Pushing back against the tide of junk science

I published two articles over the summer in Village magazine on the subject of the new Irish climate denier group, the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF), founded by retired UCD meteorologist, Ray Bates. The first of these, in the June issue, focused on the junk science being peddled by septuagenarian US climate deniers, Richard Lindzen and William Happer, both of whom were flown in to Dublin as part of an apparent concerted effort by the ICSF to stymie an Irish response to the climate crisis by disguising political lobbying as scientific analysis.

The ICSF is an opaque organisation. It refuses to disclose either its membership or funding, or what links it may have to other organisations, and it holds its ‘public’ meetings behind closed doors, barring the media and NGOs, apart from hand-picked media supporters. Other than Bates, who is a retired meteorologist rather than a climatologist, there are precisely zero climate scientists on board with the ICSF – assuming a couple of ‘independent scientists’ who publish a crackpot website –Global Warming Solved! – aren’t counted.

Yet its stated aim is to carry out: “neutral, independent analysis of the latest climate research with the purpose of better informing climate and energy policies in Ireland”, AKA, lobbying. I robustly challenged the BS being spread by Lindzen and Happer in particular at these two quasi-public meetings, and wondered aloud why Bates, a noted climate contrarian, would be involved in promoting such patent garbage as ‘The Earth is in the midst of a CO2 famine’ – which is how the Farmers Journal headlined Happer’s junk science presentation.

Bates didn’t much like the critique, and took his beef to the Press Ombudsman, specifically, three complaints against myself and Village magazine. In his complaints, Bates (falsely) claimed we had called him a ‘climate denier’. Bates also (falsely) complained we had alleged he was “not a bona-fide practising expert in climate science”. Bates also (falsely) claimed the articles I wrote included “malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations”. Finally, Bates (falsely) claimed the articles I wrote were ageist.

These are all extremely serious allegations to make. Bates supplied copious supporting documentation in support of his claims, which I and Village editor, Michael Smith worked together to unpick, one by one. On September 21st, the Press Ombudsman rejected all of Bates’s allegations. He lodged an appeal against the decision, which went back to the Press Council for adjudication. The Council issued its decision in early November. It upheld the Ombudsman’s decision to reject each and every one of Bates’s complaints.

The story was covered by the Sunday Times earlier this month, in a piece headlined ‘Retired UCD professor told to weather ‘climate contrarian’ jibe’. It also was picked up on Desmog.uk, with a piece headed: ‘Victory for Journalist as Accuracy Complaint by ‘Contrarian’ Climate Scientist Thrown Out’.

The whole process took an inordinate amount of time. One document along that I worked on over the summer ran to well over 7,000 words. Responding to his appeal was equally tedious, but necessary to rebut what we believed to be more inaccurate and misleading statements. I may at some future point return and tell the full story behind this whole process, including a critical assessment of the science supposedly supporting the ‘ultra low climate sensitivity’ thesis that Bates clings to in arguing we continue to give a free hand to polluters like Ireland’s beef and dairy sectors.

But that is, as they say, another story. In a year in which journalism and the science of climate change have both been under attack like never before, this was, in my view, a small but significant win. The full ruling is set out below, so you can judge for yourself:

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The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint by Professor Ray Bates that the Village magazine breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

In June 2017, the Village published an article which reported on a new organisation, the Irish Climate Science Forum, that at its inaugural meeting included as speakers a number of climate change sceptics. One of the founders of the new organisation, the article stated, was Ray Bates, a retired Professor of Meteorology at University College Dublin.  The article described him as a “climate contrarian”.

In July 2017, the Village published a second article on climate change by the same author. This article was critical of the editorial stance of another publication which had included a number of articles on the causes of climate change, including one by Professor Bates.

Professor Bates complained to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that the June and July articles in the Village breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice. He stated that the June article claimed that he was a “climate change denier” and “not a bona-fide practising expert in climate science”. He stated that the July article referred to an article that he had written as “makey-uppy” and “blatant propaganda and fake news”. Professor Bates went on to outline his professional reputation and his involvement in peer-reviewed research publications.

The editor of the Village defended the publication of the two articles and said that the June edition had not described Professor Bates as a “climate-change denier”, rather as a “climate contrarian”. It was, he stated, other speakers at the meeting who were described as “climate deniers”. Regarding the July edition of the Village the editor stated that references to climate change “makey-uppy” referred to other articles and not to the one which Professor Bates had penned.  The editor stood over the claim that the Irish Climate Science Forum was a “climate-change denier group”. The editor vigorously defended the credentials of the author of the two articles in the Village. The editor stated that his magazine had a “stringent policy” on not publishing “scientifically or factually contrarian articles on important issues” and therefore would not offer a right of reply to Professor Bates as a means of “advancing (his) concerns”.

Professor Bates submitted a response to the editor’s defence of the two articles. He went on to say that his recent research on climate change had not been ignored by the scientific community as the editor of the Village had claimed, as he had received five invitations to give seminars as a result of his recently published research including invitations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin.

The editor of the Village responded to Professor Bates’ submission. He stated that comparing the stances on science taken by the author of the Village articles and that of Professor Bates “the overwhelming consensus of experts hold (the author of the article) to be being truthful and Mr Bates to be a systematic purveyor of what is not in reality the truth”. He reiterated his previously stated position that the article had not said that Professor Bates was a climate-change denier but that those behind the Irish Climate Science Forum were.

The Village denied there had been any breach of Principle 1 as there was nothing inaccurate in what was published.  They also denied any breach of Principle 4 as nothing had been published “based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations” and that the complainant had not “put in issue” the magazine’s fact-checking. The magazine also stated that there had been no breach of Principle 8. The editor claimed he was uncertain as to what Professor Bates was referring to in regard to Principle 8, but in any case, there was no attempt to “publish material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred” in the two articles. The editor stated the articles had been robust and “proportionate to the gravity of the issue, to the obscure contrarianism yet popular plausibility of (Professor Bates’) of his position and to the evasiveness of his tactics”.

Professor Bates made an additional submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman in which he disputed some of the claims made by Village in its latest submission. Specifically, he claimed that the magazine had made “false and very serious allegations” against him. He claimed that contrary to the editor’s assertion his most recent paper had received citations from international scientific colleagues.

As it was not possible to resolve the complaint by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

In making a decision about this complaint the Press Ombudsman is not required to take sides in the climate change argument involving Professor Bates and others. In the context of the generally robust arguments between professionally qualified participants in debates such as these, in which opposing opinions are strongly held, the Press Ombudsman is not required to decide which protagonist is correct, but only to decide if any of the Principles of the Code of Practice have been breached.

In this particular complaint it is necessary to weigh up on the one hand a magazine publishing  extremely robust and critical articles about a subject matter which has led to fundamental and profound disagreements that have spilled over from purely scientific research into the political and economic spheres of public discourse and on the other hand a complainant  who feels his reputation has been maligned by two articles which he claims misrepresents his views and identifies him with opinions and judgments which he says he does not hold. In most circumstances, a complaint such as this might be resolved by the complainant being offered a right of reply. But in this instance the editor is not prepared to offer the complainant a right of reply.

I have decided not to uphold the complaint and in doing so have taken into account the
Preamble to the Code of Practice which states that “The freedom to publish is vital to the right of the people to be informed. This freedom includes the right of the press to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it”. The right to express strongly held views is not, of course, unlimited.  Publications must not breach any Principles of the Code of Practice.

In regard to Principle 1 I cannot find any clear statement in the articles that Professor Bates is a climate change denier. Equally I cannot find it stated in the articles that Professor Bates is responsible for “makey-uppy” and “propaganda or fake news”. The articles associate him with climate change deniers but do not state that he is himself a denier.  The complainant and the editor hotly dispute the accuracy of some of the claims made in the article.  Some of these are to be found in inferences in the articles rather than actual statements. In determining if Principle 1 has been breached both statements and reasonable inferences need to be considered. Despite the strongly argued challenges of the complainant I cannot find specific examples in the articles where the requirement for truth and accuracy has been breached.

In the case of Principle 4 there is a requirement that journalists must “take reasonable care in checking facts before publication”. In this instance, some of the “facts” are hotly contested and there is no agreement between the complainant and the editor on what are agreed and verified facts. I am conscious that Professor Bates holds views which are at variance with the views of most of the scientific community.  This on its own does not necessarily mean that his views can be dismissed. But I can find no evidence that the magazine failed to take reasonable care in checking facts in its research for the articles. Some of the language found in the two articles may be intemperate, but this reflects the hotly disputed nature of some of the debates about the causes of climate change. Principle 4 requires the press to “not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations”. The complainant believes this requirement was breached in the two articles, but I cannot find evidence to uphold this part of the complaint.

Professor Bates also claimed that Principle 8 had been breached in the publication of the two articles. The only possible relevant grounds to consider the complaint under this Principle is age and there is no evidence that Professor Bates’ age was a factor in the magazine’s reporting of the issues.

21 September 2017

The complainant appealed against the Decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland. 

Below is the Decision of the Press Council of Ireland:

Decision of the Press Council

The complainant submitted an appeal on the grounds (i) that there has been an error I the Press Ombudsman’s application of the Principles of the Code of Practice, and (ii) that significant new information is available that could not or was not made available to the Press Ombudsman before he made his decision.

The Press Council at its meeting on 3 November considered the matter and decided there was insufficient evidence to support the appeal on either ground and that the decision of the Press Ombudsman therefore stands.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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2 Responses to Pushing back against the tide of junk science

  1. Paddy Butler says:

    Congratulations on total vindication, great that someone is standing up to these deniers, sorry contrarians! Good on ya.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Paddy. Would rather be spending the time on more positive communications, but this stuff really does have to be called out for what it is.

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