Uncertain motives: Theil misrepresents the science

Stefan Theil from Newsweek attempts to create the impression that scientists have been their own worst enemy and that the current and very real crisis of confidence in science by the public is a direct result of their actions. What is rather incredible, however, is that Theil makes his arguments without a single reference to the well funded and documented campaigns that have been launched by special interest against our scientific establishments.  No mention, for example, that the hacking of the e-mails from the CRU was the result of criminal activity.  No mention of the fact that two independent enquiries have in fact cleared the scientists and the science involved.  And no mention of the fact that industrial concerns such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries have secretly funnelled in tens of millions of dollars into funding a disinformation campaign against legitimate science.

With these sorts of misdeeds against them, scientists are also hampered by the resulting emergence of unqualified experts who claim grand conspiracy, cherry pick evidence and throw it back at science with a certain fait accompli. All the hallmarks of denialism.  Because science doesn't operate under the same rules (i.e. is not allowed to cherry pick evidence or misrepresent the facts), scientists have taken a beating in the public eye. This in itself is unfortunate but is not a reflection of the actual state of our knowledge and understanding of climate change.  Our most prestigious scientific societies and academies (to whom we go to for advice on every other complex scientific issue) have come to the consensus that the science is solid on climate change and that we need to be very concerned about its implications for our well-being.

Theil also tries to imply that there are significant differences of opinion in terms of whether we should worry about climate change or not.  This again is inaccurate representation of the actual state of the argument. The majority of scientists (and the best way to get a feeling to this is to look at the articles in the most prestigious journals, Science and Nature) are actually debating essentially whether the future is going to be extremely tough or if it is going to be catastrophic.  You only have to look at the majority of scientific articles and the consensus of the IPCC to understand where the state of play. It is clear that Theil hasn’t read these articles and has his own spin that he would like to deliver to the reader.

There is a certain irony in Theil misreporting.  For example, to claim that there are "dozens of IPCC exaggerations" is a gross exaggeration in itself. In over 1600 pages of the 4th assessment report from Working Group 2 there are but two demonstrated errors. One, which looks like it was a typographical error on the precise date (2350 not 2035) when Himalayan glaciers would melt completely (note, no one has disputed the main facts of the matter which are the glaciers all over the world are in dangerous and rapid retreat).  The other was to do with what proportion of the Netherlands is below sea level (26% not 55%). The incorrect information which was provided by the Dutch government has now been corrected. That is, this particular error wasn't even an IPCC error!  And I would challenge Theil to write 1600 pages of text and only get two things wrong.  In fact, in a little over 500 words here, Theil has made many more errors!

At the end of the day, this type of journalistic misinformation and stirring is simply not useful.  Science has taken a beating but not due to its own actions. Rather, scientists are facing an assault not unlike that of a tobacco industry of past decades on steroids.  This time the stakes are even higher. Hopefully responsible journalists will help communicate the real messages and urgency of science as opposed to become complicit in what is otherwise a dangerous misinformation campaign.

Posted by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg on Monday, 14 June, 2010

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