A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Kyoto Borodino.....

I strongly recommend the following post about the Kyoto Protocol, Russia, and oil reserves on the Weblog, Crumb Trail. The post (October 3) is by a gentleman with the engaging epithet of 'back40' and is called 'Kyoto Waterloo'. More 'The 1812 Overture' really -
Off for a single malt! Philip.
Falling off the Kantian branch.....

Do not miss the outstanding Weblog, Crooked Timber, where there is, encouragingly, a lively and worthwhile discussion of this site! There is no greater compliment than thoughtful criticism - thanks everyone over there. Philip.
So you think organic food is really safer and better....

Why were these two stories not covered by the British media, I wonder? On September 10, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported: 'Contaminated maize meal withdrawn from sale'. The maize was 'organic'. The two batches of 'organic' products were tested for mycotoxins. It was discovered that they contained unusually high levels of fumonisins, which, after long exposure, have been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in animals. The European Commission (EC) has proposed a limit of 500 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg). The levels in the two 'organic' maize meal samples were considered to be 'high' at 4,712 and 20,435 mcg/kg. The toxins derive from a range of moulds growing on food crops, either in the field or in storage.

The FSA has now reported that further batches of 'organic' maize meal products have had to be withdrawn from sale for the same reasons: 'More contaminated maize meal products withdrawn from sale' (Friday, September 26).

While conventional and GM crops are subjected to a daily tirade of abuse in the UK
media, 'organic' products are lauded as the salvation of humankind. The scientific facts do not bear this out, as witness the above. The potential problem from mycotoxins in 'organic' products has long been predicted by scientists, who have often been attacked for saying so. Moreover, it is clear that the much-maligned FSA is doing its job well - and this fact is perhaps precisely why it too has been sniped at by Michael Meacher and his ilk. I congratulate the FSA for sticking to its scientific guns.

Serendipiditously, all this is brilliantly expressed by Dick Taverne in his quite outstanding 'Thunderer' column in today's The Times (October 7; apologies, no link possible for copyright reasons). Do read it, however, if you can.

The trouble is simple: the word 'organic' has been hijacked from its straightforward scientific meaning of 'containing carbon and being alive, or once alive' to the German philosophical meaning of 'holistic and pure'. This was precisely the myth behind Richard-Walther Darré's romantic, anti-industrial 'blood and soil' ideology when he was Reich Farmers' Leader and Reich Food Minister in Hitler's Germany. I'm afraid in scientific terms it is largely snake-oil. 'Organic' food is also expensive, and I see red when well-heeled 'organic' fetishists go on about people needing to pay more for food - just remember the number of poor souls struggling on benefits and low wages.

Let's get it straight: all forms of agriculture are not 'natural', if you exclude humans from the concept of 'Nature'; all forms of agriculture, without exception, have problems and limitations; what we need are carefully produced food products of all types; and, most importantly, agriculture requires every tool in the agricultural 'tool box', including both GM and 'organic', to keep ahead of pests, diseases, environmental change, and population growth. Please can we grow up over agriculture. And please can we have even-handed reporting in our media. Time for tea! Organic natural dandelion? Just taking the diuretic! Philip.

Monday, October 06, 2003

'Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?'

It is exciting when one visits a web site that expresses your own frustrations better than you can ever achieve yourself. Such is undoubtedly the case with the quite outstanding Butterflies and Wheels (recognise the resonances from Alexander Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot?) This site should be read by every environmental correspondent in the UK, but especially by those writing for the more bien pensant and left-wing outlets, like the terrible twins (see below), The Guardian and The Independent.

The fundamental aim of my little Blog is identical to the second aim of this wonderful site: this "... has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks. We believe this tendency to be a mistake on practical as well as epistemological and ethical grounds. Alan Sokal expressed this concern well, when talking about his motivation for the Sokal Hoax: ‘My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.’ ('Reply' to Social Text 'Editorial')."

Oh yes! Oh yes! Philip.

Europe losing interest in the 'global warming' hype?

I have just been contemplating two recent polls on 'global warming'. They are fascinating and unexpectedly consistent, though quite different questions. First, my ever-vigilent younger daughter has just let me have the position of a current poll on Discovery Europe (choose UK option):

Does global warming concern you?
No: 48%
A little: 12%
Very much: 39%
[As at this posting]

Secondly, here are the results of a poll held by The Scientific Alliance (see my Links):

Do you believe that this summer's exceptionally hot temperatures were evidence of climate change?
Yes: 40%
No: 48%
May be: 12%

These are surprisingly mature results - public opinion might be changing. I have myself detected an increasing resistence to the hype. I also think that many people in the UK, in particular, have been horrified by the recent Government White Paper on Energy (February, 2003), which, however you look it, is just utopian blowing in the wind. There is nothing like the thought of the lights going out to focus the mind. But people also judge this to be an outcome of 'global warming' angst, and they are fully aware (if they know about it) that the Kyoto Protocol is effectively dead, whatever Russia does. Less surprisingly, many folk are not too keen on the recent tax increase on petrol.

For your interest, here is a recent article of my own from Power Economics (July/August, 2003, Vol. 7, Issue 7, pp. 26-7): 'Power poverty and climate colonialism.' (Non-illustrated version courtesy of The Scientific Alliance Web Site). Time for a coffee. Philip.
BBC Online News much better than most...

As usual, Alex Kirby, BBC Online News Environment Correspondent, is much better than most of his colleagues at presenting a balanced report (The Guardian and The Independent please emulate). His piece this morning on 'Slum growth "shames the world"' carefully avoids gratuitous attacks on 'globalisation', and, indeed, reports some very balanced quotes, e.g.:-

'Speaking at the report's London launch, Professor Patrick Wakely of University College London said: "I was in a slum recently in Surabaya, in Indonesia. Someone pointed out the shoes I was wearing had probably been made in that slum itself. Globalisation can offer opportunities that weren't available in the past."'

In addition, an increasing urban emphasis is surely much needed. Far too much ecohype is about places where people do not live, and it fails to focus on the poor, especially on the urban poor. Indeed, the poor are sometimes quite unacceptably presented as the problem. Phrases like the 'teeming millions' still crop up all too glibly, and, when used by people in the rich North about the people of the South, border on racism. The real environmental issues over the next fifty years will be urban, with up to 70 per cent of the world's population moving to cities and towns. And it is surely a disgrace that 6.2 per cent of Europeans can still be classed as 'slum dwellers'. We have a lot to do to get our own house in order before we lecture others. Tough challenges for a Monday morning. Philip.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

The Terrible Twins: 'The Independent' versus 'The Guardian'

Those terrible twins! Which is the worst for environmental science reporting, The Independent or The Guardian? It's a close call, but the battle is fierce. Here is The Independent on Sunday trying win back control over the foolish speculation about the scientific results of the GM field trials due out on October 16 (see my Saturday Blog below). Frankly, both are pathetic, as trenchantly pointed out by the Royal Society, which wryly noted that the Thursday story in The Guardian "...does little more than repeat much of a similarly speculative article that appeared in The Independent newspaper on August 2." I know both are keen on recycling, but really! Do you think either has any interest in the science?

They are talking through their Wishing Hats. As I said below, I encourage all serious newspapers and readers to wait until the eight scientific papers are formally published on October 16. They will also be made publically available on the journal's web site (I will provide a link) - then be truly independent and: "Read the original for yourself, ignoring media spin." Time for tea on a cold October evening. Philip.
Wind and waves in The Observer

Today's The Observer newspaper is mixed in its environmental reporting, with a rather good 'Focus' article in the main paper on the threat from Britiain's wind farms to both wilderness and wildlife, especially birds, but, by contrast, a truly dire anecdotal piece about 'global warming' around the world in the rather more frothy 'Review' section.

The wind farm lobby in the UK is one of the most aggressive and arrogant. It is thus a credit to The Observer that it is standing up to this pressure group and raising serious questions about the loss of wilderness and the potential threat to birds and bats. Recent research has highlighted a number of worries about bird flight lines and wind turbines, especially among migrating species, and the article claims that sites in Spain have killed up to 7,000 birds in a year, including 409 rare vultures, 24 eagles, and 650 bats. The piece also quotes research from the Altamont Pass in California showing that a windfarm there is killing on average 40-60 golden eagles a year, as well as several hundred other birds of prey. Members of the Royal Society for the Protection Birds (RSPB) should be pressing the Society hard to oppose windfarms and encouraging the Society to support much more research into these genuine environmental issues.

But the most serious worries about wind energy have just been raised in a quite brilliant in-house paper issued by Dr. John Bower, the Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES). This is entitled 'UK offshore wind generating capacity: a return to picking winners?' (July, 2003), and it is available for private use from: ....dot.....@oxfordenergy.org [this should be obvious - it is given in this form to spare John the spam engines]. His analysis is a telling indictment of the economics of offshore wind generation. He concludes that (p.9), "... wind technology will become discredited in the eyes of consumers and taxpayers when it either fails to live up to the exaggerated claims being made about its contribution to reducing emissions or its true cost and inherent lack of reliability become revealed to consumers." Not, of course, to mention to the birds!

By contrast, I have little to say on the apocalyptic anecdotes on 'global warming' from around the word; this is the usual mantra about sea-level rise, sinking Tuvalu, etc. I just love the opening straps about travelling "the world in search of climate change."

But what about some real data, folks? You will find the actual sea-level curves for Tuvalu, and an excellent critique, on John L. Daly's web site under the section: 'Tuvalu - Pacific Islands Crying Wolf.' Moreover, in March last year, the National Tidal Facility (NTF), Adelaide, stated that: "... the historical record shows no visual evidence of any acceleration in sea level trends." Instead, they suggest that coastline degradation, and sinking islets in Funafuti, are the result of entirely local conditions, and not global sea-level rise. Pity The Observer doesn't report this too - good balanced science please, not ecohype!

Ah well, I suppose one can't expect balanced reporting on both wind and waves on one Sunday! But I feel the tide is turning.....

Nearly time for that Sunday New Zealand 'Sauvignon Blanc' - how about a little bit more 'global warming' folks? Cheers - have a lovely day. Philip.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

From Russia with....

The climate conference organised by the Russian Federation has just wound up. Wait for the howls in the UK and in Europe as Russia carries out a mature debate on the science, economics, and politics of climate change.

Here is a balancing commentary you might not have read by Dr. Tim Patterson writing in The Moscow Times, October 2: 'Questioning Kyoto Science.'

This piece also refers to the important research of Shaviv and Veizer just covered in my previous blog.

Clearly we are not there nyet! Time for a cuppa. Philip.
Heard about this in The Guardian and on Today?

Now, here is some magisterial research published in August about which we have heard remarkably little in the British media, with the exception of quality outlets like Nature. I wonder why?

In a formidable research paper (GSA Today, vol.13, p. 4), Professor Ján Veizer (one of the world's most renowned geochemists - University of Ottawa and Ruhr University) and Dr. Nir Shaviv (a leading astrophysicist - The Racah Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) have demonstrated that the influence of carbon dioxide, natural or human-induced, in the atmosphere is likely to be severely capped by the action of what is known as the cosmic ray flux (CRF). Their study shows that periods of lower temperatures are generated by peak periods of cosmic rays promoting low-level cloud formation. Professor Veizer and Dr. Shaviv go on to argue that as much as 66 - 75% of climate variation through the millennia is probably related to cosmic ray fluctuations. Dr. Shaviv is quoted as saying that, "The operative significance of our research is that a significant reduction of the release of greenhouse gases will not significantly lower the global temperature."

Ouch! If Shaviv and Veizer are correct, then the Good Ships 'Global Warming' and 'Kyoto Protocol' are severely holed below the water line and sinking fast. Come on The Guardian and the BBC - why no reporting of this? It is top notch science and cannot be ingored for political expediency! Let us have open discussion of all the science please, comfortable or not!

Here is the original August 12 EurekaAlert: 'Global warming not man-made phenomenon.'

Here is a scientific commentary on the new research: 'Cosmic rays vs. CO2: the battle for climate change primacy.'

Science for real thought! Philip.
My first blog - and what a shocker!

Hi everyone. This Weblog will monitor carefully the output of environmental and science journalists in the British media. The purpose is not to take up a particular position on a given subject (e.g., 'global warming'), but to assess whether the topic is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, it will focus on the science, and it is hoped to be able to bring to public notice good science that is being ignored by the media because it may be politically incovenient to government, to certain pressure groups, or, indeed, for the agenda of the newspaper concerned. The emphasis will be on the broadsheet newspapers, the BBC, and Channel 4, because these present themselves as providing serious reportage and comment on environmental issues.

And we can begin with a truly disgraceful episode. The speculative leaking (Front Page Story: 'GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear', Thursday, October 2) by The Guardian newspaper of the UK GM farm-scale evaluations due to be published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences on October 16 has been roundly condemned by many serious scientists, but above all by the Royal Society itself. The Society rightly states in an unusually angry Media Release that such unwarranted speculation flies in the face of the public need for "... confidence in the independence and integrity of information about GM - the assurance that it does not reflect the influence of any group with a special interest for or against GM." I am certain that none of the authors of the scientific papers involved would compromise scientific integrity by leaking or commenting on the papers prior to full publication.

The Guardian was once a serious newspaper of both report and comment. Today, unfortunately, it is often extremely difficult to distinguish reportage from spun comment, as is all too apparent in this unacceptable piece of speculation. It is precisely such reporting that is undermining the role of science and scientists in the UK today.

I would thus encourage all serious newspapers and readers to wait until the eight scientific papers are formally published on October 16. They will also be made publically available on the journal's web site. Thus, as ever: "Read the original for yourself, and ignore media spin" - the basic motto of this Weblog. I will provide a link to the journal web site when the papers are published. Speak to you again soon - and always beware of the precedence given to quotations in environmental reports. The good, critical science usually comes last! Philip.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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