A couple of weeks ago, Ben Goldacre bashed out a quick piece for the Guardian’s news desk on the subject of the General Medical Council’s damning verdict on the conduct of Andrew Wakefield, in which he said:
As the years passed by, media coverage deteriorated further. Claims by researchers who never published scientific papers to back up their claims were reported in the newspapers as important new scientific breakthroughs, while at the very same time, evidence showing no link between MMR and autism, fully published in peer reviewed academic journals, was simply ignored. This was cynical, and unforgivable.
That last paragraph is particularly important because it shows one of the more common ways in which mainstream media outlets consistently distorts the truth by selectively highlighting particular claims and/or research on the basis of whether it conforms to an established narrative. Take, for example, yesterday’s Sunday Times, which devoted several hundred words to the uncritical promotion of the latest effluvial outpourings of TV weatherman and all-round climate crock, Anthony Watts.
Left Foot Forward has some of the relevant background to Watts’ report, which he co-authored with another well-known climate change denier, Joseph D’Aleo, but what’s much more interesting and illuminating here a recent peer-reviewed paper by Menne et al (2010) , which was published last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Menne’s paper, which is usefully summarised at Skeptical Science, takes what was, at the time it was written, Anthony Watts’ assessments of the quality and siting characteristic of 43% of the surface stations included in the US Historical Climate Network (USHCN) and does something with that Watts’ appears not to have even attempted. It analyses the temperature records of these stations and looks specifically for evidence of biases associated with poor siting.
For anyone not familiar with Watts and his Surface Stations website, his personal contribution to climate change denialism has been to use his website to recruit an army of volunteers to go out and photograph the location of surface stations included in the USHCN network in order to evaluate the siting of those stations against published quality standards.
The belief is that this photographic evidence proves that the warming trends evident in the US surface station record are not being generated by climate change but are, in fact, nothing more than the product of microsite influences; the siting of surface stations near car parks, airport tarmac and air conditioners. These, Watts argues, introduce a warming bias into the temperature record.
By examining what has rapidly become the climate change deniers’ holy grail, the raw, uncorrected, temperature data for all the stations that Watts’ had assessed up to the point at which they started work (43% of the total number of sites included in the USHCN), Menne and his co-authors did, indeed, find clear evidence of a bias in the raw data associated with those sites that Watts had assessed as being of poor quality.
Unfortunately, for Watts, this bias turned out to be exact opposite of the one that he predicted.
The poor quality sites included in the USCHN, and identified by Watts, have actually imparted a cooling bias on the raw US surface temperature record since the 1980’s for reasons relating to changes in the instrumentation used to create the records.
(The technical explanation for this is covered by Menne et al’s paper and by Skeptical Science, both of which are linked earlier)
Although Watts’ survey of USCHN surface stations has proved useful here – which Menne openly acknowledges in his paper – what it doesn’t provide is any scientific evidence to support Watts’ proposition that climate change is a complete fraud and one based squarely on the deliberate manipulation of temperature records by climate scientists.
In fact, nothing that Watts does could reasonably categorised as actual science.
This is well evidenced by his response to Menne et al, which consists of yet more surface station photographs and the rehashing of an old critique of the use of homogenised data in a previous NOAA analysis – which is debunked here. None of this has any relevance whatsoever to Menne’s research, which used the unhomogenised raw data for the surface stations included in its analysis and cannot, therefore, be said to have been manipulated by climate scientists.
In short, Watts’ response to a paper which blows a major hole in his pet hypothesis is to post a couple of photos and then quickly change the subject.
To devote several hundred words to a puff piece that promotes Watts’ screed as if it were the work of a genuine scientist is, as Ben Goldacre points out, both cynical and unforgivable – and all the more so in view of the GMC’s recent findings on Andrew Wakefield. These should have given the mainstream media pause for thought but have, instead, been roundly ignored in terms of their implications for the conduct and behaviour of the press in its reporting of scientific issues and evidence.
To make matters even worse than usual, unlike the majority of the news coverage of Wakefield’s fraudulent research, which was written up by non-specialist journalists, the article on Watts’ report carries the byline of Jonathan Leake, the paper’s Science and Environment editor, who really has no excuse for being unaware of Menne et al’s paper…
…is he’s doing his job properly and carrying out the necessary background checks on his work rather than simply churning out wire copy and whatever press releases are being thrust under his nose.