Exclusive: 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

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 (seeAppendix 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.