Surviving the news
I am reading a newspaper.
Of course, when I say ‘newspaper’ what I really mean is a broad collection of stories from around the world, helpfully sanitised with a heavy dose of opinion. And I don’t mean a peer-reviewed type of opinion. No, these articles tend to follow an ideology, concept-branding what could really have done with being openly discussed. And I am not reading a crisp, tangible paper but an electronic version.
I will give you an example. “Climate Consensus – the 97%”.
Now I’m not going to get centre stage on the science because I am not an expert on these things.
Climates do indeed appear to be changing worldwide. But what of the self-assuredness of a relatively small group of people who have a reasonably large platform upon which to showcase an idea, especially when that platform is sold under the heading ‘News’.
So,there’s an apparent 97% consensus of scientific opinion on human-induced climate change. The heading is now branded and popularised. Well, that’s, fine, isn’t it? If nearly every scientist in the world thinks that Global warming is induced by humans, then surely reducing our output of CO2 will help to reduce the apparently melting of the ice caps and prevent planet ‘Earth’ being renamed planet ‘Oh, shit I can’t swi…” sometime in the near future?
Uninformed opinion is not always a good thing so I decided to check a few facts.
The great thing about the internet is that one can follow threads. True, many of these threads end up as some kind of frayed and tangled clutch of heavily edited factoids somewhere in the depths of the web, but with a bit of dogged persistence it is relatively easy to climb these strands and source their origin, if not their accuracy.
It didn't take very long to click on the various highlighted links in the article I had been reading and literally zoom back in time to 2013 and quite honestly, I really had to wrack my brains about what was in the news just a few short years ago, but that’s fine too because all I had to do was type in something along the lines of ‘what the heck was newsworthy in 2013’ to get a sense of world perspective.
Apparently, it was the discovery of Richard the third’s remains under a car park in the UK (presumably trying to find where on earth he’d left his ride – something I think we can all relate to in today's congested parking facilities) that got most press attention at the time followed some months later by a couple of women who thought dressing up as the two towers, complete with drawn-on flames and explosions, was a good idea for a Halloween competition – Well, they did win. The only other noteworthy thing about 2013 was the inception of ‘The 97%’.
Between May 2013 and to date, this particular newspaper produced at least 385 articles under the same heading, apparently endorsing the view that nearly every climate scientist believes in human induced global warming and every single one of these was based on a paper (Cook, et al, 2013) that at first glance really does seem to support this claim.
Well, not quite. Whilst the original article does cite ‘over 12,000 peer-reviewed articles’ and a consensus of 97% amongst them that global warming is human induced (their own abstract actually states 11,944) it does kind of play down the fact that this figure was extrapolated from only a third as many. That’s because only 4000 of the reported ‘over 12,000’ papers actually expressed a view about the subject. Well what about rigorous scientific method? Cook at al managed to deal with this by asking some of the authors themselves to rate their own papers but didn’t quite manage to get even half of the 4000, they actually got 1,400, 97.2 percent of whom agreed with Cook.
I don’t know about you, but numbers have a kind of magic feel to them, don’t they? Apart from the everyday mundane things like adding up our change carelessly strewn across the counter by a shop attendant, they can also describe things, huge concepts of time and distance and, in this case, affirm the particularly important, give it force and standing.
I think the best way of summing this up is to briefly write my own abstract for an imaginary paper, possibly entitled: ‘Heuristics, statistics and hysterics in early 21st century news: Assembling, Disassembling and Dissembling made easy’.
I considered one current news story relating an apparent consensus of 97 percent of scientists worldwide that believe global warming is induced by humans. Using the author’s own figures of 11,944 scientific papers, only a third of which were actually rated as endorsing AGW, I found that the unerring human ability to destroy the planet is equalled only by their trait of figure-stretching. Further, I analysed the numbers relating to the self-ratings endorsement of the 97% figure which shows that of the original 11,944 papers, some 17% of them (actually only 1,400 out of 2,142 papers) agreed on a figure of 97.2% for AGW.
My analysis indicates that if you really want to get attention these days you just damn well squeeze those numbers to your advantage.
Read more in Surviving the news part 2