IPSO decision ignores inaccuracies in The Spectator’s article on ocean acidification


After The Spectator published a story by James Delingpole titled “Ocean acidification: yet another wobbly pillar of climate alarmism” in April, 2016, University of East Anglia scientist Phillip Williamson filed a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to report inaccuracies in the article. IPSO oversees UK magazines and newspapers, enforcing corrections for articles it sees as failing to meet its journalistic standards for accuracy and professionalism.

In his complaint, Williamson detailed ways in which the article misrepresented ocean acidification research, or made factual assertions that were contradicted by data and the existing body of research—issues which Williamson also laid out point-by-point in an article for The Marine Biologist.

IPSO’s ruling misses the inaccuracies

IPSO recently ruled against Williamson’s complaint, partly on the basis that “The Committee’s role is not to make findings of fact or to resolve conflicting evidence in relation to matters under debate.” However, scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals clearly shows that ocean acidity is increasing due to the human-caused increase of atmospheric CO2, which is not a matter under debate among scientists.

IPSO’s ruling that a correction is not necessary was also based on the argument that the article was a commentary that “sought to challenge what it made clear was the consensus view on ocean acidification”. That is, false assertions weren’t misleading because the reader knew that the scientific community disagreed with those assertions. However, the actual statements in the article about the scientific community are closer to mockery than acknowledgement. After stating that the problem of ocean acidification has “been endorsed by scientists from numerous learned institutions”, the article sets up a strawman by describing the problem as “an almighty mass extinction”—a scenario it quickly calls “a scaremongering theory”.

The article’s core claims are factually inaccurate

Regardless of whether an article claims to be opinion, statements of a factual nature can either be accurate or not, or supported by evidence or not. It is clear that the article in The Spectator makes a number of inaccurate factual assertions and misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge. It relies primarily on two assertions: 1) that “there has been no reduction in oceanic pH in the last century” and 2) that “the impact on calcification, metabolism, growth, fertility and survival of calcifying marine species when pH is lowered up to 0.3 units […] is beneficial”. In Climate Feedback’s detailed analysis of the article, scientists cited the published research that shows these statements (and others) to be false.

For instance, Dr. Tullio Rossi replied to the first statement:

This is plain wrong. Oceanic pH levels decreased by 0.1 units compared to pre-industrial levels. This corresponds to a 30% increase in acidity.” (read more)

And Prof. Ken Caldeira commented on the second statement, explaining:

There is much evidence available to falsify this statement. Many experiments have shown substantial negative biological responses at these levels of pH change. Of course, some organisms are relatively unaffected by these levels.” (read more)

Other inaccuracies and misrepresentations

The inaccuracies went beyond descriptions of science, as well. The article claims that the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) spent £12.5 million on ocean acidification research between 2009 and 2014. In reality, the funding for the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme came from three agencies, with only £3.3 million contributed by DEFRA.

The article also made a number of errors in describing an introduction to a special issue of the ICES Journal of Marine Science on ocean acidification. It falsely describes the introduction as “a review”, and incorrectly states that author Howard Browman said there was an “inherent bias” in scientific journals.

The phrase “inherent bias” is not, in fact, a quotation that appears in Browman’s introduction. An earlier story in The Times, however, had also misquoted the introduction as describing an “inherent bias”, as Browman explained for Climate Feedback’s analysis of The Times’ article. Both articles misrepresented the contents of the special issue.

Inappropriate sources

In addition to assertions contradicted by published research and misrepresentation of sources, the article in The Spectator also relies on inappropriate sources to support its claims. It cites an analysis by a professional hydrologist that was never peer-reviewed to claim that pH measurements show no decrease. In our analysis, NOAA’s Richard Feely explained that this analysis failed to account for known data quality and coverage issues.

To support claims that ocean acidification has no negative impacts on marine organisms, the article cites a pair of non-peer-reviewed papers written by non-experts. Each of these papers explicitly contradicts the body of published research, but lacks evidence and scientific rigor to support its case, making them inappropriate sources for credible reporting on science.

Finally, the article also claims that “Ocean acidification—the evidence increasingly suggests—is a trivial, misleadingly named, and not remotely worrying phenomenon” but the assertion appeals to evidence that is not provided.

Conclusion

IPSO has an “Editors’ Code of Practice” that the outlets it regulates have agreed to. It states that “the Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”, “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”, and “the Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.

IPSO refers to the non-peer-reviewed assessment of a non-expert claiming that pH measurements show no decrease as a “scientific debate” between three “individuals”. This approach fails to recognize the credibility of published, peer-reviewed scientific research, the expertise of scientists in a field of research, or the central importance of evidence in the scientific method. Science should not be considered to be debated simply because someone outside the research community rejects the published research.

When articles include statements of facts about a scientific field, these statements are generally verifiable—and this is true for James Delingpole’s article in The Spectator. The article contains objectively inaccurate assertions on matters of fact—not opinion—and therefore does not meet the accuracy standards of IPSO’s Editors’ Code. By excusing articles like this one from following its standards, IPSO risks its credibility as an effective guardian of accountability for science journalism.

Note: IPSO’s staff have been made aware of the analysis discussed in this post.

 


ADDITIONAL SCIENTISTS’ COMMENTS

In addition to the scientists who have contributed to our analysis, here are some reactions other experts in the field of ocean acidification shared with us following IPSO’s ruling on the article in The Spectator.

 

Prof. Chris Langdon, University of Miami:
The Spectator and the press in general have a critical role to play in accurately conveying the “state of the science” on topics of great relevance to the public. At any point in the evolution of a field of science there is a consensus view and a growing body of facts that the majority of the scientists in the field agree to. They agree to them because the hypotheses supporting them have survived many rounds of aggressive testing by scientists from around the world. In the field of ocean acidification the established facts include:

1) The ocean is without doubt getting progressively more acidic, i.e. its pH is declining. There is a wealth of very careful observation backing up that statement. Counterintuitively, time series of pH measurements are not the best way to establish acidification. The ocean is becoming more acidic because the acidic gas CO2 is dissolving into the ocean. The best evidence that the ocean is acidifying and that human activity is causing that acidification is to follow the CO2. Fossil fuel CO2 has a distinct isotopic fingerprint.  Its doesn’t contain any 14C (the radioactive isotope of carbon) because the carbon in the coal, oil and gas is very old and all the of the 14C radioactivity has decayed away and it is also highly depleted in 13C (the heavier stable isotope of carbon) because the coal, oil and gas were formed from plant matter which is naturally depleted in the heavier isotopes of C. When scientists measure the isotopic composition (ratio of 13C to 12C) of the inorganic carbon in the ocean waters they find that it is declining decade by decade and they find that the biggest changes are observed at the surface. Exactly as you would expect if the change was caused by 13C-depleted fossil fuel CO2 diffusing from the atmosphere into the surface waters of the ocean and then slowly mixing to greater and greater depth with the passage of time.

2) The decrease in pH of the ocean is having observable impacts on many marine organisms, and many but not all of those impacts are detrimental to their survival. We are learning that those impacts do not affect even closely-related species equally. We are also learning that ocean acidification can have a big impact on one step in the life history of a species and not have any impact on other stages. The press could help the public understand these nuances by drawing an analogy to the way diseases impact human health. There is always a segment of the human population has a natural immunity to a particular disease. Medical science does not decide to not study measles or TB just because every single person exposed to it does not experience 100% mortality. Rather the investment in its study is proportional to the perceived threat to the aggregate population. The threat of ocean acidification is like that. It threatens to impact marine populations that humans depend upon for food or other ecosystem services directly or in many cases indirectly via food-web interactions.

 

Prof. Paul Pearson, Cardiff University:
Let’s be clear: Carbon dioxide is an acidic gas and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising because of human emissions. Inevitably, air gets mixed into the sea and so the surface oceans are becoming more acidic. The process is basic chemistry, and it is undoubtedly happening. A steady acidification trend has been accurately measured in various places around the world over the past few decades. No amount of denial is going to make that not be the case.

So far the effects (although real) have been fairly limited, but the nub of the problem is that acidification is sure to continue just as long as the atmospheric level continues to rise. And that will continue happening unless and until we get the kind of massive global emissions reductions called for by the recent UN agreement in Paris.

Exactly what effect acidification will have on marine life is more difficult to determine because it is, in a way, a grand global experiment and we won’t know until it happens. Then, of course, it will be too late to act. But the many laboratory, field and modelling studies that have been conducted to date, and our understanding of what has happened in the geological past, give us, collectively, real cause for concern. Many types of marine life are under severe threat if acidification is not controlled. This is quite apart from the parallel problem of global warming, although acting together the effects may be multiplied.

The reality of ocean acidification and its likely long-term effects have been thoroughly documented and extensively published in the world’s most respected scientific journals for many years. That is not to say that the body of research is either fully complete or above all criticism—no science is—but the public deserves to know that the work they have funded has by now firmly established that the problem of ocean acidification is undoubtedly real and the consequences for marine life are likely to be very serious unless action is taken fast to cut emissions—something that is also necessary, of course, to limit global warming.

Delingpole appears to be a polemicist who uses all his rhetorical skills to attack science, scientists, and the whole process that scientists are engaged in, for whatever reason of his own. The idea that scientists cooked up acidification as a self-serving justification to fund their work is an outrageous slur. That seems to be Delingpole’s métier and one might just shrug and say—who cares what commentators like him say? But the issue is, at heart, very serious because the solution to the problem involves a great collective global effort to reduce CO2 emissions. The public has a role to play and surely has a right to be properly informed.

Of course there is plenty of this “denialist” misinformation on the internet, and it tends to get recirculated again and again by the enthusiasts for whatever reason they have. There seems little we can do except keep pointing out where to find correct and well-researched information. Williamson has done this in his response to Delingpole. However in this case the offending article was in a print publication that comes under the aegis of the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), which led Williamson to call out the article for factual inaccuracy.

Clause 1 of the press code says that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. If that occurs, IPSO should enforce publication of a correction of those errors or distortions. That seems very clear. Williamson is undoubtedly right that the Delingpole article contains inaccurate, misleading and distorted information: plenty of it. By not enforcing its own code, IPSO has let the public down.

 

Prof. Sam Dupont, University of Gothenburg:
My laboratory has been working on the biological consequences of ocean acidification for the last 15 years. Together with hundreds of colleagues all around the world, we have shown that ocean acidification can impact marine species and ecosystems, with effects ranging from positive to negative. This was achieved using a range of approaches including laboratory and field based experiments, study of paleo records, field observations and models. Scientists are the first ones to acknowledge the limitation of the scientific method. After all, the only completely realistic experiment is the one currently happening in our ocean. Science works in a way that the answer never comes from a single experiment or observation but from an incremental accumulation of data. When it comes to ocean acidification, thousands of peer-reviewed publications allow us to conclude with the highest confidence that ocean acidification together with other environmental changes will modify the marine realm as we know it.

Now, I am a sucker for conspiracy theory but you have to ask yourself what is the most plausible: hundreds of scientists from more than 50 countries working secretly together to promote a false idea, or a few merchants of doubt with financial and political interests at stake working very hard to undermine the scientific evidence.

 

Prof. Dr. Jelle Bijma, Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research:
In our post-fact world where bogus news influences not only public opinion but even political decision-making it has become even more important that media clearly differentiate between facts and opinions. The Spectator article by James Delingpole was filled with misinformation about ocean acidification. His assertion that ocean acidification research was only funded because “climate change alarmists” realised that “global temperatures weren’t going to plan” is almost too ridiculous for words. That is not how science works. Ocean acidification science was funded because the scientific community and the funding agencies recognized the potential risks of ocean acidification for society, especially in a warming ocean. Our task is then to produce a scientific basis for political decision-making regarding the possible consequences of ocean acidification.

Dr. Williamson’s rebuttal to the Spectator article and his official complaint to the UK Press Regulator (IPSO) was a science-based effort to distinguish facts from opinions. I am extremely disappointed that the complaint by Dr. Williamson has been rejected by IPSO, especially because it would have provided the opportunity for IPSO to have emphasized the importance of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and the differentiation between facts and willful misinformation.

 

Prof. Jan Newton & Prof. Terrie Klinger, University of Washington:
Advancements in science are based on credible evidence. In the case of ocean acidification, the credible evidence consistently points to declining ocean pH associated with increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. The weight of evidence also points to a preponderance of negative, not positive, biological effects.

 

Prof. Jason Hall-Spencer, University of Plymouth:
I am aghast that IPSO has not upheld a complaint made by Dr. Phillip Williamson about an article by James Delingpole in The Spectator on ocean acidification. This is a serious oversight given the body of scientific evidence showing that ocean acidification poses a clear and building threat to coastal marine systems. The evidence for this has been amassed by research laboratories all around the world.

Delingpole states that “marine life has nothing whatsoever to fear from ocean acidification” and that “Ocean acidification — the evidence increasingly suggests — is a trivial, misleadingly named, and not remotely worrying phenomenon which has been hyped up beyond all measure for political, ideological and financial reasons.” These statements are just not true—there is now overwhelming scientific proof that ocean acidification is happening and that it is a threat to marine life.

When the Royal Society report on ocean acidification was published in 2005 I decided to start surveying waters that have the levels of CO2 likely to occur in the course of my daughter’s lifetime. The acidifying effects of rising CO2 are plain to see in field experiments in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean—about 30% of species do not survive the levels of acidification predicted this century. Some are poisoned, others dissolve away, and many are outcompeted by the weed-like species that thrive in the acidified conditions such as invasive algae and jellyfish. It is surely vital that IPSO ensures that the general public gets facts not lies, and that hard-won information is not wasted or corrupted by sloppy journalism.

 

Published on: 2017-02-02