Inaccuracy through two degrees of separation - Mail mangles science literacy findings by misreporting Fox

  • 31 May 2012, 12:00
  • Ros Donald
  • Mail Online mangles Fox report on Yale study
  • Lead researcher says difference between skeptic and non-skeptics' science literacy is not statistically significant

According to the Mail Online yesterday, "Global warming sceptics are BETTER-informed about science than believers".  Pretty arresting. But a closer look at the article reveals that the Mail's top line, reporting on research just out, mangles not just the study, but reporting on the findings by Fox News.

The headline follows a new study by Yale University psychology researchers about perceptions of climate change. As we discussed earlier in the week, the study explores whether levels of science literacy among ordinary people or their unconscious tendency to fit their beliefs to those of their social and cultural groupings are the most accurate indicator of public concern about climate change.

The study finds finds that contrary to the first theory, the most scientifically-literate members of the public aren't the most concerned about climate change. Instead the result fits much more closely with the second theory - surprisingly, science-savvy people tend to be even more polarised according to their social groupings than those less well-informed.

Part of the study aimed to find out how scientifically literate the subjects were - which was what presumably led the Mail to its top line:

"57 per cent of climate skeptics are science literate versus 56 per cent of believers"

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How confident should we be..? A psychologist answers our question about his research

  • 30 May 2012, 15:22
  • Freya Roberts

How confident can we be about the results of scientific studies? It's not a question the media often ask when writing about climate change. Research which hasn't been even finished yet has for example been given as conclusive proof that climate change isn't happening, or, alternatively, is causing us to shrink. The author of a recent study, which tests two competing theories to explain how people perceive risk about climate change, discusses the issue of confidence on his blog, in response to a question we sent him.

As we wrote on Monday, the paper concludes that social groupings are a much better measure for predicting whether or not people will express concern about climate change than an individual's level of scientific literacy.

We got in touch with lead author, Dan Kahan, to ask about one of the effects he noticed - that with increasing science literacy, people actually became more divided on the risks posed by climate change. We asked:

"From the figure (Fig.2) [the polarising effect] appears to be quite subtle, albeit in the opposite direction to that which was predicted by the SCT thesis. It would be great if you could identify to what extent/how confident we can be to say that increasing numeracy and literacy polarises risk perception about climate change"

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Ed Davey's defence of UK gas policy doesn't give the full picture

  • 30 May 2012, 13:40
  • Robin Webster

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey has a letter in the Guardian today defending UK government policy on gas against the accusation that it threatens our climate change targets. He backs up his point by quoting the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). But a closer look at the CCC's statement shows his quote to be somewhat selective - and it certainly doesn't convey the committee's full meaning.

So what's the argument about? An article by George Monbiot yesterday, headlined 'Britain's climate change policy is going up in smoke', criticised the government's new energy bill. Part of the bill caps the amount of carbon dioxide that new power stations can produce, which may sound like good news for the UK's climate change targets. But the problem is that the limit - set at 450 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt-hour of electricity - doesn't affect gas power plants, which emit only about 400g/KWh. And gas power plants constructed now will be subject to that same limit up until 2045.

When government first set out this rule in a press release late one Friday night, environmentalists were horrified by the idea that gas power plant built now can go on emitting carbon dioxide at the same level for another thirty years without anything to stop them. Monbiot argues that the bill is:

"a rupture of the cross-party consensus on climate change, and the abandonment of the carbon budgets required to meet the 2050 target."

Davey disagrees. He quotes the CCC:

"The Committee on Climate Change says our approach "could be compatible with power sector decarbonisation required to meet carbon budgets" - provided we reform the electricity market to secure low-carbon investment."

Well.....yes. But this isn't really a full representation of what the committee said. The text the Energy Secretary is quoting can be found in a letter that Adair Turner, the chair of the CCC, sent to Ed Davey at the end of March.

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Another warming myth busted? Only in a Mail Online headline

  • 29 May 2012, 14:07
  • Verity Payne

The Mail Online's random climate headline generator has struck again - this time on an innocuous story about South American glaciers. The problem? The disparity between the article itself, which discusses continuing research, which has yet to reach any conclusions, and the headline declaring "  Another warming myth busted".

As  we have documented, the Mail Online seems keen to put a 'global warming myth busted'/'question mark over global warming'/'forget global warming' headline on any story alluding to climate change, regardless of the  real implications of the research, or even whether the research has even happened yet. This week's effort is no exception to what seems to be fast becoming a rule.

The Mail article covers research into why Bolivia's glaciers are melting so quickly, and particularly the theory that tiny airborne particles (aerosols) might be making glaciers in the Andes melt more quickly.

This is an important area of research since tropical mountain glaciers, such as those found in the Bolivian Andes, are  shrinking rapidly and some are retreating faster than predicted based on the effects of climate change alone. Chacaltaya glacier, for example, was predicted to  disappear by 2015, but actually retreated entirely by 2009 - six years earlier than projected.

The Mail Online article appears to be based on a Reuters video report, entitled  Scientists seek answers to Bolivian glacier melt


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Fugitive emissions from shale gas: our Q&A

  • 29 May 2012, 14:00
  • Chris Peters

A report released today by the International Energy Agency suggests a series of Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas. One of the proposed rules is that the question of 'fugitive emissions' from shale gas extraction is addressed. The IEA writes:  

"Greenhouse-gas emissions must be minimised both at the point of production and throughout the entire natural gas supply chain. Improperly addressed, these concerns threaten to curb, if not halt, the development of unconventional resources."

The question of fugitive emissions - how significant they are, and what they mean for the extraction of shale gas in the UK and elsewhere, remains remains highly contested. In the Q&A below, we have laid out the state of play as we understand it.

What are fugitive emissions?

The process of extracting shale gas, also known as fracking, is not perfect at the moment. Not all the gas released from shale rock formations is captured, so some leaks out.  

Gas also leaks during the refining process and when transporting the end product to our homes, from example from damaged or poorly maintained pipes - although this doesn't just apply to shale gas but to conventional gas as well. According to one paper, leaks from the Russian long distance natural gas pipeline network account for 0.6 per cent of the natural gas transported.

In both cases, these accidental leaks are known as fugitive emissions.

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Geeks form cliques too - why better scientific understanding doesn't guarantee concern about climate change

  • 28 May 2012, 14:00
  • Ros Donald and Freya Roberts

A new paper in Nature Climate Change suggests highly scientifically literate people are just as susceptible to cultural divides over climate change as those with a less in-depth understanding of the processes changing our climate - and actually may be more polarised than other groups. It says instead of focusing on improving scientific literacy, communicators need to focus on what's creating cultural divides over climate change.

The issue of scientific literacy is attracting a fair bit of comment at the moment. Just one of the UK's 650 MPs is a scientist according to Mark Henderson's new book the Geek Manifesto, which calls for science to be given a bigger space in public life. In the States, meanwhile, the situation is only slightly better - the House of Representatives boasts one physicist, one chemist and one microbiologist among 435 elected officials, and the Republican party's consistent questioning of mainstream scientific thinking on evolution and climate change has led to accusations of a war on science.

So is officials' lack of scientific understanding the reason why this year's climate talks are stalling? Not exactly, argue the authors of the new research. The study tests two theories as to why people care about scientific issues, in an attempt to explain current apathy among the US public about climate change.

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A high estimate for shale gas won’t solve our climate change woes

  • 28 May 2012, 11:30
  • Robin Webster

The UK's reserves of shale gas are back on the agenda, following news that the British Geological Society is due to make an announcement on shale gas next month. But if it does turn out that we have access to larger reserves that previously estimated, what would that mean for climate change? Recent discussions at the Shale Gas Environment Summit don't give us much grounds for optimism.

Energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey accused the right of the Tory party on Friday of trying in undermine investment in renewables by "making out that the UK could rely on shale gas instead". Davey cited industry estimates that  "if we exploited all the shale gas that is there" it could provide five to ten percent of UK energy needs - not quite the " 100 years of shale gas" claimed in some quarters.

A new estimate by the British Geological Society (BGS) could shortly settle this argument. The BGS has announced that it will be holding a public briefing on shale gas reserves in June. We don't know for sure whether it will give more results from its investigation into the amount of shale gas the UK has onshore, but it seems likely. The BGS' previous estimate of 144 billion cubic metres of shale gas - or about 1.5 years worth of gas demand at current prices - was released before Cuadrilla claimed reserves in the North of England of 6,000 cubic metres, although even Cuadrilla admit that  only a small percent could be recoverable.

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Energy policy or the dark art of global cooling?

  • 23 May 2012, 16:09
  • Christian Hunt

Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and Guardian columnist, has written a somewhat bizarre  blog at the Guardian's Comment is Free today.

His central thesis seems to be that British energy policy is something of a dark art that rests on shaky factual foundations.

Our experience of examining media coverage of the same doesn't disprove this, but even so we'd guess that Jenkins' assertion that

"Anyone who claims to understand energy policy is either mad or subsidised." probably a bit strong.

Jenkins has a somewhat bizarre characterisation of why the UK is trying to change its energy policy, though. He seems to think that the aim is to bring about global cooling:

"As for achieving a remotely significant degree of global cooling, that requires world diplomacy - which has, as yet, proved wholly elusive.

"Britain's contribution to cooling can only be so infinitesimal as to be little more than gesture politics, yet it is a gesture that is massively expensive."

Are we being excessively pedantic, or is it worth heading off confusion about this?


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£100 or £1000? The Times and the Telegraph interpret Energy Bill figures in very different ways

  • 23 May 2012, 15:00
  • Robin Webster and Ros Donald

Journalists' gnawing desire to put a number - any number - on the cost to households of the UK's new draft  energy bill has led to some peculiar results.

Today, in two pieces of reporting based on the same set of figures, the Times and the Telegraph come to wildly different conclusions on the matter, with the Telegraph deciding domestic electricity bills will go up by £100 a year, while the Times goes all out for a doubling of household electricity bills to £1000.

The short version? We think the Telegraph piece is accurate, and the Times piece is not.

For the backstory, rewind a couple of weeks to when the Telegraph's political correspondent Rowena Mason wrote that the government's draft energy bill, which the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced yesterday, would add £200 to consumer electricity bills by 2020. This assessment was based on figures from an earlier  white paper.

But, as we pointed out, the figures the Telegraph were referencing actually showed government predictions of what would happen if no new policies were introduced - not the scenario if they were.

We didn't hear anything back from the Telegraph, but presumably someone read our email because this morning the paper has reported that the government believe the effect of the policies will be to  add £100 to electricity bills by 2030. We think this is an accurate description of what DECC says.



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Poking a complex system - Will the end of La Niña mean record temperature rise?

  • 23 May 2012, 11:00
  • Verity Payne

'La Niña has ended' according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), who made the  declaration last week. La Niña gave way in early April, and conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean have now returned to 'neutral'. But what does that actually mean - both in a literal sense, and in terms of the effect it might have on the world's average temperature?

La Niña is a recurring state of the atmosphere and oceans that forms part of a cycle in large-scale climate and ocean patterns in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, called the El Niño Southern Oscillation ( ENSO).

About half of the time the Pacific Ocean experiences what are called 'ENSO-neutral' conditions. This means that sea surface temperature and the very predictable trade winds that blow east to west over the equatorial Pacific Ocean (from South America towards Indonesia) are similar to their  long-term averages.

The rest of the time conditions in the equatorial Pacific swing between the two extremes of the ENSO; La Niña and El Niño. During La Niña, colder seawater in the eastern equatorial Pacific spreads along the equator, and the trade winds become stronger. In contrast, El Niño involves the reverse - warmer seawater spreading along the equator from the eastern Pacific, and weaker trade winds than usual.

Both El Niño and La Niña alter global atmospheric circulation, and disrupt weather and climate patterns in many parts of the world.

Scientists have identified that ENSO swings between El Niño and La Niña every  3 - 7 years, but the reasons for the swing are not yet fully understood.

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