Amazongate closes on Sunday Times: Simon Lewis fights back

By Bryan Walker 26/03/2010


Jonathan Leake and the Sunday Times got a lot of mileage out of his disgraceful Amazongate article, which I wrote about in February. It was pleasing to read yesterday in Climate Progress that tropical forest researcher Simon Lewis has lodged an official complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The IPCC wrote:

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.”

Jonathan Leake opened his article:

“A startling report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.”

Simon Lewis writes in the course of his 31 page PCC complaint (pdf, published by ClimateProgress.org):

“Specifically, I consider this article to be materially misleading. I am the scientific expert cited in the article who was asked about the alleged ’bogus rainforest claim’. In short, there is no ’bogus rainforest claim’, the claim made by the UN panel was (and is) well-known, mainstream and defensible science, as myself and two other professional world-class rainforest experts (Professor Oliver Phillips and Professor Dan Nepstad) each told Jonathan Leake.”

Lewis wrote this to Leake prior to the article: ’The IPCC statement itself is poorly written, and bizarrely referenced, but basically correct.’  Leake, with the help (’research’ they called it) of well-known denialist Richard North, strove to give the impression that the statement was scientifically dodgy and by highly selective reporting implied, by omission, that Lewis agreed with them.

Lewis posted a comment on the Sunday Times website saying that he was the expert referred to and that the article was misleading. His comment was deleted. He also wrote a letter to the editor, early enough to allow publication the following Sunday. The letter was neither acknowledged nor published.

However, the PCC complaint appears to have caused some reaction. As told on Climate Progress today Lewis had a message on his answerphone from the letters editor saying it has been recognised that the story is flawed and offering to print his letter, nearly two months old.  Lewis will not now agree to the publishing of his letter, since it would mean that he was associated with a ’flawed’ article.  He says to Joe Romm that the article ought to be taken down from the website and an apology be issued in its place, or that the PCC complaint should run its course.

Romm comments:

“I agree that this is no time for yet another uber-lame, after-the-fact correction/letter on a dreadful piece of disinformation that has ricocheted through the media and blogosphere, disinformation that has probably been seen by well over 10 times as many people as would ever see the correction or letter.

“The Sunday Times should simply take the piece down and issue a retraction and apology.  At the very least, now that they have admitted the story is ‘flawed’, they should take the piece down until the PCC issues its ruling.”

It’s good to see a scientist fighting back against deliberate misrepresentation which starts in one newspaper and then takes wings in the media. It would take some time to prepare a complaint of the length that Lewis has written, and is no doubt a considerable distraction from his work. But dignified silence from scientists who are misused or attacked plays into the hands of the denialists and the uncritical media who have loosed the extraordinary torrent of misinformation which has been abroad in recent months. Lewis is to be applauded for his action.

Late addition: Evidently the renewable energy industry in the UK is also considering making a complaint to the PCC regarding a misleading story Leake has written about wind farms. He cherry-picks the worst performing wind farms to make a case that wind farms are a “feeble” source of electricity. Tim Lambert at Deltoid has the details.