Thermageddon, the BBC and a giant snake
Science radio off the rails
Listeners to BBC World Service's Science in Action program got a nasty surprise last week. In the midst of a discussion about the large snake fossil, a scientist dropped this bombshell:
"The Planet has heated and cooled repeatedly throughout its history. What we're doing is the rate at which we're heating the planet is many orders of magnitude faster than any natural process - and is moving too fast for natural systems to respond."
Hearing this, I did what any normal person would do: grab all the bags of frozen peas I could find in the ice compartment of my refridgerator, and hunker down behind the sofa to wait for Thermageddon.
Hours passed. My life flashed before my eyes a few times, and a few times more. But then I noticed that the house was still there, and so was the neighbourhood. And so was I!
Then I remembered something else.
According to our leading climate institutes, global temperatures have been static for almost a decade now. (You have to look the graphs, not the institutes' own press releases, which typically offer similar spine-chilling predictions) . The climate scientists are now predicting more of the same, or cooler. The latter, they explained, is because natural systems are at work.
So what is some random apocalyptic nutball doing in the middle of a discussion about paleontology. How did he get here? Did he just wander into to the discussion? Did the BBC producers find him on the street? "Say, you - we've got a feature about the world's largest fossilised snake. Can you liven it up somehow? We can't find Protein Man. Tell everyone the world's ending."
The R.A.N. turns out to be Jason Head, a faculty member at the University of Toronto, a palaeontologist with an eye for the publicity. In the media tarts directory for vertebrate palaeontologists, he notes:
"Areas of Expertise for Media Contacts: Reptile paleontology, climate change, dinosaurs, evolution, evolutionary developmental paleontology and morphometrics"
Notice anything odd, there? In the words of the Cookie Monster, "one of these things is not like the other".
Like so much churnalism, this story originates with a press release. Here it is, and you'll note Head makes no claims about future temperature - merely that rainforests 58m to 60m years ago were warmer than tropical rainforests are today.
The piece is immediately picked up by British weekly New Scientist, which allows Head to add some creative embellishments. Under the headline proclaims "Giant snake hints at a hotter future", we learn:
This "refutes the idea of the thermostat", says Head, and tells us "what equatorial temperatures will be as we continue to warm the planet: very hot."
How, you may ask, does a snake refute the idea of a climate thermostat? The science-free assertion is left unchallenged. The BBC then picks up the story, and Head makes his fridge-emptying soundbite.
But even the BBC producers must have noticed a strange whiff about this story. One of the corporation's own environment correspondents, Richard Black, is wheeled in to qualify Head's assertion.
"There may be other factors", Black admits, that contribute to the size of fossil. A warmer climate he adds mean some species, for example fish, get smaller. So it isn't possible to infer temperature from body size. Or future temperature from the fossil record.
Jason makes the observation that tropical temperatures were warmer than now 58m years ago. Then, vaulting through all known logic, he extrapolates that the climate must be getting warm now so quickly, natural systems can't cope. It's quite a ride, and entirely science free from start to finish.
The broadcast contains one false assertion, and one invalid inference.
We called Science In Action producer Peter McHugh to ask when the BBC would be issuing a correction. But he hasn't returned our call. ®