The Daily Telegraph misrepresent a scientist’s work, then refuse to correct it when he writes to them.

January 8th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in climate change, telegraph | 109 Comments »

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.

best wishes,


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:

Greenhouse gases could have caused an ice age, claim scientists

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

Comments 23 | Comment on this article

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.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

109 Responses

  1. seanie said,

    January 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    “A low-range optimistic estimate of 2°C of 21st century warming will shift the Earth’s global mean surface temperature into conditions which have not existed since the middle Pliocene, 3 million years ago. More than 4°C of atmospheric heating will take the planet’s climate back, within a century, to the largely ice-free world that existed prior to about 35 million years ago. The average ‘species’ lifetime’ is only 1 to 3 million years. So it is quite possible that in the comparative geological instant of a century, planetary conditions will be transformed to a state unlike anything that most of the world’s modern species have encountered.”

    A temperature rise of 2°C has generally been taken as a ‘safe’ level, but it looks pretty unlikely we’ll manage that. There’s now talk of trying to limit the increase to 4°C, despite all the uncertainties of feedbacks.

    The point of the Hansen paper above was that previous estimes on climate sensitivity to CO2 have been too conservative, leaving out longer term feedback effects.

    Instead of a doubling of CO2 (which we’re on course to do) causing a 3°C rise, it could lead to a 6°C rise.

    6°C is mass extinction territory.

    So given all the uncertainties and the possibility of positive feedbacks, the level of CO2 that currently exists may already be dangerously high.

  2. NorthernBoy said,

    January 13, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    You have distorted my words, to make them say what you seem to want them to say, rather than what they actually said. Everything which I posted is consistent with my view that there is a serious problem which me must deal with. It is also my view that all too many on my side use hyperbole and step beyond what is factually accurate, which harms the cause. You did this above, yet prefer to attack, and twist my words when this is pointed out.

    This too seems to be a serious problem with most people advocating action. When presented with someone who questions even the language that we use when urging change, they immediately characterize the person with whom they are disagreeing as having the view “don’t worry about global warming”.

    If this is how you attack someone who politely points out that we should be careful to ensure that our language can never be accused of being an exaggeration, then you are doing as much harm to the cause as Plane Stupid, and George Monbiot.

  3. seanie said,

    January 13, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    But then you were pretty free and easy with an accusation of dishonesty.

    And I find your justification for that extremely weak; namely that ‘all life on our planet’ is an unhelpful exaggeration because even with a mass extinction cockroaches and bacteria might thrive.

    That strikes me as both a rather relaxed position to take and also missing the point somewhat.

  4. artberry said,

    January 22, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    The article doesn’t deny climate change, it simply implies CO2 can cause global cooling. So is still trying to sell the idea it’s all caused by man.

    But actually the idea that something we breath out along with most animals, plants and trees which forms just 0.038% of the earth’s atmosphere is the primary source of climate change is IMO plain stupid in any case. Surely if that were indeed the case we could cut carbon emissions simply by cutting down a couple of rain forests lol or maybe it’s all caused by smokers lol

    Actually I wouldn’t say the alternative theories to man made climate changed are exactly boring one theory out there is it’s due to the return of Nibiru. The brown dwarf binary of our sun. Another theory is Galactic alignment and the whole end of the Mayan Calendar on 21st December 2012. Apart from those ideas there’s also the onset of an ice age caused by increased sub-oceanic volcanism. These theories are probable mostly on the fringes, but I wouldn’t say they were boring, they are quite interesting ideas and certainly well out of the box.

  5. seanie said,

    January 23, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Your opinions, whilst I respect your right to express them, aren’t of great significance since they’re clearly bollocks.

  6. pronk said,

    January 23, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Sorry to hijack the debate, but as we’re talking about bad science journalism it looks like the Fail are dredging up MMR again:–bubbly-little-girl-struggles-speak-walk-feed-herself.html
    Perhaps they’d like to explain why they’re so concerned about one little girl with an undiagnosed condition, yet don’t seem bothered by hundreds of sick children with measles – a situation they helped create.
    While I hate the legal culture of sueing everyone left, right and centre, I’d love to see the Fail et al get sued by parents claiming that their scare stories stopped them immunising their kids, and then their kids got sick. Sadly, I don’t think they’ll stop even when we have a full-blown epidemic.

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  9. disgustedofcyberspace said,

    March 12, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Why doesn’t Fairchild sue for libel? Misrepresenting him thus in the paper damages his scientific credibility and it is therefore libel. The UK courts do a stellar job of awarding libel damages that they shouldn’t, so one would hope they can also see this is in fact libellous.