People in the “public engagement” community often talk about how scientists should do more to communicate with the media. I take a different line: scientists have good grounds to be extremely nervous, and some entities and journalists could quite fairly be blacklisted.
Here’s just one more example. It doesn’t stand out, I get sent plenty every week, and when I get a moment I’ll find a way to archive the tips efficiently online: but I’m posting this one here because the Telegraph have misrepresented a scientists work, refused to correct it when he writes to them, and then refused even to let him post an online comment on the article which misrepresented his own work. This strikes me as harsh.
So, on the 1st of January the Telegraph’s science correspondent wrote this piece: “Greenhouse gases could have caused an ice age, claim scientists” was the headline. “Scientists have warned” that “filling the atmosphere with Greenhouse gases associated with global warming could push the planet into a new ice age”.
Wrong. And I’ve posted the whole article below, in case they quietly change it, because the entire story was bullshit from start to finish. The work showed nothing of the sort. The Telegraph didn’t speak to Prof Ian Fairchild (they call him Dr), and their authoritative quote from him in the article was copied and pasted out of context.
Worse than that, Prof Fairchild has tried to post comments on the article which flatly misrepresents his own research, twice, but his comments have been rejected by the Telegraph’s online comment moderators, while 23 other comments have appeared.
It’s quite hard to understand both the intellectual and moral reasoning behind this kind of behaviour.
He also sent the following letter on Monday, which they have not deigned to print. It is now Thursday and it has not appeared. That means it will not.
Contrary to the headline about our scientific work that appeared last week on the Telegraph website, high levels of greenhouse gases did not trigger an ice age. In our paper in Science we provided independent evidence for a theory that a hot atmosphere rich in greenhouse gases could coexist with a cold, glacial Earth surface. A planet largely covered in ice and snow (a Snowball Earth) would allow carbon dioxide emitted from volcanoes to build up in the atmosphere over millions of years. We show that this actually happened at a time in the Earth’s history prior to the evolution of animals.
Perhaps it was the prolonged cold snap over Christmas that set the headline writer’s mind racing, but the contemporary relevance of our work is rather different. A Snowball Earth could be re-created, in spite of greenhouse warming. For example, a nuclear war would generate a pall of dust, reflecting sunlight away from the Earth. Also, a proposed technological fix to global warming – launching a mass of tiny sulphate aerosol particles in the atmosphere – could be overdone with the same result. Barring these horrors, we are left with the physical reality of greenhouse warming, despite the vagaries of our wonderfully capricious British weather.
Ian J. Fairchild
Professor of Physical Geography
To my mind this is poor quality journalism followed, more importantly, by cowardly editorial decision-making. This article could very easily be retracted or corrected, clearly and unambiguously, in the newspaper. I honestly don’t understand why they wouldn’t do this. People make mistakes. What distinguishes you from the morons is what you do when the mistakes get pointed out.
A proper lay summary on the work is available here:
You can read the academic journal article on the work here:
The Press Association managed not to get the story wrong:
Tim Lambert already spotted this:
And finally here is the Telegraph piece:
Filling the atmosphere with Greenhouse gases associated with global warming could push the planet into a new ice age, scientists have warned.
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Last Updated: 6:51PM GMT 01 Jan 2009
Researchers at the University of Birmingham found that 630 million years ago the earth had a warm atmosphere full of carbon dioxide but was completely covered with ice.
The scientists studied limestone rocks and found evidence that large amounts of greenhouse gas coincided with a prolonged period of freezing temperatures.
Such glaciation could happen again if global warming is not curbed, the university’s school of geography, earth and environmental sciences warned.
While pollution in the air is thought to trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up, this new research suggests it could also have the opposite effect reflecting rays back into space.
This effect would be magnified by other forms of pollution in the earth’s atmosphere such as particles of sulphate pumped into the air through industrial pollution or volcanic activity and could create ice age conditions once more, the scientists said.
Dr Ian Fairchild, lead investigator, said: “We came up with an independent test of a theory that the earth, like a baked Alaska pudding, was once hot on the outside, surrounding a cold, icy surface.
“It happened naturally in the past, but the wrong use of technology could make it happen again.”
The limestones studied were collected in Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, which is covered in ice and snow.
And lastly, if you are an academic, and you have been misrepresented in the media, it’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, so get in touch. I am always very keen to hear from you.