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.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Full Steam Ahead.....

Now, you won't read this very often on this Weblog, but what a splendid story in today's The Guardian - 'Steam power on track for great renaissance'. To a Northern lad of my generation, this can only be clickety-clack music to the ears. Even today, if I ever visit York station, I can still see the majestic A4, 60019 Bittern, out of Gateshead Shed (52A), gliding round the most elegant of platform curves, surely one of the most beautiful sights to have ever graced the world - especially when you are a 11-year old 'ferroequinologist', with spectacles, a grime-covered face, and notebook and chewed pencil in hand. A Brief Encounter of the most memorable kind! (My wife grimaces!).

And now it looks like we may have a brand new, futuristic, 4-6-0 steam train, neither smokey nor grimey, but still with white plumes of steam and piston rods racing out of real cylinders. Reciprocating motion in action. I do hope so.

But more seriously, I would like to make a prediction. There is increasing evidence that our energy future will involve Old King Coal once again. Even on a conservative estimate, there are over 350 years worth of coal reserves in the world. And this coal will be clean, as we move from advanced fluidised bed technologies to gasification. The Canadian Clean Power Coalition ( CCPC), for example, aims to demonstrate carbon dioxide removal from an existing coal-fired power plant by 2007, and then from a totally new power plant by 2010. Moreover, if you want to develop a hydrogen economy, coal will be the perfect way of extracting the hydrogen carrier. Coal has been on the 'seamy' side for too long. It is time for King Coal to retake the Energy Throne. And, unlike the utopia of a 'renewables' heaven, we know coal works. Time to visit the World Coal Institute - and then, "Poop, Poop! Ch....Ch... Ch..(Ch.ch.ch.ch.ch...) Ch..Ch.(accelerando)Ch.Ch.Ch----------------- and away! Poop! Poop!" Philip - a small boy once again, as 60022 Mallard (Top Shed - Kings Cross [34A]) pulls out, like a Great Fiery Monster, from Grantham Station with the down 'Flying Scotsman'. Poetry in motion. And a proud boast - I saw all the A4s from 60001 Sir Ronald Matthews to 60034 Lord Faringdon. Golden, innocent days.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Super language

Let's lay off the poor old Guardian for a little, and focus instead on The Independent, (I), for a change. In doing so, I will contrast it with The Times, (T), on the same subject, namely today's report on the excellent research carried out at the University of Reading on hybridisation from oilseed rape - the perfect opportunity for anti-GM ecohype in the wrong hands. The original research was published in Science.

First the headlines: (T): "GM rape 'bound to form wild hybrids'"; (I): "Study reveals first evidence that GM superweeds exist". Note the subtle difference: The Times headline is factually correct and employs a neutral scientific term, wild hybrids; by contrast, The Independent employs the heavily-loaded term, superweeds, which immediately emotes the Frankenfood's concept;

Secondly, where The Times does use the emotive word in the text (and only once, by the way), it is carefully printed as "superweeds". Again, by contrast, in The Independent, the word is employed without the " " (known as "scare quotes", by the way) and no fewer than four times. Moreover, on two occasions, it is linked with the word 'threat' - 'superweed threat'. Aliens all round, folks;

Thirdly, The Times quotes the leader of the research team, Dr. Mike Watkinson, as saying, "These hybrids , however, would not necessarily be damaging "superweeds" with advantageous traits." Thus, on the only occasion on which the word, "superweeds", is given in The Times, it is in the context of the hybrids not necessarily being a threat at all. No such caveat is entered in The Independent report.

Fourthly, it is worth mentioning that the research was on conventional plants, not GM plants: The Independent headline is thus completely misleading. The research only indicates a potential from GM crops, a point The Times was careful to stress.

I could go on, but I hope this little deconstruction demonstrates the subtle differences between careful science reporting and emotive science reporting, even when, in this case, The Independent report is far from being the worst of its kind. Indeed, the evidence for "superweeds", as distinct from wild hybrids, is remarkably limited. In some research, the hybrids have proved weak, and they have even been outcompeted by the non-GM crops and non-GM hybrids. And just think about it - the plants only have an advantage with respect to one specific weedkiller.

This is precisely why in my blog, The British Press Gang, below, The Times has a rating of ***(*) and The Independent only ** (and I have deliberately chosen one of the better efforts of the latter - wait until I do a real shocker).

I hope to be doing many more such little deconstructions during the coming weeks. Remember, the semiotics are everything. Sign of the times! Lunch. Philip.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Europe Poll swings even more against 'global warming'.....

Just to keep you further up-to-date, the Discovery Europe Poll (choose UK option) (see posts for October 6 and 8) now stands at:

Does global warming concern you?
No: 85%
A little: 3%
Very much: 10%
[As at this posting]

So much for the hype! Philip.
"It's the albedo, stupid!"

Do visit this excellent post, 'Evidence for climate change', on Panchromatica, a most helpful Weblog. I have been arguing for years that human landscape changes are as important as the more politically correct human climate influences, like so-called 'greenhouse gases'. The albedo is only one aspect of such changes, by the way, and refers to the surface reflectivity of the Earth.

A new study from NASA, referenced at the site, suggests even more complexity by arguing that human changes to the land surface over the last 300 years may have already altered the climate more than would occur from human-produced greenhouse gases. "Land surface changes, like urban sprawl, deforestation and reforestation, and agricultural and irrigation practices strongly affect regional surface temperatures, precipitation and larger-scale atmospheric circulation. The study argues that human-caused land surface changes in places like North America, Europe, and southeast Asia, redistribute heat regionally and globally within the atmosphere and may actually have a greater impact on climate than that due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases combined." Well, well. Reflect on that, folks - in the past, I have even been attacked for daring to suggest such a thing! Naughty sceptic! Slap, slap! Go NASA. Philip.

Clarity on Carbon Dioxide

Ignore the fact that this Commentary is in The Washington Times. This is Professor Richard S. Lindzen at his clearest and most trenchant. Richard is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has been a contributor to climate science for almost 40 years, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and he is a lead author of the Second IPCC Climate Assessment. Focus on the argument, and not on your knee-jerk view of the newspaper. And note above all what he says about water vapour and clouds. We desperately need Lindzen to bring a few home truths to the UK. Time for a relaxed cuppa - I'll let this piece take the strain for a change. Philip.
The British Press Gang

I am often asked what is my own view of the British press. Well, here goes, and here are my rating stars with respect to their environmental science coverage:

* Dire and totally biased; ** All over the shop; ***Tries for some sort of balance;****Pretty acceptable; *****Excellent critical science reporting.

The Financial Times: the only British newspaper in which we can have any genuine pride. The only one with a real sense of truth values. A pity, though perhaps inevitable, that it is a little narrow. ****

The Times: still the best letters pages by a long address, and Mark Henderson is one of the more balanced Science Correspondents, so one doesn't choke too often over one's cornflakes. Totally untrustworthy, of course, on Europe and on its media competitors. Terrible new supplements which have no idea what they are about or where they are going. Sadly, not what it was, despite hosting yours truly on occasion (an extra star!).***(*)

The Daily Telegraph: largely irrelevant today unless you live on a grand estate, are over 70, or are a bright young 'headbander' (to use the late-lamented Lady Diana's apt description) called Arabella, Tamasin, or Julia (the 'Hurleygraph'). On the environment, it has mixed and conflicting ideas, all, however, tending to be somewhat elitist.**

The Guardian: at times hardly distinguishable from a rabid left-wing or deep green pressure group, or a less rational NGO. A once great newspaper of report that has degenerated into a tirade for the trendy and authoritarian left, which has abandonned all sense of the Enlightenment. Some of its correspondents are morally bankrupt in their quite balmy views of the world. Luckily, however, there are a precious few glorious exceptions, such as David Aaronovitch, Jonathan Freedland, Simon Hoggart, and even Polly T. when she is writing about what she knows (awful on the environment). Its main environmental science reporting is bordering on the scandalous for a serious newspaper (with a slight improvement in the new 'Life' supplement which I am monitoring).* (Section ratings: 'Life'***; 'Environment' section in 'Society Guardian' - pure unadulterated propaganda - no stars).

The Independent: on my commuting line, this attenuated apology for a newspaper lasts for only five stops, if I am lucky (even on Connex). Hardly worth the money, new tabloid or old broadsheet, and its environmental reporting is about as bad as The Guardian's. Thin and tendentious.**

The Sunday Times: an acid rag which, like all Sunday newspapers, is now thrashing about to compete with the large Saturday dailies. Occasionally okay on the science, however.**

The Observer: has lost its way since joining The Guardian, of which it is but a pale Sunday shadow. The odd decent environmental science report can still creep into its pages, although, like its stable mate, it is largely uncritical and pushes the ecohype. Not quite as bad overall, however.**

The Daily Mail: it is not possible to comment on this on a family-friendly site. A national disgrace, except for Melanie Phillips' lively column.**

The Sun: much more fun than the former, and it has journalists that are cleverer than most of those on the broadsheets. Still pretty grim if you are not lagered up. "Wot's the environment?" "Global warming? Great - get yer bras off girls."**

The Rest of the Tabloid National Dailies: in the immortal words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Nevertheless, good for fish-and-chips and bonfires, Ludwig.* or **

And then four weekly magazines:

The Spectator: trying hard to show us that the political right, in some form or other, has a future in the UK. Occasionally hosts outstanding science writers like Matt Ridley (the best). At least the bouncing Boris allows in some very trenchant critical pieces on the environment.**(*)

The New Statesman: absolutely lost its marbles, and I can find very few people who even read it - The Guardian with knobs on. One newsagent I spoke to recently complained that he hadn't sold a single copy in a year!*

The New Scientist: good when it isn't being 'right on' and over dramatic. Did have a period when it might have been better called the 'New Sensationalist'. Improving, and more critical. Can be very good, but has off issues.***

The Economist: up with The Financial Times there. Good, serious stuff, and pretty balanced on most issues. If you really want to get to grips with things, quite a fair starting point, although it can occasionally be uncritical on the environment.***(*)

Overall, not a pretty sight, I fear, especially on the environmental science. No wonder I turn to BBC Radio 3 during my morning shower to ease my weary soul with Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. I'm off for a Beethoven late quartet. (My wife is reduced to Radio 2 and Jeremy Vine!). Philip.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Yet more climates of opinion!

We really did start the climate change hare going - here it is chased on the interesting Weblog, Catallarchy. Do have a look. Some good points. Philip.
My how the world changes! Who is the real Guardian now?

Both the BBC and The Guardian have been fingered recently for anti-Catholic sentiments (the one thing you are not allowed to be these days is a Christian! Oh, and if it is The Guardian, old like me. For a so-called 'right on' newspaper, it is about as ageist as you can get). Thus, while the much-maligned Catholic church is increasingly sane and sensible on science and issues like GM crops, The Guardian appears to be regressing into the Dark Ages. Here is a piece from Zenit on the Vatican and GM: 'Opening Up to Genetically Modified Crops': "The long-running debate over genetically modified crops is being examined by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Interest in what will be Rome's position on the subject is running high." "Last summer the Italian newspaper, La Stampa , ran a series of articles on the matter, starting with an Aug. 3 story that said the Vatican was opening up to the idea of approving genetically modified crops. The paper quoted the president of Justice and Peace, Archbishop Renato Martino, as saying that it is imperative to find a way to bring food to those who are starving. He also warned against taking extremist, ideologically based positions on the question, affirming the need for rigorous scientific examination of the subject."

Well, well! I wonder who Galilieo would fare better under today - the pontiffs of The Guardian (and we all know who they are!) or the Vatican? All of which exemplifies so perfectly the desperate need "... to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself" and the even more vital need for "... the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots." [See below: 'Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?' (October 6)]. Taking The Guardian is increasingly like reading (or whipping yourself with) The Savonarola Sentinel (1497). And one of their correspondents looks just like the fiery Dominican - can you guess which? Flagellations all round if you can. Philip.
The lion's share.....

Alex Kirby's latest BBC Online report, 'Africa's 'shocking' lion loss', yet again points the finger at conservation and ecotourist colonialism. Ever since the establishment of Kruger National Park at the end of the 19th century, far too little attention has been paid to the needs of local peoples. Ecotourism and hunting organisers, not to mention the big game, by contrast, always get the lion's share. The treatment of the Masai, for example, has, in some instances, bordered on the shocking. But it doesn't work, even for the lions! As Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU, Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, rightly reminds us (as quoted in the report): "Local communities get very little benefit from it [ecotourism], but they must. The herders don't see the link between lions and tourists, because they don't see the money." I am frankly fed up with ever-moralistic conservationists putting fauna above people, especially when it isn't even their country or landscape. As old Foucault would have mumbled, let's hear it for the excluded voices. Not a bad little roar, Alex. I must give up this lionising! Nearly lunch. Philip.

Europe Poll swings against 'global warming'.....

Just to keep you up-to-date, the Discovery Europe Poll (choose UK option) (see post for October 6) now stands at:

Does global warming concern you?
No: 77%
A little: 4%
Very much: 18%
[As at this posting]

Phew! The heat is off. Coffee. Philip.

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.

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

WWW EnviroSpin Watch

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?