Christopher Booker flunks general studies

  • 26 Sep 2012, 12:00
  • Chris Peters

A-Level General Studies may not have the best reputation, (I enjoyed it - Ed) but even the harshest critics of the subject haven't generally levelled the charge that it's merely a tool for brainwashing teenagers. 

Not so Christopher Booker, whose latest column takes a swipe at what he calls "vacuous, one-sided propaganda" in an A-Level question about climate change.

Booker argues that eleven pages of "pre-release material" exam board AQA provided to students "shamelessly [promotes] global warming alarmism". He also - more tangibly - claims it contains inaccurate figures which make climate change sound worse than it is.

The question and supporting material are taken from a General Studies A-level paper AQA set in June 2012. A quick check of the paper suggests that, in fact, Booker has misread the material in at least two important ways.

Getting the numbers wrong: Exaggerating the source material

Booker argues the material contains alarmist statements about extinction rates associated with climate change. He says:

"One document from the Met Office solemnly predicted that 'even if global temperatures only rise by 2 degrees C, 30-40 per cent of species could face extinction'."

Given that Booker is accusing AQA and the Met Office of alarmism, it is unfortunate that he has inaccurately reported the numbers contained in the exam paper. The section in question, reproduced below, suggests a figure of 20-30 per cent, not the 30-40 per cent Booker quotes. Actually, that figure doesn't appear in the paper at all:

met office exam figure

This is reproduced from the Met Office guide: 'Warming: Climate change - the facts', and sourced from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fourth assessment report, which details it further:

"There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30 per cent of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5 degrees Celsius (relative to 1980-1999)."

Alarming, perhaps, but well sourced, and not the over-inflated figures that Booker criticises.

Getting the numbers wrong: "F" is for Fahrenheit

The second issue Booker has with the material is that he believes it gets the amount of warming the planet has experienced over the past century wrong:

"A graph from the US Environmental Protection Agency showed temperatures having soared in the past 100 years by 1.4 degrees - exactly twice the generally accepted figure."

A mistake like this would be an absolute howler on the part of the examiners - or if you buy Booker's thesis, a blatant piece of propaganda. However, a look at the exam pack reveals a more prosaic explanation:

 EPA exam figure1

As you can see, the EPA figure indicates temperatures have risen by roughly 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 100 years.

The "generally accepted figure" Booker is talking about is in degrees Celsius. To be precise, 0.75 degrees Celsius. He has failed to spot the distinction, and instead assumed that more sinister forces are at work.

One-sided propaganda?

Booker's overall argument is that AQA expects students to produce an answer that agrees with the mainstream view of climate science.

He says:

"If it were still a purpose of education to teach people to examine evidence and think rationally, any bright A-Level candidate might have had a field day, showing how all this 'source material' was no more than vacuous, one-sided propaganda. But today one fears they would have been marked down so severely for not coming up with the desired answers that they would have been among the tiny handful of candidates given an unequivocal 'fail'."

We asked AQA whether it tolerated answers that disagreed with the source material. A spokesperson told us:

"Whilst a student might refer to evidence from the articles they don't have to agree with it to gain marks."

Obviously, this is exactly what they would say.

We also asked AQA whether a student would be penalised for making the kind of mistakes we identified in the Sunday Telegraph piece. It helpfully replied: 

...whilst we would expect students to read the data correctly, they would not be unduly penalised re the Fahrenheit/Celsius issue

Depending on your point of view, that's either remarkable tolerance, or a lamentable decline in standards.

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