An object lesson in the danger of poor science reporting

By David Winter 10/05/2012 10

As you may have seen,, the online portal for the Fairfax conglomerate of papers, has launched a science section. I would like to think one of the largest news websites in the country increasing their focus on science could only be a force for good. I’m afraid the initial offerings have lurched from underwhelming to utterly ridiculous.

The thousands of viewers who found themselves reading the front page of stuff this afternoon would have been met by a giant graphic of a blue sun and a headline claiming

‘Solar minimum’ could trigger Ice Age

Having been compelled by the click-baiting headline, readers learn that 
The world could be heading for a new ‘solar minimum’ period, possibly plummeting the planet into an Ice Age, scientists say.
Would it surprise you to lean that scientists said no such thing? In fact, Martin-Puertas et al (2012, doi: 10.1038/ngeo1460) don’t have anything to say about ice ages or the future of our sun (which is actually ramping up in activity at the moment). They studied a fossilised lake bed in Germany. Lakes are great recorders of ancient biology and climate as the sediments that settle on their beds create a record of what was going on around them in the past. In this case, researchers were able to show that an historic solar minimum (a period of relatively low solar activity) contributed to a period of cooling in Europe around 3 000 years ago, which lasted for about 200 hundred years. By looking at patterns in the old lake bed that act as a proxies for past changes in windiness* they were able to build a model that explained how changes in solar output might be amplified by other changes in the climate system.

That’s a nice result, but how does it relate to “ice ages” (presumably meaning glacial periods that last for tens of thousands of years and cover most of the globe in ice, not the regional pattern lasting 200 years studied here) let alone an imminent one? Even if the sun were to enter a prolonged solar minimum, Martin-Puertas et al. are explicit in their paper, and the press release that got someone at the Fairfax office excited, that the results they report can’t be directly used to predict future events.  From the paper:

However, a direct comparison to the Homeric minimum, which was a very deep and persistent minimum with very different orbital parameters when compared with recent solar minima and probably a larger climate response, is not possible

And the press release

Albeit those findings cannot be directly transferred to future projections because the current climate is additionally affected by anthropogenic forcing.

The language in the original version of the article (now edited, but recorded by from the morgue) gives away the motivation of the article’s author:

 The period would see a cooling of the planet, refuting predictions of global-warming alarmists.

You can decide if the author of this article is in a place to call anyone else an alarmist.

The comments that followed the article are a perfect illustration of why it’s worth getting upset about this sort of reporting. The vast majority of them are from people who don’t believe the evidence that recent global warming is the result of our burning of fossil fuels, the rest are from people just generally being confused or disappointed by the lack of clarity on climate change in the media. I’ve plucked a commentator calling himself James as an example:

Global warming, global cooling, another ice age ? Let’s face it, there is “evidence” to support all of these theories. There was also good evidence to support the theory that the world was flat. Science is simply the opinion of a group of intellectuals at any given moment. The mix of the group changes with each new piece of “evidence”. Everyone, including the intellectuals should understand that science and their own theories are just that, not indisputable facts.

James is wrong, the evidence that emitting greenhouse gases makes the world warmer is overwhelming and in no way comparable to the idea there will be a new glacial period any time soon. But can we blame him for being wrong when the major sources of news in this country are so willing to publish such rubbish?

As much as I love science blogs and specialist magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American it’s important to realise that for that the people that get their science news from these sources are science fans. For most people, mainstream sources like stuff, the Herald  and TV news are going to be the main source of scientific information, and when it’s as bad as this article is it any wonder that large sections of our society are left behind by science?

*How amazing is geography – you can reconstruct the windiness of a site 3 000 years ago!

10 Responses to “An object lesson in the danger of poor science reporting”

  • You probably haven’t worked in a newsroom before. It isn’t intentionally bad. The sad part is that Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything should be required reading for any reporter entering the science field.

  • Yes IHStewart, then next on the reading list could/should be Carl Sagans Demon Haunted World, then Richard Feynman on Cargo Cults and What Science really means. Some of Richard Dawkins might be useful.

  • Great piece David. IHStewart – so working in a newsroom excuses sloppiness and antagonism to the subject you are writing about? Would sports fans accept a sports writer who clearly did not follow sport, or would we accept a foreign correspondent who was totally insular? When you read pieces like these on mainstream media sites you notice that the comments sections become the domain of the witless – creationists, climate change denialists, Ken Ring groupies and those who believe New Zealand was settled 3,000 years ago by a group of Welsh Druids. Maybe their homeland got too windy!

  • Hi, Glen from Stuff here. We’ve taken this onboard and are now linking out to David’s criticism from the bottom of the story. Thanks.

  • Thanks Glen,

    Glad the post made it to you, and thanks for adding the link. I’m happy to see the Science section at Stuff, and was only particularly critical of this piece because I think ventures like this are so important.

  • Its good that Stuff has linked to the critique, but really a retraction on the next front page of Stuff would be required.
    The climate change debate is too important to be spiked with contrarian nonsense (either though a lack of education or a direct interest in the derailment of the matter due to political affiliations) in public media like Stuff.
    Stuff / Fairfax have an obligation towards truthful reporting which is not served by dishing up deeply flawed one-sided anti-science propaganda.
    Climate change will affect our lives much more than most people realize today. A read of the just released outlook towards 2052 by the Club of Rome might illustrate the point.

  • Thanks for this David.

    I penned a comment on this article, calling into question many of the same points.

    Needless to say, being the paragon of press neutrality they are, the comment was never published.

  • People who have a modicum of savvy read the initial article and understood it was reaching “facts” that simply couldn’t be possible. Good job by you exposing their fatally loose textual daydreams. Sad that it is neccesary, but it is vital that someone does it.

    However, talking about appearing motivated, are you not picking and choosing yourself the depth of what you report?. You dismiss a potential present link to the reports’ estimated solar minimum based on the lakebed findings, by parenthetically adding the sentence “(which is actually ramping up in activity at the moment)”, refering to present solar cycle.And sure, so it is.

    However, “NASA predicts that solar cycle 24 will peak in early or mid 2013 with about 59 sunspots. This would make it the least active cycle in the past one hundred years” quote from wiki, but I am sure you are aware of the primary research.

    Man who takes people to task for loose writing, needs to be scrupulous himself.

  • Tony,

    I’m happy to be held to the same standard i set, but i really can’t see the problem here. The paper in question was not about the suns output, the sun is ramping up in activity (even if the solar maximum will be a weak one) and, of course, the paper made if clear the results they discuss can’t be related to future solar minima.

    If you want to point why my parenthetical comment is a problem please do.

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