Saturday, April 01, 2006

The media: misleading or misled?

Stoat has a go at the media for "garbling" some papers on sea level rise. The research points to temperatures possibly being high enough by 2100 to commit us to a melting of much of the ice sheets, with an eventual sea level rise of several metres. However, some of the media presented this as if to say that we could expect 6m of sea level rise by that date, which is certainly not what the papers said. Having read the press release, I'm not so quick to point the finger at the journalists. Right in that first paragraph, they mention the 2100 date, and the 6m of sea level rise, and nowhere in the article do they ever give any other estimate of what the sea level is likely to be in 2100. Sure, they do say "eventually rose", but if someone had set out to deliberately mislead journalists, they could hardly have done a better job without actually lying.

To me, this has a strong echo of the coverage of the EA report on millennial climate change. At least in that case, the scientists concerned have spoken of their "consternation" at the tone of the press release - and they have the excuse that the report was commissioned by an external (to the scientists) agency which then did the PR on their own terms.

As a further comment on this new work, I've not read the papers, but it's a racing certainty that they use one of the most pessimistic scenarios for emissions (probably A2, which combines extremely high population growth with strong growth in emissions per capita). I know they only say "could" at the start of the press release, but I'd much prefer it if scientists actually said what they thought was likely to happen, rather than (or at a minimum, in parallel with) presenting the most extreme viewpoint that they think they can get away with.


coby said...

I have a copy of the paper from Dr Overpeck and glanced through it again. There don't seem to be any explicit scenarios but there is a reference to J. M. Gregory, P. Huybrechts, S. C. B. Raper, Nature 428,616 (2004) to support "More-recent modeling (3) indicated that the Earth will be warm enough by 2100 to melt the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) over the next millennium or so," and many references to what the climate was during the LIG. As for the model they used they just refer to materials available at Science online.

Here is a passage that might answer you:

"Assuming that the GIS and WAIS both may have contributed to the LIG sea-level high stand, we used a state-of-the-art coupled atmosphere-ocean climate model to simulate the climate of 130,000 years ago and then compared this simulation with simulations of the next 140 years made with the same model to learn how much sea-level rise might be expected in the future (27). Results of our LIG climate simulation are in good agreement with observed Northern Hemisphere warming for the LIG (17)and reveal several key aspects of the LIG climate (Fig. 2). First, the simulated LIG was warmer than the present period in the Northern Hemisphere but not in the Southern, consistent with strong northern but near-zero southern summer insolation anomalies at that time (Fig. 1). This result indicates that sea-level rise at 130,000 to 128,000 years ago probably started first with the melting of the GIS and not the Antarctic Ice Sheet."

(27) is the online material reference.

James Annan said...


Thanks for that. The supplementary info reveals that they were using a projected continued 1% pa CO2 increase, backdated to a 1990 start date!! CO2 is currently increasing at about 0.6%pa, and methane is stagnant or even decreasing slightly.

The ref to the Gregory paper is an obvious exaggeration too, as that paper only indicated it woud "probably" be warm enough by 2100 (under assumptions that are at best controversial - giving each SRES scenario equal probability).

I don't doubt that warming sufficient to trigger an eventual Greenland melting is possible in 100 years. But they are definitely exaggerating the alarmist angle on it.

ankh said...

Nobody really appreciates how the media can screw facts up until their personal attempt to explain something accurately goes through the mill.

I don't read Hansen as trying to craft words that are going to be easily misinterpreted (as "spinning") but on the other hand I often do read Peilke Jr. as doing exactly that with his word choice. So I consider this my own likely bias to deal with.

I do consider it right to challenge both of them -- or anyone else -- on word choice and to understand every possible way the words could be misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misrepresented.

I've just hassled one of my favorite journalists, jfleck, about word choice, and it took a few days of back and forth to even understand where the ambiguity about when an El Nino began and when it might become a "Super" event. (An "ENSO year" is not a calendar year, and a headline said a Super event was predicted to occur 'this year' -- meaning in 2007).

I've spent a bit of time chasing this "melted by 2100" mistake down wherever I find it. It goes back to the original Associated Press article that went out to wire services, the AP got it wrong. It appeared for example in my local newspaper (SF Chronicle) and stayed in their archive, wrong, for months. I was the first person to email the writer of the local piece; he went to fix it and had to go back three times, because whoever 'fixed' the error fixed it first only in the headline not the article; then only fixed the first place in the text; and finally fixed the next place the error occurred.

It's, well I guess those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can do neither, check citations and proofread (wry grin).

My deep respect to all involved in trying to figure this stuff out and explain what we know, what we don't know, and what's being speculated about.

In summary -- I'd say the headline here is wrong (grin). The media are both misleading, and misled. Finding and fixing errors is more likely to be useful than attributing malice.

Yes, there have to be some malicious spinners out there. Honest reactions to those are rare.

I treasure Judith Curry's take, in a thread at clmateaudit a while back, after she first happened on the CO2science website (can't find that at the moment, it's in there somewhere).

Interesting on this whole topic about writing and spinning. She says she's currently only contributing comments at scienceaudit, and that she's thinking of writing an article about science, spin and the blogosphere!