Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Critique of the Press Complaints Commission Report on David Rose

The Press Complaints Commission's ruling on my complaint deserves a bit of critical analysis.

1) "When reporting scientific findings, publications must often present complex information to a general readership; this may involve an element of interpretation. The newspaper was permitted, under the terms of the Code, to publish such interpretation of scientific data, however strongly disputed".

So newspapers can "interpret" scientific data. This gives a lot of scope to the reporter.  We often hear the interpretation process on broadcasts, as when an expert gives a careful (but often long-winded) statement, and the interviewer says "So what you are saying is" followed by a shorter, more punchy, more black and white statement. This is how news works, with a provocative, adversarial slant in its manner of speaking.

Prof Myles Allen was "interpreted" by David Rose in the article. His account of the "interpretation" is here.
He wrote to the PCC to support my complaint, but did not make a formal complaint of his own, and so his objection was lost.

What we must learn from this is that when speaking to journalists, especially those with an agenda, is that we should insist that we are to see the final draft, and edit or remove bits about us if they are not accurate.

2) The PCC found that the phrase "plotted in retrospect" is not a misleading description of what happens in computer hindcasting. 

I argued in my original complaint:

The word "plotted" implies the action of actually entering data onto a graph, usually by hand. There is a clear implication here that the temperature prior to the present time were merely a representation of known past temperatures.

This is far from an accurate representation of computer model hind-casting, which is what DavidRose is referring to. In hind-casting, computer models are set running, and given information about the dates and intensity of climate "forcings" or inputs. In the most sophisticated models these inputs would be data on solar heating, volcanoes, the reflectivity of the planet, greenhouse gas levels, aerosol levels (e.g. smoke particles from industry), forested areas, grasslands and other relevant information. Given this information, the models will then calculate the effects and interactions of these inputs and the final output would be the net temperature for each year.

There is more, and my conclusion was ...that the phrase "plotted in retrospect" is inaccurate, misleading and a distortion of how models work.

I stand by that. 

3) Next, the Commission takes it upon itself to redefine what is meant by "world's average temperature" in order to exclude ocean temperatures. "It considered that the readers would have understood the figures to represent surface temperature, as experienced in their day-to-day lives". 

This smacks of what is one of the weakest of the contrarian talking points "It is cold outside, so global warming is not happening". Global warming is about the heat content of the globe as a whole - not about what people experience at any particular time and place. 

Ironically, having just make that breathtaking scientific judgment, the PCC confesses that it  "is not the correct body to test veracity of the scientific data relied upon by the columnist".

4) If this is all a bit abstruse, the next bit is not. "The Commission noted that, contrary to the complainant’s assertion, the article did not refer to Dr David Whitehouse as an “expert” in the field of climate change".

In the original article there is a box titled  "And here's what the experts NOW say". Dr David Whitehouse is the second expert, saying "Global warming should no longer be the main determinant of economic or energy policy". 

Try this thought experiment. In that context, would you expect Whitehouse to be an expert in ancient Indo-European languages? No, you would not. You would expect him to be expert in climatology and/or economics. 

The PCC has chosen in this judgment to ignore context, and has simply found in favour of their colleague.

5) The PCC judged that the Mail "was entitled to set out its editorial stance that historical concerns about global cooling are comparable to modern day fears about global warming".

The concerns about global cooling in the 1970s were based on seven (7) papers. There were forty two (42) contemporaneous papers that were concerned with global warming. Yet the PCC chooses to set these seven cooling papers on a par, not just with the 42, but with the thousands of papers in modern times which concern global warming.

This particular judgment is appalling. It reflects very badly on the overall judgment of the PCC and on its competence as a neutral assessor of content of its members' newspapers.

[Update 4/7/13: Enjoy this:  David Rose was taken in by a faked Time magazine cover, which he used as "evidence" that there was concern about global cooling in the 70's]

Addendum Another point has been made by Ed Hawkins, a climatologist from the University of Reading, whose graph Rose used. Rose got the uncertainty ranges wrong. 


The PCC would have made a better play of it if it had allowed just one criticism through - for instance, it could have said that "plotted in retrospect" is just a bit too brief to be an accurate portrayal of model hindcasting. But it did not, and its total support for Rose, and its misjudgment in point (5) above suggests that it is not an unbiased judge.

I made the complaint in good faith, believing that the Press  must not publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. Some said I was wasting my time, that the PCC would not criticise the Mail, whose representative sits round the table (though not on this case, of course). 

I went ahead on the same basis as the old lady that Berthold Brecht saw in a shop, during the Great Depression. She picked out some food items, took them to the counter, asked the price, then slowly walked away, leaving them there.  

Brecht asked her why she did that.

"I cannot afford food, but if we do not ask for food, maybe they will think we do not want it any more"

If we do not complain, the Mail will think that we do not know that they are misleading us.

I happen to know that the BBC is besieged with complaints from the climate contrarians. We should be swamping the PCC with complaints. As it is, the Mail is top of the league for complaints against it. 

So despite the flaws in the PCC's judgment in this case, we should continue to complain about inaccurate, misleading or distorted information in our newspapers.  Hopefully, post Leveson, the PCC will be abolished and replaced, and we can hope for a less flawed process.

[Useful posting by Carbon Brief on the PCC]

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