The Times

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  • Coalition Of Scientists Takes Novel Approach To Grading Accuracy Of Climate Change Coverage

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    A group of scientists from around the world is using new web-based technology to assess the accuracy of media coverage of climate change, and the organization spearheading these efforts is looking for support to take its work to the next level.

    The organization, known as Climate Feedback, uses what’s known as web annotation technology to layer scientists’ comments directly onto articles and opinion pieces, so that readers can easily understand whether -- and to what degree -- the pieces are consistent with scientific understanding of climate change. Climate Feedback then assigns a credibility score known as “feedback” to each media piece, which serves as an overall guide to its accuracy -- or lack thereof.

    The result looks like this:

    At Media Matters, we’ve given scientists a forum to set the record straight when media distort their climate studies. Now Climate Feedback is further improving the media conversation by giving scientists the opportunity to respond to a wide variety of climate change coverage, as founder Dr. Emmanuel Vincent explained in an email to Media Matters.

    “We think scientists need to have a voice of their own in the media,” Vincent said. “Not as a replacement of journalism, but as a way to ensure that scientific results are not misunderstood or distorted.”

    The approach Climate Feedback employs is unique in several respects. It borrows from the peer review process used to evaluate scientific research papers, ensuring that media coverage of climate science receives a similar level of scrutiny. “After an article is selected for review, scientists with relevant expertise are invited to provide their feedback directly” using the web annotation platform, Vincent said. “Reviewers then fill [out] a short questionnaire with their rating and appreciation of the overall credibility of the piece that are all revealed at the same time to guarantee the independence of scientists’ reviews.”

    Vincent noted that Climate Feedback usually solicits comments from five to 10 scientists for each media evaluation, which is substantially higher than the two to three reviewers typically involved in a classic peer review of scientific literature. “This distributes the workload among scientists who can focus on discussing what they know best,” and helps “convey a more robust sense of the consensus when there is one.”

    Climate Feedback also ensures that only highly qualified experts weigh in on the accuracy of the media reports it analyzes. According to Vincent, contributors must have been the lead author of an article published in a top-tier peer-reviewed scientific journal within the last three years, and they must have a doctorate in a relevant discipline. Depending on the nature of the claims made in the article, Climate Feedback may seek comments from experts in a variety of subjects including biogeochemistry, oceanography, climate variability, paleoclimatology, climate impacts on ecosystems, human health and beyond.

    Once an evaluation is published, Climate Feedback shares it with the reporter or columnist via email or social media. As an example of his group’s success, Vincent pointed to an article in London’s Telegraph newspaper, which “appended a correction and made major modifications” to its original article, “withdrawing 5 sentences, in such a way that the title of the article announcing an imminent ice age is not supported anymore.” Additionally, one Climate Feedback evaluation formed the basis of an open letter from a group of scientists to The Wall Street Journal, criticizing an opinion piece for “attempt[ing] to throw clouds of uncertainty around the hard facts about climate change.” And just last week, members of the British House of Lords referenced another Climate Feedback evaluation while calling on The Times of London to more accurately cover climate science.

    Since Climate Feedback launched in late 2014, Vincent has observed several common media failings, including using flawed reasoning, making logical fallacies, cherry-picking data, and offering misleading or imprecise statements. One example he highlighted was a May 2015 Forbes column by “merchant of doubt” James Taylor, of the Exxon- and Koch-funded Heartland Institute, which misleadingly denied the impact of global warming on polar ice. Vincent noted in his email that Taylor’s column received “almost a million views and is by far Forbes’ most influential climate article in 2015 – which gives an idea of the scale of the problem we’re tackling.”

    Indeed, because the challenge is so great, Climate Feedback is ramping up its efforts via a crowdfunding campaign this week. The aim is to raise enough funds to hire a scientific editor and build a “Scientific Trust Tracker,” which will aggregate the group’s ratings to assess the overall credibility of various news sources. According to Vincent, the new tool “should provide a healthy incentive for more accurate science reporting,” because “building trust is essential for news sources and scientists’ endorsements can help journalists with integrity to get ahead.”

    Climate Feedback is doing this work at an important time. Major U.S. media outlets continue to give undue attention to those who deny the scientific consensus that fossil fuel pollution and other human activities are causing global warming, while scientists remain vastly underrepresented in some of the most high-profile media discussions of climate change, such as those taking place on the broadcast networks’ Sunday shows. And revelations of Exxon’s climate change deception exemplify the ability of the fossil fuel industry to inject misinformation into the media to undermine climate policies. As the fossil fuel industry continues to wage war on the Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate agreement, and other major climate initiatives, too many Americans remain confused about the causes of climate change (although the trend is positive), and not enough recognize the urgent need for action.

    As Vincent explained, “We now have growing evidence that corporate interests have been using the same playbook as Tobacco companies a few decades earlier: using the media to sow doubt about the science of the smoking-cancer connection then and of climate change now in order to confuse the public and undermine democratic support for dealing with the issue.”

    Climate Feedback is a valuable resource to counteract the fossil fuel industry’s harmful influence and encourage media consumers to “stand with science” to achieve more accurate climate change coverage.

  • Drudge Promotes Global Scientific Conspiracy

    Blog ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL

    Front page of the Times via Watts Up With ThatJust as some conservative media figures have cried censorship when their terrible movies aren't promoted in film festivals, they now think that if their error-laden, unoriginal papers pushing climate "skepticism" aren't published in top scientific journals, there is a "cover-up."

    The Drudge Report, an influential conservative news website, devoted the top spot of their site on May 16 to hype an article that claims climate scientists "COVERED UP SCEPTIC'S 'DAMAGING' REVIEW" and even compared it to the faux "Climategate" scandal. 

    Drudge screenshot

    The article by The Times, a British newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, suggests that because a paper by the University of Reading's Lennart Bengtsson was not published in a prestigious scientific journal, politically motivated suppression is behind the "cover-up." Bengtsson recently resigned from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which criticizes almost any policy to address climate change and sometimes misleads on climate science. He claimed that he faced criticism from fellow academics for joining an organization, which he compared to the political witchhunts of Joseph McCarthy.

    Nicola Gulley, the editorial director of IOP Publishing, which oversees the journal in question (Environmental Research Letters) stated that the draft paper was not published because it "contained errors" and "did not provide a significant advancement in the field." Top journals typically reject about nine out of ten papers submitted -- it is not a "cover-up" but a standard practice to accept only the papers that most advance the field.

    The Times selectively quoted from one of the independent, anonymous peer-reviews of Bengtsson's submission, to suggest that the paper was rejected because it would help climate "skeptics," which would be "harmful." Gulley said that comments were "taken out of context" as the full quote from the reviewer was: "Summarising, the simplistic comparison of ranges from [three scientific assessments], combined with the statement they are inconsistent is less then helpful, actually it is harmful as it opens the door for oversimplified claims of 'errors' and worse from the climate sceptics media side." The reviewer outlined that the paper notes differences between the assessments but "does not make any significant attempt at explaining or understanding the differences" even though such explanations are readily available. He or she also noted that the "overall innovation of the manuscript is very low, as the calculations made to compare the three studies are already available within each of the sources."

    As Professor Myles Allen of the University of Oxford explained to the Science Media Centre, "[w]hether there is a story here at all depends on" how you read "harmful," which could mean "harmful to our collective understanding of the climate system" rather than "harmful to the case for a particular climate policy." Dr. Simon Lewis added that the editor, not the reviewer, would have final say: "What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  They were because the paper contained important errors and didn't add enough that was new to warrant publication. Indeed, looking at all the comments by the reviewer they suggested how the paper might be rewritten in the future to make it a solid contribution to science. That's not suppressing a dissenting view, it's what scientists call peer review."

    Prof. Allen further noted that leaking a cherry-picked comment from a review for a politicized media story, as The Times did, is harmful to the progression of science:

    The real tragedy here is that climate scientists are now 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.  The progress of science since Galileo has depended on the principle that an anonymous graduate student can point out errors in a paper by a Nobel laureate confident that their comments will be used solely for the purposes of editorial judgement.

    Even Bengtsson himself took issue with The Times article, saying he did not believe that there is "any systematic 'cover-up' of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics' work is being 'deliberately suppressed'"

    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 being gradually being influenced by political views. Policy decisions need to be based on solid fact.

    "I was concerned that the Environmental Research Letters reviewer's comments suggested his or her opinion was not objective or based on an unbiased assessment of the scientific evidence. Science relies on having a transparent and robust peer review system so I welcome the Institute of Physics publishing the reviewers' comments in full. I accept that Environmental Research Letters is entitled to its final decision not to publish this paper - that is part and parcel of academic life. The peer review process is imperfect but it is still the best way to assess academic work.

  • U.K. Journalists: Kilmeade's Support For "Thuggish" British Nationalist Group Leader "Disturbing"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Fox News host Brian Kilmeade's praise of a British nationalist hate group leader as doing "great" work is being criticized by that nation's journalists, who call the group "thuggish" and "unsavory."

    Kilmeade drew criticism after he praised English Defence League co-founder Tommy Robinson during a June 10 interview on his Fox News Radio program. Kilmeade told Robinson "we got your back" and said, "it's great what you're doing."

    Numerous U.S. outlets, including Fox News, have previously detailed the violent and fringe nature of the EDL, which has clashed with police during anti-Muslim protests.

    Kilmeade's treatment of a group known for its anti-Muslim hatred did not sit well with those in the United Kingdom who have reported on EDL and Robinson.

    "No great surprise but still disturbing that a Fox News extremist will cuddle up to a British hate extremist with a number of convictions for violence and who served time behind bars after he was caught trying to enter the U.S. with a false passport," Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror and a political columnist, wrote in an email

    Robinson (whose real name is Stephen Lennon) used a false identity document to enter the United States to attend an anti-Islam event with anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller. Robinson pleaded guilty and was jailed in January and released in February. His offense was not his first brush with the law.

    "So we may add hypocrisy to the charge sheet against Fox," added Maguire, "when the channel demands America's borders be secure yet hails a violent man who tried to sneak into the US with somebody else's ID."

    Maguire described Robinson as "thuggish" and his supporters as "Nazi-saluting followers."

    Fiona Hamilton, a crime reporter for The Times of London, which is also headed by Rupert Murdoch, said of Kilmeade and others who offered supportive comments or favorable interviews to EDL, "I think they should take a closer look at what they stand for, definitely. This is a man who said he would ban the future building of mosques."

    She said the group is "viewed as extremists" in the U.K., adding, "I don't think you would find a majority of Britains who would agree with the English Defence League."

    John Higginson, political editor of Metro -- a free London newspaper owned by the Daily Mail parent company -- said Kilmeade's comments were a mistake.

    "The BBC wouldn't say 'I've got your back.' If he is saying that, he is condoning these extremist views," Higginson said. "The EDL, some of what they're preaching is to get rid of people just on religious grounds, just being a Muslim. To be saying that, it is bad."

    Tom Whitehead, security editor at The Telegraph of London, has covered the EDL and called them "a fairly extreme right-wing group" that engages in "threats and incidents of violence." He said that if a British journalist echoed Kilmeade's views, "it wouldn't be seen very favorable to all. Personally, I certainly would not condone that at all."