Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel prizes and lazy journalism

It's time for me to write another post. These days - being heavily pregnant and on maternity leave - I am more likely to complain to media regulator Ofcom (which I have done!) about misleading and sensationalist TV programmes such as Channel 4's "Bringing up Baby" than think about climate change science. But what happened yesterday and today is too significant to be ignored.

So, well done on the Norwegians for awarding the Nobel peace prize to Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unfortunately, as usual the majority of the media - including the usually sober BBC - is also showing a complete lack of understanding of the facts and gets too easily carried away by sensationalism and the desire to create controversy where there is none.

So, instead of just analysing the significance of the Nobel prize, and the reasons for it (climate change will almost certainly create more conflict in this world) much of the British media seems compelled to make a big deal of the fact that yesterday there has been a controversial ruling on the film. This allegedly undermines Al Gore's film (well, actually it wasn't his film, although he was in it) "An Inconvenient Truth". But is this really true?

Well, the inconvenient truth is that many journalists are completely failing to check their facts before publishing their stories and have been sensationalising the story. The truth is that the High Court judge has ruled that Al Gore’s award winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, is “broadly accurate”and that it can be shown in schools.

True, Mr Justice Burton also identified a number of “errors and omissions” in the film that depart from the mainstream. What he means by mainstream is “the ‘consensus’ expressed in the IPCC reports”. He also ruled that An Inconvenient Truth could be shown but the Guidance Note to schools must address these departures from the mainstream view. Well, fair enough, really. Al Gore is just human and in his efforts to communicate hard topics to a vast audience may have at times used language which was not scientific but more aimed at communicating issues clearly. It is also true that the IPCC, because of its nature as a body that has to reach consensus among thousands of experts, is often very conservative in its language. So this does not undermine the overall message of the film.

In fact, Mr Justice Burton said in the ruling that:

"The Film advances four main scientific hypotheses, each of which is very well supported by research published in respected, peer-reviewed journals and accords with the latest conclusions of the IPCC:

- global average temperatures have been rising significantly over the past half century and are likely to continue to rise

- climate change is mainly attributable to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide

- climate change will, if unchecked, have significant adverse effects on the world and its populations; and

- there are measures which individuals and governments can take which will help to reduce climate change or mitigate its effects."

Significantly, Mr Justice Burton also rejected calls for teaching staff to also present a sceptical view of climate change saying “the High Court has made clear the law does not require teaching staff to adopt a position of neutrality between views which accord with the great majority of scientific opinion and those which do not.”

But of course it would not make such a good news story to write this and be more accurate about the ruling, would it? Sorry, but this is lazy journalism. Full stop.

There's also a lot to be said about the origins of this controversy, and who is behind it - another issue which the media choses to ignore. But I'd rather go back to thinking about pregnancy and babies - a lot more fun to be honest.