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Toby’s Eyes Have Been Opened

Andrew Montford, GWPF

Science journalists don’t do what people think they do.

The journalist Toby Young has been looking at yesterday’s rather lurid story about biodiversity, and the claim that a million species are going to be lost if we don’t become communists. Or something like that.

Young appears to have done some brief research and has shown that the underlying estimates, sponsored by the UN, are bunk. The authors of the report have taken some data from official “Red List” of threatened species and extrapolated it in precisely the way that the Red List authors say should not be done. They have then published a somewhat hysterical press release, but not the underlying report.

This is a familiar story for anyone who is interested in environmentalism, but Young has been rather taken aback, both at the shoddiness of the research and the way the press have dealt with it. After all, if some brief research has revealed to Young (with a degree in PPE) that some scientific research is nonsense, surely the massed ranks of science journalists would have been expected to find the problems too? But of course, as eco-nerds know, science journalists see themselves as part of the green movement and asking questions is therefore frowned upon. The science-page news articles are declarations of faith, not inquiries, or debates. So with the extinctions story, just as with everything else, science journalists have reprinted the press release or, more daringly, rewritten it in their own words. Nobody, but nobody, asks any questions.

To some extent, the problem can be blamed on a lack of scientific literacy among the press corps. Most people on the science-environment beat are humanities graduates, and would struggle to question the press releases that cross their desks, although Young of course has shown that an inquiring mind can take you a long way. But inquiring minds are not common among science journalists, most of whom are comfortable in their faith.

Sensible people should discount all science headlines, particularly the lurid ones about “new research” (today’s one is about future increases in floods in the UK). Your best bet is to find some contrarians on social media and see what they have to say. The wild headlines are usually shot down on the same day by some awkward customer, but not before the mainstream media have done their damage.

With that in mind, let us return briefly to today’s impending crisis and note that climate models are really, really bad at simulating current rainfall patterns (the IPCC says their ability in this area is “modest”), and thus are no more useful for predicting future floods than tea-leaf gazing. No journalist will mention this awkward fact, but at least Toby Young will not be surprised this time.