Sensationalist ice-age story may betray covert media agenda

[This is a slightly extended and fully referenced (hyperlinked) version of an article which first appeared in Village Magazine on 14th August 2013.]

GHOST: But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
List, list, O, list!

— Hamlet. Act 1, Scene V.

On Friday, 12th July, Irish Times readers were treated to a truly extraordinary front page headline: “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. The implication was immediate and unmistakable: if the world is heading into “another ice age” then, by definition, it cannot simultaneously be globally warming. Some fatal flaw must have been found in the theory of global warming, such that it has been decisively refuted. Given that this theory has surely been by far the most intensively studied and comprehensively tested theory in human history, and has robustly survived all those tests to date, this would be simply the most extraordinary revolution in our scientific understanding. Ever. And not just a scientific revolution either — it would have dramatic social and political ramifications. Globally, we could stop worrying about emissions of (so-called?) “greenhouse gases”.

In Ireland, we could safely exploit any and all fossil fuel resources we can dig, drill or frack, anywhere in or around the national territory. Yes, we’d still have the little matter of an “ice age” to adapt to instead, but with all that ice having to form, surely that could only happen very slowly? In any case, the apocalyptic visions of impending collapse of human civilisation promoted by those climate change “alarmists” had clearly been finally debunked. Dr. Pangloss was vindicated and all really is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Except, of course, that none of this was actually so.

To see this, we will have to unpick the story carefully. It’s not a pleasant or pretty exercise, and certainly not one that an ordinary reader should be expected to embark on; but the stakes are high (could hardly be higher) so maybe it is worth the effort.

To begin, we can hardly blame the headline editor; for s/he has just taken a cue from the article lead — which itself is a model of journalistic brevity:

The sun is acting bizarrely and scientists have no idea why. Solar activity is in gradual decline, a change from the norm which in the past triggered a 300-year-long mini ice age.

Now admittedly, we’ve already clarified (retreated?) to a mere “mini” ice age; but still definitely some form of “ice age” nonetheless. So still, presumably, global cooling, advancing glaciers, all that stuff? Definitely a contradiction of this global warming nonsense we’ve been tortured with. And wait, read on — this is all breaking news, and on the highest scientific authority:

Three leading solar scientists presented the very latest data about the weakening solar activity at a teleconference yesterday in Boulder, Colorado, organised by the American Astronomical Society.

So clearly, these three “leading scientists”, with the benefit of the “very latest data” have just predicted an impending (mini) ice age; notwithstanding all the extraordinary disruption of mainstream climate science that such a claim entails.

Or at any rate, a reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking that that’s what she had just read. But such a reader would be sadly mistaken. For these first two paragraphs are actually a model of misdirection: not exactly false, but certainly not meaning what they seem to say on the surface.

In fact, as far as I have been able to establish, the only parts of the Irish Times article properly deriving from the teleconference (actually hosted from Bozeman, Montana, not Boulder, Colorado) are the technical details on the projected evolution of the current and immediately forthcoming 11-year solar cycles. For solar science buffs this is, of course, a genuinely interesting story. The current solar cycle is really quite different from immediately preceding cycles. But in itself, this is hardly breaking news. For example, two years ago (June 2011) we could read in a press release from the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division (AAS/SPD):

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

The more recent teleconference featured by the Irish Times is still important, because it updates and refines this ongoing projection of solar activity. But where’s the big “ice age” story that brought the dramatic front page headline?

Well here the plot thickens. In fact, that June 2011 press release was also followed by a flurry of media coverage that linked this aberration in solar activity to a possible new “ice age”. To such an extent that one of the authors at that time, Frank Hill, had to explicitly repudiate this inference:

… a lot of reports have come out and said that we have predicted a new ice age. That is making the leap from low sunspot activity to cooling. We did not predict a little ice age. What we predicted is something that the sun will be doing, not what the Earth’s climate will be doing. That has been the major inaccuracy that I have seen in the media at this point.

One might have imagined that even minimal background research by an alert journalist could have located that previous story, and sensitised him or her to the potential for serious mis-communication here. But apparently not.

Still, perhaps we might blame the scientists themselves for poor communication: maybe they were unclear or ambiguous in what they announced? Well no, apparently not. On the contrary, one of them, Dr. Giuliana de Toma, is explicitly quoted (much later in the article) as saying that the current data:

… did not mean the earth was heading for another “Maunder Minimum”. This was a time between 1645 and 1725 when solar activity was extremely low or nonexistent, a situation which caused a mini ice age. [emphasis added]

Yes, you read that correctly: one of the “leading scientists” whose teleconference was identified as providing the basis for this whole story, is quoted within the text of the article itself as saying that the results do not indicate that the Earth is heading for a (mini) ice age (or, more precisely, for a “Maunder Minimum” — but that apparently amounts to essentially the same thing? or at least that seems to be the Irish Times’ interpretation …).

When contacted independently and asked to comment on this Irish Times story, Dr. de Toma reiterated this position, and for more detailed clarification, she recommended an article which appeared in New Scientist magazine on 12th July 2013 (the same day as the Irish Times coverage). This New Scientist article — reporting on exactly the same scientific data as the Times — carried the headline “Sun’s quiet spell not the start of a mini ice age”!

So: who did make the inference that this change in solar activity may presage “another ice age”? Well, the Irish Times article switched abruptly from the original AAS teleconference participants to offer us commentary from “Irish solar science specialist”, Dr Ian Elliott, who is directly quoted thus:

“It all points to perhaps another little ice age,” he said. “It seems likely we are going to enter a period of very low solar activity and could mean we are in for very cold winters.”

Note carefully that some unspecified number of “very cold winters” (in Ireland? Europe?) is a very far cry from the “ice age” (a global cooling phenomenon) of the article headline. As to a “little ice age” (or “mini ice age” as the Irish Times would apparently have it), this is strictly a term of art with a very different, narrow, and limited meaning. Historically, it denotes a period which overlaps with, but is far from identical to, the previously mentioned Maunder Minimum. Despite the name, it is not properly an “ice age” in the conventional sense at all. None of this would be apparent to the layperson, and is not clarified in the article. We will return to that point (which will turn out to be the nub of this whole disastrous miscommunication). But before that, let’s ask on what basis does Dr. Elliott make this prediction?

And now our already thickening plot positively congeals!

The final, and key, actor in this labyrinthine dramatis personae is revealed as Prof Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading. And the decisive quote is this:

Research by Prof Mike Lockwood at the University of Reading showed how low solar
activity could alter the position of the jet stream over the north Atlantic, causing severe cold during winter months.

Now let’s be clear that Prof Lockwood doesn’t seem to be associated in any way with the recent teleconference or the scientific team that was the ostensible trigger for this article (any more than Dr. Elliott). Nor is he directly associated with Dr. Elliott. Nor, as far as I can tell, does Prof. Lockwood himself suggest that his work allows a connection between the teleconference news and a prediction of “another ice age”. In fact, it’s not even clear whether Prof. Lockwood was actually consulted in the preparation of this article at all. But again, a casual reader could easily suppose that all of these people are part and parcel of a single story, encapsulated as “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. This seems to me to be extraordinarily sloppy reporting (to put it at its kindest).

But let us park all that: does Prof. Lockwood actually claim what he’s reported as claiming? And if so, what should we make of it? The Irish Times article does not give precise sources (of course?), but it seems to be referring to a paper published by Prof. Lockwood and colleagues in the academic journal “Environmental Science Letters”, in the Apr-Jun 2010 issue. From the abstract of that paper, we read:

… We stress that this [anomalous cold winters] is a regional and seasonal effect relating to European winters and not a global effect … the results presented here indicate that, despite hemispheric warming, the UK and Europe could experience more cold winters than during recent decades.

So not “another ice age”. Not even a “Northern hemisphere ice age”. Not even an annualised cooling on a hemisphere basis (remember: “despite hemispheric warming”!). No, none of those things; just somewhat more frequent cold winters in Europe than during recent decades. Maybe. And the full extent even of this dependent on whether we really do enter a Maunder Minimum. Which the “very latest data” explicitly contra-indicates, at least according to the one leading scientist actually quoted on this point.

Or, for another perspective, the interested reader (or engaged journalist!) might consult the highly respected skepticalscience.com site. Filed there, under (debunking of) “Are we heading into global cooling?”, there’s this useful summary:

The Lockwood quote supposedly about global cooling simply discusses that decreased solar activity may impact winter weather in Europe, and has nothing to do with global temperatures whatsoever. Lockwood has performed numerous studies concluding that the Sun is not responsible for a significant amount of the recent global warming, and has not predicted global cooling.

So: this “story” as dramatically presented (spun?) by the Irish Times turns out to be essentially without any solid scientific foundation to speak of. But the damage has still been well and truly done. The Irish Times readership have, by now, moved on — but those who retain any lingering impression of this story will surely be that significant bit more confused, more disbelieving, more cynical about any future coverage of climate change: “Ah sure, last week it was supposed to be an ice age on the way — that climate change stuff is just a load of oul’ green guff.” Even more critically, the article itself lives on, for the Internet never forgets. It is already a featured link across the climate denialist blogosphere — indeed, precisely because it carries the full authority and credibility of a national “newspaper of record”, this article is virtual manna from heaven for that audience.

And now we come to the rub. Could this all have been an honest journalistic error (or rather, blunder)? Or equally, is it conceivable that the Irish Times was an innocent — albeit credulous – victim of a cleverly disguised denialist sting? In either of these cases, significant damage limitation would still be absolutely possible, simply by publishing a frank retraction and correction — in print, but also incorporated retrospectively into the archived online article. This would immediately turn the ongoing denialist linkage to the story back on itself and help significantly to undermine this particular denialist trope for the future. However: in the absence of such good faith remedy, we may have to seriously consider the alternative interpretation: that the sensationalist construction, presentation and placement of this story was in fact a manifestation of a conscious, deliberate, yet entirely covert, editorial line. If the latter proves even partly the case, then the judgement of our children, and their children in turn, will surely be harsh.

Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks to Phil Kearney, John Gibbons, Paul Price and Duncan Stewart for additional research and critical feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Of course, errors remain the author’s sole responsibility.

Barry McMullin is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University.

Postscript

On the same day as this critique appeared in Village magazine (14th August 2013), the same Irish Times article was also comprehensively discredited by Dana Nuccitelli, writing in The Guardian newspaper. Nonetheless, as of 18th August, the Irish Times article remained online in its original form without retraction or qualification. However, an apparently unrelated Irish Times story (published on 16th August) blared: “Ireland to experience huge temperature rises, says expert”. The latter represents a welcome step back toward scientific reality (though still managing to implicitly echo another denialist trope, namely that while the world may be warming this is happening “regardless of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit into the atmosphere”). And in fairness to the Irish Times, it has been pointed out to me that there has, in the past, been a clearly overt “editorial line” that explicitly acknowledges and recognises the scale of the climate change challenge, such as represented by this editorial from February 2013. But for the present purposes, suffice it to note that the comments section of the more recent (“huge temperature rises”) piece immediately attracted the mischievous, but inevitable, contrarian observation that “… not so long ago scientists said we could be heading into a mini Ice Age … will they ever make up their minds[?].”

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  • Toby Joyce

    I posted a copy of the Nuccitelli post at Skeptical Science to Ahlstrom., though I am sure he has read the gist of it.
    It is incredible that a serious science reporter would write a piece on world temperatures without mentioning the greenhouse effect.
    I hope Frank McDonald is the one to write about the forthcoming IPCC report. The science reporting on the Times is seriously deficient for a “quality” newspaper. Now it has become somewhat of a laughingstock thanks to the credulity (or mendacity) of its “science correspondent”>