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Guardian super-blogger flames Reg boffinry desk

'You totally contradicted the Grauniad's coverage!!'

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Globally popular Guardian science correspondent Martin Robbins has initiated a public flame war with the Reg. This is our response.

Earlier today, under the page title "The Register misrepresents climate science", the Guardian ran this piece by Robbins, who blogs for the Graun under the title "The Lay Scientist" and who recently shot to world fame after writing this terrifically popular spoof science article - which we thought was pretty good, by the way.

But Robbins doesn't like us, here on the Reg boffinry desk. In particular he didn't like this piece of ours, reporting on recent research into the effects of solar variation on climate change.

Under the headline "Much of recent global warming actually caused by Sun", we wrote:

New data indicates that changes in the Sun's output of energy were a major factor in the global temperature increases seen in recent years. The research will be unwelcome among hardcore green activists, as it downplays the influence of human-driven carbon emissions.

We had based this on the fact that the new research covered the period 2004 to 2007, which we would say fits pretty well under "recent years". We thought the phrase "major factor" was appropriate as Professor Joanna Haigh - lead scientist conducting the research - told Nature, publishing it, that increased visible-light emissions by the Sun have caused as much warming over those recent years as human carbon emissions have. We quote Nature:

Over the three-year study period, the observed variations in the solar spectrum have caused roughly as much warming of Earth's surface as have increases in carbon dioxide emissions, says Haigh.

Open and shut, then. Much of recent global warming - as much as was caused by human carbon emissions, anyway - was actually down to changes in the Sun. At least, if you believe Professor Joanna Haigh of Imperial College London.

As for this being unwelcome news to hardcore green activists, the response the piece received - not least from Robbins of the Grauniad - suggests we were right on the money there, too. He says:

At a time when action to deal with climate change is needed more than ever, this sort of misleading reporting does nothing to help the public debate.

We've got no argument with the idea that CO2 in an atmosphere has a greenhouse effect: that's just a fact. But as for massive global action being required by the climate changes and atmospheric measurements observed in the present day, that's just an opinion based on long-range weather forecasts. It's an opinion widely held, apparently by Professor Haigh, certainly by Mr Robbins and many other green activists. For the record, your correspondent simply doesn't know whether they're right or not.

The opinion of an eminent physicist like Professor Haigh carries weight - Robbins' is worth less than the electrons used to publish it, of course. But then we might also consider the opinion of the still more eminent physicist Freeman Dyson - who considers the menace of carbon emissions to be seriously overblown, and who is not alone among eminent physicists in this.

Then, even James Hansen of NASA himself - the man who more or less invented the idea of carbon-driven warming and who believes that only the exhaustion of global oil supplies can save humanity - has lately admitted that in fact other things might have just as powerful an effect on the climate as CO2.

Then too there are all the embarrassing blunders made by the IPCC lately, in allowing totally unverified claims regarding glaciers, rainforests etc to filter through from hardcore green activists to official UN descriptions of the scientific state of play.

All in all, then, we'd say that our reporting is a lot more accurate than most on the environment beat. But we would say that, wouldn't we.

Robbins doesn't agree, certainly. He says we have "seriously misrepresented" the research, and quotes Haigh as saying:

The title of the article in The Register entirely misrepresents the paper's conclusions. While our work showed over a 3 year period that declining solar activity might have caused a warming of the planet it made no claims on longer periods. Even if it were the case that solar activity is inversely related to warming then the ups and downs of the solar cycle would cancel out over time. And over the past century overall solar activity has risen which, on the same basis, would imply global cooling.

But in fact the article title accurately reflected her comments to Nature: and we repeatedly made clear in the body of the piece that the research referred only to the period 2004-2007. We also reported her comments on the solar cycle and possible effects over the past century:

All that can be said with any certainty is that through 2004-2007, the Sun warmed the planet much more powerfully than had been thought...

Haigh thinks, however, that... over long periods of time solar warming probably has little effect on the Earth's temperature one way or the other, as solar activity cycles up and down regularly.

"If the climate were affected in the long term, the Sun should have produced a notable cooling in the first half of the twentieth century, which we know it didn't," she says.

Which is probably why the Professor specifically states only that the headline misrepresents her paper's conclusions. But it doesn't refer to the paper's conclusions - it refers to her accompanying comments, and we stand by it as presumably she stands by them.

Anyway, enough of Haigh and solar warming. Let's finish up with the "Lay Scientist". In addition to accusing us of "misrepresenting climate science", and - worst of all - "completely contradicting The Guardian's reporting" (OMG!!! Heresy!) he simply doesn't like our style. He writes:

It's not just the misrepresentation of science that grates. Through-out the article, the author, [sic] uses rather unfortunate language to describe scientists... the research is described as being published in "hefty boffinry mag Nature."

The use of 'boffin', common at the random-USE-of-CAPITALS end of tabloid journalism, is problematic to many scientists, as the word is increasingly loaded with negative connotations...

Whenever I see it, it reeks...

I feel it belittles researchers, and patronizes the reader.

Three minutes before Mr Robbins' effusion went up at the Graun, we received an email from him, which we reproduce here in part:

I trust that you'll pass on her concerns to your readers in an amendment to the article, and I'd be interested to hear your response to the criticism.

Well, down here at the random-use-of-capitals end of tabloid journalism, Mr Robbins, we DON'T CARE what YOU THINK. We are certainly not going to amend the article because you say so: and this is our response, delivered pretty much the way your request for comment was. ®

Boffinry Bootnote

We do care what boffins think, though, so we'd just like to repeat our previous assertions that on the pages of the Reg the word "boffin" is a title of honour accorded only to researchers we respect - generally from the proper sciences and able to do hard sums, like Professor Haigh. Lesser practitioners (for instance business-studies or psychology professors purveying dubious surveys and statistical analyses) are generally known as "eggheads" or "trick-cyclists", for instance.

We get a fair bit of positive mail from people we have dubbed boffins, so we're fairly sure most of them know this, but it never hurts to be sure.

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