Jonathan Leake misreports scientist’s claims

June 19th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, jonathan leake, telegraph | 14 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday 20 June 2009

When is a conversation public, an act of performance, and when is it private? This problem rears its head with greater frequency in the age of the internet, as more discussions are publicly accessible without necessarily, in the minds of the participants, being for the public.

In everyday life, the Scottish Daily Express recently sent one of its reporters onto Facebook. There she found embarrassing photos and descriptions of drunkeness and snogging among children from Dunblane. They had seen their schoolmates massacred before them, some had sustained horrific injuries themselves, but freshly turned 18 they were now fair game: this normal adolescent behaviour was somehow a public scandal. Bloggers were outraged, but mainstream media kept silent.

There are parallels from the world of science, in the form of preprint archives.

Oceans charge up new theory of magnetism” said the Times last Sunday. As always, it wasn’t enough that a theory was interesting and new: it had to be transgressive, turn the world on its head, and have all the answers.

“Earth’s magnetic field, long thought to be generated by molten metals swirling around its core, may instead be produced by ocean currents, according to controversial new research published this week.” [Note: since I contacted them, they have changed the text of the online version of this article, although this change is not flagged, see below]. That is what science correspondent Jonathan Leake’s article said. But it is not what the new research said.

Pay attention. The earth, as you know, has a magnetic field, which is how compasses work. Where this field comes from is a bit of a mystery. Things that are “permanent” magnets, like the iron horseshoe ones you’ve played with, tend to lose their magnetic field after a while.

The earth’s magnetic field keeps on going, but it also fluctuates a tiny bit. And every now and then – like about 780,000 years ago – it flips, so that the North and South poles change place.

Nobody really knows what causes the flips, but the fluctuations have been taken as evidence of the movement of the molten iron core in the earth, slooping and spinning around, and this movement forms the basis of the dynamo theory for the origin of the earth’s magnetic field.

The Times said that Professor Ryskin from Midwestern University has a new paper out, which is true, and that he had shown that the fluctuations in the magnetic field are due to the movement of oceans, which he also did say.

The Times goes further. It suggests that the poles flipping is due to the movement of water in the oceans. “One idea is that changes in ocean circulation may explain the curious reversals shown by Earth’s magnetic field, in which the north and south magnetic poles suddenly flip over.” This idea is not in Prof Ryskin’s paper. I contacted Prof Ryskin: he says he does not think his ocean theory explains the flip.

The Times also says Ryskin’s paper claims that the whole of the earth’s magnetic field is produced by the movement of oceans. The paper does not make this claim. I contacted Prof Ryskin: he says he does not think the oceans create the earth’s magnetic field.

He says he wanted to stick to the subject of the published paper, didn’t want to speculate on the questions of the field origin or its reversals, and objected to such speculations being included. The Times journalist meanwhile says that Prof Ryskin has confirmed that everything in the Times article was correct.

What explains this disparity? It is partly a practical issue, and partly, perhaps, a question of tolerating mystery.

A long time ago, several years back, Prof Ryskin put a paper up for discussion on a preprint server. These do not constitute publication, they are a place – not properly peer-reviewed – where academics can post ideas for discussion and criticism. Ryskin does not stand by everything he said in this paper, and many of his ideas have changed. Like the teenagers from Dunblane, he is alarmed that it should suddenly be seen as a formal reflection of his views, and feels it was never meant for public consumption, or popularisation. When he posted his thoughts for discussion among academics, it never occurred to him that anybody else would want to read it.

But there is also an emotional issue. I don’t know what explains the disparity between the academic’s account, and the journalist’s: but I will tolerate that mystery, because “I don’t know” is often the correct answer for many questions.

Prof Ryskin is clear on this too: the variation in the earth’s magnetic field has always been seen as evidence of hydrodynamic flow in the iron core. If he’s right, and this variation is actually produced by the ocean flow, he says, then there’s no evidence of flow in the core of the earth, so the dynamo theory becomes entirely hypothetical.

You can see the earth’s magnetic field with a compass. “In my view it may be good, in some respects, to have this as a mystery again,” he says. “That can be stimulating: it may be good for people to think that there are mysteries to be solved.”


The paper is here:

And there’s a good blog entry on Ryskin’s work here:


I’m amused to see that since I contacted them, the Times have changed their copy, and “produced by” has been replaced with “linked to”.

Read the original here

No clarification or correction, just a silent change.

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14 Responses

  1. barbelith said,

    June 20, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Here’s something to slightly restore your faith in humanity. I am subscribed to a geomagnetism mailing list. Recently a researcher forwarded the following email, asking if anyone else wished to weigh in on it. I am removing all identifying information — primarily because the archives are not public, so it seems the polite thing to do. But with the specifics edited out, it (1) serves as a fine template for any science reporter wishing to do their job properly, and (2) demonstrates just how easy it is to do this kind of check, and thus just how slipshod Jonathan Leake (the Times reporter) was in his reporting this story.

    From: xxxxxxxxxxx
    To: xxxxxxxxxx
    Subject: : request for comment about geomagnetism study

    Dear Dr. xxxxxxxxx,
    I’m a reporter for and am writing about a new study by Gregory Ryskin in which he describes how ocean currents might be causing short term variations in Earth’s magnetic field. xxxxxxxx and xxxxxxxx both recommended I contact you for this story.

    If you have time, could I get your thoughts on the study? I’ve attached a copy of the paper to this email. I’m wondering if you think what he’s proposing is plausible, and if so, is it even important?

    I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have on this topic. I’m also free to chat by phone if you’d like. My deadline for this story is xxxxxxxxx.

  2. smithers said,

    June 20, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Dr Ryskin’s situation seems analagous to when the media get their collective knickers in a twist when they get hold of a draft govt paper that differs in some respect from the formal policy that’s been announced.

    It was a draft, there was discussion about it, bits were changed, and the formal policy was announced. Where’s the story?

  3. SteveGJ said,

    June 20, 2009 at 9:14 am

    There’s a simple explanation for this sort of science reporting. It’s that, for very many people, this sort of nuancing of theories is boring. (This always comes as a nasty realisation to people like me who do find it interesting, as it reminds me just how distant I am from many of my fellow citizens, as if the glazed looks in people’s eyes when I go down this route isn’t enough). However, the upshot of this is that to get any science story into what are meant to be even quite serious papers, it is felt necessary to sensationalise and exaggerate everything.

    Even some of the popular science mags play this game – the New Scientist has been guilty for some time of sensationalist headlines about rather mundane or speculative articles (Darwin was wrong type headlines). Perhaps the really sad conclusion about this is that this is just an inescapable outcome from human nature in a reasonably free environment.

    The time when this becomes a real issue is where this type of sensationalism directly affects public policy making. There’s not much chance of this article doing it (although I’m sure that somebody could bend this into something whereby global warming will shut down the Earth’s magnetic field and we’ll be zapped by cosmic rays).

    There is also some form of wish among people for nice, binary explanations. It’s either X or Y but not both (like the nature vs nurture debate). The comments on the Times article are quite interesting in that respect. Full of things like “this can’t be true because the Sun has a magnetic field and everybody knows it doesn’t has oceans”.

  4. Synchronium said,

    June 20, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I think the problem is that science moves too slowly to be “interesting”. 3 years of research might give you some publishable data, but the impact isn’t likely to be massive. Science is a cumulative process, adding impact a little at a time.

    There should be laws about this sort of thing, or at least ways scientists could officially stop their work being misrepresented.

  5. SteveGJ said,

    June 20, 2009 at 11:57 am


    “There should be laws about this sort of thing”

    Please no – every time I read those nine words, on almost any subject, my heart sinks. It’s only surpassed by “something must be done”. Now I’m not against laws as such, but there is always a danger that the treatment is worse than the problem (libel law being a case in point). We are already in a position where the weight of laws and regulation is that nobody can keep up.

  6. Synchronium said,

    June 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    This is “ideal world” talk, really. Obviously nothing will be done, it would just be nice if there were a way that something could be done.

  7. SteveGJ said,

    June 20, 2009 at 4:15 pm


    My worry is people legislating for an ideal world rather than aspiring and working for it (well, in truth, I have a bit of a worry about the whole concept of an ideal world; I’ll maybe restrict my hopes to having a slightly better one, as I suspect the maths might reveal the path to utopia is peppered with singularities.

  8. Jonas F said,

    June 20, 2009 at 10:21 pm


    In the ‘ideal world’, journalists accept their responsibility and never misrepresent studies whose results they’re not qualified to make scoops out of.

  9. Tom Whipple said,

    June 21, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Just a small point of pedantry, but a reasonably important one (especially if people are writing in letters). This wasn’t published in the Times, it was published in the Sunday Times. They are different papers, with different staff – for most of their life they were even owned by different people.

  10. willowtree said,

    June 24, 2009 at 8:14 am

    I’m in two minds about this story.

    On the positive side, I’m pleased that The Times have investigated further than just copying out a press release (an accusation often levelled against the press).

    On the negative side, it’s a pity that The Times hasn’t distinguished between pre-press and peer-reviewed science. It’s also a pity that the author didn’t either take down the paper or update the paper on the pre-press site to match his change in opinions after peer-review.

  11. Quick2kill said,

    June 28, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I wrote you an overly long email on this, but want to comment briefly here also. I think comparing preprint servers to Facebook is misleading and silly. They are places for serious work and important to science. They are mostly used to submit work intended for publication, and while not usually peer reviewed before initial submission are still to be taken seriously. I agree that this was bad science reporting, but the article is spoiled by this spin as it gives the impression that pre-print servers are places where academics mess around and write stuff which is not their formal opinion. This is not the case in my experience.

  12. Jonathan Leake said,

    June 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Dear Ben
    When your article above appeared in The Guardian it contained a number of basic inaccuracies. You even got wrong the names of the newspapers involved.
    This was ironic given it purported to be tackling inaccurate reporting by me.
    I rejected your allegations against The Sunday Times and asked the Guardian to look at your own failings. After an investigation the Guardian printed the lengthy correction below. I would suggest that the failures in your article were on a scale far greater than anything you claimed to have found in our original.
    In the interests of accuracy and honesty I think you should have added the Guardian correction to the story pasted on your website. Since you have not done this I have pasted it below.
    I also objected to your very contrived comparison of my article about geomagnetism, based on a paper published on a science pre-print server and on interviews with the author, with the Sunday Express’s highly intrusive article about the survivors of the Dunblane massacre. This was a truly odd and offensive comparison. You may remember that when you first approached me about this story I was completely open about it, including sending you all the email correspondence between Ryskin and I. You, however, never told me you were making this disgusting comparison and never gave me the opportunity to respond to it in any way.
    This all happened a long time ago now but I would ask that you retain this posting and the Guardian correction on your site for as long as you keep the original story posted.
    I would also ask that you change the headline which is clearly defamatory of me and fails to reflect that you made errors that were far more basic and foolish than anything you were accusing me of.
    Yours sincerely
    Jonathan Leake

    Corrections editor
    The Guardian, Friday 18 September 2009

    • In Bad Science: Magnetism, mystery and plain muddle, 20 June, page 16, we wrongly identified The Times as the publisher of an article that appeared in The Sunday Times on 14 June with the headline: Oceans charge up new theory of magnetism.
    Bad Science criticised the way The Sunday Times reported research by Professor Gregory Ryskin, of Northwestern University in the US, because his paper did not, as The Sunday Times claimed, say that Earth’s magnetic field may be produced by ocean currents. Prof Ryskin suggested, instead, that small fluctuations in the field may be related to the movement of oceans. Unfortunately, when we edited Bad Science we removed a sentence, included in the copy submitted to us, which reported that The Sunday Times said Prof Ryskin had approved its coverage. We apologise for this error.

    In the same Bad Science column we made the mistake of saying that the Scottish Daily Express, rather than the Scottish Sunday Express, published a story about survivors of the Dunblane school shooting based on material taken from social networking sites.

    Bad Science made an analogy between the Scottish Sunday Express’s use of private information about the lives of the Dunblane teenagers and The Sunday Times’s use of a science paper posted by Prof Ryskin, for discussion by the science community, on a pre-publication internet archive several years ago.
    The Sunday Times has complained that this was unfair.
    We accept that the extent to which that comparison was open to argument would have been clearer if we had included the response from The Sunday Times.
    The Sunday Times interviewed Prof Ryskin in connection with its report; it also showed him a draft (though not the final version) of its report before publication and took some of the changes he requested into consideration.

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 28, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Hi Jonathan Leake,

    as you know, the Guardian’s correction was posted on the same day it appeared in The Guardian, I’ve pasted it below for you again. You suggest this correction was somehow hidden, as if it was embarrassing. In fact, as the Guardian correction correctly says, the Guardian’s concern arose because of a sentence that was deleted by the Guardian from the Guardian’s version. The full version on never had this sentence removed so the complaint doesn’t relate to anything on this site, I posted it for completeness.

    I’m very happy to post a quick correction.
    In this column:
    1. I gave the newspaper names incorrectly. It was the Sunday Times, not the Times, and the Sunday Express, not the Express.
    2. When The Guardian edited my column, they removed the response from the Sunday Times. However this response was included on the version, where I always post my unedited copy.
    The Guardian correction is here:

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 28, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    Meanwhile, I’m back here in the historic bowels of the blog because I’m collecting articles for a book of collected journalism. Anyone reading these comments may be interested to know that after this article on the Sunday Times was posted, there were a huge number of irate comments posted all over by someone calling themselves “rkanefun”, all defending Jonathan Leake angrily, and originating from a News International IP address.