Nature & the Gulf Stream
Dodgy claims, overblown headlines, basic errors of fact: can you trust anything in the papers these days? Not the tabloids, that is, but the research papers in top science journals.
This is a question raised by fresh doubts about research into one of the scariest scenarios in the global warming debate: the disappearance of the Gulf Stream . This warm current is routinely portrayed as all that stands between Europe and an arctic climate. Not surprisingly, any evidence that the current is weakening is seized on by those demanding action on climate change.
In December 2005, the leading UK science journal Nature made world headlines by publishing evidence of precisely this. Researchers at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) claimed that measurements of the current spanning the last half-century pointed to a 30 per cent
When science mags go tabloid, they damage faith in science itself, says robert matthews
slow-down in its strength. The team was in no doubt about the potential seriousness of their claim, warning that any such slow-down would have 'profound implications' for the climate of Europe .
So worrying a finding in so prestigious a journal predictably sparked scary headlines in the world's media. "Scientists probing a dying current bring worst climate fears to the surface", declared The Australian; "Is Britain on the brink of a new Ice Age?" asked the Daily Mail.
Many scientists already knew the answer to that one: no, we aren't. They immediately viewed the study's conclusion with suspicion, not least because it flew in the face of so much previous research. Some quickly spotted the most likely explanation: the NOC's data simply didn't justify its conclusion. All measurements have some inherent uncertainty, and in the case of the ocean current data, that uncertainty was huge - casting severe doubt on the reality of any change. Worse still, the NOC team had made a basic mistake in their sums, making their data seem more precise than they were.
Amazed that this has been missed by Nature's supposedly rigorous referees, one climate expert, Prof Petr Chylek of the Los Alamos National Laboratories, wrote a formal letter to the journal pointing out the error; it was never published. Now Prof Chylek has gone public with his concern that Nature is more interested in getting media coverage than publishing reliable science.
In the current issue of Physics Today, he points out the basic errors in the NOC paper, and then reveals a telling detail. In its original form, the title of the paper had included a question-mark, highlighting the uncertainty of the conclusion. By the
In its original form, the title of the paper had included a question-mark
time it was printed, the question- mark had vanished.
The NOC team has confirmed that Nature's editors suggested cutting the question-mark, but insist they were happy to do so.
Both may now be rueing their foray into tabloidesque certainty. New research - gleefully reported recently in Science, Nature's US-based deadly rival - strongly suggests the Atlantic current hasn't changed at all.
You can read this at: http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/index.php?WT.mc_id=070308daily&menuID=2&subID=1510