCC has suffered considerable embarrassment over a series of gaffes and errors in it’s last report.

Glaciergate: the IPCC drops the ball

Perhaps the most discussed “error” is the now infamous “Glaciergate”. In short, the IPCC included estimates that overstated the rate that glaciers in the Himalaya’s would melt. The IPCC stated that they could potentially disappear by 2035, when it is more likely take 300 years.

The source of this prediction was a 1999 New Scientist article. Journalist Fred Pearce wrote an piece quoting glacier specialist Syed Hasnain, of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The article states:

“…MELTING Himalayan glaciers are threatening to unleash a torrent of floods into mountain valleys, and ultimately dry up rivers across South Asia. A new study, due to be presented in July to the International Commission on Snow and Ice (ICSI), predicts that most of the glaciers in the region will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming.

“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi…”

The IPCC then relied on this article to make the claim that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by “2035” – adding the 40 years to when the article was dated.

The use of such materials is not unusual. These materials are referred to as “grey literature”:  articles and reports that are produced outside the peer review system but are used as sources of information by writers of IPCC report.

The problems in relying on such materials are now apparent. Get it wrong, and it looks as though the process is compromised.

Appearances do matter

Now I agree with other commentators that the errors in the over 3000 pages of the fourth assessment report should not compromise the public trust in the work of scientists or discredit the science. However, deniers have proved adept in spinning the story and attacking the credibility of the IPCC and scientists by playing up the errors.

I’d hazard to guess that 99% of the public who have heard of the IPCC have never read any of their reports. They only know of the IPCC and its work second hand via the general media, blogs and new services.

When they hear the IPCC has “made” a mistake they have no context. They do not know that the report is massive, that it represents the work of thousands of scientists and most of its sources is reputable science. It’s easy for sceptics to question the credibility of the IPCC because the average Joe is not familiar with the original materials.

However, we do need to be frank. It was a cock up, and the IPCC has only itself to blame. The IPCC has admitted it was an error, as they should. One hopes they take this lesson to heart, instate even more rigorous standards and review how they use grey literature in drafting their reports.

Asymmetric standards of evidence: shouldn’t the same standard apply to both sides?

Thus it goes without saying that the IPCC, scientists and other researchers should strive for the highest standards of evidence. Should those standards of evidence also apply to claims being made by sceptics?

Of course the answer is yes.

However, what is curious is the apparent double standards applied by sceptics to evaluating sources of information.

I refer to this as “asymmetric standards of evidence.”

Simply, put they demand the highest standards for evidence for climate science but rely almost exclusively on what one would term “grey literature” for their own arguments.

The research quoted by sceptics – when it’s not misrepresenting or misquoting actual science – is published almost exclusively on blogs and other websites that completely circumnavigate the peer review process.

These sites have a stated agenda: they are not simply sceptical of the science, but openly hostile to scientists, the IPCC and high profile advocates such as Al Gore. They wear their advocacy on their sleeve.

Sites such as Watt’s up with that (WUWT) and frequently publish “research” and “analysis”. Along side this material, the other staples of the denier’s library of sources are links to other blogs and YouTube video’s.

My question: how does this material differ in quality form the so called “grey literature” that the IPCC was roundly criticised for using in its Fourth Assessment report?

Very little I’d suggest.

Personally, I place little value on a Greenpeace press release. It may quote climate science research as a source, but I’m not going to rely on their spin. I’ll go to the science itself for confirmation. The same rules apply to blog posts: heck, I apply those same standards to my blog which is why I strive to include links to original sources.

So, if we are to classify New Scientist articles, NGO press releases and reports as “grey literature”, what does make blog posts from WUWT?

One has to apply the same standards. It’s what I call sceptical grey literature. Most of it is unverified opinion pieces.

One has to wonder if deniers are aware of the irony. More likely they are perfectly content in accepting evidence that accords with their own world view.

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