It gives me no pleasure to pass on the facts about the lack of respect for the truth shown by climate change pseudo-skeptics. But there’s simply no getting around it.
Last year, in his book Science as a Contact Sport, veteran climatologist Stephen Schneider made much of the misuse of a quote that actually did come from his lips about the temptation to “offer up scary scenarios” and the need to stay honest. The problem was he ended his observation on conflicting messaging priorities by saying, “I hope that means being both” but that line almost never makes it into stories by denialists citing the quote.
That’s bad enough, and it continues to haunt Schneider, but the latest example of integrity-free reportage, which comes from the UK, makes such transgressions seem like something less than a little white lie. “Fabricated quote used to discredit climate scientist” is the headline in The Independent. I shall lift several paragraphs from the story, as it really deserves wide distribution:
Sir John Houghton, who played a critical role in establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), was roundly condemned after it emerged that he was an apparent advocate of scary propaganda to frighten the public into believing the dangers of global warming.
“Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen,” Sir John was supposed to have said in 1994.
The trouble is, Sir John Houghton has never said what he is quoted as saying. The words do not appear in his own book on global warming, first published in 1994, despite statements to the contrary. In fact, he denies emphatically that he ever said it at any time, either verbally or in writing.
In fact, his view on the matter of generating scare stories to publicise climate change is quite the opposite. “There are those who will say ‘unless we announce disasters, no one will listen’, but I’m not one of them,” Sir John told The Independent.
“It’s not the sort of thing I would ever say. It’s quite the opposite of what I think and it pains me to see this quote being used repeatedly in this way. I would never say we should hype up the risk of climate disasters in order to get noticed,” he said.
Even though the quotation appears on about 1.77 million web links, no one seems to know where it originated. On the few occasions a reference is cited, it is listed as coming from the first edition of Sir John’s book, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, published by Lion Books in 1994. But Sir John does not say it in this edition, nor in subsequent editions published by Cambridge University Press.
Christopher Booker, a newspaper columnist, considers the quotation so important that he lists it at the top of the first page of his most recent book on climate scepticism, The Real Global Warming Disaster, published last year. Mr Booker also cites the 1994 edition of Houghton’s own book on global warming as the source of the quotation, even though there is no mention of it there. Mr Booker did not respond yesterday to enquiries by The Independent.
Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, also cited the 1994 edition of Sir John’s book as the source of the quote, which he used last Sunday in an article denouncing the alarmism of climate scientists. Dr Peiser admitted to The Independent that he had not read the book recently and had only used the quote “from memory” because it is so widely cited in other books on climate scepticism.
And that’s not all. Peiser actually tried to lay the blame for his failure to properly research the quote on Houghton:
“I’ve seen it printed in many books. He is well known for making these statements. I’ve used that quote on many occasions from one of the books on climate alarmism. If he makes the claim that he never said this then he has to clarify that,” Dr Peiser said.
“If he publicly says that he never made that statement then, of course, I wouldn’t use it, but this is the first time I’ve heard [his denial] and this has been going on for 15 years. This quote has been used for the past 15 years,” he said.
Worse for Peiser’s credibility is the fact that the first appearance of the offending fictional quotation only came in 2006. Same goes for everyone’s favorite extreme denier:
Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, also cites the 1994 book as the source of the quote, which he uses extensively in his writings and lectures advocating climate scepticism. The quotation, he says, is a prime example of the alarmism and exaggeration of the climate change community and the IPCC.
Although Lord Monckton replied to an email asking him for the source of the quotation, he did not reply to a second email pointing out that it does not appear anywhere in Houghton’s 1994 book.
Monkton, of course, has been discredited so many times this latest news will hardly make much difference. And yet, he’s still getting mileage out of his status, which the New York Times‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal had the nerve to describe as “a leading climate skeptic” just this week.
And this is the saddest part of all. If the New York Times of all papers can’t tell the difference between a source of reasonable criticism (and the IPCC could use a bit of constructive criticism these days) and a dishonest propagandist, then we really are in trouble. It’s one thing for agents of denial to abuse their right to free speech, but we can’t afford to see the same sort of thing contaminate the nation’s opinion leaders.
Joe Romm, incidentally, tears apart Rosenthal for that story, which really is an atrocious piece of reporting.
You might think it impossible for any newspaper — let alone the one-time “paper of record” — to run a story raising “accusations of scientific sloppiness” about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that never quotes a single climate scientist.
You might think it inconceivable that the NYT would base its attack on the accusations and half-truths provided by “climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists” where
- The one climate skeptic quoted is the The Viscount Monckton of Brenchley (TVMOB) — who pushes outright lies such as “There hasn’t been any global warming for 15 years” and who labels young people who disagree with him “Hitler Youth.”
- The right-leaning politician is Sen. John Barrasso, who is so far out he tried to stop the gathering of intelligence on the national security threat posed by climate change.
- The “some mainstream scientists” is in fact only Roger Pielke, Jr. (!!), who has a Ph.D. in political science, who has said, “I am not a climate scientist,” who — far from being mainstream on this subject — is a long-time critic of the IPCC who has been attacking scientists’ reputations for many years.
Rosenthal doesn’t actually quote a single mainstream scientist attacking the IPCC.
There simply is no excuse for this kind of reporting. I see that Matt “Framing Science” Nisbet disagrees:
Critics on the left are alleging bias in the story, but if there is bias, it is simply journalists’ orientation to pay attention to and report on possible wrong-doing by those in positions of influence and to follow perceived conflict.
But Matt’s not a journalist. and this kind of reaction makes that obvious. For one thing, left and right have absolutely nothing to do with this issue. Yes, most climate change pseudoskeptics tend to hold right-wing political views, but that’s not the issue. We’re talking about honesty in communication. By unnecessarily introducing political ideology into the discussion, it seems to me that Nisbet has swallowed the denier talking point that climate change alarmism is a communist plot. In any event, I think it fair to say that anyone who has spent any time as a professional journalist with a reputable news outfit will side more with Romm on this one.
To repeat (because that’s what you do if you want to be heard): Leading off with the allegation that mainstream scientists (plural) say one thing, and then failing to cite even one scientist actually saying it is the sort of thing that got the Times into trouble over its coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq war. And that produced a 3,000-word apology from the editors. Apparently the paper hasn’t learned its lesson.
And that lesson is this: some sources lie; others are more trustworthy. It’s a reporter’s job to tell the difference and not give the dishonest ones a free pass. If you can’t do that, find another profession, one where you can do less damage to the public conversation about the central challenge of our times.