Science and Science Communication: Self Correcting

Climate change has had a big impact in Africa. We can certainly talk about that some time. But when a David Attenborough BBC special mentioned one aspect of climate change impact they got the facts wrong. Leo Hickman of The Environment Blog at The Guardian noticed the error and wrote a very interesting blog post tracking down how this happened. The BBC, in response, has removed the specific reference from the special.

This is important because it is important to get it right, but it is also important because it demonstrates that those whom climate science denialists incorrectly call "alarmists" are really just interested in the truth, even when it removes or reduces an "alarming" statement about global warming.

Check out Leo's post: BBC exaggerated climate change in David Attenborough's Africa...Attenborough claims in BBC One's Africa series that part of the continent has warmed by 3.5C over the past 20 years...

I don't like that title because it seems to say that the BBC exaggerated the overall effects of climate change, but really they just got this one fact wrong. But headlines are often annoyingly misleading like that. I doubt Leo wrote the headline. Anyway, go read the post.

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Isn't the other issue that the projections change every decade or sooner so that communication becomes inconsistent and allows those who do not understand science to propagate their thoughts?

By Marcus Griswold (not verified) on 10 Feb 2013 #permalink

I wrote on the Guardian website that I saw this as a victory for peer review: media to media peer review, that is.

By John Russell (… (not verified) on 10 Feb 2013 #permalink

Greg, note that the update to the post puts things into a rather softer focus.

Re the hed, it's on a blog post rather than an article so I would suggest there's a good chance Leo did write it. He definitely waxed similarly over-enthusiastic in a few places, e.g.:

"i'd never heard this arresting claim before. If that rate of temperature rise continued over, say, a century, then those parts of Africa would see a deathly rise of 17.5C?! Could that claim really be true?"

Or if it were half of 3.5C. a more plausible figure, continued over two centuries we'd reach that same deathly 17.5C? Well yes we would, Leo. What was your point again?

And this:

"But the Nasa link also puzzled me. It is titled: "Science Briefs: Warming Climate is Changing Life on Global Scale. By Cynthia Rosenzweig — December 2008" Again, why was the BBC relying on a somewhat obscure Nasa article published as long ago as 2008? Why not just draw upon the very latest scientific data?"

"Obscure" turns out to mean published in Nature. By NASA. And it's one of those big multi-author studies pulling together mounds of research. Yes, it's four years old, but why is that such an issue when we're discussing decadal trends? In any case, Leo didn't point us to any more recent similar study (probably because there isn't one), instead he solicited a *non-peer-reviewed* comment from Tim Osborn. Wait a minute, don't people like the Africa series staff get flack when they don't use peer-reviewed sources? Aren't they supposed to use the most recent such?

This style of exposition is straight out of the Grauniad's scandal model, which we saw demonstrated so thoroughly with "Climategate." It's interesting how easily non-scandals can be made to appear to be scandals, isn't it?

But worst was this bizarre statement, coming as it does from someone who has covered climate for years:
"And what of the source report's strange reliance on the term "maximum temperatures" rather than the more normal (and comprehensible) "average temperatures"?"

Here's the very first sentence in the press release for the IPCC SREX (special report on extremes) that came out just last March:

"Evidence suggests that climate change has led to changes in climate extremes such as heat waves, record high temperatures and, in many regions, heavy precipitation in the past half century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said today."

The first two of the three items listed relate to heat extremes, and of course that's because there's an extensive literature backing on the subject. But having satisfied himself that high temps couldn't possibly be a specific concern, Leo proceeds to focus on average temps, including in his inquiry to Tim Osborn. So in the end, we learned literally nothing about the veracity of the original claim.

All of that said, from what I know the claim of a 3.5C increase in high temps over a 20-year period for somewhere in Africa is *probably* wrong. It would just have been nice to come out of this with some idea as to the real figures.

And did you notice all the kudos Leo got from fellow journalists, none of whom seemed to be very concerned as to whether the story was correct? If it were possible for me to become more cynical about journalism, this episode would do it, but probably it isn't.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

I agree that we want to look at extremes as well as means. I probably would have written a somewhat different correction, and in my view it would be just as important to say something about the effects of climate change in Africa that is better documented; having said that, Africa tends to get ignored so there isn't much literature on that (regarding recent climate change that is).

My suggestion that Leo didn't write the title is based IIRC on him telling me that.