Don’t let the facts spoil a good story

September 19th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in sun, telegraph | 4 Comments »

Oops sorry, in all the excitement about Matthias Rath I forgot to post last week’s column, here it is.

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday September 13 2008

Here is a cautionary tale for anyone working in research. “Captain Cook and Lord Nelson seem unlikely figureheads in the fight against climate change alarmists,” said the Sun. “Lord Nelson and Captain Cook’s ship logs question climate change theories,” announced the Telegraph. Oh that’s handy. So perhaps we can just keep on burning oil regardless then? “The ships’ logs of great maritime figures such as Lord Nelson and Captain Cook have cast new light on climate change by suggesting that global warming may not be an entirely man-made phenomenon.”

I spoke to Dennis Wheeler, a geographer at Sunderland University and the man whose research triggered this coverage. Is he a leading figure in “the fight against climate change alarmists”?

No. “But now I’ve had emails from cranks around the world thinking I’m some kind of anti-global warming conspiracy theorist and a friend to them. I’m most certainly not. The newspapers grossly and crassly misrepresented everything we are doing.”

In fact, Wheeler had spoken only to the Sunday Times, which covered his work accurately. The rest of the newspapers copied the quotes, and the information, but rather grandly decided to change the purpose and the outcome of his research. “It was odd reading articles which were written as if a reporter had spoken to me – I wasn’t fully aware of the extent to which the media copy each other’s newspapers – but worse was the brazen way they distorted our work. Not a single one of the journalists from any other newspaper contacted us to see if their take on the story was correct.”

In fact, the journalists concocted all kinds of connections entirely for themselves. “Ships’ logs, and thousands more like them, have revealed that recent global warming is not so unusual after all.” Is that true? “No. As I pointed out to the Sunday Times, the ships’ log books I work with only give us information about wind force and wind direction, they basically do not give us information on temperatures, and if they do it’s very scant and unreliable. We’ve simply never claimed indirectly or directly to have any direct evidence on changing temperatures.”

More from the Telegraph: “The records also suggest that Europe saw a spell of rapid warming, similar to that experienced today, during the 1730s that must have been caused naturally.”

Wheeler? “Your heart just sinks. Well, the central England temperature series, for example, have shown us that the 1720s and 1730s are a period of fairly rapid warming, but that’s in recovery from the Little Ice Age, and we’d like to know more about that, but this has been known about since 1974. What we are trying to do is to shed a fresh light – a bit of background – on these long-known changes in temperature.

“Somewhere at the end they do quote me, but by then the headlines have done their job, and the message is lost in the willingness of so many people to believe global warming is not a major issue. And by the end it was unclear what my quote meant anyway, in its new context.”

How did the papers quote Wheeler? Thus: “Global warming is a reality, but our data shows climate science is complex. It is wrong to take particular events and link them to carbon dioxide emissions.” I could see how that quote might get misunderstood.

“Only out of context. I wasn’t talking about the scientific community, I wasn’t talking about climate change theory being wrong, I was talking about the media and others getting things wrong. Any new weather event is currently explained away as yet another facet of global warming, but there has always been freak weather. Like most people, I find it hugely irritating when people draw too much from single events.”

If you’re an academic and your work has been “grossly and crassly misrepresented” by the newspapers, then I’m always very pleased to hear from you.

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4 Responses

  1. heavens said,

    September 19, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I don’t count as an academic, but I once had a discussion about a very, very early prototype of a possible future therapeutic turned into “currently awaiting FDA approval” by a headline writer.

    That was a few years ago, and I’ll bet that the (revised) protein is still at least six years away from that stage.

  2. AndyGilmour said,

    September 20, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I don’t count as an academic either, and it’s not strictly about “academic publishing”, but a looong time ago a friend of mine was stitched-up beautifully by “The Sun”…which might amuse..?

    “Lady Di” (back when she was still firmly married to ‘His Royal Faithness’) was visiting the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. My chum, being an upstanding “independent school” pupil, hung the Soviet flag from his bedroom window, clearly visible from the school. The police ‘requested’ its removal, and a reporter who’d spotted this incredibly minor incident, came over and had a brief chat with him, accompanied by a photographer.

    My mate, being a naive sort back then, blethered away merrily, and thought nothing of it…

    Until he was pictured (looking as ‘angry’ as they could get – he’d been squinting into the light) in the next day’s “soaraway” Sun above a highly sensationalised account of the “violent commie threat to royals” – complete with a large tattooed forearm and menacing clenched fist…neither of which, strangely enough, were his.

    Still, he ended up being a press officer, and got his revenge by manipulating the buggers something rotten…

  3. FlammableFlower said,

    September 22, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Quote:”If you’re an academic and your work has been “grossly and crassly misrepresented” by the newspapers, then I’m always very pleased to hear from you.” Watch out – you could find yourself very, very busy.

  4. paladin said,

    November 18, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    Yeah I know what you mean (referring to the last paragraph); recently my mom saw an advertisment (some mint candy) which depicted a polar bear out in the sun in a zoo desperate for the cooling candy (I mean seriously!), anyway, my mum goes…”global warming”.