Bad Journalism under the Microscope: Pearcegate

I have happily used Google Reader in recent years to collect RSS feeds from news sources and blogs around the web, to provide me with a pretty complete up-to-date view of what's going on in science, technology and general world news. The average day has two to three hundred news items, the bulk of them on topics or people I'm interested in. It's an investment of effort to keep up, but I do at least give a brief glance to most of the items that come through the reader.

One of my regular sources has been New Scientist, a UK-based news organization. I've found them a useful source of up-to-date science reporting, despite a tendency to over-hype things. But apparently they've started including non-fact-checked blogs in their news stream - either that, or their editorial process has developed some very lax standards. Because, a few days ago, I was startled to run across this piece by Fred Pearce, reporting on a so-called "reconciliation" conference on climate, held in Lisbon.

The article included a number of obvious faults in its framing of climate issues, but the thing that surprised me most was this sentence:

But the leaders of mainstream climate science turned down the gig, including NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, who said the science was settled so there was nothing to discuss.

I came away from the article thinking that was a direct quote from Dr. Schmidt - and was extremely surprised at it. "The science is settled" is one of those stock phrases that climate deniers habitually accuse scientists of saying, but no scientist is on record as ever having said it. There are a handful of quotes that seem very close to this wording, but all seem to be from limited political contexts where the meaning is clearly "we know enough to start making decisions on reducing carbon emissions", which is certainly true. Politics is always done in the face of incomplete knowledge. But science is never "settled" in the sense that no more can be learned, there aren't remaining uncertainties to be explored and reduced, etc. Gavin Schmidt himself wrote on this very clearly at RealClimate in the past - read Unsettled Science for his take on it.

So I was rather surprised Pearce had somehow been able to quote Schmidt saying the apparent opposite, as his reason for not attending this meeting. I was wondering why Schmidt would say something so opposite to a reporter.

I wasn't wrong to be surprised. It turns out Pearce made the quote up. He didn't interview Schmidt about why he didn't attend. Instead it's been revealed (so far) that he was shown a private email from Schmidt to the conference organizers. Schmidt has since allowed that email to be posted publicly, and the phrase "the science is settled" appears nowhere there. In fact, Schmidt explicitly allows for the science to be insufficiently settled to require no action in his letter:

The fundamental conflict is of what (if anything) we should do about greenhouse gas emissions (and other assorted pollutants), not what the weather was like 1000 years ago.

The debate should be about whether we know enough now to act, or not. That some handful of scientific papers may have some minor errors - or perhaps they don't - is not the source of conflict in climate science, and discussing those errors will not lead to any progress on the ultimate questions on the matter: do we know enough now to act, or do we still need to learn more? If we know enough to act, what actions will help? Dr. Schmidt is absolutely right that a conflict-resolution conference that avoids actually addressing whether the science is sufficient for policy action is pointless. Summarizing that as "the science is settled" so he has no need to attend (and extrapolating that to all the other climate scientists who refused invitations) is an absurdly false take of what his actual position is. Dr. Schmidt clearly expressed an interest in a conference that addressed directly that question itself: is the science settled enough for us to act, or not? But that was not what this conference was about at all.

Note that this is not the first instance of bad journalism from Fred Pearce...

But it seems I'm very late to this party:

In fact, the story seems to keep getting stranger. If the conference organizers or Fred Pearce had come clean in the first day or so on the sharing of Dr. Schmidt's private email and related discussions, if Pearce had corrected the erroneous "paraphrase" of Dr. Schmidt to something more reasonably approaching his real reasons for declining the invitation, this would have all blown over very quickly. As it is, the main participants seem to be acting like they're hiding something else here. Did some of the climate deniers at the meeting actual help Pearce write his article? Did they try to coordinate a particular "spin" for the meeting with media outlets? "Tallbloke" initally tried to take credit for the "science is settled" paraphrase, but then his story changed. Is there more to this waiting to be revealed? That the conference was run under "Chatham house rules" suggests they expected a need to hide some of their dealings from the start. Not a good move for public confidence in the "skeptics" who overwhelmingly dominated this meeting.

[UPDATE: DeepClimate has a more detailed account including a history of the conference itself - it sounds like "tallbloke" had some hand in prodding Ravetz and friends into this conference in the first place. Also, there's been more misinterpreting of private climate scientists' emails going on - don't some people ever learn their lessons?]

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Sigh. I used to like New

Sigh. I used to like New Scientist. But once long ago (1200 baud modem era) I complained to them about something and got a very blunt reply from their editors saying that NS is an entertainment niche product, not a science journal.

They haven't improved since.