The Perils of Poor Science Journalism

By Mark Trodden | November 14, 2006 7:49 am

When I lived in England and when I go back to visit, I often treat myself to two newspapers — The Guardian, for reasonable reporting of the national and international news, and The Daily Telegraph, for its crossword, to which I am particularly partial. You’ll notice that I don’t mention the news content of the latter, because I generally feel that it has a right wing stance and as a result doesn’t represent the news in a fair way

Because the quality of science reporting in general is dropping precipitously in Britain (if the extent to which I am able to keep up with it over here provides a fair sample), and because of my already low opinion of the news content of The Daily Telegraph (and its sister publication, The Sunday Telegraph), I do not typically look to it to provide me with innovative descriptions of cutting edge science. However, it now appears that they are actively capable of publishing eye-poppingly awful claptrap that, predictably, seems to share their overall political bent.

I learned of this through George Monbiot’s science column in The Guardian, in which he delivers a bare-bottomed spanking to The Sunday Telegraph for its actions. He describes a two-part article published there, written by Viscount Monckton of Brenchley (otherwise known as Christopher Monckton), who appears to be one of our national aristocratic treasures, sharing the three traits (being underinformed, being overconfident, and being in possession of an outrageously disproportionate portion of the national wealth) that readers in the U.S. will have come to know and love through Prince Charles.

Monckton’s thesis is, as he describes near the beginning of his first installment, that

… the “climate-change” scare is less about saving the planet than, in Jacques Chirac’s chilling phrase, “creating world government”. This week and next, I’ll reveal how politicians, scientists and bureaucrats contrived a threat of Biblical floods, droughts, plagues, and extinctions …

He goes on to make outrageous and unsupported claims about global warming, selectively quoting (and sometimes misquoting) experts in the field and taking on the actual science in a way that is just plain embarrassing. He makes historical claims (like there are reliable reports from sailors that there was little or no arctic ice six hundred years ago) that Monbiot dismisses, and does a thoroughly dishonest job of representing James Hansen’s claims.

Now, I’m not a climate scientist, but I am a scientist and, as such, I can recognize when science is being blatantly misused. Monckton’s article does provide evidence of such behavior, but it is Monckton himself who is the culprit. Perhaps the cleanest example is the following. In discussing the use of the Stefan-Boltzmann law, and its important constant, in climate science, he claims

The bigger the value of lambda, the bigger the temperature increase the UN could predict. Using poor Ludwig Boltzmann’s law, lambda’s true value is just 0.22-0.3C per watt. In 2001, the UN effectively repealed the law, doubling lambda to 0.5C per watt. A recent paper by James Hansen says lambda should be 0.67, 0.75 or 1C: take your pick. Sir John Houghton, who chaired the UN’s scientific assessment working group until recently, tells me it now puts lambda at 0.8C: that’s 3C for a 3.7-watt doubling of airborne CO2. Most of the UN’s computer models have used 1C. Stern implies 1.9C.

Now here’s where you should smell a rat immediately. Could it really be the fact that an important ingredient in the frightening implications of climate models is that scientists from many institutions are deliberately violating the laws of physics to arrive at the conclusions they desire? Well, possibly, I guess. But you wouldn’t want to entertain such a far-fetched hypothesis until you’d done a rudimentary check of the actual methodology, accompanied by, oh I don’t know, a scientist perhaps.

Monbiot quotes such an expert – Gavin Schmidt, a well-known climate scientist, blogger, and all-round good guy to have a beer with.

His claims about the Stefan-Boltzmann equation have been addressed by someone who does know what he’s talking about, Dr Gavin Schmidt of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He begins by pointing out that Stefan-Boltzmann is a description of radiation from a “black body” – an idealized planet that absorbs all the electromagnetic radiation that reaches it. The Earth is not a black body. It reflects some of the radiation it receives back into space.

Schmidt points out that Monckton also forgets, in making his calculations, that “climate sensitivity is an equilibrium concept”: in other words that there is a time-lag of several decades between the release of carbon dioxide and the eventual temperature rise it causes. If you don’t take this into account, the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide looks much smaller. This is about as fundamental a mistake as you can make in climate science.

And the howlers go on and on.

Climate science is a difficult topic, relying on modeling, computer simulation, extrapolation of laboratory results, and a geologic understanding of the planet’s climate history, among many other components. These are all imperfectly understood and practiced and no scientist worth his or her salt relies on any single result (for example, the hockey stick graph) to infer climate change. Nevertheless, a clear scientific consensus has emerged, particularly over the last decade, and it is rooted in data and not in a vast conspiracy. That an individual might not grasp this, or might be swayed by the well-funded, well-organized and well-motivated anti-climate change lobby, is entirely possible. However, what is dismaying is that a newspaper, which we trust to bring us a deeply-researched and impartial description of the situation, chooses to publish such an obviously biased, unscientific and worryingly-researched manifesto (seeing Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear among the references is a bit of a red flag for me).

Part of the problem is clearly politically motivated reporting, but Monbiot thinks another factor plays a role

At a meeting of 150 senior journalists last year, who had gathered to discuss climate change, the chairman asked how many people in the audience had a science degree. Three of us raised our hands. Readers cannot expect a newspaper editor to possess a detailed understanding of atmospheric physics, but there should at least be someone who knows what science looks like whom the editor consults before running a piece.

A scientific paper is one published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This means it has been subject to scrutiny by other experts in the field. This doesn’t suggest that it’s the last word on the subject, but it does mean it is worth discussing. For newspapers such as the Sunday Telegraph the test seems to be much simpler. If they don’t understand it, it must be science.

A true science journalist would have been able to tell The Sunday Telegraph that; but they are getting harder and harder to come by, and may be extinct by the end of the decade.

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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