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The Truth is not an option – part 3

Part 3. Lessons learned

“I had the opportunity with regard to Galileo to draw attention … the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences.”

–Pope John Paul II

Before Saturday’s end, the tide of media coverage had shifted from reporting the erroneous 15% disappearance of ice, as though it was real fact, to reporting the scientists’ rejection of a false claim by an atlas publisher.  Only on a few blogs was it being played as a scientific blunder or a controversy among scientists, and even those people generally relied on scientists’ statements to point out the mistake. There was nothing controversial about it.  HC goofed up, plain and simple; that is what the media reported over the weekend and into the next week. This shift was made by the intervention of the scientific community to lay out the facts, and by the mainstream media clearly wanting to play the story as it should be—true to the facts.

Addressing the Cryolist and SPRI’s letter15, on Saturday, 17 Sep 2011, I captured some of the cryosphere community’s sense of the turning tide:  “This cartographic fiasco and sad journalistic event is a dark cloud made a little smaller, but there is the silver lining: everybody with striking results, especially new results, should push it to the media and use the Scott Polar letter as a hook.  Greenland itself is beautiful, the data are exquisite, the science is sound, the changes are profound, the meaning of it is important to people; and honest journalists– by far most of those who would be inclined to report on the "15% mistake"– will be wanting answers to the question of what IS happening.”

Many lessons stemmed from that sequence of events. Foremost for me was from John Vidal, a reporter for The Guardian, who first broke the story from the HC press release.  He responded to my initial criticism, which I had levied (wrongly on my part) equally on The Guardian and HC: “… It's actually quite hard to know what to do in these circumstances. We are not academically equipped to sort, sift and judge all the decisions made by Times's cartographers, … …  I am more than happy to write another piece saying that groups of eminent cryologists are in profound disagreement with the Times atlas … … But in this case please don’t blame the messenger!” 


The first lesson: ”Please don’t blame the messenger.” We “cryologists” need to challenge the media where needed, as it was in this case.  However, we need to recognize that, for the most part, reporters really want to get the story right.  This event was reinforcement of a needed personal lesson.

It is easy to cast blame on The Guardian for having undertaken inadequate fact checking, but several reporters pointed out that there had been a presumption of authority when such a prestigious atlas publisher speaks. Authority is not always so readily discerned.  These days, even street bloggers and politicians have assumed an air of authority over science issues, and this has damaged science to the extent that the media and society have permitted it to occur.  If somebody speaks or writes with accuracy, nobody will be checking their college educational credentials or even whether they passed high school science classes. But people claiming authority (in this case HarperCollins) have every bit as much responsibility as scientists to get the facts right. As for the media, they have to report the news, and the HC statement was newsworthy; they also had an obligation to correct any errant news, and many media outlets did this.  From a self-preservation vantage, however, the media may wish to do more fact checking of their own.

The cryosphere science community is in fair agreement that on any “big” science/environment news story, or any political event where radical statements about the environment are issued (doesn’t matter: from the left, right, or center), the media should get a second (even third), independent opinion as a matter of course.  The media should elicit opinions and accessory information from second sources who have proven themselves able to deal objectively and professionally with scientific information.  Going to the same stock of climate change deniers (or routine exaggerators) for second opinions can add radical statements into articles, but it will not improve the flow of valid information.  Scientists are here to help.  Just call or email us! Reality is newsworthy enough; the world doesn’t need garbage spewing forth from any biased, wrong direction.

Glaciologists, graduate students, and reporters on two continents worked overnight and through the weekend to ensure that reporters had access to accurate information.  Gradually over the next several days the media coverage shifted further to pair news of the mistake with summaries of real changes in Greenland—glacier retreat, negative mass balance, and other actual facts.  An initial bad story was turning into a real opportunity to disseminate important findings.

HC, meanwhile, was silent.  Several of us then made what seemed to be failed efforts to communicate the seriousness of the matter directly, privately to HC.  However, unbeknownst to us, they were holding crisis meetings, and finally on Tuesday, Sep. 20 (five days after their initial marketing press release), they came out with a clarification which began to backtrack and partly correct their mistake as recorded in their marketing material; incongruously, they continued to stand by the accuracy of their map.  Pressed by a full-scale fusillade by scientists, HC then issued a fuller, clearer retraction on Thursday Sep. 22, when they also promised to deliver remediated maps and undertake full consultation with scientists6-8. In fact the consultations had already begun quietly.  By January 2012, HC made available their Atlas with a new Greenland map insert and made a prominent and honest posting of an explanation rooted in their mistake9.  With that, the publisher had come fully around to accuracy; they have made an admirable apology and have done what was needed to remedy the situation.  Accidental misinformation was replaced with a rich source of valid information about Greenland, including information about actual changes taking place.  Although self-accolades of being “the greatest book on Earth10 may seem overblown, the double meaning is a treat, and the new Atlas (with the insert) is one of my finest and most useful possessions; it is also by far my heaviest book, requiring a dedicated coffee table!

The second corrective press release substantially set things straight, except they left an annoying claim that the scientists lacked clarity, and they seemed to imply that scientists were at fault for having lacked consensus.  Aside from that little barb, which the science community has refuted2, the promises of close consultation with scientists has been fulfilled by HC, and their promise of a corrected map has been kept.  Their new map is available free online and is included with every copy of the Atlas, now again on sale.  In fact, I have already found the initial remade map to be useful in my work.  It bodes well for the future of the Times Atlas as a needed reference.

Many people became fully engaged in tackling the mistake and its fallout.  Scientists and the media had stopped the spread of the bogus news.  Scientists crafted improved verbiage on how to communicate the problem to the media, parsed every phrase of the HC press release and The Guardian’s breaking news story on the bogus information, tracked down other HC marketing materials, relayed correct information to the media about Greenland, and produced good ideas on how to organize and mobilize further. For the most part we communicated our progress mainly via Cryolist, which quickly became the central node of the response activity. Senior scientists and graduate students, reporters and bloggers, and other people from many scientific and non-science disciplines became engaged in what was happening. It was a self-organizing response, fascinating in its own right as a communications phenomenon and cooperative act of social responsibility. Cryolist works!

Over the week following the start of the crisis, Greenland specialists, including Jonathan Bamber, Ted Scambos, Hester Jiskoot, Ian Willis, Poul Christoffersen, Jason Box, Toby Benham, Richard Alley, and others came forward with maps and data of what is really happening.  Likewise, my assistant, Greg Leonard, and I went into hyperdrive, applying our experience with alpine glaciers to those in East Greenland, selecting specifically a vast area where we knew there were glaciers and ice caps but which HC claimed has become ice-free. We (all those mentioned above, and more) spontaneously forged what we termed a Basic Atlas Action Team (BAAT), and we were swinging the BAAT hard. Some of us reverse engineered the possible means by which HarperCollins could have blundered into their outrageous story. David Mayer, a graduate student from Clark University, tracked down a marketing video from HarperCollins, which clarified—in their own words—that the source of the mistake was 100% HC and not The Guardian or anybody else.  Chris Duncan, a GIS consultant, issued the first of what was to become an important set of communications on how to devise more effective verbiage when dealing with the public.  And so on.

An important development was the engagement of Tom Sheldon and others from the U.K.-based Science Media Centre.  His blogging and press release activity was quickly picked up by some of the largest media outfits, and it was arguably the single most successful further outreach activity stemming from the Cryolist work. The Science Media Centre works, and it should be replicated in more countries, including the U.S.

In fact, though the days of silence from HarperCollins seemed to drag on forever, the atlas publisher actually responded pretty rapidly to retrace its steps, correct its main errors, and produce a corrected map (this time in consultation with glaciologists).  Their retraction was awkward, but in final assessment was nearly complete a week after the error was made public. By January 28, 4 months later, the new insert and new map, with adequate apologies and clarifications, were published.  When faced with a truth-desiring offender, work with them, without letting them off the hook; don’t push them to an impossible corner.

The unprecedented about-face by HarperCollins – a brave act of owning up to its serious blunder—is the most tangible validation of the scientific community’s approach to this instance of grotesque (though accidental) exaggeration.  The positive fallout of the scientific intervention goes further, including what we didn’t see. We didn’t see anti-science headlines in the mass media about "A New Blunder Further Undermines Climate Change Science,” and “Scientists on the Defensive Against Charges of Airbrushing their Maps.” Never mind that this was not a scientific mistake at all; the public might never have recognized the difference between an atlas and a scientific publication, between cartography and glaciology, or between air brushing and scientific observation. Had scientists not countered and taken charge of this story, public understanding of the current state of the Earth and of the scientific process would have been significantly harmed. Instead, there were headlines about a book publisher's mistake and scientists correcting the facts.   If Science could be impacted severely by a mistake, an exaggeration, an inept trivialization, or a lie about glaciers or climate change, then we must take charge!

Cartographers and scientists each share a fundamental tenet of falsifiability; if a scientific fact about the Universe is wrongly stated or an observation is misleading, if a line on a map defies reality, then nature is there still to be observed, measured, documented, analyzed, and interpreted by others. The Catholic Church could silence Galileo, but they could not stop Jupiter’s moons from orbiting Jupiter. In the Atlas case, any self-confident High School student could have consulted Google Earth and shown his teacher that the Times Atlas and its marketers were wrong about Greenland.  Thus, HC had an interest in getting its map and statements right.

For science, falsifiability, validation, and replication of results go beyond who gets the funding. It’s about understanding reality, identifying and winnowing out the mistaken ideas and building upon the most nearly correct ones. Science is imbued with incessant probing and cross examination of evidence and interpretations based on existing data; the ever improving capability to observe and gather new and better data, and to analyze and model the data in ever more sophisticated and accurate ways, forever keeps science moving forward.  Competitiveness among scientists and the rapid advance of technology assures that progress is rapid.  As the RealClimate blog posted on 1 November 2011, any traveler flying over Greenland, with just a modicum of preparation on Google Earth, could have verified that HC was errant. If there is an obvious citizens’ observation that can be brought to bear, bring attention to that observation.



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