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Accurate reporting falls like leaves in autumn

Dr David Whitehouse, GWPF Science editor

If you never looked past the headline of a news story or did not venture beyond the first paragraph, you can frequently come away with a false impression of what the real story was about.

This is particularly true when the story is produced with the help of a press release taken verbatim by journalists. Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many commentators on climate matters talk like pamphlets. They distort by simplifying far too much, and then they amplify what remains beyond its true significance justifying it because they saw a headline.

Of course, I have a recent example of this and of course it’s well illustrated by the Guardian. Their recent headline was “Climate Change: Crisis making autumn leaves fall earlier, study finds.” Others had it as well for the story came from a press release, including “Inside Climate News,” (Pulitzer-Prize winning nonpartisan reporting on the biggest crisis facing our planet it says without a hint of irony.)

From the Guardian: “Global heating appears to be making trees drop their leaves earlier, according to new research.” From Inside Climate News: “New research shows that, as the planet warms, deciduous trees in temperate European forests are losing their leaves earlier.”

Seems straightforward … until you take a look at the original research.

Here is the pertinent sentence regarding the onset of autumn,

…predictions from a previously expected 2-to 3-week delay over the rest of the century to an advance of 3 to 6 days.”

Now excuse me for being a little pedantic, as scientists and journalists should be, but autumn advancing by 3-6 days over the next 80 years seems to me to be something that would be rather swamped by seasonal variations. Take the lower limit of 3 days autumnal advance in 80 years. That’s about one day every 27 years. Really! Can we tell if autumn starts a day earlier after more than a quarter of a century? Could we tell if it started two or three days earlier?

That’s about all there is to say. The punchline doesn’t match the detail. A headline of “Study finds autumn leaves fall earlier” gives one message whilst the research paper gives a figure of days by the end of this century. The latter is unmeasurable, the former is misleading.