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The Truth is not an option – part 2

Part 2. Tackling misinformation in the 24-hour news cycle

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from the lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

–Francis Bacon, 1620, Franciscus de Verulamio Summi Angliae Cancellaris Instauratio magna, in: Bacon, F., The Works, Part IV, J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D.D. Heath (eds.), London (1901).

Climate change denialism and trivialization, whether a result of scientific illiteracy and ignorance or something more willful (possibly conspiratorial among some practitioners), has its mirror in climate change exaggeration.  Both are harmful to public understanding of issues bearing on human well being, are harmful to the economy and national competitiveness, and are dangerous for the next generations. 

The formal story of the HC mistake and the response (including HC’s courageous and productive response) is told elsewhere,2  but it is worth adding to the record, mainly as guidance as to whether the scientific response to the bogus news story may serve as a model for the future. The upshot is that valuable lessons were learned and will be applied in the future, but future misinformation crises are not apt to be as ideally tailored to a speedy, positive outcome as this case was.  Indeed, the publisher has made amends with intensive consultations with scientists and a new map recently provided as an insert for their Atlas.  That is the happy end of the story.  It’s worth reviewing briefly a few details leading up to that ending which are not already covered in a formal peer-reviewed account.These details are primarily available in the semi-public record provided by the Cryolist (http://cryolist.org, a listserve, administered by glaciologist Todd Albert, for glaciologists and scientists in related fields, but available to reporters and other legitimate users and citizens who eschew abuse of the service).  I also add my personal perspective, which is mine only and does not necessarily reflect opinions of my employer, my funding source (NASA), my research colleagues, or the International Glaciological Society. 

Within hours of HC’s initial press release, the story entered the UK mainstream news media, and from there was picked up by several glaciologists.  The first, to my knowledge, was Edinburgh-based Peter Nienow (University of Edinburgh, Scotland), who informed colleagues in Canada and the UK, including Martin Sharp (University of Alberta, Edmonton), about the wild claims.  Nienow issued the first message of what was to become a global frustration among scientists, writing “If you thought the Himalayan Glacier retreat 'story' was bad, check these stories out as a result of the … Times Atlas' latest edition. Unbelievable – I reckon sea level would need to have gone up by ~0.3m in 12 years to account for this.
What should we do!?

Minutes later, Martin Sharp relayed the mistaken news to fellow Canadian glaciologist Graham Cogley (Trent University, Peterborough, Oshawa, Ontario), who then passed it to me and other colleagues who had taken part 2 years ago in exposing and tracing to source the infamous ‘2035’ story about the impossibly over-hasty disappearance of Himalayan glaciers13.  Cogley’s message about this new Greenland fiasco had the subject line, “Brace yourselves…,” and then he tipped recipients to a news article in The Guardian about Greenland’s magically disappearing ice. 13 minutes later, but still just hours after HarperCollins issued their press release, another colleague, Jim Torson (Flagstaff, Arizona), further notified me of the same article.  Jim’s ears are close to the ground on all matters relating to climate change. The two notifications coming from Jim and Graham gave impetus to an immediate reading of their messages.

The mistaken information was spreading across the globe on two webs, one through the media as an alarming environmental news story, and the other amongst scientists as an alarming mistake story. Minute by minute, coverage was spreading among news outlets, and it was starting to hit the environmentally minded blogosphere as well. Soon, the story was playing not only in the major print, broadcast and cable news media outlets of U.K., Canada, and the U.S., but also in France, Germany, Spain, Argentina, China, India, Pakistan, Australia, and others, before I lost count. The story spread through the blogosphere as well, even on the blog of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the news portals of companies such as AT&T and major popular science magazines such as Scientific American.  Scientific journals’ news services also picked up the story, including ScienceNature, and Geomorphology, among others.

Minute-by-minute more glaciologists were being alerted to the bogus story. I alerted members of GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, www.glims.org) who have been involved in Greenland research, and I appealed to them to surge into action to stop the news story and put forward correct information. For several hours, the mistake was debated among glaciologists as to how serious it was, whether it required a response, and what kind of response. Initial opinions were divided about the seriousness of it or the need to go head-on with the publisher of the Atlas, or who should jump into action.  In the first hours, it seemed that the story was causing much anguish but no action.

This was an unequivocal emergency of misinformation, and it had a potential for devastating the public understanding of climate change and of science in general. We were looking at news coverage of the story as it washed across the globe like a tsunami of misinformation. Every hour that passed was a new country being misinformed, new millions of people who would have to be informed about the correct facts amidst statements by a cacophony of alarmists and shrill climate change denialists and others uncommitted to the truth or simply not knowledgeable about what is really happening on our planet.  This Greenland story had gone viral and was further poised for the human billions, many of whom might lapse into confusion when told something other than what the Atlas was saying.  After all, the Atlas proclaimed itself, with cute double meaning, as “The greatest book on earth,”6 and its authority was widely respected.

Via Cryolist I issued a warning and an appeal for Greenland experts to stir into action. The response was a swift, self-organizing current of thought and activity. At the Geophysical Institute (University of Alaska at Fairbanks), Ed Bueler notified his colleagues at UAF, writing “… this is a problem.  … Clearly loss of 15% of Greenland ice (by area) between 1999 and 2011 is wrong, silly, and dangerous.” He then explained that the topography in the HC map was also goofy—totally lacking the smooth contours that arise naturally on ice sheets from snow accumulation, ice flow, and ablation. Clearly something more than the ice margins was wildly wrong.  Besides the impossibly retreated margins, I noted that the newly rugged, eroded canyons and valleys implied by the HC map would indicate loss of hundreds of meters of ice from the interior of the ice sheet.  This was physically not possible just on account of energy availability to melt ice. 

This mistake was in a league of its own, something that was so wrong that in former times it would have only spurred an eye roll and groan of disbelief, and then purchase of somebody else’s atlas. However, these are not former times. The factual errors constituted only one set of problems.  Another likely problem, even more serious, was how this would play in the media when the correct facts became known and reported.  Unless people were guided with some scientific basis, the public would have a difficult time perceiving the difference between an atlas and a scientific report; between cartographic airbrushing and scientific observation; between a book publisher’s mistake and a scientific mistake. This story was neither a scientific mistake nor a scientific controversy; it was a mistake by a book publisher, but one that the public would likely confuse as being of scientific origin.  The political world had plenty of mischief-making actors who would not hesitate to subvert the truth again and try to create new misinformation. This is what Bueler meant by ‘dangerous.’ We already had seen how the ‘2035’ mistake played,9 and now we had ‘15%.’ This story had immense potential to harm public understanding.

This story had to stop.

In autumn 2009, I had taken a similar step of notifying the Cryolist of the ‘2035’ mistake later known as Himalayagate. In that episode, Graham Cogley and other colleagues (including myself) then stirred into action to trace that mistake to its source13, but we misgauged the situation tactically by relying on a letter to the editor of Science; that letter took 10 weeks to process through our own investigation, wordsmithing, and Science’s publication process.  As for my role then, I had a reviewer’s obligation to face the ‘2035’ blunder head-on, and also an obligation not to let an equal and opposite blunder propagate—that of V.K. Raina’s claim14 that Himalayan glaciers are now responding (impossibly, I should add) to climatic shifts that occurred up to 15 millennia ago! That story had unfolded quickly, just weeks and days before the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. (Mere coincidence?) Meanwhile, Cogley and I and others took the slow, formal road to correcting the record13; for two months, during which time the Copenhagen climate negotiations crashed and burned, the blogosphere and mainstream media played the Himalayagate story and crucified the climate change scientific community in the process. 

This time I would not make the same tactical mis-step of relying on a slow formalization of the complaint before taking control of the news story before less truth-adoring and less science-minded types did. The Atlas mistake had to be stopped from propagating, because every mind hearing of that mistaken claim was a mind which had to take intellectual gymnastic twists and leaps to be brought to understand the correct information; more likely, that would be a mind lost to science once this story played out, if scientists didn’t take command of it. It was still Thursday, Sep. 15, and the science community could not wait until Friday to stop it; the story had already gone viral.  Several of us took on two sole main objectives at that point—to stop the propagation of the mistake cold in its tracks, and to separate the publisher’s mistake from science. We took no relish in seeing HC hurt, but they were already damaged by their own actions, and nothing was going to spare them some pain.  With a 24-hour news cycle and an even faster blogosphere, it was necessary to be on the story day and night and over the weekend.

A thousand-plus scientists on the Cryolist were notified. Many were convinced that this was a serious mistake to be countered.  We had crossed our own tipping point: action was like a mightly glacier lake outburst flood, with barriers brought down by years of Climategate and Himalayagate and aversion to another ‘gate’ (never mind that this mistake was not science at all; the public could think it was). Many of us contacted major media outlets—CNN, the New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, and many others, and alerted them to the incorrectness of the HC press release and map. We also pleaded for them to also report the reality of what was actually happening in Greenland, if they chose to run an article . 

Glaciologists at Cambridge-based Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), including Poul Christoffersen and six coauthors, wrote a well-posed letter to the Times15, where they identified the mistaken Atlas statements about disappearance of 15% of Greenland’s ice cover.  SPRI wrote, “Recent satellite images of Greenland make it clear that there are in fact still numerous glaciers and permanent ice cover where the new Times Atlas shows ice-free conditions and the emergence of new lands.”  They added, “We do not disagree with the statement that climate is changing and that the Greenland Ice Sheet is affected by this. It is, however, crucial to report climate change and its impact accurately and to back bold statements with concrete and correct evidence.

SPRI’s letter15 was also circulated on Cryolist and thereby gained further expert attention to the problems caused by the Times Atlas mistake.  In fact, the letter produced helpful news coverage and carried correct information that very weekend before the Times could publish it.

13. Cogley, J.G., J.S. Kargel, G. Kaser, C.J. van der Veen, 20 January 2010, Tracking the Source of Glacier Misinformation, Science 326: 924-925. 

14. Raina, V.K., Himalayan Glaciers. Discussion Paper, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, New Delhi (2009).

15. http://cryolist.464407.n3.nabble.com/Fwd-Letter-to-The-Times-from-glaciologists-at-the-Scott-Polar-Research-Institute-td3344364.html


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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