I’ve never met David Rose of the U.K.’s Daily Mail. And, while his past reporting on climate issues has tended to misrepresent the science of the day, it is entirely possible his editors are to blame for the fictionalization of his latest story. So I won’t point fingers at this juncture. Regardless, the affair is an ominous reminder of how easily an idea can migrate across the world in a matter of hours even though anyone with a middle-school education could spot the flaw within a few seconds.
According to Rose:
The scientist behind the bogus claim in a Nobel Prize-winning UN report that Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2035 last night admitted it was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders.
The main problem with both the lead (or lede for those who prefer jargon) is that there is nothing in the rest of the story to substantiate. The scientist in question, Murari Lal, is quoted saying only:
‘It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action. It had importance for the region, so we thought we should put it in.’
which does not equal “purely to put political pressure on world leaders.” All you have to do is keep reading to know that there’s something fishy with Rose’s story. But that wasn’t enough for Joe Romm, who tracked down Lal (by looking up his phone number) and asked him about the story. He told Romm that he
didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers…. We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”
[Update: Lal denies making the statements Rose quotes, and Rose stands by his reporting, which was based on "verbatim notes," although not a recording, so there's no way to tell who's telling the truth. This from emails sent to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth.]
Rose’s story does try to get at the real problem with the whole Himalaya meltdown prediction fiasco, which is that the IPCC authors who forecast as possible disappearance of Tibetan glaciers by 2035 relied on a non-peer-reviewed World Wide Fund for Nature paper which was in turn based on a New Scientist interview from 11 years ago.
But there’s no violation of protocol or ethics to be found here. Just a systematic loophole that allows gray literature to slip into IPCC reports, a loophole that is almost certainly going to be closed. As another veteran IPCC climatologist, Michael Oppenheimer told Andy Revkin at Dot Earth:
There is nothing troubling about a decision to emphasize those aspects of the science that are of special concern to policy makers. In deciding what to emphasize in both the summaries for policy makers and the underlying chapters, I.P.C.C. authors necessarily must chose from millions of facts and statements they might potentially publish, all of which are extraordinarily interesting to many scientists. But the reality is that only a limited number can be presented due to space limitations and the need to focus on material that is broadly useful. So that decision doesn’t bother me at all.
Oppenheimer goes on to address the real issue:
But a more serious question then arises: did the authors let their strong interest in the issue cause them to throw caution to the wind and press forward a statement based on weak evidence with a pedigree (i.e., not peer reviewed) that called for further exploration of the matter, and did they ignore critical review comments in the process?
Rose’s story, paints an entirely different picture, of scientists who didn’t care whether the data they were citing were good and were more interested in pushing policy regardless of the facts. And he paints that picture without any facts of his own to back it up. Ironic, I would say.
By now, however, every climate pseudoskeptic on the net is cheering this latest pseudoscandal thanks to journalistic and scientific laziness. It all have been avoided if:
- The IPCC authors had bothered to read the WWF paper closely, which qualifies the 2035 prediction as far from authoritative and clearly cites New Scientist;
- David Rose and/or his editors hadn’t invented the false notion that Lal admitted including the prediction purely to pressure politicians;
- Janet Raloff of Science News had bothered to read Rose’s story closely before blogging about it;
- The US News and World Report had bothered to read the Rose’s story before reproducing a blog post about it.
Everyone needs to slow down, take a deep breath and think a bit before hitting “publish.”