As Climate Scientists Battle the Press, One Receives Rare Apology From Paper

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Eli Kintisch
2010-06-22 14:25
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Researchers often grouse about the press—but it's rare for scientists to successfully challenge the accuracy of a media report and win public apologies. But scientists have recently won battles against one British reporter whom they say is biased, and another fight is ongoing.

The loser in the first two cases is science reporter Jonathan Leake of The Sunday Times. In February he wrote a story alleging that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had published "bogus" data on the rainforests and climate change.

Forest expert and Royal Society member Simon Lewis, of the University of Leeds, filed a formal complaint with the U.K.'s Press Complaints Commission saying that he was misquoted and that the IPCC's take—up to 40% of the Amazonian rainforest could die back with rising temperature—was correct. Lewis and two other rainforest experts say they told that to Leake before the story ran, but the story said that this finding was based on faulty work. (The issue was more with bad footnotes, and ScienceInsider made many of the same points at the time.)

Now The Sunday Times has retracted most of the article's conclusions and apologized to Lewis, meaning Lewis has decidedly won what some are calling Leakegate.

Left-leaning blog Climate Progress calls the apology a "too-rare victory of science over disinformation."

In April, a story in a German paper based on Leake reporting was also largely retracted.

In an unrelated case, in April University of Victoria climate modeler Andrew Weaver filed a libel suit against Canada's National Post for a series of articles about him published last year and early this year.

In an unusual twist that could have broad implications on the media well beyond climate science, Weaver has asked the court to force the paper to help him remove copies of the article from various sources on the Internet. That has led to debate over the scope and potential impact of the suit. (Read Weaver's full complaint. He delves into the scientific aspects of his career in the filing, responding to charges that he "cherry picked" data and challenges to various attacks on his climate research.)

The full retraction of The Sunday Times follows. (Here's a scan of the paper version.)

The article "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim" (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an "unsubstantiated claim" that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as "green campaigners" with "little scientific expertise." The article also stated that the authors' research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC's Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC's use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports' statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis' concern at the IPCC's use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view - rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public's understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

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