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Climate change: Rupert Murdoch’s 'Australian' peddles damaging bad science

By Renfrey Clarke

March 6, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Readers of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship, the Australian, will have noticed a flurry of self-justifying articles and editorials in recent months, as the editors try to deflect criticism of the newspaper’s global warming coverage. What has the Australian been saying on the topic, and does this measure up to the responsibilities of a major news outlet?

In Britain in 1998, the medical science journal The Lancet published a study that claimed to identify a link between the mental disorder autism and the administering to children of the widely used measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Other medical scientists soon questioned the methods used in the study. Alarmed parents, however, were already refusing to have their children immunised. As the scare spread, immunisation rates dipped well below the level needed to ensure “herd immunity”; unimmunised children were now quite likely to encounter a carrier. Diseases which had become rare in Britain were again widely diagnosed, and a number of children died.

After follow-up research failed to replicate the study’s findings, lead author Andrew Wakefield came under investigation for professional malpractice. In 2010 he was found to have fabricated evidence and was banned from practising medicine in Britain.

Now, Wakefield faces allegations of financial fraud as well. As related by the Australian on January 7, 2011, the British Medical Journal has published an editorial charging that when he published his study, Wakefield was working secretly for a class-action law firm that planned to sue the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. According to the BMJ, he received a total of $677,000.

If this case proves anything, it is that bad science, put about for financial gain or to gratify its authors’ bizarre compulsions, can do enormous damage unless quickly and vigorously exposed.

The media has a responsibility to view science seriously, and to take it on its own terms, which are not the relatively amorphous ones of areas such as politics. In science, one discourse is not as good as another. Scientists follow hunches and test hypotheses, but ultimately what they deal in is verifiable facts. Research methods are either valid or invalid. Figures are statistically significant, or not.

It goes without saying that scientists often cannot provide exact answers, and that from time to time they make mistakes. But the system of peer-review publishing, with manuscripts subject to scrutiny and criticism by anonymous experts, provides a powerful insurance against incompetent or unscrupulous work appearing in print.

The above is not much comfort to the British parents who decided that the prestigious Lancet should be believed – and indeed, the journal’s reviewers and editors have much to answer for. But in cases where peer review fails, there is a further insurance: the weight of scientific opinion as it develops following publication. If this trends strongly against a particular conclusion, that is itself an important fact that the media need to report.

‘Balance’

In any case, it should be clear that in science reporting the customary journalistic requirement of “balance”, of “telling both sides of the story”, either does not apply at all or takes a highly specific and restricted form. If a conclusion is reached through valid research methods, passes peer review, appears in a respected journal and gains broad acceptance by scientists expert in the field, what do you “balance” it with? Assertions that are plainly untrue?

So how does the handling by the media of the MMR vaccine controversy rate? On the whole, reasonably well. The initial reporting of Wakefield’s article was low key and objective. As the controversy developed, the fact that follow-up studies were not confirming his claims was conveyed in timely fashion. The spadework that led to Wakefield’s article being definitively discredited was performed largely by investigative journalist Brian Deer of the Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which also publishes the Australian. The latter newspaper’s coverage in January this year outlined the various positions in the controversy, and included a “human interest” story on a vaccination sceptic. But each of the articles made clear that the scientific evidence, along with the broad opinion of medical scientists, was firmly against the doubters.

Indeed, how could the Australian do otherwise? To suggest that there might be a case for doubting the safety of the MMR vaccine would be completely irresponsible. Such a move would alarm parents, lower vaccination rates, and create the real danger of a rise in infections. And these are children’s lives at stake!

Which leads us to the next question: do the editors of the Australian suppose that children’s lives aren’t at risk from climate change?

The cigarette pack and the A4 sheet

Rhetorical as it might seem, this query is compelled by the two articles on climate topics published in the Weekend Australian on January 22-23, 2011. The first of these, on a main news page, was about the size of a cigarette pack, and reported that 2010 had tied globally with 2005 as the hottest year ever recorded. The other article, well placed in the opinion pages, received closer to the area of an A4 sheet. Written by well-known climate change denier Christopher Monckton, it carried the prominent headline “Earth’s climate crisis ain’t necessarily so”.

Monckton’s piece, to be necessarily brief, has about as much in common with science as the Bible’s final, hallucinatory book of “Revelations”. In hope of sounding authoritative to the untutored, Monckton packs his text with figures that are mostly irrelevant, often meaningless, and in any case unreferenced. At times his assertions are plain wrong, as when he claims that there has been no warming in the past decade. In the cases where he attempts an argument rather than a dismissive one liner, key facts are ignored or misconstrued. One example will have to suffice.

“A largely unreported gain in Antarctic sea ice since 1979 almost matches the widely reported loss of Arctic sea ice”, Monckton claims at one point. Antarctic sea ice has indeed shown a small expansion, but according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, this amounts to less than a fifth of the loss in the Arctic [1]. The general view among scientists is that the expansion of Antarctic sea ice results from a complex impact on weather of the “hole” in the upper-atmospheric ozone layer, caused by releases of ozone-depleting gases. Curbs on the use of these gases are expected to see the ozone hole shrink in coming decades, and its effects on weather in the region to diminish.[2]

Meanwhile, water temperatures in the Southern Ocean have risen, and Antarctica as a whole is calculated to be losing ice. Some of the most extreme climate warming on Earth is being recorded in west Antarctica, adjacent to South America. Here, several massive ice shelves have disintegrated in recent years.

Monckton is not the only climate contrarian whose maunderings have received generous space in the Australian and the Weekend Australian in recent months. Former science communication lecturer Joanne Nova on December 18-19, 2010, managed the astonishing claim that “the entire case for the man-made threat to the climate rests on just the word of 60 scientists who reviewed chapter nine of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report”. Thousands of scientists performing climate research, and building on scientific foundations extending well back into the nineteenth century, might see this differently.

On November 11, 2010, retired professor of geology Bob Carter was the author of a piece entitled “Inconvenient nonsense infiltrates the classroom”. Citing no particular evidence, Carter argued that the climate change crusade of former US vice-president Al Gore was “mostly based on junk science” and that Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth belonged “with the works of authors such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the science-fiction section of the library”.

Radicals get rich?

Some of the most outrageous polemics against climate science, and scientists, have come from the Australian’s own regular columnists. In a startlingly splenetic piece entitled “Radicals Get Rich While Truth Begs”, David Burchell on November 22, 2010, attacked Professor Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain. Jones, whose private emails were among those stolen and placed on the internet in the November 2009 “Climategate” case, is accused of showing “a decades-long pattern of professional misbehaviour”, by implication enriching himself in the process.

“Any journal that dared to publish a rival point of view was blacklisted”, Burchell charged. “Any paper for review which varied from his own view was rejected out of hand; any element of professional doubt demanded expulsion from the climate science garden….”

If a scientific reviewer concludes that a manuscript is weak and should be rejected by journal editors, that is neither scandalous nor even unusual. Burchell’s more substantial charge related to the fact that Jones in 2004 figured on the margins of an imbroglio in the journal Climate Research, during which a particular editor was accused of accepting seriously flawed work for publication. At one point in the hacked emails, Jones indicated that he planned to write to the journal and state that he would have nothing more to do with it unless the editor concerned was removed.

Contrary to Burchell’s suggestion, the stance Jones took was eventually vindicated. A number of Climate Research review editors who shared Jones’s concerns resigned from the journal in protest, and the publisher admitted that the journal should have requested appropriate revisions of one of the manuscripts involved.[3]

Scientific publishing, it should be remembered, is not about freedom of speech.  There is no “right” to have one’s views reflected in a reputable journal. The criterion that should govern publication is different: guaranteeing rigorous standards of objective truth.

What Burchell would have known, but disdained to mention, is that Jones by November 2010 had been cleared of scientific misconduct by three separate inquiries. Also missing from Burchell’s tirade is any mention of the conditions under which Jones and other scientists at his unit were being forced to work. A deluge of applications for data, made by contrarians under freedom of information laws, was consuming the scientists’ time and seriously affecting their ability to carry out climate research.

Burchell’s piece is merely the latest, though arguably the worst, of the attacks which the Australian has directed at Jones and his colleagues. On July 10, 2010, University of NSW computer scientist Tim Lambert noted in his blog, The Australian’s War on Science:

…my Factiva search found that they have published 85 articles so far that mention the matter with repeated allegations that the emails showed that the scientists were corrupt, had acted dishonestly and that the science could not be trusted. [4]

If Jones and his colleagues in Britain suffered slander and intimidation from climate change deniers, not to speak of practical obstruction in their work, what message do Burchell and the Australian have for climate scientists in this country? The lesson seems to be that the scientists should keep to their institutes and not speak publicly about the dire implications of their findings. Mud sticks, especially when flung in column-kilometres by national dailies.

The Australian would presumably reply that its editorials acknowledge the reality of human-caused global warming, and that it also publishes contributed articles, along with occasional pieces by columnists such as Philip Adams and Mike Steketee, that affirm the case for taking climate science seriously. But the pose does not hold up; the paper is not some understated Sotheby’s auctioneer, adjudicating good humouredly in the market for climate ideas while presenting its own views in discreet editorials.

To prate about “balance” and to practise it are quite different things. Readers are free to sit in the newspaper section of their local library and add up the space given by the Australian to each side of the climate debate. My own thoughts are that the ratio implied by the coverage on January 22-23 is not far out: a cigarette pack for the facts, versus an A4 page for all kinds of fantastical deceptions.

Much more fundamental is the point, explained earlier, that in the reporting of scientific findings the very concept of “balance” is mostly spurious. In science, rival discourses are not equally deserving of propagation. Working climate scientists assert, in their overwhelming majority and with increasing urgency and bluntness, that human-caused global warming is real and its implications horrifying. To the Australian, this formidable consensus needs “balancing” with the ravings of Monckton and his ilk. What will the paper’s editors balance good science with next? The claims of the people who promise to cure cancer with coffee enemas?

Manufacturing doubt

Most of the Australian’s professional and business readership would pass up the coffee, and many of them no doubt see through Monckton as well. But that is scarcely the point. On December 12, 2010, the paper reported a poll by Melbourne’s Social Research Centre recording that only 55 per cent of Australians interviewed thought climate scientists “mostly agreed” that the Earth has been warming in recent years. Almost 40 per cent thought there was “a lot of disagreement”.

Why the massive public confusion, when so far as climate scientists are concerned, global warming passed years ago into the category of unequivocally proven scientific fact? The obvious answer is that while scientists are used to getting their facts from peer-reviewed journals, most people derive theirs, often at third or fourth hand, from the capitalist mass media. There, apart from misinformation campaigns of the kind noted by Lambert, they find “scientists” such as Monckton or Joanne Nova given prominent billing. Obviously, many people conclude, the scientists can’t agree. And if the scientists can’t decide what’s right, why should other people take a hit in the wallet? Why should taxes rise and jobs be lost for something that might or might not be true?

For all but the savvy and informed, this line of reasoning can be eerily persuasive. Based on the illegitimate fostering of doubt, it was devised and pushed in past decades by the tobacco industry.

The truth is that the Australian’s response to climate change is deliberately two sided. The paper’s overt editorial position claims to accept global warming as valid science that requires government action. This position was affirmed by editor in chief Chris Mitchell in a letter to the Crikey blog on November 26 last year, when he asserted that “any reading of the Oz’s editorials on climate change would make it clear that for several years the paper has accepted man [sic] -made climate change as fact.”[5] In formal terms, the editorials since early in 2007 have been reasonably consistent in accepting that “all the signs suggest the need for action on climate change” (the Australian, February 5, 2007).

But how many people who buy newspapers read the editorials? When readers scan the Australian, their eyes are far more likely to fix upon large, well-placed headlines such as “Europe climate threat is hot air” (February 1, 2008), “Sceptic spells doom for alarmist religion” (April 19, 2009), or “Seeing through the hoax of the century” (November 4, 2009). As anyone who works on newspapers soon discovers, it is not hard for editors to emulate the “dog whistling” practised by politicians, and to say one thing while conveying a message that is radically different.

On climate change, the Australian preserves its deniability while keeping its denial too. The paper’s editorial line might seem straightforward, but it is routinely drowned out by the journalistic counterpoint. In the overall rendition, the issue of climate change is confused and delegitimised, presented as too uncertain and strife-torn for non-specialists to take stances on.

That is not to say that the Australian’s editorialising on climate change is really clear. At times, the editorial writers seem to have had trouble leaving outright denial behind, as on December 29, 2010, when the paper accused “politicians and advocates” of “us(ing) science to present a false certainty about the extent and causes of global warming”. Meanwhile, the call to action is heavily qualified. Greenhouse policy, the paper insists regularly, should centre on market-based measures driven by price signals. Readers are cautioned against “Labor’s crazy abatement programs, such as subsidised wind turbines taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, that produce electricity four times as expensive as coal-generated power” (The Weekend Australian February 5-6, 2011). The Australian government is warned not to move ahead of the international effort, or to aspire to lead the world on carbon. A notable danger is said to be “the rise of green totalitarians, who have tried to silence those with different viewpoints” (The Australian, March 6, 2010).

If the line pushed in the Australian’s editorials has a general inspiration, it is the “soft” denialism of Danish professor of business studies Bjorn Lomborg, whose articles the paper features regularly. To the consternation of scientists who know better, Lomborg has maintained that a combination of adaptation measures, greentech research and development, and geo-engineering can take the place of concerted action to reduce carbon emissions. Arguing against the G8 target for developed countries of an 80 per cent emissions cut by mid-century, Lomborg contended in the Australian on September 14, 2010, that “such drastic carbon cuts are likely to do a lot more damage to our quality of life than climate change”.[6]

Silencing science

Meanwhile, who has been silencing different viewpoints? In the years since the Australian “accepted man-made climate change as fact”, a series of major scientific advances have highlighted the urgency of emissions mitigation. The scientific papers concerned received thoughtful coverage in outlets such as the British Guardian. But can someone please tell me if they find, anywhere in the Australian’s online archives, a reference to James Hansen’s 2008 paper “Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?” This transformative work uses paleoclimatic data to show that the temperature impacts of additional atmospheric carbon, when measured over centuries, are likely to be approximately twice the accepted short-term values. To preserve a world resembling the one in which civilisation developed, Hansen and his collaborators argue, atmospheric carbon dioxide will need to be cut to well below present levels.[7]

For that matter, the Australian’s climate coverage does not seem to have included reporting the work of Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who in 2008 pinpointed the staggering rate at which global emissions will need to decline if disaster-level concentrations of greenhouse gases are to be avoided [8]. Nor is there any sign that the newspaper noted the climate modelling by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists, who in 2009 concluded that if early 21st century emissions trends were to continue, global temperatures late in the century would most likely reach almost 6º C above pre-industrial levels.[9]

With science, you do not get to cherry pick, selecting just the evidence that seems to confirm your views. Once findings are peer reviewed, published and accepted by the expert community as robust, you have no choice but to take their implications into account – unless, that is, you are genuinely able to stage some sort of Copernican revolution that proves everyone else has got it wrong.

Anything short of this inclusive approach is denial, and that is the word that deserves to be applied to the Australian’s editorialising on climate change. The newspaper’s editors accept that human-caused global warming is real, and even that it poses a significant challenge. But nowhere does the Australian come near to acknowledging what science has to say about the degree of trouble that human civilisation has got itself into.

Market solutions

As depicted in the Australian’s editorials, dealing with global warming is not about emergency measures and rapid, wrenching changes. The picture conveyed is of a job for cool heads equipped with a sound grasp of market economics and a due modesty about the wider impacts of anything Australians might do. The notion that the problem might be greater than anything a carbon price and a degree of market tweaking might cope with is simply not entertained. All in all, climate change becomes less of a threat than green “alarmism” and the march of Labor Party-inspired wind turbines across the landscape.  

That is a soothing picture, and no doubt it allows coal-company executives to sleep at night. But science cannot be cherry picked. Keeping atmospheric carbon even to levels now recognised as perilously high would, as Anderson and Bows explain, require emissions to fall at rates that historically have been associated only with periods of extreme social and economic crisis, as in the countries of the former Soviet bloc in the 1990s. There are no easy exits.

Meanwhile, the consequences of refusing to meet these challenges promise to be unspeakable. After slowing during the economic crisis year of 2009, growth in annual global carbon emissions during 2010 was back at the extreme trend lines of the first years of the century – the years that provided the hard input for the MIT climate modellers in their 2009 analysis.[10] The predictions obtained at MIT have been broadly confirmed by other scientists working independently.[11] Increasingly, these studies are relying not just on computer modelling but on real-world paleoclimatic data.

Unless the increase in emissions is halted in the next few years, and is followed by a steep decline, the prospect looms of temperature rises on a scale and at a speed that makes all talk of adaptation fanciful. Speaking to the press in November 2009, Tyndall Centre head Professor Kevin Anderson spelt out his view of what would follow:

I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4º C, 5º C or 6º C, you might have half a billion people surviving.[12]

If misinforming anxious parents about the alleged dangers of vaccination is ethically indefensible, what does that say about misinforming people on the well-demonstrated dangers of carbon emissions? Let it be said that the people who put out the Australian do not have the excuse of ignorance. The offices of a major newspaper, with torrents of information coursing through it, are among the last places one can hide from the truth.

No, the denialism of the Australian is the product of conscious choice. The insights are chilling into what passes for acceptable behaviour in the corporate world.

Notes

  1. http://nsdic.org/seaice/characteristics/difference.html.
  2. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16988-why-antarctic-ice-is-growing-despite-global-warming.ht
  3. http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climategate-peer-review.html.
  4. http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/07/the-australians-war-on-science-51.php.
  5. http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/11/26/the-torture-of-writing-about-climate-change-at-the-oz-one-journos-story/.
  6. For a critique of Lomborg’s positions see various blogs by Joseph Romm, including http://climateprogress.org/2010/09/01/the-lomborg-deception.
  7. James Hansen et al., “Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim?”, Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2, pp. 217-231. http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abstracts/2008/Hansen_etal.htm.
  8. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, doi: 10. 1098/rsta.2008.0138. http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1882/8863.full.
  9. MIT Integrated Global Systems Model, 2009. http://globalchange.mit.edu/files/document/MITJPSPGC_Rpt169.pdf.
  10. See http://CO2now.org/.
  11. A comparable study by the British Met Office’s Hadley Centre is reported – ironically, by Murdoch’s UK Times – at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article5371682.ece.
  12. The Scotsman, 29 Nov. 2009. http://news.scotsman.com/latestnews/Warming-will-39wipe-out-billions39.5867379.jp.

 

 

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