On Wednesday, I argued that the mounting rebuttal of the recent controversies related to the so-called “Climategate” e-mails and alleged errors in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark 2007 report deserves more high-profile coverage.
One piece of evidence that I did not mention was The Sunday Times’s recent retraction of article published in January, which set off the whole “Amazongate” meme. The article, which has not been removed from the paper’s Web site, reported that the climate panel’s 2007 finding that 40 percent of the Amazon could be sensitive to changes in rainfall was “unsubstantiated.” In its retraction notice, the Times explained:
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 retraction of the article, by Jonathan Leake, drew fairly widespread coverage on mainstream media blogs, with posts at Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among other sites. A second—and admittedly far less consequential—retraction by The Sunday Times received scant attention, however.
A little more than a week before the IPCC story, the Times published an article headlined, “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.” The piece badly mischaracterized the research of Dr. Aaron Sell, whose work found a correlation between attractiveness and anger, but said absolutely nothing about hair color. That article has now been removed from the paper’s Web site as well. A number of questions remain unanswered, however.
Following the IPCC/Amazon and blondes articles, CJR and many other commentators pointed out the Times did not seem to have its stories straight. Yet despite ample evidence to that effect, the Times resisted taking action until scientists misrepresented in the articles took their grievances to the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC), an independent arbiter of such matters with no real parallel in the United States. In the case of the blondes article, Sell immediately requested that the Times correct its representation of his work and approached the PCC when he got no response. Likewise, in the case of the IPCC/Amazon article, Dr. Simon Lewis, an expert on climate change’s impacts on tropical forests, whose views were badly misrepresented in the piece, also went to the PCC (his letter of complaint letter is here) after requests for correction amounted to naught. In its retraction notice, the Times apologized to Lewis:
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.
While it is nice to see the Times apologize for its mistakes, this still did does not explain exactly what the hell happened in its newsroom. I sent Bob Tyrer, the paper’s ombudsman, an e-mail asking why the Times had deleted a comment Lewis posted on Leake’s story criticizing the article; why it failed to run a letter to the editor that Lewis wrote expressing the same frustrations; and why Leake’s story was re-written at the last minute to include points that the paper knew to be patently false.