I wrote earlier about corrections. Here is an example of a complaint, in the form of a letter to the editor, and ensuing discussion from which I have to decide whether the newspaper should publish a correction. When you get to the bottom, if you get to the bottom, I’ll tell you where I finally came down.
As you'll see, one of the newspaper editor's problems is trying to be a generalist in a world where issues can be very technical.
This paper published a full page spread on global warming (Page E-1, Feb 18, 2007) prepared by McClatchy Newspapers (the out of state owners of the Anchorage Daily News).
The article states the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimates "Global temperatures are expected to rise by more than 5º by 2100 - perhaps as much as 11º." In fact the IPCC report states future surface warming will range from 0.6º to 4º (Table SPM-3).
Nicholas Van Wyck, Ph.D.
(At that point, I forwarded Mr. Van Wyck’s letter to the chief of the McClatchy Washington Bureau and asked him to have the reporter who wrote the story, Robert Boyd, provide me with a response.)
From: Robert Boyd
Re: Nicholas Van Wyck complaint:
I believe Dr. Van Wyck is mistaken. He refers to Table SPM-3 in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) issued by the IPCC on Feb. 2, 2007. There is no Table SPM-3. I assume he means Table SPM-2 on page 11 of the Summary.
His letter says the IPCC states that future surface warming will range from 0.6 to 4 degrees centigrade (1.08 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100.
Dr. Van Wyck mixes up two sections of Table SPM-2. The 0.6 C (1.08 F) low figure is a baseline number that assumes there will be no increase in greenhouse gases from the year 2000. That is totally unrealistic and already outdated. It is not a forecast of the future.
The second section of the IPCC table provides six different projections of future temperature increases, based on six different "scenarios" depending on such factors as population growth, economic developments, efforts to limit CO2 emissions, etc.
Under each scenario, the IPCC projects a substantially higher surface temperature in 2100. The lowest projection ranges from 1.1 to 2.9 C (1.98 to 5.22 F), with a "best estimate" of 1.8 C (3.24 F). The highest projection ranges from 2.4 to 6.4 C (4.3 to11.52 F, with a "best estimate" of 4.0 C (7.2 F).
I used the upper numbers in these ranges because, as the IPCC acknowledges, Table SPM-2 does not take account of the recent, rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the thawing of northern permafrost, both of which are already contributing to additional warming. The IPCC rules also require it not to include any data after 2005 and to be very conservative in its projections.
This is why I wrote that global temperatures are expected to rise by more than 5 degrees to perhaps as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
I don't think a correction is warranted.
Robert S. Boyd
(The information from Boyd was conveyed to Wyck, along with a message from me that we did not think a correction was warranted. Van Wyck replied.)
Please find attached a copy of page 13 from the IPCC report. On this page is Table SPM-3(that's the table I am supposed to be mistaken that it exists). On this table are listed two columns of data:
On the left are the projected temperature changes, on the right are the projected sea level rises expected at the end of this century.
There are six scenarios listed (B1, A1T etc). These scenarios refer to the various temperature forcing effects modeled in the report. They have various ranges of predicted temperatures which are subdivided into two columns: best estimate and likely range. The range from the lowest best estimate to the highest best estimate is 0.6 to 4.0 degrees.
So, clearly Table SPM-3 does exist, and it says exactly what I said it says.
Now consider further the explanation the journalist offers: in essence he wants us to disregard the whole purpose of the IPCC report by saying that this report issued less than one month ago is out of date. Isn't the whole purpose of the IPCC report to give a summary of the state of knowledge. I for one would trust more professional climate scientists rather than this journalist. Then for him to offer the excuse that he meant that his stated range was in degrees Fahrenheit and not in the standard scientific units of Celsius as is used in the IPCC report is disingenuous and never mentioned in his article. Surely in the sake of truthfulness, if the author is going to change units from those published in the report to different units he should have mentioned that in the article?
But it goes further than simply a clerical error of omission. In Mr. Boyd's published article he writes, "The outlook is sobering. Even if greenhouse gas emissions could be held to their current level, which is virtually impossible, the world will warm much faster in the 21st century than it did in the 20th. Global temperatures are expected to rise by more than 5 degrees by 2100 -- perhaps as much as 11 degrees."
The author implies that even if we keep to the 2000 levels of CO2 we will get 5 to 11 degrees. What the IPCC report says, and based on Mr. Boyd's comments he fully recognizes that keeping to 2000 levels the best estimate of the rise in global temperatures will only be 0.6 degrees Celsius.
Mr. Boyd has made a mistake and I still believe a correction is warranted.
Nicholas Van Wyck
(Once again I forwarded Mr. Van Wyck’s email to the reporter. I suggested to Boyd that if nothing else, it seemed like we ought to be able to resolve the question of whether Table SPM-3 actually exists. Boyd replied to me the next morning.)
There is NO Table SPM-3 in the 21 pages of the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers, a copy of which is sitting here on my desk. I suspect it was a simple typo by Dr. Van Wyck, and anyway it's a trivial point. He must have been referring to Table SPM-2, which appears on Page 11, not page 13, in the version I downloaded from the IPCC website, www.ipcc.ch. There are no tables on page 13, which discusses potential sea-level rise.
The difference between fahrenheit and centigrade is not the main problem. My story, of course, used fahrenheit because that's what all American non-scientists use.
As I explained in my previous message, Dr. Van Wyck confused one table from SPM-2, describing, in centigrade, the range of heating to be expected if there were NO more CO2 emissions throughout the century, and a second table, listing various ranges based on six "scenarios" reflecting possible differences in population growth, economic developments, efforts to control CO2, etc.
(Boyd then replied directly to Van Wyck.)
Dear Dr. Van Wyck:
I have just read your most recent message, after sending a reply to Pat Dougherty earlier this morning. I see one source of problems: You have an 18-page version of the IPCC Summary. Mine has 21 pages. Yours numbers the tables from 1 to 3. My copy numbers them from 0 to 2. Your copy is dated Feb. 5. Mine was the one released to the press on Feb. 2.
As to your other point, many scientists, and the IPCC itself, acknowledge that the Summary is already out of date because it does not consider anything that happened in 2006, including additional CO2 and methane in the atmosphere and the accelerated melting of glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost. My story did not attribute the expected range of temperature increases to the IPCC. The numbers I used (5 to perhaps 11 degrees F) were drawn from other scientists' projections and comments on the Summary report.
I ultimately decided to publish the original letter of complaint but not a correction. This may seem like a decision to split the baby.
My bias is to let a reader like Mr. Van Wyck have the opportunity to air a complaint. On the other hand, it was simply not clear to me that the reporter made an error that required correction. I also made a pragmatic judgment about how much more valuable time to spend sorting through this dispute and whether many of our readers really cared about this story to this level of detail.
It's an imperfect solution. If I felt completely confident that Van Wyck's complaint was groundless, I would not have published the letter.
Perhaps you would have pursued the matter differently, or come to a different conclusion. If so, feel free to tell all of us what you would have had me do. Just write to email@example.com.