Groupthink, Sensationalism, Naive and Inept Journalism: Climate coverage at the ABC.
Part 2 Cherry picking the science.
Part 2 of a four part series looking at climate reporting at the ABC.
A recent report by the Australian National Academy of Science rightly indicates that climate science is an amalgam of various scientific disciplines including geology, physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology. The amount of time and money spent on climate research spread across so many disciplines ensures the output in the form of peer reviewed papers published in scientific journals is overwhelming. Even those in the business find it hard to keep up with the deluge. With such rich pickings judging which research is newsworthy is a subjective decision. In this case Auntie’s bias is most obvious in those stories that have gone unreported. Two examples from recent weeks, and many more missed over the last few years indicate that there are some real problems with ABC’s nose for news.
When Victoria experienced its horrific bushfires last year Clive Hamilton was quick to attribute the disaster to man made global warming. He recently repeated the claims in an article in The Australian. However a peer reviewed study accepted for publication in the journal Weather, Climate and Society has found: “There are relationships between normalised building damage and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean Dipole phenomena, but there is no discernable evidence that the normalised data is being influenced by climate change due to the emission of greenhouse gases.” For some strange reason ABC News, Science and Environment did not consider the story newsworthy, amazing considering the subject, the findings and the authors. Instead of reporting on this important study, ABC provided a report with the alarming headline "UN climate scientists link Russia, Pakistan calamities". The necessary peer reviewed studies to support this assertion have not been undertaken and preliminary reports by the US NOAA, not covered by the ABC, indicate the event in Russia was linked to an infrequent natural weather event: “The extreme surface warmth over western Russia during July and early August is mostly a product of the strong and persistent blocking high….The indications are that the current blocking event is intrinsic to the natural variability of summer climate in this region, a region which has a climatological vulnerability to blocking and associated heat waves (e.g., 1960, 1972, 1988).” In regard to Pakistan, the Indus River floods every year at around the same time and the disaster has more to do with bad governance and a lack of natural disaster planning than climate change.
In the same week ABC missed news about what caused Victoria’s Bushfires they also missed another study that once and for all smashed the infamous Hockey Stick Graph to pieces.
Anyone following the climate debate in recent years will be familiar with the Hockey Stick Graph and the debate surrounding its veracity. The IPCC have built a case that recent temperature rises are unprecedented over the past 2000 years, but if this is not the case and similar warming occurred in the recent past, say during the Medieval Warm Period due solely to natural causes, then a major plank of the IPCC’s case for alarming anthropogenic global warming is shredded. With the recent publication of a paper in the Annals of Statistics the ABC have missed an opportunity to report on one such shredding. In the paper, statisticians Blakeley McShane and Abraham Wyner found “Climate scientists have greatly underestimated the uncertainty of proxy based reconstructions and hence have been overconfident in their models.” Concluding about the Hockey Stick: “the evidence for a “long-handled” hockey stick is lacking in the data.” This concurs with previous published studies that also showed the Hockey Stick to be fundamentally flawed; somehow ABC missed covering these papers as well. That ABC News and Science divisions completely ignored this new study reflects poorly on their capacity to recognise significant develops in science as they arise. The Hockey Stick is broken, but ABC denies its audience the evidence, so it lives on like a Zombie.
Looking over ABC’s missing climate science stories brings the following quote by Karl Popper to mind:
“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve”
A selection of ABC’s missing news stories can be found at “Missing News”.
Next: Part 3 Putting faith in Authority
 Crompton, R. P., K. J. McAneney, K. Chen, R. A. Pielke Jr., and K. Haynes, 2010 (in press): Influence of Location, Population and Climate on Building Damage and Fatalities due to Australian Bushfire: 1925-2009. Weather, Climate and Society