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Exclusive: Forest scientist fights back against ‘distorted’ UK article on Amazon and IPCC

By Joe Romm on March 24, 2010 at 8:53 pm

"Exclusive: Forest scientist fights back against ‘distorted’ UK article on Amazon and IPCC"

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Simon Lewis files 31-page official complaint, paints devastating portrait of Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Leake

I wish to lodge a complaint about the article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” by Jonathan Leake, published in the Sunday Times, across pages 8 and 9 on 31 January 2010. I consider it in breach of PCC Editors Code of Practice point 1) Accuracy, i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

So begins tropical forest researcher Simon Lewis in his official complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission.  The PCC is “an independent body which deals with complaints from members of the public about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines.”

Finally, we have someone who understands, as Nature editorialized, “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

The full 31-page complaint — a CP exclusive (click here, big PDF) — is a must-read for anyone who wants to see just how Leake and the Times operate.  I excerpt it below, but first some background.

The IPCC famously wrote:

Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.

This statement in the 2007 IPCC is “basically correct but poorly written, and bizarrely referenced,” as Lewis told the BBC in January.  Indeed, the underlying science is quite strong, as made clear in a recent statement by 19 top U.S., U.K., and Brazilian scientists, including Lewis, who point out “there are multiple, consistent lines of evidence from ground-based studies published in the peer-reviewed literature that Amazon forests are, indeed, very susceptible to drought stress.”

That didn’t stop the anti-science blogosphere and media from spinning this into another phony “gate,” as ClimateSafety explained in an excellent post, “AmazonGate: how the denial lobby and a dishonest journalist created a fake scandal.”  Anti-science Blogger Richard North spun up the story, and it was turned into “news” by anti-science reporters James Delingpole of the Telegraph and Jonathan Leake of the Times.  The Leake story explicitly ends, “Research by Richard North.“  Deltoid (aka Tim Lambert) has also done an excellent job writing about “Jonathan Leake’s dishonest reporting on the Amazon rainforests.”

The Times finally changed the headline online to the more innocuous, “The UN climate panel and the rainforest claim,” but it still opens, absurdly,

A STARTLING report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.

That is “extremely misleading,” as Lewis shows that Leake and the Times knew it was basically false when they made it.

Lewis finally had enough, telling the Guardian:

There is currently a war of disinformation about climate change-related science, and my complaint can hopefully let journalists in the front line of this war know that there are potential repercussions if they publish misleading stories. The public deserve careful and accurate science reporting….

As a professional scientist I have to clear this mess up, it’s important to protect my reputation in terms of providing accurate scientific information to the public.

And so he filed an official complaint, which continues:

Specifically, I consider this article to be materially misleading. I am the scientific expert cited in the article who was asked about the alleged “bogus rainforest claim”. In short, there is no “bogus rainforest claim”, the claim made by the UN panel was (and is) well-known, mainstream and defensible science, as myself and two other professional world-class rainforest experts (Professor Oliver Phillips and Professor Dan Nepstad) each told Jonathan Leake.

The Sunday Times knew that the UN panel report contained an incorrect reference relating to a sentence about the potential impacts of climate change on the Amazon rainforest, and not an error of science. Yet, the Sunday Times published inaccurate, misleading and distorted information which would lead any reasonable person to assume that the UN report had included information that was not backed by the best scientific information available at the time. Furthermore, they used highly selective reporting to imply, by omission, that a leading expert – myself – concurred with them that the IPCC had published an incorrect scientific claim. This is not the truth, and not what I told the Sunday Times, and therefore I consider the article materially misleading.

I suspect that the Sunday Times may claim that it did not state in the main body of the article that the statement in the UN report was scientifically correct or not, and that the article was about the IPCC making a mistake. Yet, according to the Editor’s code this is immaterial: “Stories that are technically accurate can still be misleading or distorted leaving the reader with a false impression. Sometimes the problem is more because of what they don’t say than what they do, and that “”whether intentional or not “”can breach the Code.”

The Sunday Times contention that the IPCC had made a mistake in the reporting of scientifically credible statements was then widely re-reported, in part because the Sunday Times used my expertise to lend credibility to the assertion, due in part to the concealment of my views that the statement in question was fully in line with scientific knowledge at the time the IPCC report was written.

Following publication, I posted a very short comment on the Sunday Times website, below the article, on the afternoon of Sunday 31 January, stating that I was the expert cited in Jonathan Leake’s article, that the article was misleading, as there was no ‘bogus rainforest claim’, and posted a link to the BBC whom I also gave an interview with, to which I gave broadly similar information as to the Sunday Times, but was accurately reported (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8488395.stm, reproduced as Appendix 4). My posted comment was deleted from the Sunday Times website.

I also wrote a letter to the Sunday Times, emailed on Tuesday 2 February, to explain the distortion and errors in the article, for publication the following Sunday, copying in the lead author of the article, Jonathan Leake, which was neither acknowledged, nor published (see
Appendix 2 for a copy of the letter).

The deletion of my comment on the website, and failure to publish my letter would appear to be in breach of point 1) Accuracy, ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

As I have tried to correct the record in the Sunday Times, and the Sunday Times has not cooperated, and would like the public record to be correct in this matter, (reluctantly) I ask that the PCC fully investigate the case, and the Commission then make a ruling. I hope that in the course of the investigation the Sunday Times will adhere to the highest standards of accuracy, openness and clarity in their submissions to the PCC, as the article, and accompanying editorial related to the article (‘Bad science needs good scrutiny’) are themselves about the importance of taking the utmost care in reporting science.

I detail the misleading claims in the article in a series of sections below.

Hear!  Hear!

The whole statement has many substantive parts, including a lengthy discussion of the role of blogger Richard North.  Please post any parts you think are particularly salient in the comments.  I was struck by this:

5.1 The article re-write

I spoke to Jonathan Leake on the afternoon of Saturday 30, a few hours before the article went to press, as he wanted to check the quotes he was using by me (checking quotes was agreed between ourselves on Friday 29 January). The entire article was read to me, and quotes by me agreed, including a statement that the science in the IPCC report was and is correct. The article was reasonable, and quotes were not out of context. Indeed I was happy enough that I agreed to assist in checking the facts for the graphic to accompany the article (I can supply the emails if necessary). Yet, following this telephone call the article was entirely and completely re-written with an entirely new focus, new quotes from me included and new (incorrect) assertions of my views. I ask the Sunday Times to disclose the version of article that was read out to me, and provide an explanation as to why the agreed correct, undistorted, un-misleading article, and specifically the quotes from me, was not published, and an entirely new version produced.

Wow!

I hope the Press Complaints Commission will get to the bottom of that staggering accusation.

We’ve gone from the IPCC to the PCC.  The Leake piece is not the way journalism is supposed to operate, not the way science is supposed to be communicated to the public.  Kudos to Dr. Lewis for fighting back.

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23 Responses to Exclusive: Forest scientist fights back against ‘distorted’ UK article on Amazon and IPCC

  1. mike roddy says:

    It’s great to see a scientist put on a pair of pants and throw a few punches, instead of raising his eyebrows and retreating to the laboratory. This is inspiring, Simon Lewis, and I hope others hear the call.

    It’s more than a street fight. It’s become a deadly serious military campaign, waged against well financed and amoral opponents.

  2. DreamQuestor says:

    Any lawyers here know whether Leake’s actions could be construed as libel? It’s been too long since my journalism class in high school and I know nothing at all about British libels laws, but it seem to me that a case could be made that Leake libeled Simon Lewis by deliberately misrepresenting his statements.

  3. Dave E says:

    Rahj Majendra (#2)
    ???–what do actions that may or may not be taken on this web site have to do with a distorted article in a major newspaper? Even if your allegations against this site were true, it still wouldn’t give major media the right to ignore journalistic ethics. In any case, the complaint is entirely about science, what does it matter how good the science is if the press completely distorts it?

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    I wonder if the MSM will pick up on this egregious denialism. Now that there’s a fight over it — a story — they must be interested!

    Let’s check the NYT … searching “leakegate”, “jonathan Leake” …

    Nothing. Nada.

  5. MapleLeaf says:

    What Mike said @1.

    We need to support scientists, especially now. Mark my words, the likes of Leake are going to counter with anger. Their motto is “the best form of defense is offense.”

    Anthony Watts is already claiming that Lewis is threatening free speech. How about Dr. Leake’s right to defend his integrity, his values and his career, and his right not to have his scientific research and words misrepresented and distorted.

    Tim Lambert is also covering this story, and has a litany of examples of Leakes’ astonishingly poor journalism.

  6. Leif says:

    Simon Lewis, way to go. Go for the jugular and show NO mercy. Humanity deserves nothing less!

    Two Palms Up,

    Leif

  7. Roger says:

    Kudos to Simon Lewis. Lesser men would have done less. A real hero!

  8. Roger says:

    We should have stricter laws against the type of misleading news reporting descibed above.

    Trouble is, we develop laws on the basis of past bad experiences we’ve had that we want to prevent from happening again.

    Hmmm…Oops!

  9. Heraclitus says:

    It’s great to see a scientist standing up to junk lournalism like this. We can only hope that more will follow.

    When will the majority of the scientific establishment start asking themselves what is the greater threat to science, a possible dip in the public’s faith in scientific process resulting from a lack of understanding of the concept of probability in conjunction with extreme good fortune if the climate system turns out to be more resilient than expected, or the collapse of the civilisation that supports it?

  10. Sou says:

    Good for Simon Lewis. After the shabby treatment of scientists by journalists over the past few months, the lessons are clear:

    1. Don’t talk to Leake, if he cannot get any reputable scientist to ‘quote’ or misquote, then he will lose any traction he has left quick smart. (Leake and Delingpole are two of a kind and neither has a place in any reputable newspaper.)

    2. If you engage with any journalist, do so in writing.

    3. If you have any conversation by telephone or in person with a journalist, record every portion of it and type up transcripts.

    4. If a journalist agrees to you seeing a copy of the article in advance of publication, make sure you get it emailed to you.

    None of the above will avoid the problems of dodgy editing of interviews or quotes out of context. However, scientists rely on the media to inform the public. The public relies on the media to be informed. When ethics flies out the window everyone loses – the media (loss of reputation), the public (loss of information, trust in the media) and the scientists (reputation and faith in humanity).

    After all, who trusts the Sunday Times any more on important issues, or even the Times? They might get the sports results correct, but that’s about the extent to which they can be relied upon. Through gross misreporting like this, Times has dropped to the equivalent of the UK Daily Mail, which is almost as low as you can go. (I believe the Times used to have a reasonably good reputation – at least as a conservative newspaper.)

  11. Dan B says:

    Google will provide.

    Ask Jeff Jarvis. Or read his book.

    Media that’s depended upon the largesse of moneyed elites will be replaced by media that serves the interests of communities.

    The Sunday Times is tempting fate – or is their corporate culture tempting evolution at the moment evolution is in a highly active phase?

  12. Jade G. Razo says:

    This really is a huge step.
    As it is backed up with real facts and undeniably the true story, Mr. Forest Scientist has all the right to share it to world and prove than fiction article writer wrong…
    Let wait and see.

  13. Well done, Dr. Lewis! I hope that others will also carry the flag when mass media distorts the truth.

    Those like Watts and Morano who jump on the few mistakes in the IPCC as evidence that the entire work is bad should visit the link below and then trash their encyclopedias.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Errors_in_the_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica_that_have_been_corrected_in_Wikipedia

    Hey, there are MANY mistakes in the EB so it MUST be ALL wrong! :)

  14. Jonathan says:

    I’m doing a similar thing by taking mX, a free Murdoch newspaper here in Sydney, to the Australian Press Council for:
    1. bias in reporting the Himalayan glacier melt mistake (where 35% of the piece was an extended quote from Benny Peiser); and
    2. false and inaccurate reporting of the BBC Q&A with Phil Jones (titled “Hotter in days of the knights” ha ha)

    Their Phil Jones smear was an edited and further debased version of the Daily Mail’s “Climategate U-turn” atrocity.

    We’ve got a complaints committee hearing coming up soon. Can’t wait!

  15. Ivy Bear says:

    It is refreshing and encouraging to see challenges to the deliberate distortion of facts by “journalists.” Too bad we don’t have a PCC in the U.S. to complain about misleading articles by the likes of George Will, Fox News, and unfortunately, way too often, the NY Times.

  16. Greg N says:

    Hang on a sec… This is the British Press Complaints Commission we are talking about.

    The spineless, helpless and out-gunned PCC that is ignored on a daily basis by half the UK newspapers…

    In the rare cases that they get cross with a newspaper their punishment is basically to tell them, “I say, old chap, that article was a touch unsporting, d’you mind awfully not doing that sort of thing again?”

    As an example, one UK tabloid recently tapped the mobile phones of dozens of celebrities and published the gossip. The PCC punishment? Zero.

  17. Leif says:

    Well lets hope that the PCC can find in their heart to get some stones for humanities sake.

  18. Lavonne Sackett says:

    The NYT is devoted to please it’s advertisers. I am sure they will make an adjustment to a paid Nieman Marcus advert with a misprint. They should. NM has a right to receive a correction.
    Lewis is out of luck.

  19. sasparilla says:

    Just as an FYI, the Sunday Times UK is owned by News Corp – i.e. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News (in the US) as well (and tons of other paper and TV outlets including, now, the Wall Street Journal).

    Totally deplorable behavior on the paper/journalist part and excellent job by the scientist to take them to task.

    Given the owner (Murdoch) of the paper, not very surprising, unfortunately – as long as it seems to obtain some imagined end for News Corp, the means do not seem to matter as News Corp’s consistent past behavior has demonstrated.

  20. RockandorRoll says:

    @ DreamQuestor (#2)

    I don’t know if this qualifies as libel, but UK law does set a much lower bar than the US for such cases. You don’t necessarily need to prove intent in the UK to prove libel. Basically you just need to prove that the information was incorrect that that it could cause some sort of harm.

  21. john atcheson says:

    I’m perplexed — why is the Times publishing such pure crap? What is it that makes them “take sides” in an issue which really doesn’t have sides?
    And having decided to violate journalistic ethics, why would they choose the side which leads to famine, fires, death,and pestilence?

    Finally, does the US have anything like the PCC?

  22. Stephen Watson says:

    This faith in the press would be touching if it weren’t so serious. JR says “The Leake piece is not the way journalism is supposed to operate …”. I would agree, but it is the way it DOES operate and Climate Progress is full of numerous examples of journalists writing all kinds of unsubstantiated rubbish. As I said in a reply some time back, anyone with personal experience of the press, that I’ve spoken too, has experienced this kind of thing without exception.

    The journalist’s usual defence is “I had only xx hours to prepare the article for publication and I can’t be expected to go into great detail and do hours of research, I just didn’t have the time.” http://www.medialens.org hear this one all the time.

  23. Ross Hunter says:

    # 21: “I’m perplexed — why is the Times publishing such pure crap?”

    They’ve been on the denial side all along. Comment # 19 explains why.