Friday, April 21, 2006

BBC R4: Overselling climate change?

There was a really good programme on BBC Radio 4 last night on climate change, and specifically the question of whether it is (sometimes/often) oversold, by media and the scientists alike. Readers of this blog won't be too surprised at which side I come down on. I think the producers did a really good job of presenting the issues accurately and intelligently. Since I was briefly featured on the programme (and also on the clip used as a trailer/tempter on the high-profile Today news programme in the morning), it would perhaps be unseemly to sing its praises too highly, but Roger Pielke has a good commentary on it. Rather than parrot his talking points, I'll just suggest you go and read his post.

I don't think the main targets came out of it very well, but I honestly don't think they can have any reasonable grounds for complaint over how the program addressed the issues - indeed, they seemed wholly unapologetic over the roles they played. Anyway, there's no need to take my word for it, listen again for yourself. And tell me what you think :-)


There's a RealClimate post on this, focussing exclusively on the coverage. While this might have been the highest-profile example (and RC comes down pretty hard on the press release), I think the programme clearly demonstrated that it was far from an isolated event. I suspect there will be lively discussion over there :-)

One more interesting point that no-one else seems to have picked up on - the claim that there were many more scientists who also voiced reservations privately, but who would not go on the record to say so. What are we, (wo)men or mice?


Carl Christensen said...

Well, I'm a biased view (, and a computer scientist not a climate scientist, but it seems that it's trying to be "alarmist about alarmism." Although as an American, it was a far better presntation than what you would get from the usual corporate media in the US on the subject (i.e. polemics from Myron Ebell as if he's a leading climate researcher).

But it's sort of like how the British media goes psychotic over the effectively powerless BNP party (as "Question Time" showed last night, 20 BNP councillors out of 20K potential doesn't mean Britain is going down a racist trend).

There were a few limp counterexamples (i.e. the frogs, the malaria) of things that have perhaps been misattributed to climate change. And of course they love the misinterpreted "11C rise" from, as if you can blame the project and/or scientists for lazy journalists.

I would say in summary that overall (worldwide media, esp the USA) that the extremism/alarmism of anthropogenic global warming is far outweighed by the corporate media outlets worldwide, who reiterate the anti-global-warming hype of their interests (via "right-wing think tanks" or whatever).

Which is not to say that scientists should fall prey to helping out the lazy journalists looking for a headline, but to whinge on about the Metro headline of 11C or misattributing tree frog declines or whatever is a bit unbalanced IMHO.

James Annan said...


Your argument that it is fine to balance the scepticism with some exaggeration is precisely the "bad arguments for good causes" line that Steve Rayner addressed. We all lose out when scientists decide to dress up their research in terms of promoting the causes they espouse. You know, maybe some of the card-carrying septics believe that their cause justifies their exaggerations too!

Sure, there is a share of the blame between "lazy journalists" who allow themselves to be misled without spending the time required to go back to the original source and put it in its proper context (do you really think they have, or should have, the skill or time for this?), the press officers who put out releases that appear to be carefully crafted to deceive, and the scientists who put their names to press releases that (as it's plain for all to see) do not convey the message accurately. I think the program made this point pretty clearly.

Carl Christensen said...

yeah but we're talking about a little hyperbole in a press release (in the case of et al). That at worst was reported in the "London Metro" (a free rag you get on the Underground) as "11C increase by 2100."

Compare that with the usual Lindzen/Singer/Will/Ebell/Cato crap. And at least behind our press release is a peer-reviewed paper of our findings, & data on offer etc. So it seems a bit "much ado about nothing" to me, over a mild amount of "showmanship" at worst. Well I'll take it over to realclimate rather than clog up your blob with my meanderings! ;-)

James Annan said...


You seem keen to point the finger at "rags" such as the Metro, but the interesting question to me is not "did the Metro get it wrong?" but "was this sort of mistake entirely predictable, given the press release?" Chomsky would say "you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your own actions", and that remains true even when journalists are also at fault.

Anyway, the programme didn't revolve entirely about cpdn - and neither does the world :-) The quote of mine that they used was addressing another study which was poorly presented - but in that case, the lead scientist (who happens to be a friend of mine) agreed entirely, and was clearly a little embarrassed at how it had turned out. The important thing is not whether we make mistakes, but whether we acknowledge and learn from them.

Sure, you can argue that you didn't actually lie. If that's the standard you hold yourselves to, then congratulations. It is my contention that we should aim rather higher than that. Is the aim to impress people, scare them, or inform them?

Anonymous said...

> indeed, they seemed wholly unapologetic over the roles they played.

To me that sounds like finding them guilty as charged without listening to the defence. Now Myles Allen has put up a response at comment number 28, does the action of asking someone to follow up sound like the action of someone who is unconcerned?


James Annan said...


By that comment, I meant based on what they all said in the programme (which was to strongly assert that the press releases were just fine).

It all seems rather bizarre to me. Myles Allen spent the entire R4 interview asserting that the the press release was fine, and then puts up a string of comments on RC from journalists saying how the scientists had spent the press conference rowing back the exaggerated picture that the journalists had picked up from the press release. So...umm...doesn't that prove the PR was misleading?

His claim that they couldn't possibly have put any reference to the (much more plausible) lower sensitivities in the press release was particularly weak, I thought - and is hard to reconcile with his quote in the linked scidevnet article he provided:

It is important to note that the bottom of the range corresponds to previous estimates, says Myles Allen

How was a journalist supposed to know this "important" fact that was not important enough to even rate a passing mention in the press release?

As I said above, the programme wasn't just about cpdn. You will have no doubt noted how Tim Lenton simply agreed that in his case the PR was indeed excessive, and he came up smelling of roses (or perhaps I should say daisies) as a result.

As RayPierre said, (paraphrasing) it's not a tragedy, no-one died. It is, however, rather disappointing that a few people seem to be stubbornly refusing to learn the obvious lessons. Perhaps it is just the defensive bluster of people who know they are wrong but don't want to admit it in public. Anyway, I think the point has been made clearly enough, and I don't want to flog an increasingly dead horse for ever more. People whose minds are firmly made up (on either side) are unlikely to be swayed by debate!

Anonymous said...

No! I certainly did NOT note that Tim Lenton came up smelling of roses. I thought he got off remarkably lightly given his position. He thought the PR was excessive but he was involved with signing it off! If he is holding his hands up and saying I got it wrong that is ok by me. However if we apply your reasoning of responsibility for the forseeable misinterpretations of others his position seems totally untenable yet you say he comes out smelling of roses! If that isn't a double standard, what is?

It seems to me the Tim Lenton case is clearly unacceptable and lessons will be learnt. Fine by me. Other cases may be more borderline.

We finally seem to be getting down to the issue being about learning lessons. But neither the BBC nor you made this point til your last comment.

>By that comment, I meant based on ...
Does this mean you are clarifying what you meant. Should I to hold you responsible for the forseeable mistaken interpretations of others? Don't you think that is going a bit far? Would you happily accept someone applying that standard to you?

Glad you are deciding it is a dead horse. I agree there are lessons which can be learnt. The questions seems to be more about whether the coverage was over the top and/or whether CPDN should have been dragged into it.

>So...umm...doesn't that prove the PR was misleading?

That seems to be missing the point. I thought the program dealt with the purpose of the press release being to draw attention to the newsworthy bits without pages of caveats. This gets journalists to the press conference where the context is provided. The letters seem to me to indicate that this is what happened.

The Tim Lenton case was more about the drafting and signing off of the press release while the CPDN case is more about the journalists. I would agree with a conclusion that there is potential for problems all along the trail and lessons should be learnt.

It is unfortunate that this distiction between the cases was not clearer. Roger got this all along the trail point, shame you and others missed it. Consequences.


James Annan said...


I'm not sure if you realise that Tim's research was a report commissioned by the Environment Agency (he does not work there), who then did the publicity themselves for their own purposes. Most of the quotes on the press release are from the head of the EA, not the scientists involved. While I agree his position is not beyond all reproach (one can always try harder), it's questionable to what extent he could directly control what they said. The press officer concerned was insistent that it was all fine as it stood, and they'd obviously had plenty of debate about it. Perhaps Tim could have stamped his foot a bit harder, but ultimately adults who disagree generally have to compromise!

Bear in mind the programme's claims that there were many scientists who were critical of the cpdn press release, but who didn't want to say too much in public. That should at least give you pause for thought. How not to write a press release is a pretty unequivocal comment!

Steve Bloom said...

James, as I suspect it may not be there in the morning, I saved the following gem from RC for you. The last paragraph took my breath away. :)

Re #43: "It is noteworthy that good science continually attempts to restrain exaggeration"

This is a very astute observation indeed. I would add that good scientists do not publish results until they understood all caveats, especially instabilities in their models. For example, the Stainforth et al. article states in "data quality" section:

"Finally, runs that show a drift in Tg greater than 0.02 Kyr21 in the last eight years of the control are judged to be unstable and are also removed from this analysis."

Also, from the same source:
"Most models still maintain a temperature of between 13 and 14 °C, however some get colder - these are not stable and the heat flux calculated in phase 1 was not correct to keep the model in balance."

These statements pretty much nullify results of the whole article IMO - it looks like the data were filtered in favor of desireable result - GW.

Similar situation is with the Annan and Hargreaves article. They base their analysis on an assumption that all objects in their ensemble are independent. This assumption was not quantified in the article, they assumed this as obvious. Unfortunately, all their objects are based (in one or another way) on linear concepts and perturbations near an alleged global equillibrium, while even superficial inspection of paleoclimate data (like ice cores) makes it quite clear that the climate-bearing system is continuously on the move, it oscillates back and forth like an relaxation generator, and therefore is never in static equillibrium. As result, multiplying outputs from predominantly wrong models does not create any more overall confidence.

- aap

Comment by Alexi Tekhasski — 23 Apr 2006 @ 1:30 am

James Annan said...

Heh. Thanks, I think :-)

If RC publishes it, I reckon it's RC's responsibility to deal with answering it :-)

I don't mind a bit of idle banter on blogs, but with some guys, you can tell it's a lost cause before even starting!

ankh said...

We need an award for pointing out, acknowledging and fixing one's own mistakes, I think. Some sort of positive reinforcement to honor this most difficult behavior that doesn't seem to 'come naturally' to our species. Both in the science writer field and for the scientists themselves.

As a minor example, my local newspaper (San Francisco Chronicle) recently published, and headlined, the mistaken statement that sea level was predicted to rise 7 meters by 2100.

I emailed them (others did also). The editors or webminions there changed the headline, but not the article. I emailed the author, who went back and beat on the newspaper. The minions there fixed a couple of the misstatements in the text and left the lede paragraph wrong for a while; eventually they fixed it all, and it's correct now.

This is behavior from a science writer that deserves some kind of award for getting corrections deep enough that Google will propagate correct info eventually!