Why “balanced coverage” does not always lead to good science journalism »« Taking steps to avoid global warming

How science reporters should do their job

About a year ago, Eldan Goldenberg had a post complaining about the lousy job that reporters do when covering science. (They do an even worse job when covering the government’s fraudulent case for going to war, but that’s a post for another day.)

The way that they cover global warming is a good example of the problem. But before we get to the bad news, let’s first look at how a good science reporter should do the job, and for this there is an excellent example in George Monbiot of the London Guardian newspaper.

The story begins with a letter that was published in the New Scientist magazine on April 16, 2005 by a well known botanist David Bellamy in which he said that many of the world’s glaciers “are not shrinking but in fact are growing . . . 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980″. His letter was instantly taken up by climate change deniers and used to argue that global warming was not happening.

That this letter received such wide circulation was not surprising. After all, as Monbiot says “Because Bellamy is president of the Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife International and the British Naturalists’ Association, his statements carry a great deal of weight. When, for example, I challenged the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders over climate change, its spokesman cited Bellamy’s position as a reason for remaining sceptical.”

But something about the numbers cited by Bellamy bothered Monbiot and he tried to find out more. So he contacted the World Glacier Monitoring Service and asked them about Bellamy’s claim. The response was unequivocal: “This is complete b—s—.” They went on that “Despite his scientific reputation, he makes all the mistakes that are possible.” Bellamy had, they said,

“cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world’s glaciers are retreating.”

So Bellamy was directly contradicted by the very people he was quoting. But where had he got his numbers? After all, scientists rarely make up stuff out of whole cloth. Monbiot contacted Bellamy and asked him for his sources. After several requests, Bellamy replied that he had got the information from the website THE NEXT ICE AGE – NOW! constructed by someone called Robert W. Felix to promote his book about the coming ice age.

The catch was that Felix is an architect, not anyone with any kind of background in climate studies. But in his site was this item: “Since 1980, there has been an advance of more than 55% of the 625 mountain glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring group in Zurich.” Bellamy told Monbiot that the source for this information was the latest issue of 21st Century Science and Technology.

What is this impressive sounding publication? Monbiot looked it up and found that it is published by none other than Lyndon LaRouche. This alone should have immediately sent up warning flags to anybody that the information may not be reliable. But from where did they get their numbers? The publication (whose website seems to be pushing the case for a coming ice age) does not specify but Monbiot says that the same information was first published by Professor Fred Singer (an actual environmental scientist) on his website, SCIENCE & ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY PROJECT and is constantly quoted all over the web as evidence that man-made climate change is not happening.

So where did Singer get his information? Singer only says that it is from a paper published in the journal Science in 1989. So finally Monbiot had arrived at a source that is a peer-reviewed science journal, and a highly prestigious one at that. But there is a catch. Monbiot combed “through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures, throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat.”

(I too searched on the SEPP website using the keyword “55%” but the link that was returned to the relevant article leads nowhere, perhaps as a result of Monbiot’s questioning. But I found it in Google cache and it says “The World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, in a paper published in Science in 1989, noted that between 1926 and 1960 more than 70 percent of 625 mountain glaciers in the [mid-latitude] United States, Soviet Union, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy were retreating. After 1980, however, 55 percent of these same glaciers were advancing.” But as Monbiot says, the cited Science article does not exist and the World Glacier Monitoring Service spokesperson flatly (and profanely) contradicts this statement.)

The alert reader would have noticed that Bellamy said 555 of 625 glaciers (or 89%), while the sources he cites said 55% of 625 glaciers. Where did that final discrepancy come from? Monbiot wondered whether, since % and 5 are on the same key, Bellamy may not have made a simple error by missing the shift key while typing.

He went back to Bellamy with this hypothesis and the latter admitted that there had been “a glitch in electronics.” But interestingly enough, Bellamy has not requested New Scientist magazine to publish a correction, seemingly content to let that error, which suits his own agenda, remain in currency.

The magazine Mother Jones pithily sums up the situation: “So there you have it – a 16 year old article that was never written, fraudulently cited by a climate skeptic, re-printed in a publication owned by Lyndon Larouche which was cited by a former architect, and finally misrepresented by a credible scientist.”

And yet, as Monbiot says, the “555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a “fraud”, a “scam”, a “lie”.”

Monbiot sums up the state of affairs this way:

It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals.

This was a nice piece of reporting by Monbiot showing why the “controversy” keeps getting fuel for its continuation. But how many reporters are like him, willing to peel back the layers of a story to get to the core, to reveal the actual data, or in this case, the lack of data?

The eagerness with which global warming skeptics picked up and passed around this highly dubious claim by Bellamy is a good example of what Bertrand Russell said in his book Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndication. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)

“What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires – desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”

Russell’s admonition applies equally to those of us who believe that global warming is a serious issue. We should not be too eager to seize on any piece of data that seems to support those claims either, but need to look the credibility of the claim, the nature of the evidence supporting it, and corroborating evidence.

Next: Why reporters like Monbiot are, sadly, the exception.

Comments

  1. Dean says

    This post is a bit ironic in my mind (although I do agree with it)…in that Bjorn Lomberg has been lambasted by environmentalists for subjecting their claims to the same degree in his book the Skeptical Environmentalist.

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