My critique of malaria paper, media coverage STILL holds up
The main subjects of my recent analysis — The non-hype about climate change (and malaria) — have chosen either to support my key conclusions or not refute them.
NYT opinion blogger Andy Revkin, whose challenge to cover the original Nature paper led to my first post, opens his follow up:
The climate blogger Joe Romm and I agree (breaking news): Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.
Thank you! Case closed.
A key reason I filed my post under “media” along with “health impacts” is that my main critique was with the media coverage, which created the distinct impression that this new Nature paper was somehow undermining allegedly rampant exaggeration or hype in scientific research and assessments. But it is hard to undermine a myth that simply doesn’t exist.
Now what I didn’t realize until I read this study very closely and checked the footnotes was that the study itself help create this misimpression, with these lines:
First, widespread claims that rising mean temperatures have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent….
In marked contrast, however, are model predictions, reported widely in global climate policy debates3, 6, 7, that climate change is adding to the present-day burden of malaria and will increase both the future range and intensity of the disease….
The quantification of a global recession in the range and intensity of malaria over the twentieth century has allowed us to review the rationale underpinning high-profile predictions of a current and future worsening of the disease in a warming climate.
Any reader of this study would be led to believe that these footnotes advance model predictions “that climate change is adding to the present-day burden of malaria and will increase both the future range and intensity of the disease.” But, in fact, they don’t.
Further, Footnote 6, the IPCC report, Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability? and footnote 7, the Technical Support Document for the EPA endangerment finding, are easily the two highest profile references in the paper, and thus again the reader is somehow left with the notion that those two reports make claims that in fact they don’t.
This misleading footnoting may thus have contributed to some of the bad media coverage.
The second author on the study, David Smith, commented on the second DotEarth piece:
Good science reporting (or blogging) requires some degree of critical assessment of the controversy. Joe Romm never contacted any of the authors of our study, but he does make some angry accusations. For the record, I’ve read the IPCC report, including the relevant sections. I’m part of the consensus that believes the world is warming and that human activities are the main cause.
Since he does not refute my primary critique, I am left to assume at this point that he cannot, particularly since he does attempt to refute critiques made by others. Oddly, he chooses to refute a secondary, inferential critique of mine, “I doubt that the authors of the Nature article even bothered to go back to read the IPCC report they cited or spend a few minutes searching it for the word ‘malaria,’ since that would have made clear it is inappropriate to cite it as they did.”
That “refutation” is baffling. I defy anybody to read the relevant sections, which I excerpt at length here, or search WGII for every single use of the word “malaria,” and see how it could possibly be used to support the sentence in the Nature piece where it appears. It cannot. Quite the reverse, in fact. And it certainly is not a high profile prediction of a current and future worsening of the disease in a warmer climate. Quite the reverse.
For the record, the only part of WGII most people read — the “high profile” part — is the Summary for Policymakers, which gets signed off on word for word by every member government. In the 16-page summary for WGII, here is everything they say on malaria under the Health Section:
Climate change is expected to have some mixed effects, such as a decrease or increase in the range and transmission potential of malaria in Africa. ** D [8.4]
Kind of hard to make the case there is any effort to hype this to people in the policy debate.
Smith’s comment — along with Revkin’s email to me — seems to suggest that I thought he was not “part of the consensus that believes the world is warming and that human activities are the main cause.” Aside from the fact that I don’t like the word consensus, I never thought that. Just about anybody who is a serious enough scientist to get published in Nature shares the basic understanding of climate science in the literature. I did infer, “I suspect the authors just swallowed the media/disinformer myth that the IPCC has overhyped the malaria-climate link and threat.” But I don’t see how that can be interpreted as suggesting the authors don’t share the basic understanding of climate science. I was just trying to come up with a theory to explain the baffling mistake of citing WGII the way they did.
Now while sloppy footnoting is not normally a big deal, it must be said that the IPCC has had its credibility thrashed over and over again in the media over little more than poor citations like this. So the anti-science crowd should be all over this study. Seriously, though, I think the authors need to admit they made a mistake in using these two citations this way — or explain how the language in those citations support that sentence.
UPDATE: For all the huffing and puffing on other websites, nobody, not even the authors, have been able to dispute that this footnote is defensible, though at least one disinformer is trying to pretend the authors cited a different document! What is hilarious is to watch the disinformers, who spent months trashing the IPCC over poor citations like this, now rush to the rescue of two very poor citations.
UPDATE 2: Smith commented on this post again on DotEarth. He says, “Romm attacked us for one citation in one sentence.” In fact I criticized them for two citations, and for appearing to make a couple of misleading assertions in their paper based on those citations. He says, of my posts, “he’s trying to paint us as being sloppy and anti-alarmist alarmist (or something equally twisted).” Given how the IPCC has been vilified for a few flawed citations, “sloppy,” is an incredibly mild word. He tries to make it look like my critique was unclear, but in fact anyone can see it wasn’t. What’s fascinating about about Smith’s reply is that again he never refutes my key assertion that he doesn’t provide citations for the supposedly hyped predictions, writing:
The citations were placed inside the clause to avoid linking the reports with the model predictions discussed in the reports.
At the end of that sentence we could have cited the papers that have made the predictions. We did not cite them, in part, because there are so many of them.
Yes, there were so many papers to cite in our defense that we didn’t cite any!
I can only imagine what the chest-beaters would make of that sentence if the IPCC had written it. I don’t need to further debunk Smith’s comment, since Revkin’s readers do it so well here (“This is a gross distortion of Freudenburg’s work”) and here, and here. And, of course, Revkin himself says, “Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.”
Finally, Revkin distorts my critique, but that is par for the course. He also tries hard to find one high-profile report that somewhere, somehow oversells the malaria-climate link:
Using malaria risk as an argument for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, given the subtleties in that area of science, appears bound to backfire. That hasn’t stopped some pretty high-profile institutions from trying to do so.
Yes, the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2007/8 qualifies as “pretty high profile,” and the summary Revkin links to does contain this single phrase (italics added):
Among the threats to human development identified by “Fighting climate change”:
* The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition. Semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa with some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the world face the danger of potential productivity losses of 25% by 2060.
* An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.
* Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.
* Emerging health risks, with an additional population of up to 400 million people facing the risk of malaria.
But is the UNDP using the malaria risk as a primary argument for cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Not exactly. In a Box on page 29 of the full report, we find this:
Second, the environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit. We must not think of the environment exclusively in terms of pre-existing natural conditions, since the environment can also include the results of human creation. For example, purification of water is a part of improving the environment in which we live. The elimination of epidemics, such as smallpox (which has already occurred) and malaria (which ought to occur very soon if we can get our acts together), is a good illustration of an environmental improvement that we can bring about.
So the UNDP believes that we could eliminate malaria if we wanted to “very soon.” Hard to make the case that the UNDP is arguing in this report that malaria risk is a major argument for cutting GHGs as opposed to a major argument for just getting off our butts and doing a bunch of non-GHG-related stuff. And that is pretty much the point of the Nature paper! Doh!
And so we are left with this broad agreement:
Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.
From a climate perspective — contrary to much of the media misreporting — this entire episode was dog bites man or, I suppose, mosquito bites man.
UPDATE: SF Examiner’s Tom Fuller unintentionally helps make my case for me with a couple of comments below where he, among other things, writes “”¦the idiotic notion that global warming would extend the reach of malaria.”