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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 research's findings.

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, particularly a 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 accelerating rate.)

Skeptic blog 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 century.

Hence seemingly minor flaws in the reporting of climate science can create apparent conflict between bits of research that actually reach complementary conclusions.

 

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