A new journalistic fiction

By Bryan Walker 09/07/2010

Of all the comments on Muir Russell’s climategate report the one that resonated most with me was that of Oxford physicist Myles Allen (pictured). ’What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective.’ When the Guardian is part of that failure the word ‘spectacular’ is warranted.

Unfortunately Fred Pearce, presumably with the support of environment editor James Randerson, continues to treat the East Anglia scientists as if they have been guilty of serious offences. Here’s how he opens his ‘analysis’ of the Russell report:

Generally honest but frequently secretive; rigorous in their dealings with fellow scientists but often “unhelpful and defensive”, and sometimes downright “misleading”, when explaining themselves to the wider world.

On the report:

Many will find the report indulgent of reprehensible behaviour, particularly in peer review, where CRU researchers have been accused of misusing their seniority in climate science to block criticism.

Have been accused by whom? Why, by none other than Pearce himself. He presumably remains disgruntled that his suggestions of serious misconduct haven’t been upheld.

And there’s more in this vein. 

Pearce appears determined to vindicate his own rush to judgment on the matter, and he seems to have editorial support. The Guardian editorial, although acknowledging that the main thrust of the Russell report is that the science of climate change is solid, goes out of its way to emphasise blameworthy behaviour from the scientists:

There was an attempt to restrict debate, denying access to raw data and peer-reviewed journals to outsiders and the unqualified. In a sense, climate change scientists began to ape the obsessive culture of their sceptical critics… One can understand why the scientists behaved as they did. But this does not make it right…

[The emails] show a closed and arrogant attitude on the part of some of those involved, protective of their data sets and dismissive of outsiders.

My dismay that the Guardian should give what seems to me disproportionate weight to the Russell report’s findings related to freedom of information was exacerbated when I opened our copy of the current Guardian Weekly yesterday to find that an article of Pearce’s written prior to the release of the report was given prominence. In it he consulted Mike Hulme, Judith Curry, Hans von Storch and Roger Peilke Jr amongst others to demonstrate that climategate has changed science ’forever’. The thrust of the article is that scientists have heretofore been secretive with their data and have hidden the uncertainties of their science from public view, but they won’t be able to do that any more. Not being a scientist I have no knowledge of what secretiveness with data means, but in all the books and articles and reports I have now read by climate scientists or about climate science I have seen no sign at all of uncertainties being hidden. Quite the opposite. Pearce reports Curry as saying that as a result of climategate the outside world now sees that ’the science of climate change is more complex and uncertain than they have been led to believe’. That’s a baseless and foolish comment. ’Led to believe’ implies that some kind of deliberate deception has been going on. Roger Pielke Jr of course doesn’t hesitate to speak of ’the pathological politicisation of the climate science community.’ Von Storch draws the conclusion that ’People now find it conceivable that scientists cheat and manipulate, and…need societal supervision…’ Mike Hulme is more circumspect, claiming only that a new tone has appeared in which researchers ’are more upfront, open and explicit about their uncertainties.’

A new journalistic fiction is in the making..

Perhaps it’s inevitable that journalists like Pearce will remain determined to justify the significance they initially saw in the hacked emails (Gareth adds: especially if, like Pearce, they have a book to sell on the subject). If so, one can only hope that they will get it over with quickly. May Gareth’s ’final fizzle’ prove an apt description. At least Pearce and the Guardian do not deny the reality and seriousness of climate change.  But the whole issue has been a sidetrack from the main thoroughfare along which we might have made some progress in the months of virtual standstill. Myles Allen has got it right when he speaks of an absence of perspective. It has helped draw attention away from the looming threat ahead. It has also provided the forces of denial and delay with ammunition which they have used to maximum effect.