Overstating climate findings - it’s just not helpful
- 21 May 2012, 11:00
- Verity Payne
Credit: Ralph Timmermann
A couple of weeks ago new research into an Antarctic ice shelf
made the news. Headlines ranged from the accurate:
Research reveals ice sheet stability in West Antarctica under
threat - Phys.org; to the absurd:
Big Antarctic ice sheet appears doomed - ScienceNews.
The media's response to the research has been critiqued by the
Columbia Journalism Review - which points out that an
overstatement of the findings by the study's lead author and
uncritical reporting led to articles which misreported the
Overstatement about research adds to the confusion that often
clouds the climate change debate in the media, and provides
ammunition in what has become a rather polarised space. Perhaps
most irritatingly, it can lead to solid conclusions from cautious
pieces of research becoming distorted and identified with
inaccurate and sensationalist reporting - of which more below.
First, though, the details of the new research: Two papers
examining a large West Antarctic ice shelf were published last week
from the same research group. The first, in the journal
Nature, modelled the effects of warming seawater on the ice
shelf, finding that over the next century warmer seawater could
begin to melt it from below. The second paper, in the journal
Nature Geoscience, surveyed the bedrock beneath the shelf,
finding steeply sloping bedrock which could make the ice more prone
to melting than previously realised.
The new finding is that there is potential for future melting in
an area which has up to now been considered pretty stable.
How did the press report the papers? The key critique the
Columbia Review made of press coverage was that many articles
overstated the importance or magnitude of the findings,
Reuters piece which the Columbia Review calls the "most
troublesome of the bunch".
The Reuters article says:
"Scientists are predicting the
disappearance of another vast ice shelf in Antarctica by the end of
the century that will accelerate rising sea levels."
In fact, as the Columbia Review points out, the research does
not predict the loss of the ice shelf by the end of the century.
This error seems to have crept from the paper's press release,
which overstated the findings of the research. Reuters, the
Columbia Review says, "ignored the paper and quoted straight from
the press release."
This sort of misreporting should be avoided at the best of
times, but particularly in the polarised world of climate
reporting, as the Columbia Review points out:
"Given the scope and degree of bad
information that gets published and broadcast-due to both
ideological distortion and honest mistakes-these errors may seem a
little small-bore. But that's exactly the point. There is an
informational war raging over climate science, which makes the need
for precise and meticulous reporting by the press all the more
crucial. Otherwise, reporters end up contributing to the stretching
or misrepresenting of conclusions, rather than helping to keep the
debate grounded in the reality of what the science tells us."
Furthermore, when the media and other commentators overstate
scientific findings to dramatic effect, when others (rightly) point
out that media reports are contradicted by other scientific work,
the message received by the public can be that the science itself
is incorrect and alarmist.
That appears to be exactly what happened in this case: An even
newer paper, currently under open review in the journal The
Cryosphere, finds that satellite measurements of the ice shelf in
question show little change in the ice over the last 12 years - a
finding which somewhat undermines much of the media coverage of the
first two papers. (This is in contrast to the ice shelves to the
west of the Antarctic Peninsula, which are losing ice at an
WUWT wastes no time in highlighting this new paper, pointing
that the findings make quite a contrast to the previous news
headlines, and saying:
"To paraphrase NSIDC's Dr. Mark Serreze
famous 'The Arctic is screaming' quote, I suggest that from the
perspective of the data presented in this paper, I'll say'The
Antarctic is snoring'."
But while the paper does disagree with the more misleading media
coverage of the earlier papers, it doesn't conflict with the
original research. That paper found that although the ice shelf
hasn't begun to melt yet, it might start to during the coming
Hence seemingly minor flaws in the reporting of climate science
can create apparent conflict between bits of research that actually
reach complementary conclusions.