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EDITORIAL: Biased reporting on Climategate

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

With trillions of dollars at stake in the battle over global warming, now would be the time for the press to closely scrutinize the claims of those who would reorganize the world's economy from farm to factory and laboratory to living room. And the Climategate scandal - where leaked e-mails and dodgy computer programs from the University of East Anglia raise powerful new questions about the role of politics in climate science - would be the perfect opportunity to explore what is going on behind the scenes.

That's not happening. To judge by recent coverage from Associated Press, the Fourth Estate watchdog has acted like a third-rate pocket pet. Case in point is an 1,800-word AP missive that appeared in hundreds of publications, many carrying it on the front page of their Sunday, Dec. 13 issue with the headline, "Science not faked, but not pretty." AP gave three scientists copies of the controversial e-mails and then asked them about their conclusions. The wire service portrayed the trio of scientists as dismissing or minimizing allegations of scientific fraud when, in fact, the scientists believe no such thing.

The first scientist quoted in the article, Mark Frankel, is director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AP quotes him as concluding that there is, "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very 'generous interpretations.'" While the article mentions that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and some Republican lawmakers are calling for independent investigations, AP doesn't note the views of the scientists they interviewed.

When The Washington Times talked to Mr. Frankel, the scientist gave a quite different impression. The e-mails, he said, are not sufficient to reach any judgment at all on whether the data or science was faked or misleading. "You can't do that on the e-mails alone, you can't do it on the e-mails or the program," he concluded. For that reason, Mr. Frankel supports investigation of East Anglia and related allegations of fraud at Pennsylvania State University.

There's a big difference between saying that there isn't sufficient evidence to determine if falsification of data occurred - and that there should be an investigation - and saying, as AP did: "Science not faked."

Mr. Frankel also believes outsiders to the two schools should be asked to take part. "You should be willing and open to going to outside people to be part of your inquiry," he advised. "If I were Penn State, I would certainly be advising them to be very open to the possibility of bringing in one or two people who have impeccable credentials, well-respected, to join in ...."

Arizona State University professor Dan Sarewitz is quoted by AP as saying, "This is normal science politics, but on the extreme end, though still within bounds." However, Mr. Sarewitz wasn't speaking about the validity of the climate science; he was discussing his belief that politics infects how most scientific research is conducted. While AP used the quote to suggest that there was nothing terribly wrong that had been revealed in Climategate, Mr. Sarewitz was trying to issue a warning that politics infects too much science and that reporters, politicians and the public are naive about that reality.

As he told The Washington Times, "When the human underside (of science) gets revealed, then suddenly people are disillusioned and they say, 'Oh, how shocking!' But it's not particularly shocking." Indeed, Mr. Sarewitz suggests that reporters ask scientists about their political views. (For the record, he is a liberal Democrat.) He also is skeptical of the university investigations, particularly if they don't include outsiders. "I think they should have external people [involved in the investigations]. Certainly. ... The challenge here might be, can you find people who are independent but also understand the science well enough to really tell (if there was wrongdoing)?"

The third scientist interviewed by AP, professor Gerald North at Texas A&M University, joined Mr. Frankel and Mr. Sarewitz in hoping that climate data would be more readily shared in the future. He told us he also thinks it is important that investigations proceed at the two universities.

The Washington Times tried to raise these issues with the reporters and editors involved, but Jack Stokes, AP's manager of media relations, said that none of the five reporters who worked on the article nor their editors had time to answer questions.

If AP refuses to explain how it could have given readers across the planet such a distorted view of Climategate, maybe an explanation can be found buried in the article itself. One of the reporters, Seth Borenstein, the AP science reporter who writes on global warming and who is the lead author on the piece, is part of the Climategate story himself. In the last sentence of the article, the authors note that the archive of disputed Climategate e-mails "includes a request from an AP reporter, one of the writers of this story, for reaction to a study, a standard step for journalists seeking quotes for their stories."

But Mr. Borenstein's e-mail was hardly standard and far from neutral. In it, the reporter disparages Marc Morano, a critic of man-made global-warming claims, as "hyping wildly" the study that Mr. Borenstein asked scientists to comment on. The e-mail almost makes it appear as if Mr. Borenstein were asking those involved in Climategate to help him discredit critics of man-made global warming.

East Anglia and Penn State are not the only two institutions that need to answer questions about what is going on behind the scenes.