Sceptics face yawning credibility gap

We know that the vast majority of climate scientists support the explanation of anthropogenic climate change set out by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. That majority is now quantified in the first study of its kind published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Expert credibility in climate change.

“Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

The study explains the criteria by which these conclusions were reached, paying particular attention to the question of expertise, where weight was given to the number of climate publications of researchers and to their citation levels.

“We show that the expertise and prominence, two integral components of overall expert credibility, of climate researchers convinced by the evidence of ACC vastly overshadows that of the climate change skeptics and contrarians. This divide is even starker when considering the top researchers in each group.”

The team of four has obviously put a good deal of time into the study which was contributed for publication by Stephen Schneider (pictured). Why bother, one might ask.  Surely it’s all too apparent. It may be to readers of Hot Topic but the study notes that considerable and even growing public doubt remains about the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement about the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in climate change. The vocal minority of researchers and other critics who contest the conclusions of the mainstream scientific assessment has received large amounts of media attention and wields significant influence in the societal debate about climate change impacts and policy.

An analysis such as the study offers has not been conducted before, and the writers observe that it can help inform future ACC discussions. Translated into common parlance I guess that means they hope this will put paid to the idea still abroad, in at least the American media, that denial of anthropogenic climate change retains a respectable level of scientific credibility.

That may be optimistic. Journalism in general still has difficulty getting its head around the reality of mainstream climate science. The idea that there is a realistic alternative shows remarkable persistence. When I was writing occasional columns for my local paper, the Waikato Times, I discovered that my attempts to explain aspects of the current science eventually came up against an anxiety that the paper was not presenting a balanced picture. There was finally talk of pairing my column with another which would meet the paper’s obligation to offer its readers more than one opinion. I protested that I was representing mainstream science and asked why the paper should feel that needed to be balanced. I made that my last contribution and escaped the indignity of a balancing viewpoint. It seemed fairly clear that the East Anglia emails and the baseless attacks on the IPCC report by the likes of Jonathan Leake were enough to unsettle the journalists with whom I was dealing and bring back to life concerns which I thought had long been laid to rest.

One nevertheless hopes that  surveys and appraisals such as this one in a highly regarded journal will make a difference to media perception and help establish in the public mind the seriousness of the scientific understanding and predictions. It seems inconceivable that we should continue much longer refusing to face the reality.  But I’ve been thinking that for four years now.

Sunday Times apologises for “Amazongate” misinformation

Three months after Simon Lewis laid a complaint with the UK’s Press Complaints Commission, which I reported here, the Sunday Timeshas retracted Jonathan Leake’s disgraceful Amazongate article and apologised to Dr Lewis. The article has been removed from their website. Here’s the apology:

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.


In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

Leake’s article was not only celebrated ad nauseam in the denialist community but also taken up by mainstream media in many countries.  Here in New Zealand the Dominion Post used it in an editorial claiming that the ethics and integrity of climate scientists is being called into question. I wrote about that here. The editorial accepted that human activity is contributing to global warming, but drew this appalling conclusion about the IPCC:

“Why trust a panel that confuses opinion and fact, wrongly attributes that opinion, tries to shout down critics and displays a determination to make the facts fit the theory rather than the other way around.

“The IPCC should leave the spin to the politicians and get on with its real job – establishing the facts. By glossing over inconvenient truths and misrepresenting opinion as scientific fact, it has undermined its credibility.

“It now has a great deal of work to do if it is to persuade peoples and governments that its findings should be taken seriously.”

Jonathan Leake and the Sunday Times have a lot to answer for, but so do journalists in many places who allow themselves to be so easily misinformed. The credulity with which they have received accusations of malpractice by the East Anglia scientists, and alleged IPCC errors (beyond the acknowledged and regretted error relating to the Himalayan glaciers) is astonishing. Where on earth did the Dominion Post find the confidence to make such a declaration about the IPCC?  Not by reading the science, that’s for sure.  And that’s the nub of the matter: the media generally gives the impression that it has not ensured that enough of its journalists are informed about climate science. That’s why the mischief wrought by disinformers, especially when they’re backed by seemingly reputable papers, can reach global media proportions overnight.

Perhaps any of our readers who see the Dominion Post might consider writing to the editor and inviting them to retract their editorial, or at least to write another acknowledging that they have reason to reconsider their verdict on the IPCC.

The Sunday Times correction has been published on their website here, but be warned that you have to go through a full registration procedure to view it.

Amazongate closes on Sunday Times: Simon Lewis fights back

Jonathan Leake and the Sunday Times got a lot of mileage out of his disgraceful Amazongate article, which I wrote about in February. It was pleasing to read yesterday in Climate Progressthat tropical forest researcher Simon Lewis has lodged an official complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The IPCC wrote:

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.”

Jonathan Leake opened his article:

“A startling report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.”

Simon Lewis writes in the course of his 31 page PCC complaint (pdf, published by

“Specifically, I consider this article to be materially misleading. I am the scientific expert cited in the article who was asked about the alleged “bogus rainforest claim”. In short, there is no “bogus rainforest claim”, the claim made by the UN panel was (and is) well-known, mainstream and defensible science, as myself and two other professional world-class rainforest experts (Professor Oliver Phillips and Professor Dan Nepstad) each told Jonathan Leake.”


Lewis wrote this to Leake prior to the article: “The IPCC statement itself is poorly written, and bizarrely referenced, but basically correct.”  Leake, with the help (“research” they called it) of well-known denialist Richard North, strove to give the impression that the statement was scientifically dodgy and by highly selective reporting implied, by omission, that Lewis agreed with them.

Lewis posted a comment on the Sunday Times website saying that he was the expert referred to and that the article was misleading. His comment was deleted. He also wrote a letter to the editor, early enough to allow publication the following Sunday. The letter was neither acknowledged nor published.

However, the PCC complaint appears to have caused some reaction. As told on Climate Progress today Lewis had a message on his answerphone from the letters editor saying it has been recognised that the story is flawed and offering to print his letter, nearly two months old.  Lewis will not now agree to the publishing of his letter, since it would mean that he was associated with a “flawed” article.  He says to Joe Romm that the article ought to be taken down from the website and an apology be issued in its place, or that the PCC complaint should run its course.

Romm comments:

“I agree that this is no time for yet another uber-lame, after-the-fact correction/letter on a dreadful piece of disinformation that has ricocheted through the media and blogosphere, disinformation that has probably been seen by well over 10 times as many people as would ever see the correction or letter.

“The Sunday Times should simply take the piece down and issue a retraction and apology.  At the very least, now that they have admitted the story is ‘flawed’, they should take the piece down until the PCC issues its ruling.”

It’s good to see a scientist fighting back against deliberate misrepresentation which starts in one newspaper and then takes wings in the media. It would take some time to prepare a complaint of the length that Lewis has written, and is no doubt a considerable distraction from his work. But dignified silence from scientists who are misused or attacked plays into the hands of the denialists and the uncritical media who have loosed the extraordinary torrent of misinformation which has been abroad in recent months. Lewis is to be applauded for his action.

Late addition: Evidently the renewable energy industry in the UK is also considering making a complaint to the PCC regarding a misleading story Leake has written about wind farms. He cherry-picks the worst performing wind farms to make a case that wind farms are a “feeble” source of electricity. Tim Lambert at Deltoid has the details.