The Guardian’s Great Mann Hunt

This Monday, the Guardian ran this story as the front page lead. Here’s the headline and the standfirst:

Leaked climate change emails scientist ‘hid’ data flaws

Exclusive: Key study by East Anglia professor Phil Jones was based on suspect figures
• How the location of weather stations in China undermines data
• How the ‘climategate’ scandal is bogus and based on climate sceptics’ lies

Beneath this screamer, you could read that Phil Jones was probably responsible for sneaking dodgy data – dodgy Chinese! data – into the IPCC AR4 process, and you’d have to make it seven paragraphs down the story (and, IIRC, over the page) before you found out that the researcher whose data it was had been…exonerated of any suggestion of malpractice. It would overstate the case to say that this made the whole thing a non-story (MAN DOES NOTHING WRONG; OTHER MAN PROBABLY RIGHT TO TRUST HIM – what a headline!), but you might think that it was information the reader could have done with earlier.

More information that the reader could have done with; the mention of weather stations in China is a reference to the very common denier talking-point that, supposedly, all the weather stations have been overtaken by urban sprawl and therefore all warming is bogus. (Specifically, it refers to a paper comparing two groups of urban and rural stations in western China.) This has been imbued with such significance that there are people who go about taking photos of weather stations.

What, you might wonder, if somebody had done a proper, systematic review of all the weather stations, comparing the good ones and the bad ones? Well, they have done, and the paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research is here. They actually used the deniers’ data, which is surely a highly trustful act in itself. A write-up appeared here on Friday, 22nd January. The really short answer is that the poorly-sited stations were actually colder than the well-sited stations. The issue does not exist.

Temperature data series for the good and bad stations

Further, it turns out, the theory that warming is explained by poor siting is also refuted by cross-checking with another network of stations. But the Guardian didn’t find this worth reporting. The detailed story published on the Monday makes no mention of it, although it does cite Energy & Environment, which it describes as a peer-reviewed journal. (They perhaps need to consult Sourcewatch, or even just the wikipedia article.)

In fact, it didn’t mention it at all until Friday, when it made a very brief mention of something of the sort. (We’ll come back to that.)

On Tuesday, 2nd February, the paper ran this story. It was the front-page lead.

No apology from IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri for glacier fallacy

Head of UN climate change body ‘not at fault’ for false claim Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035

• Climate emails between scientists reveal flaws in peer review
• Controversy behind climate science’s ‘hockey stick’ graph

The famous claim actually predates Pachauri’s tenure of the job, so no surprise that he didn’t apologise for it. Again, this wasn’t considered relevant information. Further, we learn that sometimes, being sceptical and punctilious is also wrong:

The emails also reveal that one of the most influential data sets in climate science – the “hockey stick” graph of temperature over the past 1,000 years – was controversial not just with sceptics but among climate scientists themselves. “I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story [in the forthcoming IPCC report], but in reality the situation is not quite so simple,” wrote Briffa in September 1999.

A scientist expressing scepticism and avowing that the problem at issue is complicated? Outrageous. In the same piece, they also had a go at Michael Mann, precisely two days before Penn State University’s review exonerated him, and how. Indeed, they devoted a whole piece on the same day to attacking Mann for criticising sceptical papers and the new board of Climate Research.

On Wednesday, 3rd February, the paper ran this story. Again, it led the front page.

Climate scientists shut out sceptics by turning down data requests

Hacked emails reveal systematic attempts to block FoI requests from sceptics — and deep frustration at anti-warming agenda

Read more: Climate change emails between scientists reveal flaws in peer review
Controversy behind climate science’s ‘hockey stick’ graph

Another swipe at the hockey stick, and therefore at Mann (amusingly, his exoneration appeared elsewhere in the news section on the same day). And the third strapline, which is a sort of figleaf in the first one, is gone. This one revealed – to anyone who hadn’t been reading the papers in early December, at least – that Phil Jones had not been keen on answering FOIA requests from “sceptics”, and that he had taken advice from the Information Commissioner’s office.

On Thursday, the story broke that another scientist at UEA was suspected of leaking the e-mails. The Guardian, of course, reported, but with rather less excitement than on the three previous days – and an entirely different team of reporters.

Detectives question climate change scientist over email leaks

University of East Anglia scientist Paul Dennis denies leaking material, but links to climate change sceptics in US drew him to attention of the investigators

All the previous stories were the work of Fred Pearce. This one, however, came from David Leigh, Rob Evans, and Charles Arthur – respectively, the paper’s lead investigations team and its technology editor. It turns out that the e-mail archive was insecure and that Dennis sent links to it to a Who’s Who of right-wing wankers. On the same day, Leigh and Arthur joined Pearce on a detailed (and excellent) story on the hack itself and the distribution of the purloined data. (Arthur has another, even better one here.)

Curiously, across the week, the Guardian also ran a string of pieces saying roughly “despite the fact Phil Jones and Michael Mann eat babies, this shouldn’t give you the impression there’s anything wrong with the science”. All of these ran as opinion editorial, rather than news. (One exception was George Monbiot, who joined the general hunt for Phil Jones’ skin and also had a pop at the head of PR at UEA.) On the other hand, Simon Jenkins greeted Mann’s exoneration with this odious turdspurt.

So what’s up? Taken together, I had the impression that the real news in all of this was in its latent content – the story was actually whatever process had caused all this stuff to appear. This is usually a really bad sign with a newspaper. If you’re wondering about the paper’s internal politics, you can take it as read they’re horrible. (Remember The Observer over Iraq.)

As far as I can see, there was no mention of the Menne et al paper in the paper until the end of the week, after Evans, Leigh, and Arthur joined the story – and even then it was only a one-liner. And the tone of the coverage shifted considerably around Thursday. Is there some sort of huge lobbying drive on? Does some group or individual at the paper have a grudge against UEA? I hate it when the press leaves me wondering more about its own politics than the real thing.

The atmosphere, meanwhile, was reported to be unimpressed.

  1. There must be something going on, as the Dutch public broadcasters have been hitting the climate skepticisim pipe hard the last few weeks as well. The glacier story was told on the main news bulletin without putting it into context, retold on several other news shows, then last Sunday the main news again ran with a teaser about new revelations, followed in midweek again in a news commentary show with an item about the “storm of controversy” about the IPCC and the 2007 report.

    It doesn’t help that the responsible minister here told the scientists that she would tolerate no more mistakes, which is not a good sign that she actually understands how science works…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: