Fake news and alternative facts in The Times

Matt Ridley (Photo credit: John Watson)

The Times published highly inflammatory column by Viscount Ridley on 6th February alleging serious misconduct by climate researchers. It was just the latest example of the newspaper promoting climate change denial. Here Bob Ward responds with a letter that he has sent to the editor of the Times.

Dear Sir,

In a characteristically error-filled article (‘Politics and science are a toxic combination’, 6 February 2017), Viscount Ridley made a number of inaccurate and misleading statements.

He claimed that a blog by Dr John Bates “alleges that scientists themselves have been indulging in alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence”. This is hyperbolic nonsense. In fact, the blog does not contain such allegations. Instead, it primarily accuses a former colleague, Dr Thomas Karl, at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of failing to archive his data for a research paper in accordance with strict new rules governing ‘operational data’.

Dr Bates also wrote that Dr Karl had his “thumb on the scale pushing for, and often insisting on, decisions that maximize warming”, but Viscount Ridley fails to admit that the blog does not provide any evidence to support this serious allegation. Dr Karl has not yet responded properly to the allegations made by Dr Bates, and Viscount Ridley apparently made no attempt to provide him with a right to reply.

He complains about climate scientists who have pointed out that the paper by Dr Karl and co-authors describes findings that are similar to those of other researchers. But Viscount Ridley does not admit that the paper has been subjected to detailed scrutiny by other researchers since it was published in June 2015. For instance, a paper by Dr Zeke Hausfather and co-authors, published in the journal ‘Science Advances’ in January 2017, concluded that the analysis by Dr Karl and others “effectively corrects a significant cooling bias” in NOAA’s record of global measurements of sea surface temperatures.

In a commentary for ‘Carbon Brief’ the day before you published Viscount Ridley’s polemic, Dr Hausfather also rejects the suggestions that that Dr Karl and his co-authors were guilty of a “lack of transparency” and “behind-closed-door adjustments” because they had not followed the strict internal procedure for archiving NOAA’s operational data.

Dr Hausfather wrote: “While I cannot speak to how well the authors followed internal protocols, they did release their temperature anomalies, spatially gridded data land and ocean data, and the land station data associated with their analysis. They put all of this up on NOAA’s FTP site in early June 2015, at the time that the Karl et al paper was published.”

He added: “As someone who works on and develops surface temperature records, the data they provided would be sufficient for me to examine their analysis in detail and see how it compared to other groups”.

Viscount Ridley also suggested that Dr Karl and his co-authors had “used a dataset for sea surface temperature measurements that “corrected unreliable data from ship intakes, which resulted in a slightly enhanced warming trend”.

But Dr Hausfather also poured scorn on attempts to make “a big deal about the fact that NOAA’s new ocean temperature product adjusts buoys up to match ship data versus adjusting ship data down to match buoys”. He added: “This turns out to be a bit of a red herring; since scientists are interested in the change in temperatures over time, you end up with the same increase in temperatures (e.g, the temperature trend) if you apply the offset to one or the other.”

Viscount Ridley claims that an article by David Rose in ‘The Mail on Sunday’ also “documents allegations of scientific misconduct as serious as that of anti-vaccine campaign of Andrew Wakefield”, but neglects to mention that the newspaper has been discredited for misrepresenting the findings of the paper by Dr Karl and co-authors and using a fake graph.

Viscount Ridley accuses science journalists of ignoring “growing evidence of scientific misconduct in…climate science because they approve of the cause, a habit known as noble-cause corruption”. Yet he fails to disclose in the article that his family benefits financially from a coal mine on their Northumberland estate and that he is an adviser to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which was set up by fellow Conservative peer, Lord Lawson, to campaign against policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Not content with misrepresenting the work of Dr Karl and co-authors, Viscount Ridley wrongly suggested that it is “just the latest scandal to rock climate science”, before claiming “the biggest was climategate [sic] in 2009”. He added: “The scientists concerned were criticised by the two rather perfunctory inquiries, but have since taken to saying they were ‘exonerated’”. This is untrue.

Viscount Ridley fails to inform readers that ‘climategate’ is the label that climate change ‘sceptics’ use to describe the illegal hacking of email messages and other documents from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. These documents were distributed to ‘sceptic’ websites where they were posted with inaccurate and misleading comments. The frenzied attack from ‘sceptics’, including death threats, forced the head of the Unit to contemplate suicide.

There were subsequently nine investigations, not two as Viscount Ridley wrongly claims, by the Independent Climate Change Email Review, the International Panel set up by the University of East Anglia to examine the research of the Climatic Research Unit, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Pennsylvania State University, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Inspector General of the United States Department of Commerce and the United States National Science Foundation. And he failed to mention that all of these inquiries concluded there was no evidence of serious misconduct by any of the climate scientists, although they were criticised about their actions in relation to the Freedom of Information Act.

Viscount Ridley also referred to a report by the InterAcademy Council that he fallaciously described as “highly critical” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In fact, it made some suggestions for improving the operation of the Panel, while concluding that “the IPCC assessment process has been successful overall and has served society well”.

Viscount Ridley ends by calling for “the many brilliant scientists who are discovering great insights into quasars and quarks, Alzheimer’s and allergies, into neurons, fossils, telomeres and ice ages, to ‘take a public stand and be counted’ against the politicization of some science within their own ranks”.

However, Viscount Ridley, who joined the House of Lords after 24 Conservative hereditary peers voted for him in February 2013, fails to admit the many disgraceful episodes during which he has misrepresented the evidence for climate change and undermines researchers to promote the political agenda of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

For instance, in October 2013, Viscount Ridley wrote an article for ‘The Spectator’ which was publicized on the front page as ‘Why climate change is good for the world’. But the article was based on flawed analysis by a fellow adviser to the Global Warming Policy Foundation who had misrepresented estimates of the economic impacts of climate change. Viscount Ridley has never admitted the fundamental errors in his article.

More recently, in October 2016, Viscount Ridley delivered the annual lecture for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, during which he falsely accused Professor Ranga Myneni of Boston University and his 31 co-authors of delaying publication of a paper in order to avoid it being taking into account by the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. Viscount Ridley’s case included switching the date on one of Professor Myneni’s presentations to make it seem older than it really was.

If ‘The Times’ really wants to take a stand against politicisation of science, it should stop Viscount Ridley from using his column to promote fake news and alternative facts about climate change.

Yours sincerely,

Bob Ward
Policy and Communications Director
Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
London School of Economics and Political
Houghton Street

Note added on 14 February 2017:
A list of 11 false claims in the article by Viscount Ridley has been submitted in a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.