Friday, 27 July 2012

How Bad Science Reporting Works

Interesting example over the last few days of how bad science reporting works.

During the height of the Arctic summer, there was melting at the surface of 97% of the Greenland ice sheet. At the surface. This was accompanied by a scary graphic, showing the whole of Greenland going from white to red. The scary graphic compared the conditions of melting four days apart - showing the melting areas as red.

Jay Zwally of NASA is a guy with such a great name I'm going to make him an offer to join the Beaker People. He said "I think it's fair to say this is unprecedented".

A glaciologist - someone with more historical awareness than a spaceman - said  '...similar rapid melting occurs about every 150 years. But she warned there were wide-ranging potential implications from this year's thaw. "If we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome."'

So this event is now unprecedented, since we've had satellites. And has happened on a cyclical basis over history. Lora Koenig's comments were at the bottom of the article, the scary graphic at the top. The article is factually accurate as to the observation and, as to Lora Koenig's comments, about right on implications. But because of the need for impact in a news article, it's fair to say the scary, headline-grabbing stuff is at the top and some reasoned commentary at the bottom.

The story is concerning, right enough.  But the general story (ie as opposed to the Guardian's take on it) was converted into a Tweet that said, 

"3 Percent Of Greenland's Ice Sheet Remains. Time To Worry? // How can people still be in denial about climate change?" 

If 3pc of Greenland's Ice Sheet remained, that wouldn't be time to worry. That would be time to swim. The opening ceremony that is happening in London this afternoon would be entirely aquatic.

So a concerning story, via the medium of a scare-story (follow that second link, and reconcile it to the first), became a horror story. About 75pc of the tweets I've read capture the story properly - compared to another 25pc that really don't.

The Washing Post reports, by the way, that it's the biggest melt since 1973.

Now the over-hysteria will get debunked by those who refuse to accept we're causing climate change. Everybody will get further into their left/right entrenched positions. The Guardian will get the prize for "best scary graphic of the year".  Nothing of any kind will change.

And British birds will continue to migrate south due to climate change. Yes, south.


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  2. I've gotten very cynical about media and various organizations and their claims to scientific proof of various bits and pieces of the world. The first lot are about at the level of the good-looking guy in a lab coat who is broadcast claiming that science has proven that his toothpaste is the best because 3 out of 4 scientists surveyed said so. And a certain proportion of the second lot (I haven't found enough scientists to survey so I don't know exactly how many) not only prefer emotional appeals to actual, you know, numbers, they are not above making claims based on what they think the situation should be rather than what it is. All in a good cause, of course!

  3. I must admit that I love Ice Cream, especially those that melt in your mouth. There's nothing scientific about it, you just gulp a small amount from the ice cream cone and allow it to melt gently, savouring the taste and flavours as it cools your tongue and is swallowed.

    Oh, just noticed you were talking about melting ice caps, not ice cream :(


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