THERE’S an old proverb that suggests it’s always the lie that gets half way around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on.
But if evidence from the latest conservative media beat-up on climate science is anything to go by, even if the truth is only a couple of blocks behind, the myth can just keep on running.
We’re talking about a story that sprinted out of the blocks from the offices of The Times newspaper in Britain.
The newspaper’s environment editor Ben Webster was writing about the University of Reading’s Professor Lennart Bengtsson (pictured), who had a research manuscript rejected by the prominent Environmental Research Letters journal earlier this year.
Webster’s front page story claimed Bengtsson’s research had been “deliberately suppressed” because it didn’t sit well with the views of the vast majority of climate scientists.
Bengtsson’s manuscript had reportedly concluded that the sensitivity of the climate to added carbon dioxide was on the lower end of projections, a conclusion one reviewer of the paper said “substantially underestimated the committed [global] warming”.
As DeSmogBlog and several others have written, as mainstream media outlets were following-up on The Times the story’s two main actors – Bengtsson and the journal’s publisher IOP – were making it clear that the story was highly questionable. After publishing one of the reports from the reviewer of Bengtsson's paper, now IOP has released the second reviewer's report which described the manuscript as showing “troubling shallowness in the arguments”.
The UK’s Science Media Centre (UK SMC), a service for journalists, issued a bulletin of statements from experts responding to the story. One of those was from Bengtsson, who amongst other things said:
I do not believe there is any systematic “cover up” of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics’ work is being “deliberately suppressed”, as The Times front page suggests. I am worried by a wider trend that science is gradually being influenced by political views. Policy decisions need to be based on solid fact.
The Times followed-up their story and included a quote from Bengtsson, but left out the bit where he said he didn’t believe the main thrust of The Times’ story. Funny that.
The statement from IOP Publishing included the full report from the reviewer of Bengtsson’s manuscript. The statement made it clear that Bengtsson’s work had been rejected on scientific grounds.
In the Mail on Sunday, climate skeptic reporter David Rose wrote as a statement of fact that “Environmental Research Letters had rejected his paper because it would be seized on by climate ‘sceptics’ in the media” even after this had been demonstrated to be false.
I asked Environmental Research Letters’ Editor-in-Chief Professor Daniel Kammen, of the University of California, about the saga.
He explained his journal places reviews of submitted manuscripts into four categories. Reviews can recommend that a manuscript be “accepted”, “accepted with minor edits”, “revised and resubmitted” for review or be “rejected”.
I asked Kammen if Bengtsson and his co-authors were offered the chance to correct the manuscript. He said:
No, the authors were not offered the chance to correct their paper.
This paper was rejected due to both factual errors identified in the review process, and an overall assessment - that as Editor-in-Chief I endorse - that the individual flaws were sufficiently significant that the paper was to be rejected.
None of the reports in the mainstream media have explained that in scientific publishing, it is in fact common for journals to reject manuscripts. Kammen revealed that getting a rejection from ERL was in fact the norm, rather than the exception.
Kammen pointed out that Bengtsson himself had said that rejection from journals was “part and parcel of academic life”. Kammen added:
Environmental Research Letters, like many selective journals, rejects the majority of submitted manuscripts. The fact that the story appeared in The Times struck me as highly inappropriate. This rejection was based on problems with the manuscript.
He said the recent news coverage appeared to be an attempt to publish research “via the media” after it had been rejected through the academic peer review process.
He pointed out that even though Bengtsson’s paper had been rejected by ERL, “they are free to submit the paper elsewhere”.
The Times is, of course, also free to publish whatever it likes in the guise of “reporting”. The paper's follow-up story also included statements from Professor Mike Hulme, of King’s College London, and Professor Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London.
Both statements chosen happened to reinforce The Times' angle that climate scientists were allowing their views to become politicised and both came from the same UK Science Media Centre bulletin.
But The Times' follow-up ignored statements from five other experts coming from the same UK SMC bulletin that would all have undermined The Times' angle or its original story.
Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said: “As scientists we rely on peer review to ensure that the very best science is published. You can’t cry foul and run to the media when your manuscript is turned down – however famous you are.”
Prof Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, said the “real tragedy” was that now reviewers of climate science papers would be expected to check their comments in an anonymous peer review “to ask themselves how they might ‘play’ if repeated in the Times or the Mail.”
Finally, when The Times' quoted Professor Joanna Haigh, they left out this part of her statement.
This episode should not distract us from the fact that we are performing a very dangerous experiment with the Earth’s climate. Even by the end of this century, on current trends we risk changes of a magnitude that are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. How we respond to that is a matter of public policy but scientists clearly play a key role in providing policymakers with the evidence they require.
Picture credit: University of Reading.