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Chinese whispers in Australia

Filed under: — gavin @ 4 September 2006

We decided months ago that we would not comment on leaks of the draft of the upcoming IPCC report (due Feb 2007) but we are prepared to correct obvious errors. The ongoing revisions of the text and the numerous drafts make any such commentary, let alone conclusions drawn from it, pretty pointless. This is even more true when the leaks are obviously confused about a central point. The principle error in the latest ‘exclusive’ is that the writer confuses a tightening of the estimate of climate sensitivity to 2xCO2 (as discussed here) with projections of climate change in 2100. These projections obviously depend on the uncertainties in the scenarios of future technology, economic progress and population (etc.) plus uncertainties in feedbacks related to the carbon or methane cycles. Unfortunately these have not been reduced since the last assessment report (and in some cases have actually increased).

That occasional stories will come out that get basic things wrong is unfortunate but not surprising. What is more troubling is that they subsequently get picked up by Reuters and UPI, and republished in places (such as Scientific American, though in their defence, it is simply a posting of the wire report) where the editors should know better. Worse still, the wire service stories are too brief to make the source of the error obvious, and thus the error gets propagated in an ever more confused state. As usual the blogsphere is playing a key role in amplifying and further muddying the story. The advantage of blogs is that errors can be corrected quickly, and the comments on Prometheus for instance, quickly revealed the confusion and the potential agenda of the original story.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the new IPCC report when it comes out and where everyone can read for themselves what has and what hasn’t changed since 2001. Until then, we would counsel against journalists and editors jumping at supposed ‘exclusives’ and – more dangerously – going ahead with them without even a basic sanity check of the details.

Nature’s press advisories

Filed under: — gavin @ 4 September 2006

Articles in Nature (or Science) are embargoed for the media until the day of publication. A week before publication, Nature sends out a press advisory describing the week’s upcoming papers that is separate from any press releases that the authors or their institutions might put out. Journalists read these, and if interested, spend the time before the actual publication talking to sources and doing background so that they have (hopefully) well-thought out stories ready to go when the embargo lifts. The resulting media splash for the most interesting papers is usually good for the magazine and the authors. But not always.

Last week, the press advisory for one paper gave a slightly misleading account of one apsect of the work described in the article. Normally this would probably not get much attention, but the paper in question dealt with the highly emotional and politicized topic of stem cell research. I don’t want to get into the specifics of this paper (comments on that should be directed elsewhere) but the New York Times reported on the clarification that Nature subsequently put out and noted that the principal author Robert Lanza, had neither seen nor approved the text of the press advisory.

This might seem strange, but this is actually the normal state of affairs. Nature‘s editors write the advisories, which only go out to journalists and are not in general ever seen by the public. Often though, these short blurbs set the tone for the subsequent media attention but, if there is a problem, it can lead to a very widespread mis-communication. Colleagues of mine have been in the odd position of having to ask the journalists to read out the release concerning their own work!

We have previously discussed the problems of getting the press release just right when dealing with articles on potentially controversial science topics, and we strongly urged scientists to be more aware of how press releases are crafted and the message they send. This is obviously very difficult to do if the scientists are not involved in the process.

Coincidentally, I recently had a casual conversation with one of the Nature editors concerning this exact issue (prior to last week’s kerfuffle) and learned that the magazine was thinking about making the advisories public at the time of publication. This would definitely be a step forward for openness. I would go further and also suggest that the principal authors be given a chance to comment on the advisories before they go out. Getting things wrong – even subtly – in contentious fields doesn’t help anyone and the slight extra effort to try and prevent mis-communication is well worth it.

In a similar vein, I have found that journalists who take the time to check back with scientists on their quotes or explanations of the science often catch ambiguities or errors at an early stage and this should be encouraged as much as possible.

At a time when science and science reporting is under pressure from many quarters, journals, press officers, editors and authors need to work more closely together on ensuring that science is reported accurately and effectively.