Rep. Lamar Smith cites fake news in fight against climate science

Rep. Lamar Smith cites fake news in fight against climate science
© Greg Nash

Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has worked to delegitimize an important study on climate change, establishing there has been no recent slowdown in climbing temperatures. Smith’s pursuit inadvertently required citing other work that is far less credible. 

Earlier this year, Smith again challenged the findings of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report by Thomas Karl, citing a British newspaper article, alleging Karl and his colleagues had “rushed to publication, and [the report] was not free from political bias.”

The article has since been ruled to be inaccurate and misleading by an official regulator. 

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The Mail on Sunday was forced to publish an “adverse adjudication” on Sept. 17 admitting that a story by its reporter, David Rose, had breached the Editors’ Code of Practice of the UK Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). The organization was established and is funded by a group of British newspapers, including The Mail on Sunday and its stablemate, the Daily Mail.

 

The article at fault was published in February as an expose of  “how world leaders were duped over global warming,” focusing on Karl, alleging NOAA had “rushed to publish a landmark paper that exaggerated global warming and was timed to influence the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.” 

The story was mainly based on a blog post and interview with John Bates, a former NOAA employee who was not involved in the study, but who was unhappy about the way in which its data had been archived. 

The academic paper on ‘Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global warming hiatus,' which was published in the respectable journal ‘Science’ in June 2015, presented the results of a new analysis of oceanic and land surface temperatures, and concluded that they “do not support the notion of a ‘slowdown’ in the increase in global surface temperature.”

Rose alleged that Bates had “shown The Mail on Sunday irrefutable evidence that the paper was based on misleading, ‘unverified’ data”. But a seven-month investigation by IPSO, carried out in response to a formal complaint I submitted about inaccuracies in the article, concluded that these claims were untrue. 

The adjudication states that IPSO’s Complaints Committee “decided that the newspaper’s claims that Bates’ testimony had provided “irrefutable evidence” that the paper had been based on “misleading, ‘unverified’ data”, leading — as the headline claimed — to world leaders being “duped” over global warming, and “convinced” to invest billions in climate change, went much further than the concerns which Dr. Bates had detailed in his blog or in the interview; they did not represent criticisms of the data collection process, but rather, were assertions of fact that the data had been demonstrated conclusively to be wrong and had a significant impact on the decision making of world leaders, with an additional implication this had been part of a wilful attempt to deceive”.

In addition, the adjudication points out that Rose’s article had included “significantly misleading statements” about the archiving of data used for the academic paper, and that it was accompanied by a graph that had created a “significantly misleading impression” of trends in global average temperature. 

In an important caveat, the adjudication stresses that the Complaints Committee’s “central concern was whether the article had accurately reported Dr. Bates’ concerns”, and it did not assess whether Bates’s claims were true. 

In fact, it became apparent very soon after the publication of Rose’s article that several of Bates’s allegations were false.

In particular, Bates’s post on the Climate Etc blog stated that “Tom Karl constantly had his ‘thumb on the scale’ — in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of datasets — in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy”.

But Bates backed away from his accusations of scientific fraud when challenged by other journalists, and he told a reporter at Associated Press that there had been “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious” by Karl and his co-authors.

Most reputable media were skeptical of Rose’s false claims when they were published in February. However, a few outlets, such as The Times in the U.K. and Fox News, were fooled and erroneously reported the story without checking its veracity.

In addition, Science Committee Chairman Smith, was taken in by Rose’s article and cited it in a letter he wrote in February to the Acting Administrator of NOAA, Mr Benjamin Friedman.

It is perhaps surprising that he and others were not more suspicious about Rose’s article given his track record of inaccurate and misleading reporting about climate change and his previous admission that he was an unwitting conduit for false information about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

However, Smith seems to be carrying out a campaign against Karl and his co-authors since publication. The IPSO ruling should catch Smith’s attention. Smith should set the record straight by acknowledging that he cited a fake news article in his letter to Friedman.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.