Decision of the Complaints Committee 08168-16 Williamson v The Spectator
Summary of complaint
1. Phillip Williamson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Acid Trip”, published on 30 April 2016. The article was also published online with the headline “Ocean acidification: yet another wobbly pillar of climate alarmism”.
2. The article presented the author’s criticisms of scientific research into ocean acidification, the theory which says that as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are increasing, more carbon dioxide is dissolved in the oceans, with the result that the oceans are increasingly acidic. The article stated that “first [ocean acidification] will kill off all the calcified marine life…then it will destroy all species that depend on it – causing an almighty mass extinction…Or so runs the scaremongering theory”. The article went on to state that the evidence increasingly suggested that it was a “trivial, misleadingly named, and not remotely worrying phenomenon”. The article claimed that ocean acidification was “the alarmists’ Siegfried line – their last redoubt should it prove, as looks increasingly to be the case, that the man-made global warming theory is a busted flush”.
3. The article reported that a recent review of the academic literature on the subject supported the position of “the sceptics”. The article claimed that the review stated that the methodology used in studies was often flawed, that studies suggesting that ocean acidification was not a threat had difficulty in finding a publisher, and that there was “an ‘inherent bias’ in scientific journals which predisposed them to publish ‘doom and gloom stories’ “.
4. The article claimed that ocean acidification theory “appears to have been fatally flawed almost from the start”. It explained that in 2004, a study had produced a graph showing a strong correlation between rising atmospheric CO2 levels and falling oceanic pH levels. The article claimed that another named individual had said that while this chart started in 1988, there were records from at least 100 years before. The article asked why this data had been “ignored”, and went on to state that when this individual plotted a new chart which included this data, he found that there had been no reduction in pH over the last century.
5. The online version of the article was substantively similar to the version that appeared in print.
6. The article went on to state that Patrick Moore, who had been described as a co-founder of Greenpeace earlier in the article, had outlined reasons why, “even if the oceans were ‘acidifying’, though, it wouldn’t be a disaster”. In this context, the article claimed that “marine life has nothing whatsoever to fear from ocean acidification”. The article questioned why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had spent £12.5 million on an ocean acidification research programme. It claimed that the issue “could have been resolved, for next to nothing, after a few hours’ basic research”.
7. The article ended by stating that the views it had set out on ocean acidification did not prove that global warming was not a problem, but they lent “credence to something we much-maligned sceptics have long been saying: that in many environmental fields, the science is being abused and distorted to promote a political and financial agenda. Perhaps it’s about time our supposed ‘conspiracy theories’ were taken more seriously”.
8. The complainant said that the claims that article made about ocean acidification, in support of the comment that it was a “scaremongering theory”, did not match the view of any published expert in the field. He said it was inaccurate to claim that the evidence increasingly suggested that ocean acidification was a “trivial” phenomenon, because several hundred publications per year showed that ocean acidification warranted serious attention and concern.
9. The complainant said that Greenpeace did not recognise Patrick Moore as a founder, and referred to a statement from Greenpeace which said that while Mr Moore had applied for a berth on the Greenpeace vessel in 1971, and had played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada, Greenpeace was founded in 1970, without Mr Moore. He denied that it was increasingly proving to be the case that man-made global warming was a “busted flush”. The complainant said that the paper the article referred to as a review of the literature was actually an introduction to a journal’s special edition on the subject of ocean acidification, and that it was misrepresented. He accepted that this paper had claimed that it was typically more difficult to publish studies that report no effect of ocean acidification, but said that the article under complaint failed to make clear that this was qualified by the observation that this was true across all of science. The complainant said it was misleading to claim that the paper had claimed that the methodology used by the studies was often flawed.
10. The complainant said that in reporting the disagreement surrounding the ocean acidification charts, the article referred to the wrong chart; the chart involved was actually published in 2008, not 2004. Furthermore, this chart did not start in 1988, but showed a simplified, theoretical relationship between oceanic pH and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, running from 1850 to the year 2100. However, the complainant did not dispute that debate between the individuals referred to in the article related to whether or not pre-1988 pH data was valid, and the fact that this data had not been used in the chart beginning in 1850. The complainant said that the chart that was produced using this historical data, showing no reduction in oceanic pH over the century, was incorrect; there was strong evidence of a reduction. He said that the historical data was of poor quality, and provided reasons for his belief that the chart that had been produced from this data was flawed.
11. The complainant said that the reasons the article provided in support of the position that ocean acidification “wouldn’t be a disaster”, were scientifically incorrect. He said it was inaccurate for the article to claim that marine life had “nothing whatsoever to fear from ocean acidification”, and stated that this was contrary to the totality of peer-reviewed scientific literature on the topic.
12. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in referring to DEFRA spending £12.5 million on an ocean acidification research programme. He said that this was the combined spend by a number of different agencies, including the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which provided the majority. The complainant did not dispute that NERC was primarily supported by the Government. The complainant denied that the issue of ocean acidification could have been “resolved for nothing, after a few hours’ basic research”, as claimed in the article. He denied that there was any evidence that ocean acidification became an important research issue for the reasons claimed in the article.
13. The publication said that the view that the risks of ocean acidification had been exaggerated have been established in the scientific field itself, and referred to the review of the scientific literature the article refers to in support of this position. It said that whether or not Patrick Moore was a co-founder of Greenpeace was not material to the complaint, but noted that he was on board the Greenpeace vessel when it was first commissioned, and became president of the Greenpeace Foundation.
14. In relation to the reference to it looking increasingly to be the case that “man-made global warming theory is a busted flush”, the publication said that this was a categorically controversial issue, but that there was a sceptical view point in relation to man-made global warming that has as its basis the so-called ‘hiatus’ in global warming over the last 18 years.
15. The publication said that the recent review of the academic literature referred to research which found that out of 465 studies on ocean acidification, 95% had “interdependent or non-randomly interspersed treatment replicates, or did not report sufficient methodological detail”, and that this research had provided guidelines to improve the design of such experiments. The publication noted that the review of the literature stated that studies reporting no effect of ocean acidification were typically more difficult to publish, and that another academic had claimed that there was a bias that acts against the propagation of negative results in scholarly literature. The publication said that in an interview with a newspaper, the author of the review of the literature had referred to there being an “inherent bias” towards “more calamitous predictions”, and said that certain journals tend to publish ‘doom and gloom’ stories.
16. The publication accepted that the article misdated the chart of carbon dioxide against oceanic pH, but said that in a brief precis of a complex debate, this was not significant. It said that the claim that there had been no reduction in oceanic pH over the last century was clearly attributed to the individual who had said this. In relation the article’s claims that ocean acidification “wouldn’t be a disaster” and that “marine life has nothing whatsoever to fear from ocean acidification”, the publication said that while the complainant may disagree with the claims made in support of this position, and refer to rival analyses, this was the opinion of the author, and a matter of scientific debate.
17. The publication noted the clarification the complainant had provided on the sources of funding, but said that the article raised a question about the use of public funds on ocean acidification research, regardless of which institutions were the benefactors. In this context, it denied that the article was misleading on this point. The publication said that whether the issue of ocean acidification could have been “resolved for next to nothing after a few hours’ basic research”, was a matter of opinion. In relation to the article’s claim that ocean acidification was developed as a “fall-back” position, in response to the “hiatus” in global temperatures, the publication said that this was clearly a matter of the author’s judgement.
Relevant Code Provisions
18. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Complaints Committee
19. The article was written in the first person, and sought to challenge what it made clear was the consensus view on ocean acidification. Before the article set out its criticisms, it referred to there being an extensive academic literature on the subject, and made clear that the theory had been endorsed by scientists from a number of institutions. The article referred to the author as being one of a group of “sceptics”, and a “denier”, and the final sentence of the article suggested it was “time our supposed ‘conspiracy theories’ were taken more seriously”. The article was clearly a comment piece, in which the author was expressing sceptical views on ocean acidification, and describing sceptical views expressed by others, that were contrary to the academic consensus. The Committee’s role is not to make findings of fact or to resolve conflicting evidence in relation to matters under debate. Rather, it assesses the care taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and establishes whether a distinction is clearly made between comment, conjecture and fact, in determining whether the Code has been breached.
20. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that no experts in the field had expressed concern that ocean acidification could cause a “mass extinction”. However, it was not in dispute that many considered ocean acidification to be a matter of concern, and some believed it posed a serious threat to marine life. In this context, the claims the article made in support of its position that it was a “scaremongering” theory were not significantly misleading. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the evidence did not “increasingly suggest”, that ocean acidification was “trivial”. The article went on to make clear what this evidence was, which the author was entitled to select in support of his position. In addition, the article made clear that this view was contrary to the consensus. The article was not misleading on this point.
21. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the article misrepresented the paper reviewing the academic literature on ocean acidification. It was not misleading to claim that the paper was a “review of all the papers published on [ocean acidification]”, in circumstances where the paper described itself as “providing a brief overview of the history of research on [ocean acidification]”. The paper in question did refer to there being a publication bias towards papers which report negative effects of ocean acidification, and referred to a paper which highlighted methodological problems in research in the area. The manner in which the article presented the author’s interpretation of the paper was not significantly misleading.
22. The article reported that two named individuals had omitted historical data on oceanic pH from their research on ocean acidification, but that another named individual had incorporated this data into his own chart. The fact that the article misdated one of the charts referred to in this debate was not a significant inaccuracy in this context. While the Committee noted that the complainant agreed with the decision to omit this data, such that he considered the conclusions derived from its use to be invalid, the article was not a significantly misleading report of this scientific debate. It was not significantly misleading for the article to express the view that the omission of this data represented a flaw.
23. In support of the position that ocean acidification “wouldn’t be a disaster”, the article referred to reasons put forward by Patrick Moore. The Committee noted that the complainant disagreed with these reasons, and referred to research by other scientists which suggested that ocean acidification would harm the marine eco-system. The article had previously made clear that many were concerned by the possible consequences of ocean acidification, and it was not misleading for it to describe the alternative point of view, as put forward by Mr Moore. It was not disputed that this individual had been involved in the early days of Greenpeace movement, and whether or not he was “co-founder” was not significant in the context of the article.
24. It was not in dispute that the ocean acidification research programme had received public funding. Which government department had provided this funding, and whether it was provided directly, or via a research council, was not significant. The article’s claim that it looked “increasingly to be the case” that global warming theory was a “busted flush”, the claims about the reasons why research has been conducted on ocean acidification, and the claim about the ease with which the issue of ocean acidification could have been “resolved”, were matters of comment, and were clearly presented as the author’s opinion. The Committee did not establish that the article failed to clearly distinguish between comment and fact. It did not establish that the article contained any significant inaccuracies or misleading statements, such as to demonstrate a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article under the terms of Clause 1 (i), or such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).There was no breach of Clause 1.
25. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 29/08/2016
Date decision issued: 14/12/2016