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Lord Krebs: scientists must challenge poor media reporting on climate change

Posted on 20 May 2016 by Guest Author

John Krebs, University of Oxford

Ocean acidification is causing fundamental and dangerous changes in the chemistry of the world’s oceans yet only one in five Britons has even heard of ocean acidification, let alone believes it a cause for concern. Around 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is principally driven by human activity, yet only 16% of the public know the expert consensus to be this strong.

These are just two examples of common misconceptions among the UK public on the science of climate change. When surveyed, many people report feeling unsure and confused about various aspects of the discipline. Furthermore, they lack trust in scientists: in the wake of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, nearly four in ten people felt that scientists were exaggerating concerns.

Are these realities any surprise when we see headlines such as “Planet is not overheating, says professor” and “Scientists ‘are exaggerating carbon threat to marine life’” in the UK’s national media? It was the former article that recently prompted a number of members of the House of Lords, including me, to write a letter to the editor of The Times, John Witherow. We highlighted the newspaper’s recent record of tendentious and misleading coverage of climate science (among many other articles, it must be said, that are worthy of the paper’s name and tradition).

The “not overheating” article described a study suggesting there is no statistically valid evidence for man-made climate change – and therefore that the planet will not warm significantly by the end of the century. But the study was not conducted by a climate scientist and it ignored basic physical laws. It did not undergo scientific peer-review and it was funded by a climate-sceptic lobby group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The fact that a newspaper of The Times’ standing gave coverage to such a piece of research is both remarkable and deeply concerning. But it is not an isolated example. Instead it typifies a disturbing pattern in parts of the UK national media where there is an apparent determination to systematically undermine climate science and those conducting it – and to amplify marginal dissenting arguments even when they come with no evidence.

Overheating? 2015 was actually the hottest year on record. Met Office, CC BY-NC-SA

Our letter was intended to highlight the loss of credibility that inevitably comes with printing such stories. Indeed, it is precisely the failure of papers such as The Times to treat climate change properly that is prompting more informed readers to vote with their feet and turn to credible web-based news outlets such as BusinessGreen and Carbon Brief. The media is changing rapidly and established papers such as The Times are competing for readers, credibility and eventually influence against smaller publications that are often producing better coverage.

The Times’ loss of credibility is its own problem. However, such articles raise wider concerns about the misunderstandings generated among the public, and the loss of trust in science.

The media remains important

These problems result because, despite the proliferation of new media, the established titles continue to play a very important role in perceptions of science. They form the principal conduit through which the public and politicians access scientific information, they provide a proxy for public debate and help set the tone – and often the agenda – for policy-making. Thus poor-quality or slanted science reporting contributes, either unwittingly or wittingly, to the public misunderstanding of science.

Public misunderstanding of science can have serious consequences. In the early 1990s, The Sunday Times persisted in denying the link between HIV and AIDs after most other publications had acknowledged reality. An editorial in Nature described its reporting as “seriously mistaken, and probably disastrous”. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, media outlets gave widespread coverage to the hypothesised link between the MMR vaccine and autism – coverage that has since been criticised as naïve and misleading.

Anti-MMR vaccine campaigners hand in a petition to prime minister Tony Blair, September 2002. Matthew Fearn/PA

It goes without saying that such misrepresentations of scientific knowledge run against the interests of society. People are unable to make informed decisions or to demand appropriate action from politicians. In the MMR case, outbreaks involving more than 2,000 cases of measles in 2012 were attributed to years of under-immunisation following media misreporting of the MMR issue. In the case in hand, The Times’ poor reporting on climate science has the potential to cause real harm.

Of course, there are uncertainties in climate science, but uncertainty should not be conflated with doubt. As Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway have so clearly documented in their excellent book Merchants of Doubt, those who wish to undermine the credibility of scientific evidence, for instance the tobacco industry in relation to cancer and smoking, have systematically tried to turn “uncertainty” into “doubt”.

So where does this leave us? Editors must be free to print what they want within the law, as a free press is vital for democracy. It is entirely right that scientists, like everyone else, are subject to questioning. Not all of us are angels – and not all research is good research. We are above neither the law nor legitimate journalistic scrutiny – and editors are quite within their rights to seek out divergent views.

But the key word here is “legitimate”. Scrutiny that is carried out in the public interest with the intention of uncovering genuinely bad practice is entirely fair; questions asked and articles slanted with the intention of promoting a specific argument are not. And even opinion articles must acknowledge the evidence, otherwise what are they but fiction?

Readers also have rights – and the right to object to distorted or biased coverage is one of them. I would argue that in the case of scientists, this extends far beyond being a right – it is virtually an obligation. In 2014, UK citizens invested about £10 billion in research and development. If research is funded by the public, then it is the public’s right to have findings disseminated accurately. And as both the recipients of public funding and the individuals with expertise in these complex subjects, the onus is on us academics to ensure that research is properly communicated.

Engaging with the media is not to every scientist’s taste. The journalist’s world is a lot more feisty and less respectful than ours. But in the end, accurate reporting of science matters. Editors do respond to comments and criticism. Scientists can and indeed must challenge poor reporting on climate change and, if enough of us do so regularly, it will improve – to the benefit of scientists, the public and indeed journalism itself.

John Krebs, Professor of Zoology, member of the UK Climate Change Committee, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Good article, thank you for taking time to write it

    the world will look back in wonder at why these articles needed to be written in 2016!!!

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  2. We got a vague graph again. Everybody shows only changes but never the raw data. Met Office on the link writes only about changes, too. Why every study keeps the original temperature values in secret?

    Can anybody give me a link with the annual global average temperature values? A simple search didn't help.

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  3. Zoli: There's no secret. It's just the way the Met Office do the calculation. If you subtract the mean temperature for a station from all the readings for that station before you construct a global average, then you eliminate most of the effect of stations appearing and disappearing, which would otherwise swamp the temperature signal.

    You can test this for yourself using the tool described in this post. If you hit 'select all' then 'calculate', you get a reasonable estimate of the temperature record. But if you turn off the 'align stations' option (bottom left), you get nonsense. (We can tell it is nonsense by doing a cross-validation test.)

    Now it is possible to do the temperature calculation with absolute temperatures, but rather harder. UKMO don't do it at all (and nor do I). But you can get absolute temperatures from either NASA/GISS or Berkeley (land temperatures only). For the GISS data, the offsets to turn the relative temperatures into absolute temperatures are at the bottom of the file. For Berkeley they are at the top.

    Alternatively, reanalysis products also produce absolute temperatures. From this page click the show/hide link next to ERA-interim, select 'temperature - 2m/10m', the 'Select Field' button at the top, and then the 'Make time series button' at the bottom of the first box.

    The absolute temperatures have a significant annual cycle, which obscures the climate signal. The simplest way to address this is to convert to annual averages. Here are the annual averages for the ERA-interim data:

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  4. Zoli, you can get the raw data and do the graph yourself. Skeptics have done it and come up with the same result as the Met Office, GISS, NOAA and the Japanese Meteorological Association.

    BEST is a project run by critics of AGW. Same results. Here's a link to the work done by other skeptics. They get more warming than the Met Office. Read the commentary.

    First the obvious, a skeptic, denialist, anti-science blog published a greater trend than Phil Climategate Jones. What IS up with that?

    Multiple groups have done the analysis using raw and adjusted temperatures. This part of the debate is over. The raw data is available for anyone to try and do it better.

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  5. Kevin C @3, GISTEMP no longer shows the absolute temperature offset with their data, although they did up until January 19th of this year, when they showed an offset of 14 C.  That is also approximately the absolute temperature for the interval 1951-1980 (the GISTEMP baseline period) shown by the IPCC in this graph (thick black line on right hand section):

    That estimate is based on Jones et al. (1999), Surface air temperature and its variations over the last 150 years, Rev. Geophys., in which an uncertainty of plus or minus 0.5 C is given, according to a more recent paper by Jones (Jones and Harpham (2013) Estimation of the absolute surface air temperature of the Earth, Geophsycial Research: Atmospheres).  That paper in turn estimates that "The absolute surface temperature of the world is likely to be between 13.7 and 14.0C for the 1961–1990 period and 13.9 and 14.2C for 1981–2010."  Assuming a normal distribution, that comes out as approximately 13.85 +/- 0.3 C for 1961-1990, and slightly lower for the GISTEMP baseline period of 1951-1980.

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  6. I'm a bit of a hobby researcher kind of guy here. Love science and also the bible. Was looking for any trace of that global flood and found something we all need to look into. The two say life was different, both say environment was changed. I have found many parallels in geology and biblical records. For now let's leave bible out. but it does have the last word, the biggest clue we badly need. Learned about polar forests and polar animals that once lived in both ends. Some say there was more greenhouse gases that made a free ice earth at that time. They think the changes happened over long periods of time. Yet others tell us if temperatures increase it will be the next mass extinction event. Only in the polar areas do we find this changes. It is thought that in later times (Pliocene) the earth was warmer (THE SECRET OF ANTARTICA –VIDEO). This is where the contradiction lays. If CO2 increases do we life better and longer as the dinosaurs lived, happy and lush environments, or do we all die from extreme heat etc.
    If the bible is right, the kind of greenhouse environment needed for change the earth for the better does not now exist. The kind we will get from our CO2 we make today could very well kill us all just as they say. Just because the earth was once a paradise of lush plant and animal life, does not mean it could get back to that without divine help. There is where the answer to the contradiction lays – the bible.

    Before and now

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  7. Zoli

    The raw data and adjusted data for global temperatures for the last 50 years are almost identical, as per the graph below which shows both.

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  8. It's not a scientists job to take on the stock market behemoths .... The people lead so where is the onus on the people?


    ..nice try but no cigar I'm afraid!!

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  9. Scientists already are providing feedback about media coverage of global warming issues. ClimateFeedback.Org hosts comments from multiple climate scientists about important media articles. This important group is currently trying to get crowd funding so that it can expand its media coverage.

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  10. Scientists do have to challenge the PR spin of the stock market behemoths. If they don't, the behemoths just get their boys appointed to run the research and then the quality scientists get sacked.

    Challenging media coverage on specialist sites is helpful for ensuring that interested parties know what to challenge, but it is of no use in educating the population and politicians. They don't read these sites. Expanding these services to deal with the mainstream media is what is needed and scientists doing it directly too.

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  11. Researchtony: "This is where the contradiction lays. If CO2 increases do we life better and longer as the dinosaurs lived, happy and lush environments, or do we all die from extreme heat etc."

    Obvious...across equatorial regions we die of extreme heat as they are in India currently with 50ºC days and while it may be lusher in middle & high latitudes we just have to wait out the many 1000's of years of very erratic weather for soils to reestablish and the biosphere to adapt. 

    Good luck with that....

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  12. When all's said and done, and the professional deniers and the conspiracy theorists are taken out of the equation, the fact remains that the public at large is hopelessly ignorant of anything to do with science. The bookshop shelf space devoted to faith healing, crystal therapy, homeopathy etc is usually multiples of that on scientific subjects - even when the former is not on the science shelves.

    So many people look at a half degree of warming and take a similar attitude to it as those who argue that 400ppm is such a small amount it can't possibly have any effect. I can't see how any amount of education can get around this mindset.

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  13. 400ppm is seen by many as being so small as to be irrelevant. I find I can get most people to pay attention to the fact that low concentrations can be important by pointing out that if we had HCN at 400ppm, there would be no life on earth. The issue isn't the concentration, but what happens at this concentration.

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  14. I was reading a related article over at ThinkProgress, "media-downplays-climate-science".

    Looking at the comments to that article, I have to wonder if those people are using Skeptical Science in the opposite way that it was intended. They have pushed just about every counter argument from the list over here, and just disregarded that they have all been thoroughly debunked.. I see "The consensus is false", "There were ice ages in the past", "It's a liberal hoax", "It's a trace gas", etc. They have them all.

    I would like the think that regardless of the persistent deniers/skeptics and poor media coverage, most of the populace has moved beyond the reach of these many falsehoods, but then there is still the congressional majority party that is not on our side.

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  15. This is a typically misleading anthropocentric discussion. The stark reality is that irreversible rapid climate disruption and ocean acidification, pollution and warming is under way largely due to the operations of industrialized civilization. The most that society can possibly do is to make decisions to slow this physical process slightly by reducing the use of fossile fuels as rapidly as is practical while adopting measures to cope wth such unintended consquences as sea level rise.

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