“Not standing for it” update 2

Since I raised an official press complaint against a Telegraph article, the UK Press Complaints Commission have effectively acted as an intermediary between me and the paper.

I posted the Telegraph’s thoughts up on a couple of websites to see if anyone else could help me draft the response, but didn’t get a reply, other than a few Likes.  For the purposes of setting up a mechanism for the public to challenge misleading articles, I’m learning about the amount of individual effort required to manage a complaint and that a pool of volunteers would be necessary.

Below is my first interchange with the Telegraph that was overseen by the PCC.  My official complaint is in bold, my replies are in italics, the Telegraph’s in blue, indented.  I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on their arguments or my own.

The overall complaint is that the article misleads by highlighting any differences between climate forecasts and observations and claiming as a result that the forecasts have been “wrong”.  Given these were forecasts decades in length, for the word “wrong” to be justified a large discrepancy between the forecast for a large part of the globe would need to be observed.  In fact the differences have been relatively small and not widespread.  The forecasts have in fact been very accurate.

The title is misleading, stating that “global warming” forecasts were wrong.  In the article, it admits that the forecasts were for 0.13 degrees Celsius warming per decade, where it has actually been 0.12 degrees Celsius.  I understand that originally the article stated that the forecast was for 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, but has since been corrected.  The headline made more sense with the original figure but now misleads.

The second sentence repeats the claim in more stark terms “world is not heating at the rate they claimed it was in a key report”.  This is again misleading given the difference between forecasts and actual warming.  The context of this line below the headline links the statement that forecasts were wrong with the rate of heating.

The second paragraph states that the IPCC report “is understood to concede that the computer predictions for global warming and the effects of carbon emissions have been proved to be inaccurate”.  The words “computer”, “prediction” and “predictions” do not appear in the report at all.  There is no direct statement in the report to say that previous forecasts have been inaccurate.

The complainant Mr Bell suggests that this article – published ahead of the publication of the latest IPCC report on climate change – was “misleading” because it highlighted differences between climate forecasts and observations and claimed as a result that the forecasts had been “wrong”. Mr Bell suggests, without explaining why, that for the word “wrong” to be justified a discrepancy that was “large” would have to be identified. He does not define what “large” means.

This is a fundamental point of the complaint.  In common language the word “wrong” is not used when there is a small difference between a forecast and reality.  It is misleading to use the word in this context.

To illustrate the point, say there was a weather forecast that said that the average temperature in the UK tomorrow is expected to be 13⁰ C and that it will be cloudy in the north and clear in the south.  Say the reality was that the average UK temperature turned out to be 12⁰ C, it was cloudy in the north and clear in the south, and there was some rain over Edinburgh.  In that situation it would be misleading to describe the forecast as being wrong.  “Slightly different” would be more appropriate, “largely accurate” would be better.

We are talking about whether the readers of the Telegraph would be misled by the article as it stands.  The common language interpretation of the headline would be that there is a fundamental difference across the board between the forecasts and reality, which is not the case.  There are a few minor differences, overall the forecasts are close and this does not undermine the forecasts viability for use in informing policy and individual action.

I would like to add at this point that the report does not explicitly admit that forecasts were wrong.  This is an interpretation of the journalist, and has been expressed in a misleading manor that could lead the readers to draw inaccurate conclusions.

He also complains that the article was “misleading” when it said that the “world is not heating at the rate they claimed it was in a key report [ie the 2007 IPCC report]”, given the difference between forecasts and actual warming. He further complains that because the latest IPCC report did not contain the words “computer”, “prediction” or “predictions” this disentitled the article from suggesting that the IPCC were going to concede that some predictions about global warming and the effects of carbon emissions had been inaccurate.

The Telegraph contests these claims.

For the record, when the article was first posted online it contained a typographical error – rather than saying 0.2 degrees C as the warming rate per decade, as Mr Bell suggests, it set out the difference as between 0.12 and 01.3 degrees – the decimal point had been put in the wrong place. This was corrected within minutes of the article going live, which is probably why Mr Bell did not actually see it. This was explained to him when he complained to the Telegraph’s online desk. No content of the article was based upon this error.

The actual difference between the two IPCC reports – between 0.12 degrees C and 0.13 is clearly stated in the article and is factually correct. This figure therefore justifies the statement in the introduction – that the world is not warming at the rate the IPCC claimed it was. They have revised the estimate by eight per cent; they have changed their predictions.

They have revised the estimate by 8%, or in other words the new figure is 92% the same as previously.  The statement “Top climate scientists have admitted that their global warming forecasts are wrong and the world is not heating at the rate they claimed it was in a key report” associates the word “wrong” with the rate of warming predicted.  To anyone other than a lawyer this would appear to imply that the forecasts are more out than they were in reality.

This alone, as was explained to Mr Bell when he got in touch with the Telegraph directly, was not the entire basis for the headline. There have been numerous changes within the reports – including a revision from a claim that the world is at its warmest in 1,300 years to an acceptance that parts of the world were as warm in medieval times (these statements are not mutually exclusive – the report does not back down from the claim that the world is at its warmest for 1300 years); the fact that sea ice has shown an increase recently that the IPCC do not explain, and the fact that there has been an overestimation of the effect of greenhouse gasses. (this again relates to the difference between 0.12 and 0.13 – “wrong” is again misleading in this context)

The basis for the statement that the IPCC concede that computer predictions for global warming “have proved to be inaccurate” is based partly upon the fact that they have changed the data between this report and the last, released in 2007.

Using “have proved to be inaccurate” to describe a situation where a forecast from 6 years ago is simply different to one now is misleading, in common language terms.  Furthermore, the forecasts are within their error margins – they are demonstrably not inaccurate.  I am confident that if asked the IPCC would not agree that the forecasts have proved inaccurate.

Furthermore, the latest report states, when explaining a reduction in the warming trend since 1998: “There may also be a contribution from forcing inadequacies and, in some models, an overestimate of the response to increasing greenhouse gas and other anthropogenic forcing (dominated by the effects of aerosols)”

Another example, as stated expressly in the article, is that: “Most models simulate a small downward trend in Antarctic sea ice extent, albeit with large inter-model spread, in contrast to the small upward trend in observations.”

We do not accept Mr Bell’s complaint about computer predictions. Although the IPCC may not specifically use the terms “computer” or “predictions” in their report, this does not mean that the article is not factually correct. Newspapers are entitled to summarise the facts in language readily understandable by average, non-scientist readers.

For example, “continental-scale surface temperature reconstructions” were used to predict what the temperatures were during “the Medieval Climate Anomaly”, part of the basis for global warming forecasts and the results of which were revised between the two reports. The Telegraph does not believe it was misleading the reading public to say that these are predictions that have been constructed using computers, as were the models mentioned previously.

There is no direct statement from the IPCC admitting that they were wrong about their earlier forecasts; they did not respond to our reporter’s request for comment.

But the fact that they have changed data as compared with their report several years ago shows that they have conceded that some data was inaccurate, or it would be exactly the same in both reports. The article and the headline were an accurate summary of what has occurred.

Stating here that “some data was inaccurate” is not what was said in the article, which said that the report admitted that forecasts were wrong.  The report did not admit that at all – it is a misleading interpretation of the report.  If the article had said that the report admitted that some elements of the previous forecasts were wrong, or said that the Telegraph reporter thinks that they are wrong, then it would be more accurate, but in my opinion still misleading as the forecasts are within error margins.

Furthermore, Professor Myles Allen, the director of OxfordUniversity’s Climate Research Network, a leading climate scientist who worked on the report and had seen the draft, told our reporter that the IPCC had changed their predictions.

The Telegraph takes the view that Prof Allen’s comments provided balance to the article and the headline as well as backing them up, as he justified the changes by saying that science works by revising predictions based on newly emerging data.

As far as what a “large” discrepancy between temperatures is, it is clear that global warming is a vast subject on which there is much debate, which – as the Press Complaints Commission has ruled on many occasions – should not be stifled. Mr Bell is entitled to hold the view that the eight per cent discrepancy is not, in his opinion, “large”. Not everyone would take an identical view, and many would indeed conclude that eight per cent is a significant figure.

In any event, the word “wrong” is not based upon this discrepancy alone, and it should be read in the context of the article as a whole.

This is made clear in the introduction: “Top climate scientists have admitted that their global warming forecasts are wrong AND [our emphasis] the world is not heating at the rate they claimed it was in a key report.”

There are numerous changes between the reports – the forecasts of sea ice extent have changed as have the predictions on the effect of greenhouse gasses.

The complaint that the word “wrong” is used just to describe the discrepancy is Mr Bell’s own interpretation, whereas the headline should as be read in the context of the entire article, not just the second half of the first paragraph.

If the article showed where the forecasts have been right as well as the few instances where they have been different, then it would not be biased or misleading.  It picks out only those elements where there are differences between one set of forecasts and another set 6 years later.  No forecast on any subject would expect to be exactly the same in all elements to reality or to a forecast made several years ahead.  All forecasts on any subject would be described as “wrong” and “inaccurate” following the highly suspect logic portrayed in the article and in this response.  The article is misleading and biased and is in breach of clause 1 of the Editors’ Code. 

Arguing otherwise is an admission that the journalists and editors of the Telegraph will twist reality and use weasel words to create a message of their choosing rather than to communicate issues in an unbiased, objective manner to help their readers understand the world.

I am deeply concerned by the arguments put forward by the Telegraph.

Nothing in this article constitutes a significant inaccuracy or misleading statement contrary to clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.

So, what do you think?

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke


5 thoughts on ““Not standing for it” update 2

  1. Hi John, watching this one with interest. It reminds me somewhat of the grind of spec reviews albeit on a grander scale, more agressive and ultimately more meaningful! Here’s my pennyworth. Newspaper article titles are often deliberately inflamatory and I guess most people (I include myself here) recognise that and think they are wise enough to it to see through the spin with which the article is presented. But are we? It’s a cat and mouse game. Clearly writers often have an underlying view which informs their choice of material and how they present it. The most skillful can put forward a seemingly very “balanced” article which nonetheless through clever use of certain words and omissions pushes a distinct angle on the topic, which subconsciously we take in. (I’m not saying I think the Telegraph’s article is balanced, but they are clearly claiming it is). Call it what you will, propaganda, subliminal messages…, it is certainly a key weapon in any good writer’s armoury but I think it’s very dangerous in this arena, and I applaud your rising to challenge it.

    • Hear hear. I have noticed myself reading headlines of which I approve and skimming the rest of the article for confirmation. We are all programmed to look for information that confirms the beliefs we already hold. I’ve had debates with people who have opposing views on a subject where we have both pulled out the same book to back our opposite viewpoints.

      My argument is that you can use lawyer-like arguments to claim balance about an article, but in reality the people who read the article will not analyse it so deeply, and will take the subliminal message as you put it. The papers know this and should take responsibility for it.

  2. I suspect that the junior data entry person who entered the number into the headline incorrectly to start with has now been sacked as his/hers wages have been used to pay lawers to respond to the argument.

    Surely we all know that news papers/outlets are biased against all sorts of things so arguing the point is always going to go around in circles. If people want to know the real truth about anything then they need to go out and learn it from themselves from trusted sources rather than from a daily news paper that has shareholders/owners to make profits for (and the best way to do that is to sensationalise thing and twist stories). By buying the telegraph or viewing it online (so advertising counts) you are effectively endorsing their brand of reporting and encouraging more of the same.

    Your quest for accuracy is commendable though.

    • If we all knew that we were always going to be fed a load of rubbish, would anyone buy any papers? I reckon people do suck it up if it ticks the boxes of their own prejudices.

      • The Daily Mail is the most popular paper and news web site in the UK, I suspect people don’t read the articles, they just look at the pictures.

        Maybe you are right but I would hope, the “common man” would hVe more common sence to believe everything they are told without questioning/considering it. It’s like using Wikipedia as an authoritative resource, any crank can make up the content and claim to be an expert.

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