Exclusive comments from Prof. Simon Lewis whose official complaint led to this too-rare victory of science over disinformation
“I welcome the Sunday Times‘ apology for failing to accurately report my views and retract the Amazon story. As several experts told them – their story was baseless. What I find shocking about this whole episode is that an article read out [loud] and agreed with me was then switched at the last minute to one that fit with the Times‘ editorial line that the IPCC contained a number of serious mistakes, but actually ignored the scientific facts.”
That is tropical forest researcher Simon Lewis in an email to me this morning after the Sunday Times finally retracted their bogus story and issued this too-rare apology (emphasis added):
The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.
In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.
The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.
In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.
Kudos to Simon Lewis. He fought back against the disinformers (see my March post, “Forest scientist fights back against ‘distorted’ UK article on Amazon and IPCC: Simon Lewis files 31-page official complaint, paints devastating portrait of Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Leake”).
Lewis notes,” The original story went far — featuring in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and was copied 20,000 times on the web.” Indeed, he adds, “Ironies abound: this was an article about taking the upmost care in conveying scientific information which was itself completely wrong.”
Since this episode typifies the dreadful “Climategate coverage,”let’s briefly review the backstory. 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.”
Worse, as Lewis notes, the Times “ignored interviews with two other experts, and mis-quoted me, concealing my interview comments to them that the IPCC scientific statement was defensible and backed by peer reviewed science (and concealing I sent them some of the scientific literature).” In March, Lewis filed an official complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission. 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. Deltoid (aka Tim Lambert) has also done an excellent job writing about “Jonathan Leake’s dishonest reporting on the Amazon rainforests.”
Lewis wrote me this morning:
“The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments. This is extremely dangerous when we face serious environmental problems, like climate change, which require widespread scientific understanding to enable wise political responses to be formulated and enacted.”
Sadly, that tragic outcome may be precisely one of the goals of disinformers like Leake. And it is precisely why Lewis is such a hero for fighting back.
Lewis understands, as Nature editorialized, “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.” We need more scientists like him.
If you have any comments to share with Prof. Lewis, I’ll make sure he sees them.