Science trumps journalism

Article below appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. It is a response of sorts to an unusually poor contribution in a previous edition by a journalism lecturer in an article purporting to offer critical insights into the interplay between science and journalism…

IMAGINE IF the world’s largest assembly of scientific experts published a ‘consensus report’ confirming that, with a 90 per cent probability, a  giant meteor would slam into the planet within a decade. How would you expect the world’s media to cover this story?

This intriguing scenario is set out by the former editor of Fortune magazine, Eric Pooley in a recent Harvard University analysis of the American press and its coverage of the economics of climate change. “Even in an era of financial distress, they would throw teams of reporters at it and give them the resources needed to follow it in extraordinary depth and detail”, writes Pooley. “After all, the race to stop the meteor would be the story of the century.”

The bad news is that the metaphorical meteor is indeed on the way. The most comprehensive global scientific assessment ever conducted – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – confirmed after more than two decades of detailed analysis across dozens of disciplines that human-driven climate change is on target to render the planet largely uninhabitable in the coming decades.

The IPCC’s assessment is that, in the absence of massive, immediate and sustained emissions reductions, the planet is committed to average surface temperature increases in the range of 3-6 degrees centigrade. At the lower end of that scale, the Arctic disappears, the Greenland ice shelf is doomed, the Amazon rainforest disappears, and 50 per cent of all species face extinction.  At the higher – 6C – end of that scale, life on Earth will be largely extinguished.

So where are the teams of reporters, specialist writers and analysts that are busily covering every conceivable angle of the greatest prospective calamity humanity has ever faced? Nowhere. The media is engaged in “one of the most obstinate displays of inertia in human history, a time when, like latter-day Neros, we fiddle while our planet burns”, says media specialist, Prof Justin Lewis.

The media loves scare stories, from MMR to killer bees, yet “despite worrying about all kinds of risks that are unlikely to materialise, when faced with one of the most carefully assessed and well-researched threats of recent times, we appear to dither and stall, inching towards half-measures with little sense of urgency”.

The answer to this conundrum may lie in the widespread misunderstanding within the media about how science is done. Bad Science author Ben Goldacre reckons that many journalists “feel intellectually offended by how hard they find science, and so “conclude that it all must simply be arbitrary, made-up nonsense”.

This caricature of the scientific process leaves them free to “pick a result from anywhere you like, and if it suits your agenda, then that’s that: nobody can take it away from you with their clever words because it’s all just game-playing”.

The impact of industry lobbies can never be understated either. The scientific evidence linking smoking with lung cancer was compelling as far back as 1953, but the tobacco industry fought a brilliant counter-attack, using junk science, paid ‘experts’, phoney institutes and lashings of PR money to keep cigarette regulation at bay for another 40 years.

Similar industry forces claimed vociferously for years that both acid rain and ozone depletion were in reality conspiracies against our freedom by greedy, corrupt scientists looking for research funding. The relentless attacks on climate science over the last decade have followed an identical play-book.

“Scientific ideas must be supported by evidence…both the idea and the evidence used to support it must be judged by a jury of one’s scientific peers”, writes Prof Naomi Oreskes (in ‘Merchants of Doubt‘ – essential reading for anyone involved in public policy or journalism). The so-called climate sceptics have long since abandoned the peer-reviewed scientific process, since they have no evidence to support their claims. Instead, they wage war on science itself in the lay media, knowing that most reporters – and editors – wouldn’t spot the difference, and would instead try to “balance” their coverage.

“Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming”, according to Oreskes (whom I met and interviewed when she was in Dublin for a lecture in TCD in 2008). “Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did”.

Harry Browne’s extraordinarily ill-judged recent article in Village (“It also became clear to me that the conclusion that a certain temperature change is ‘catastrophic’ for humans is not a scientific one — it’s political” is an example in his own words of Harry’s non-understanding of science) was a timely reminder of the scale of the challenge journalism confronts in trying to agree a fact-based approach to tackling the man-made meteor that is climate change.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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16 Responses to Science trumps journalism

  1. Brian O'Brien says:

    Well said! I read your article in Village over the weekend, and was relieved that someone else had noticed the sheer lunacy of Harry Browne’s article in the previous edition during the summer. I was beginning to wonder if it was just me, or was that entire article crackers. This idea of science being some great big “debate” where everyone gets their tuppence worth and whoever has the best lines wins the debate might work for undergraduate debating societies but it’s pretty much the exact opposite of how the scientific method works.

    You’d think people – especially journalists who choose to write on the topic – would know that. Then again, you’d have thought that Irish journalists would have been filling their column inches 3-5 years ago warning that the banking/property bubble would wreck the economy and pauperise our kids, but guess what?

    They, almost to a man/woman, missed that one too. Whoops. Now they’re lambasting everyone bar themselves for what’s happening, so nothing, absolutely nothing, has been learned on the part of the media.

    Journalism is more a trade than a profession; with minimal training, journalists are let loose to comment/pontificate on pretty much whatever catches their fancy. Facts? Bah, who needs facts, when you can have an argument instead? And if you have a decent turn of phrase, you can even pass yourself off as an expert commentator on just about anything. Besides, facts are b-o-r-i-n-g.

  2. Lenny B says:

    ‘Climate of Doubt’ is a cracking read, a brilliant piece of detective work that the authors took a full five years to research and write. Someone should send Mr Browne a copy. In fact, John should probably start a petition to raise a few hundred euros so we can send copies to all the media ignorati out there.

    Yes, guys, there’s a ‘climate hoax’ all right, but you’re spreading, not exposing it.

  3. Barthololmew says:

    I am not sure if this comment will get published because I have several good comments not published on this site before. But I’ll point something out:

    This article says:

    “IMAGINE IF the world’s largest assembly of scientific experts published a ‘consensus report’ confirming that, with a 90 per cent probability, a giant meteor would slam into the planet within a decade.”

    The IPCC say that it’s 90% that man is causing climate change not that it’s 90% that the worst effects of climate change will happen.

    This article seems to contain a gross misunderstanding of the IPCC reports but at the sametime it is giving out someone else’s misunderstanding.

  4. John Gibbons says:


    Are you familiar with the AR4 report (the Summary for Policymakers sums it up pretty well) and its range of probable temperature increases due this century? If you are, you will understand that the 4 principal projected likely temperature increases (roughly 1.8C–6.4C) are not some bunch of wild guesses with a huge range of uncertainty, as the delay-and-deny crowd would have us believe.

    What they set out is that we can, assuming not too many positive feedbacks kick in, maybe hold towards the lower end of that range of projections IF and only if we immediately engage in a massive, sustained and worldwide emissions reduction program. Failing this, and based on the current (A1F1) trajectory, we are comfortably on target to hit and exceed 6C heating this century – throw in positive feedbacks, and that could be more again.

    You’re right, there is indeed a “gross misunderstanding of the IPCC report”, but it is, I’m afraid, on your part. When you take off the ideology goggles, the scientific facts are actually not that difficult to discern. Monkeying around with the interpretation of science is the gist of ‘Climate of Doubt’. I’d respectfully suggest you add it to your reading list.

    A genuine ‘skeptic’ would welcome, indeed seek out, challenges to their views, and would adjust those views as new, credible information comes to light. A denialist, on the other hand, clings to their preconceptions no matter how overwhelming the weight of evidence, no matter how many experts and reputable institutions endorse it. Which camp are you in, Bart?

  5. Barthololmew says:

    I am genuine skeptic. Show me a link where IPCC state its 90% probably that we will hit worst case scenario?

    Here is a link which shows its 90% anthropogenic causes for climate change.

    From working group 1 of the 4th report.

    It says:
    “It is very likely[6] that the observed increase in methane concentration is due to anthropogenic activities,”

    Then if you go to footnote 6 it says: Very likely > 90%.

    Reference is here:

    Could you show me where it states in any peer reviewed paper that it is 90% likely we will see the worst case scenario from climate change?

    Could you also show me where I grossly misunderstand the IPCC report?

    As for your comment:
    “A genuine ‘skeptic’ would welcome, indeed seek out, challenges to their views,”

    You don’t publish some views that challenge your own. By all means join us in the world of healthy questioning and skepticism but then publish the question and points that people put to you. Not just the ones you agree with. I even asked you to publish my email so that people could read a point to you that you refused to answer but you didn’t even do that.

    Here’s hoping the last 5 minutes hasn’t been a waste of time…

  6. John Gibbons says:


    On the off-chance that you are for real, here goes:

    a) The IPCC AR4 confirmed a 90%+ confidence that global warming is real, and is primarily being driven by anthropogenic forcings.

    b) The AR4 report set out a range of ‘Emissions Scenarios’ for the remainder of the 21st century. As I’m sure you know, these are B1, A1T, B2, A1B, A2, A1F1. The A1F1 scenario projects strong fossil-dependent growth continuing towards mid-century before peaking.

    c) The data upon which the above Emissions Scenarios was based is already at least five, and in some cases, up to 10 years old. The very ‘consensus’ nature of the IPCC, involving the buy-in of governments from Saudi Arabia and Russia to the US, means it errs well on the low side of potential risk scenarios (the exact opposite of what the delay-and-deny gang allege about the IPCC). In fact, the AR4 report specifically states that certain ‘positive feedback’ mechanisms have been omitted entirely, not because they are very unlikely, but simply because of the high levels of uncertainty attached to them (for the record, a ‘positive feedback’ is an accelerator to a forcing)

    d) Since the Copenhagen fiasco, all meaningful efforts at globally reducing carbon emissions have been shelved. Current measurements place emissions in 2010 well above the IPCC’s worst case (A1F1) scenario range, a range which the IPCC tracks at a minimum of over 2C to a maximum of over 6C – and that’s all within 90 years. The mean A1F1 figure is around 3.5C. The climate-amplifying effects of positive feedbacks guarantee that 3C begets 4C, and in turn 4C ensures 5C, and so on.

    Re: “You don’t publish some views that challenge your own”. I’ve published lots of your comments, and spent a fair amount of time in the process, yet I have never encountered a single instance to date where you have said: “OK John, fair point, I hadn’t thought of that, yes, it’s just possible you might not be 100% wrong”.

    Such tremendous self-confidence in your own certitude is the hallmark of a denier, Bart, not a skeptic (and this is from a guy who we know precisely nothing, nada, zip about, not even his second name; still, our mystery contributor has all the answers, all the time, and I’m completely wrong – about everything. Touché, Bart).

    On the positive side, there are lots of folks who send me emails, every day of the week in fact, demanding that I publish their copy-and-paste Denier 101 agitprop from the Cato, Heartland or Marshall Institutes – those great bastions of anti-science. And Bart, they don’t even make it past the Spam filter, so rejoice! However, since you will categorically reject every aspect of this posting (just like every other response of mine), boo hoo if I am interfering with your God-given right to flood contrarian messaging onto this blog.

  7. Brian O'Brien says:

    I think your correspondent “Bart” underlines the kind of thinking fuelling Harry Browne and others in the media (and strangely enough, attacks on climate science, though mostly coming from the industry-funded right wing, are also likely to emanate from left wingnuts). Martin Durkin, the propagandist behind ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ is a leftie crypto-communist headcase who thinks class war is the ‘real’ issue and Maggie Thatcher dreamed up global warming as an excuse to shut down the coal mines and break the unions. Ergo, environmental science is ‘The Enemy’ as well!

    I’m fairly new to the blog, so haven’t read too many of Bart’s postings, but they do seem to be carefully weighted to draw you into one meaningless pseudo-debate after another. I suspect the plan (the Scientologists use it all the time) is to wear you down, since he knows you will actually research a reply – which takes time and effort – while the construction of his latest Straw Man argument is done in a matter of minutes.

    Don’t mean to tell you how to run your blog, but the Barts of this world remind me of Mr Smith in the Matrix. Smash him up, and two, four, eight Mr Smiths come back for the next attack, until people like you eventually throw in the towel – and then Bart wins. But John, I’m sure you know this too. Best of luck!

  8. Barthololmew says:

    The 90% you are now referring to is 90% that man is causing climate change. This is the 90% I pointed out to you (and backed up) that you were originally getting confused with. I specifically asked you for a reference that said that it is 90% that the worst effects of climate change are going to happen. This is what your meteor analogy referred to. Yes or no, can you provide that?

    As for your comment that I have never gone:
    “OK John, fair point, I hadn’t thought of that, yes, it’s just possible you might not be 100% wrong”

    But, when have you ever gone:
    “Ok Bart, fair point, I hadn’t thought of that, yes, it’s just possible you might not be 100% wrong”

    Instead, you keep trying to misrepresent me a climate change denier. (Note: Brian – that’s what a straw man is). And then when I come back to some of your points, you don’t even publish them.

    In fact when have you ever gone to anyone here whose has seriously challenged your view point:
    “Ok Mr. Challenger, fair point, I hadn’t thought of that, yes, it’s just possible you might not be 100% wrong”

    I’ll tell you this, if you can produce a specifc reference which backs up your 90% claim, I have no problem whatsoever saying:
    “OK John, fair point, I hadn’t thought of that, yes, it’s just possible you might not be 100% wrong”

    Once again, I hope in the interest of debate that I haven’t wasted time writing this post and it will be published.

  9. John Gibbons says:

    Bart (Barthololmew Kingston?)

    Good to see my detailed response to your last salvo went ignored, as predicted. Re. your 90% point. That’s the level of certainty that climate change is anthropogenic. AR4 translates this into impacts – ranging from 2.5C–6.2C, with a mean of 3.5C-4C, based on current emissions (in excess of A1F1) trajectories.

    Is it 90% certain that a mean 3.5–4C heating (i.e. 30-40% above current global mean average temperatures) will be catastrophic? Certainly. Even the EU warns that anything above 2C would take us past the point of no return climatically, so, yes, even taking a mean A1F1 figure, we’re toast, or 90% toast, if you prefer.

    Bart, you are more likely a contrarian than an outright denier, so apologies on that score. If you look through this blog, you’ll find many instances where I welcome feedback, thank contributors for providing new insights, pulling me up when I stray off the path, and for generally adding to an informed discussion. Your postings are markedly negative, sniping and sarcastic, picking holes and playing with figures (the 90% above is yet another case in point). You have yet to add anything positive to this discussion, not even your name or biography.

    I don’t claim to be the keeper of the flame of eternal knowledge and wisdom, but (unlike you) I sign my name to my articles and defend them as best I can in the public domain. If/when I get it wrong, I fess up and adjust accordingly.

    The reason I write and campaign on this issue is that it’s a vital issue of public safety, and it has profound impacts for the next generation, specifically, my kids. And your motivation for throwing rotten tomatoes from the sidelines is, what exactly? For someone who rates Lomborg (while refusing to address the fundamentally fraudulent nature of his work) it can hardly be any purist interest in actual science or meaningful analysis.

    I also try to adjust my views as new information comes to light. You should try it too sometime. If your next posting (and god, I can hardly wait) doesn’t set out exactly who you are, what your expertise and angle in this “debate” is, don’t expect to see it – or anything else – published here. What are the odds of a full disclosure – less than 90%, perhaps? Your odds of continuing to being indulged with your endless carpings on this blog are far, far lower, trust me!

  10. Barthololmew says:


    Your original argument implied that it was 90% likely that we would experience the worst effects of climate change. It seems to me that you have based this on:

    Premise 1: It is 90% probable man is the cause of climate change
    Premise 2: Climate change is going to be really bad


    Conclusion: It is 90% certain that climate change is going to be really bad.

    But this is not a syllogism; it is a non sequitor. You’re premises are correct but they do not imply the conclusion.

    You seem to think that anyone who disagrees with you, is in rejection of science or is a fraud. This is very sad as it is not the case.

    My background is I am member of the public with an interest in climate change (isn’t that what you want the public to take an interest?). I have provided my personal email which I have told you, you are free to publish. I find some of the talk from environmentalists interesting but I find it very frustrating when they won’t take any sort of questioning of their opinions. This sort of “shut up or get lost” reminds me very much of the Catholic Church. I really wish they would stop doing that as I feel it is very counter productive.

    I believe science unlike religion is all about questioning. I apply the same level of questioning to you as I do to Bjorn Lomborg. I’d be interested to hear some specific examples of where his arguments fall apart but they haven’t been forthcoming. You just keep telling me to read this book by someone who studied English literature. But I picked an argument from that book and explained in detail why it wasn’t that good and was hoping someone would come back and refute what I said or give an example of a very good argument from Friel but that didn’t happen.

    Anyway here’s hoping the last 5 minutes have clarified things and you’ll feel ok to publish.

    Kind Regards.

  11. Paddy Morris says:

    I reckon if you are living on a low lying pacific state, or are a subsistence farmer in the horn of Africa, you can be about 90% certain that climate change will be ‘really bad’. In fact, it is possible that it already is really bad, depending where you live, and how you pose the question –

    to quote James Hansen:

    “Finally, a comment on frequently asked questions of the sort: Was global warming the cause of the 2010 heat wave in Moscow, the 2003 heat wave in Europe, the all-time record high temperatures reached in many Asian nations in 2010, the incredible Pakistan flood in 2010? The standard scientist answer is “you cannot blame a specific weather/climate event on global warming.” That answer, to the public, translates as “no”.

    However, if the question were posed as “would these events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm?”, an appropriate answer in that case is “almost certainly not.” That answer, to the public, translates as “yes”, i.e., humans probably bear a responsibility for the extreme event.

    In either case, the scientist usually goes on to say something about probabilities and how those are changing because of global warming. But the extended discussion, to much of the public, is chatter. The initial answer is all important.

    Although either answer can be defended as “correct”, we suggest that leading with the standard caveat “you cannot blame…” is misleading and allows a misinterpretation about the danger of increasing extreme events. Extreme events, by definition, are on the tail of the probability distribution. Events in the tail of the distribution are the ones that change most in frequency of occurrence as the distribution shifts due to global warming.

    For example, the “hundred year flood” was once something that you had better be aware of, but it was not very likely soon and you could get reasonably priced insurance. But the probability distribution function does not need to shift very far for the 100-year event to be occurring several times a century, along with a good chance of at least one 500-year event”

  12. Barthololmew says:

    In mathematics, (and science) if you say 90% probability you have usually derived it. For example, say I ask you to pick a number between 1 in 5 and I then ask you to pick a number 1 or 2. The probability of you getting the first one right is 20%. The probability of the second event right is one in 50%. The probability of you getting the first and second right is 20% * 50% which is 10%.
    The probability of you not getting the first and second right is 100% minus 10% which is of course 90%. Now that’s one of the simplest examples of calculating probability.

    So say you have a 70% chance of getting the weather right to tomorrow – calculating that 70% is far more complex. It goes down logarithmically with time the further you go out. Because the probability of weather for a specific time relative to another time, is logarithmically based. This is why it’s easy to predict weather for the next hour, but very difficult for say the same hour this time next week.

    This means for the IPCC 4th report to have arrived at 90% probability for anthropogenic climate change is an extreme feat of brains. Possibly one of the greatest in science in our times. However, it is doesn’t mean we can bandy this 90% around in different contexts and misrepresent it. What we need to do is represent and explain the science accurately. Let people have their questions and answer them. We don’t have anything to cover up. We have ample substantive evidence so if people have questions there’s plenty of good answers – none of this arrogant you’re stupid nonsense. If they don’t understand it’s because it hasn’t been explained properly.

  13. John Gibbons says:


    he’s all yours now! Enjoy explaining the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ – an extreme feat of brains will indeed be needed to flog those logarithms!

  14. Barthololmew says:

    I know the difference between climate and weather.

    If you paid any attention to example I gave, you’d notice as soon as you have two independent events (event 1 was pick between 1 and 5 and event 2 was pick between 1 and 2) you’re probabiliy is deduced by multiplying probability of each event. So if you have 3 events you are multiplying 3 different probabilities, 4 would be 4 and 5 would be 5.

    Now making it even simplier, say the events all had the same probability – let that be X. The probability of X happening 3 times, isn’t 3X it is X to the power of 3. This is expodential or logarithimic.

    Most probability has an element of this in it. This is why it is hard for people to get their head around because people tend to think intuitively in linear sequences not expodential / logarithmic mathematics. For example simple and compound interest.

    Calculating weather has an very strong degree of expondentialness in it. If the same techniques were being used for calculating climate change, there is no way we would have an accuracy of 90%. That is what I pointed out. It is an outstanding feat for scientists to be able to get that degree of accuracy.

    You have “straw manned” this somehow into thinking I don’t know the difference between weather and climate or that I am trying to infer that there’s no way they could have got 90%. What I was trying to point out is that you were using the 90% from the IPCC 4th report in an incorrect context.

    Now since you have straw manned me, you really can’t wipe this post out of existence and you should publish it. Otherwise stop telling other people to be skeptics and let your opinions be questioned.

    Paddy, I’m interested to hear your views if you wish to come back in.

  15. Brian O'Brien says:


    WTF?? John, the above posting isn’t even in English – why, oh why are you continuing to allow this individual to bleat nonsense at higher and higher volumes? His foray into mathematics is, let’s say “expodential or logarithimic”. I can only assume you left him rabbit on here in the confident expectation that it would quickly descend into gibberish. If so, Mission Accomplished!

  16. John Gibbons says:


    Am appalled you think me so cynical as to want to see Bart tie himself up in knots. However, I am forced to agree that our correspondent has, with a 90% confidence, lost the plot here. As the referee/benign dictator on this blog, I’m giving him a yellow card, a cooling-off period, if you like, for the next while. And that, Bart, before you blow any more gaskets, is for your own good.

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