· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00766-14 Sloan v The Sunday Telegraph
Summary of complaint
1. Professor Terry Sloan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “How we are being tricked with flawed data on global warming”, published on 25 January 2015.
2. The article was a comment piece that presented the columnist’s criticism of the use of techniques to adjust raw data from weather stations by scientists studying long-term climate patterns, which he described as “wholesale corruption”. It suggested that scientists who support the consensus view of anthropogenic climate change had “invariably” made adjustments to support their thesis that the earth is warming. The article contrasted the results of this data from measurements of the earth’s surface temperature with data from satellite measurements, claiming that “in recent years”, they have shown “increasingly ... quite different results”. As an example, the columnist stated that the surface-based record had shown “a temperature trend rising up to 2014 as ‘the hottest years since records began’”, while for 18 years the satellite-based records had shown “no rise in the trend”.
3. The complainant acknowledged that the columnist was entitled to his opinion, but said that on this occasion he had supported his argument with inaccuracies. In particular, the columnist’s references to uncalibrated data were invalid and misleading; calibration was needed to correct for changes in the way the data were collected. This was widely accepted among scientists.
4. Further, the complainant denied the claim that the adjustments were “invariably in one direction”, with “earlier temperatures … adjusted downwards, more recent temperatures upwards, thus giving the impression that they have risen much more sharply than was shown by the original data”. Adjustments could be either positive or negative, with roughly equal numbers of each type of change.
5. The columnist’s criticism of the use of sampling techniques to correct for a reduction of the number of weather stations collecting data was misleading; in fact, the number of weather stations was far above what was necessary to obtain accurate global surface temperatures. The columnist had inaccurately called this process “homogenization”; it was “infilling”.
6. The complainant denied that measurements of mean global surface temperatures from satellite data were showing increasingly different results from those taken at surface weather stations. The differences between the data sets were small enough that they could be the result of chance; they were less than the measurement uncertainty.
7. The complainant raised several further concerns about the accuracy of the column. He said the claim that the late 20th-century temperature increase was no greater than previous “upward leaps” during the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries was inaccurate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policymakers reported that the increase between 1970 and 2010 was greater than previous periods cited. Finally, the columnist had misleadingly over-emphasised the warming impact of a shift toward locating weather stations in urban areas; appropriate corrections were made for this effect, and all modern studies had showed that it was in any case minor.
8. The newspaper said climate change was a controversial subject in which all claims were contestable by reference to opposing studies and opinions. Uncertainty about the reliability of climate modelling and the predictions that were derived from it was at the heart of the debate. The accuracy of all extrapolations for future warming depended on raw measurement data. Small differences in the data could produce very significant variations in predicted climate outcomes.
9. The newspaper considered that its assertion that temperature adjustments were “invariably in only one direction” would not have been understood literally by readers to mean that all adjustments to recorded temperature data had always, without exception, been upward. It noted a number of examples given in the article in which this pattern had been observed, and it provided examples of studies that discussed other such cases. Nevertheless, it offered to amend the online article to read “almost invariably”.
10. It stood by the criticism of the techniques outlined in the article. In relation to infilling, it relied on analysis of global weather station distribution that indicated that coverage had shrunk dramatically after 1990. It referred to maps published by the Science and Public Policy Institute to demonstrate that 80 per cent of global surface area was not covered by temperature recorders.
11. The newspaper did not consider that its use of the word “homogenised” for this process was significantly misleading; it was clear from the context that this referred to the “infilling” of data to cover geographical areas without weather stations. For clarity, however, it removed the word “homogenisation” from the online article.
12. The newspaper said that published data indicated that surface records were consistently higher than satellite records, as reported: the relevant data showed that between 1980 and 2015, temperature anomalies (from a mean) for the surface records (GISS and HadCRUT) were .72 and .49. For the two satellite-based measurements (UAH and RSS), the figures were .32 and .28. The newspaper denied that the differences between these two sets of figures were “insignificant”; small global temperature changes could provoke dangerous climate effects.
13. The newspaper said there were many widely accepted studies that supported its report of the impact of the urban heat island. With regard to the previous periods of warming, it referred to an interview in which Professor Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, had stated that the warming rates for the periods mentioned were “similar and not statistically significantly different from each other”.
14. Nonetheless, the newspaper accepted that the column contained two inaccuracies relating to the trends shown by recent satellite data and offered to publish the following correction in print and online:
An article of Jan 25 ("How we are being tricked with flawed data on global warming") stated that, in contrast to global surface-based temperature measurements - which have shown a trend rising up to 2014 - satellite-based measurements have recorded no rise in trend for 18 years. In fact, this has been true for 17 years, not 18. It is also the case that, although the RSS record shows 2014 as only the sixth warmest year since 1998, the averaged satellite-based temperature records show it as the fifth warmest. We are happy to make this clear.
15. The complainant did not accept the newspaper’s offer of a correction, as it did not fully address his complaint. He did not accept the newspaper’s interpretation of the data. In relation to the anomalies, his own calculations showed an anomaly of .4 (not .72) for GISS; thus, while the satellite measurements showed smaller increases in raw terms, all four data sets showed increases that were compatible with each other within the measurement accuracy. He said the newspaper had relied on a non-peer reviewed publication to support its position regarding the effects of reduced weather station distribution and urban heat islands.
Relevant Code Provisions
16. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i). The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii). A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii). The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
17. The article was an opinion piece in which the columnist sought to challenge established scientific views on global warming. There is still dispute about the interpretation of historical temperature data, and the columnist was entitled to select evidence to support his position. The Committee emphasised that its role was to evaluate the complaint under the Editors’ Code and not to attempt to reach a position on matters best left to public debate.
18. The complainant had raised a number of objections to the newspaper’s commentary on the processing techniques commonly used by climate scientists. This, however, was a comment piece and the columnist was entitled to set out his position on the topic. The analysis of climate data using statistical models and views about the significance of apparent trends in this data are inherently matters of interpretation. The columnist had presented his argument and had adequately substantiated his position; the Committee did not establish a breach of the Code in this regard.
19. In addition to these general criticisms, the columnist had made the significant allegation that these adjustments had been used “invariably” to adjust the data “in only one direction. Earlier temperatures are adjusted downwards, more recent temperatures upwards, thus giving the impression that they have risen much more sharply than was shown by the original data”, as part of a “wholesale corruption of proper science”.
20. The newspaper had provided evidence of examples of adjustments to the data fitting this pattern, but it had not been able to demonstrate that this was “invariable”. The Committee expressed serious concern about the adequacy of the material the newspaper had provided to substantiate its claim. On balance, it concluded that the newspaper had provided adequate material to avoid a finding by the Committee that it had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article, in the context of a clearly contentious opinion piece. Further, the Committee was of the view that there was an element of hyperbole in the suggestion, and as such it was not significantly misleading such that a correction was required under Clause 1 (ii). Nonetheless, the Committee noted that this had come very close to the line.
21. The Committee welcomed that, in response to the complaint, the newspaper had removed the word “homogenisation” from the online article, and had offered to correct its report that satellite-based measurements had not recorded a rise in temperature for 18 years, and that 2014 had been the fifth warmest year, not the sixth, on record. These, however, were minor inaccuracies that were not significant in the context of the columnist’s argument. The newspaper was not required to correct these points under the terms of Clause 1, but the Committee welcomed its offer to do so.
22. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 18/02/2015
Date decision issued: 27/07/2015Back to ruling listing