Stuff stuff up (another bloody ice age)

By Gareth Renowden 10/05/2012

There’s a major fail today for the new science section of the news web site — the web portal for Fairfax NZ, home to The Press (Christchurch) and the Dominion Post (Wellington) newspaper web presences. A front page teaser — “Could cooling sun cause ice age?” (see image at left) — leads to a page with a headline that screams ‘Solar minimum’ could trigger Ice Age [Web Cite]. It’s a short piece that originally began thus:

The world could be heading for a new ‘solar minimum’ period, possibly plummeting the planet into an Ice Age, scientists say. Researchers say the present increase in sun activity with solar flares and storms could be followed by this minimum period.

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

This alarming introduction, helpfully archived by morgue, has since been rewritten to change the final sentence:

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

Two small problems for Stuff: “scientists” aren’t saying anything at all about a coming ice age, refuting predictions of global warming, or projecting new solar minima. The paper they’ve based the story on is a lot less exciting, suggesting that there may be a plausible link between changes in solar activity and regional climate a few thousand years ago as measured by varves from a German lake. The story — one of the day’s “top stories” on their iPad app — is made up nonsense. And there’s a second problem: it may have been lifted in part from an earlier item in Britain’s Daily Mail

My fellow Sciblogger, David Winter at The Atavism, covers the misreporting very well in a post titled An object lesson in the danger of poor science reporting, but I had a feeling I’d seen the bones of this story somewhere else a day or two ago. I’d certainly stumbled over the Science Daily press release in my RSS feeds1 but I’d also noted that the Daily Mail, a British tabloid noted for its amazingly successful web site and cavalier attitude to science reporting, had — in a manner typical of its coverage of global warming — gone completely over the top and suggested a new ice age might be on the way.

When you look at the Stuff piece and the Mail original side by side, it’s clear that the Stuff version owes a great deal to the original article by Rob Waugh. A couple of sentences2 are more or less identical, suggesting that someone at Stuff was guilty of taking a few shortcuts when putting the story together. An unkind person might accuse them of plagiarising someone else’s rubbish, and that’s never a good look, is it?

The people putting Stuff together might want to consider that using the Daily Mail as their newsfeed is not a good idea. It might even make them a laughing stock (h/t David Winter):

  1. It’s an interesting story, but what attracted my attention was that the varves come from the Meerfelder Maar, a remarkable lake that has a detailed annual — even seasonal — record of local climate preserved in its bottom muds, which have been used to date the precise onset of the Younger Dryas cool episode during the warming at the end of the last ice age to 12,679 years BP. Read more in An abrupt wind shift in western Europe at the onset of the Younger Dryas cold period, Brauer et al, Nature Geoscience, Vol 1, August 2008 (pdf).
  2. These two sentences from Stuff: It was first noticed in the 1970s when the American astronomer Jack Eddy noticed a strong correlation between historic weather records and accounts of solar activity. He noticed that a ‘quiet’ sun correlates with cold weather and a ‘manic’ phase means warmer conditions. — are obviously edited out of these lines from the Mail: The link between Solar ‘moods’ and the weather down here on Earth was first noticed in the 1970s, when the American astronomer Jack Eddy noticed a strong correlation between historic weather records and contemporaneous accounts of Solar activity, most notably the long record of sunspots published a century before by the astronomer Edward Maunder. Eddy noticed that a ‘quiet’ Sun correlates with cold weather and a manic phase means warmer conditions.