The British papers with egg on their faces after the climate denier sting

Greenpeace has revealed that Britain's climate denying think–tank is running a peer–review scam. Which British papers were taken in?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
10 December 2015

“The report was thoroughly peer–reviewed”. This was the claim made by Matt Ridley in the Times on the 19th of October. It wasn't – isn't – true.

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Among a number of revelations from the Greenpeace Energydesk investigation this week is the fact that the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a climate denying think tank which refuses to reveal its funders, runs its own 'peer review' scam, where its advisors read over each others' papers.

Academic William Happer, subject of the “scientists for hire” sting, explained how the GWPF phoney 'peer-review' process works to Greenpeace's undercover reporter. As Greenpeace put it:

“Happer explained that this process had consisted of members of the Advisory Council and other selected scientists reviewing the work, rather than presenting it to an academic journal.”

Speaking specifically about the paper by Dr Indur Goklany, he said:

“I know that the entire scientific advisory board of the GWPF was asked to submit comments on the first draft. I am also sure that most were too busy to respond.”

Sense About Science describes peer review as the process by which “scientists submit their research findings to a journal, which sends them out to be assessed for competence, significance and originality, by independent qualified experts who are researching and publishing work in the same field (peers).”

For example, I have emailed this article to a couple of my colleagues for comment. That doesn't mean that it has been peer–reviewed, in the generally accepted meaning of the term. To say that it had been would be misleading to anyone familiar with the usual usage.

Dr Goklany also revealed that his report on the supposed benefits of CO2 had been written not just with Ridley's help, but as a result of his initial encouragement.

Matt Ridley is on the advisory council of Sense About Science and had a career as a science journalist. He must surely know that a report being emailed around a rag–tag collection of chums doesn't count as 'peer–review'. And yet it appears the Viscount, coal–mine owner and disgraced former chair of collapsed bank Northern Rock (for Ridley is all those things), seems to have suggested someone produce some research, and then promoted it in his Times column, where he misled readers as to its nature.

This wasn't the only occasion on which the Times family referred to this report.

The Sunday Times (which is editorially independent and has its own editors and journalists) ran a balanced story on it by environment editor Jonathan Leake on the 11th of October, in which he mentioned that the engineer's scientific research isn't peer reviewed.

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In an un–bylined article on October the 12th, the Times wrote another news story about it, which was placed on page 2 of the paper under the headline “Global warming is good for us, claims scientist”. While the headline does not really reflect the narrow scope of the report, nor the fact that its authors only academic qualifications are in engineering, the article did state that the report “has not been peer–reviewed”.

However, on October 17th, the Times ran a correction, which implies that the article had been peer reviewed, if not published in a peer reviewed journal. In fact, it hadn't. The original article was correct.

“We stated that Indur Goklany's report, Carbon Dioxide: The Good News, has not been peer reviewed. We should have said it has not been published in a peer–reviewed journal.”


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I've asked the Times to comment on this correction, and whether they will now publish a further retraction of Matt Ridley's untrue claim. They haven't yet responded, I'll add in any comments they send me when they do.

Sources close to the situation say, however, that coal proprietor Matt Ridley and Nigel Lawson, founder of the GWPF, personally intervened with the editor of the Times over the articles, leaving the paper open to allegations that it is allowing a man with significant financial interest in the fossil fuel industry to lean heavily on its editorial decisions.

Sources close to the situation say that coal proprietor Matt Ridley and Nigel Lawson, founder of the GWPF, personally intervened with the editor of the Times over the articles

Since his now discredited article on 18th October, The Times has run two pieces from Ridley on climate change, and he's been invited onto BBC Radio 4's Today Program to discuss the issue.

Likewise, Ridley was given the front page of the Spectator this week to make his dubious claims about climate science, alongside GWPF director Benny Peiser. The coal mine owner claimed on the magazine's website in 2013 that “My points about probably fewer droughts and probably richer biodiversity are grounded in the peer reviewed literature”. It's not clear to which literature he was referring, and whether it too was a part of the GWPF peer-review scam.

I asked the Spectator about these claims. They haven't yet got back. I'll let you know if and when they do.

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Spectator front page, 5 December 2015, fair use

Likewise I reported last week that the Telegraph have got rid of their chief environmental commentator, Geoffrey Lean* (not a climate denier) and run a listicle from Christopher Booker “10 reasons we shouldn't worry about man– made global warming” rather than the commentary of Britain's most experienced environmental journalist.

Booker is himself an author of a GWPF report, and has himself repeatedly quoted the organisation in the Telegraph.

What is surprising is that any paper would take these people seriously. Matt Ridley's main distinction in history is that he was the chair of Northern Rock when it collapsed. The previous time that there had been a run on a British bank – the Bank of Glasgow in 1878 – all of the directors were jailed. This time round, we shrugged, and gave the chair a column in what is perhaps our most famous national newspaper.

Piers Corbyn believes that climate change is all a conspiracy run from Qatar to keep oil prices high. He was invited during the Paris climate summit onto the BBC show This Week to discuss his ideas with Andrew Neil. In the past, Viscount Christopher Monckton has been given columns in the Telegraph to spread his opinions about climate science. This is a man who believes that COP21 is really all an attempt by Barack Obama and a “small group of malevolent scientists” to set up a communist/fascist autocratic global government and whom the House of Lords had to issue a letter demanding that he stop claiming to be a member of it.

The fact that these people are taken more seriously by the British press than other off–the–wall conspiracy theorists is serious not because people necessarily believe them – though they do, but because this allows the impression to be created that there is much more of a scientific debate than there really is in the scientific literature.

The Telegraph's Philip Johnston wrote last week, in a column in which he was ultimately arguing that we should reduce fossil fuel use:

“Listening to the apocalyptic predictions of scientists, I fear for humanity’s future. Yet then I read Christopher Booker or Nigel Lawson on the subject and say: “Hang on a minute. Is the ice melting or not? Is the temperature rising or not?” And even more fundamentally: “Does CO2 cause warming or not?”.

This argument is equivalent to “my oncologist says I have cancer, but some bloke in the street says I look fine, so I don't know what to think”. But it's pernicious. If a couple of rich men with opinions contrary to contemporary science are given significant space in the national press to make a case against science, then it's no wonder that this pulls the rest of the media towards them.

At the end of the British climate denier conference I wrote about last week, Christopher Monckton announced with glee that new research would come out shortly which would “destroy this whole scam”. The scientist he told us was behind this paper? Will Happer, the man exposed days later by the Greenpeace sting.

That exposé has shown that climate denial is built on academics who are willing to make 'scientific' claims in exchange for money from the fossil fuel industry. It's time for the British press to stop treating them as anything more than what they are: a collaboration between corrupt scientists and conspiracy theorists. And its time for the Times to ask itself serious questions about the role of the 5th Viscount Ridley.


*And, by the way, I now hear that the Telegraph made Lean write his column every week for the six months of his notice, only to refuse to publish it either in print or online (though they did keep publishing ad hoc pieces online).


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