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« Nature on public relations | Main | Guardian debate »
Wednesday
Jun302010

Fiona Fox on the Hockey Stick

Fiona Fox, who runs the (big-oil funded!) Science Media Centre has an article up at the BBC College of Journalism website. The thrust of the piece is that sceptics should be ignored. Nothing new there, I hear you say. However, her argument includes this take on the Hockey Stick.

That said, I suspect the other defence of 'balance' is that it is 'entertaining'. Most producers don't bother to hide their utter disdain when I suggest that having two scientists who look like they may agree would make for an equally entertaining debate. But I mean it. Anyone who reads Fred Pearce's brilliant new book on the UEA (University of East Anglia) emails can testify that the really interesting disputes about the 'Hockey Stick' and other climate science controversies were amongst mainstream scientists themselves, not between scientists and the sceptics.

Fox's take on the lessons to be learned from the Hockey Stick affair - that sceptics should be ignored - are, to say the least, odd. I've only glanced at Fred Pearce's book, which I will start reading next week, but I did chance upon one interesting quote from the book. Speaking about the aftermath of McIntyre and McKitrick's first paper on the Hockey Stick back in 2003, Pearce explains how he and other environment journalists missed what was going on:

I fear that journalists like me who should by now have been taking this story seriously, were fooled by a mixture of the complexity of the statistical arguments being made by McIntyre and by the loud assertions by Mann and others that there was nothing in it.

Fox says that journalists have dutifully let both sides have their say, an says that this is an approach she deprecates. But she also praises Pearce's book, which shows clearly that even when this was done, important scientific findings were ignored by the media. And yet despite this, Fox wants to make it harder still for dissenting voices to be heard. If she had it her way we'd remain completely ignorant of the flaws in the Hockey Stick, still unable to assess how they fit into the bigger picture.

I hope this is just a case of her not understanding the meaning of the words she has read, because otherwise this looks like a wilful attempt to keep the public ignorant.

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Reader Comments (16)

The Elite (no matter their specialty) are always "correct" even when they are not "correct", for "correction" is their life's essence, their bread and butter; as for the vicious, hungry mob of poor and worthless humanity outside shouting for bread, they say: "Let them eat cake!"

What goes around, comes around. The composition of the upper classes may change over the course of time, but their disgusting sense of superiority never changes.

Jun 30, 2010 at 5:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterPascvaks

At the recent presentation by Pearce of his book at the Royal Institution, which was followed by a rather sour and critical commentary by Myles Allen, Fiona Fox made a similar comment near the end that I thought showed an almost uncanny ability not to hit the nail on the head. Oil-funding seems nowadays bound to produce the line in the fundee: "Ignore the sceptics, don't even read the nasty book, move right along, etc."

This raises the question of the role of oil funding throughout this very strange story. Back in 1992, people of good faith (as I would still assume) like our own John Houghton became utterly convinced that there was a powerful oil lobby trying to deny the very real and present dangers of warming due to carbon emissions. This got embedded in the accepted narrative to an extent that became truly bizarre.

Judy Curry has helped greatly recently by emphasizing that whereas in the past scepticism was indeed, she accepts, mostly 'denialism' - namely, politically motivated activism and disinformation with no interest in the science at all, funded by fossil fuel interests - nowadays a large proportion of sceptics are in fact citizen scientists who deserve respect and (whisper it not in Gath) might even on occasions have something to teach the 'experts'.

Much though I appreciate the new-found respect, what the oil companies have really been up remains a great puzzle. First they very publicly funded individuals and activities that brought the whole of scepticism into great public disrepute. Now, as the case against things like the Hockey Stick starts to become crystal clear, not least through the writing gifts of our esteemed host, they fund people like Fiona Fox begging people (do I detect a note of desperation now?) not to listen or read such detestable people.

In other words, funding from oil companies at all times had the same effect, although through different means.

I'm sure though that this is all accidental. :)

Jun 30, 2010 at 5:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

"On all these subjects, the weight of evidence stacked on one side is significant - but I only know that because I work in science."

From her profile, "Fiona Fox has a degree in journalism and 20 years of experience in working in media relations".

Hmmm.

Jun 30, 2010 at 6:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Pearce

Having worked with folks from oil companies, I would say that first they are far from monolithic, They also tend to have, like their oil tankers, huge inertia. Therefore, whatever the reasons for the initial funding of the likes of Fiona Fox, cutting off that funding could well be seen as doing more damage than continuing the fundingt. (The funding trend would be interesting.)

Given the involvement of so many well funded PR efforts on both sides, it should be no surprise that it is getting harder and harder to separate facts from spin: We need a new George Orwell.

Jun 30, 2010 at 6:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernie

Bernie talks about "many well funded PR efforts on both sides". What fantasy is this taken from? Skeptics receive a tiny tiny fraction of the funding that alarmists receive.

Jun 30, 2010 at 6:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterSara Chan

Please somebody fund me to be a skeptic. PhD, C.Eng, 30 years experience in science and engineering (including environmental consultancy), willing to work for oil companies...

Over the years I've become a volunteer AGW skeptic, doing it for free in my spare time, but I'd really like to be paid and go pro if there's so much money sloshing around to fund skeptics.

Or maybe I should lobotomise the honesty and scientific judgement centres in my brain and become a BBC environmental correspondent.

Jun 30, 2010 at 7:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterLiam

I find it hard to believe that people like Fiona Fox can write this kind of article and pretend that it is anything other than a proposal to stifle debate on an issue that is wide open and widening daily. I can only think that this article was (superior) peer reviewed to ensure that the appeal to authority phrases were nicely in place.
In my opinion this article is SICKENING

Jun 30, 2010 at 8:04 PM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

Liam

You have a PhD and engineering qualifications, plus decades of experience in science and engineering.

So you would have NIL chance of getting a job at the BBC as an "environmental" reporter/propagandist. Go back to Uni, get an English degree, forget the scientific method, ditch the honest-appraisal approach - then you'd be in with a chance.

Jun 30, 2010 at 8:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohnA

JohnA, I was thinking of doing something like a degree in "Environmental Studies", one of those BSc's that doesn't involve any science.

Jun 30, 2010 at 8:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterLiam

Sarah:
I think you completely misread my point. You may be correct in terms of the relative size of funding - but that does not mean to say that the fossil fuel industry is not actively involved in defending their markets and their bottom lines - and they have every right to do so. If your point is that there are many skeptics who are funding their own activism, such as our host, Anthony Watts, Steve McIntyre, etc., I agree. IF it turns out that some very visible skeptics receive support from Peabody Coal or some other group, so what. The issue is the accuracy of the arguments not who pays a hotel bill. If you also mean that groups like WWF, Sierra Club, Resource Defense Fund, Greenpeace are extremely well-funded and can largely be seen as PR machines - again, I agree.

The original post noted, somewhat ironically, that Fiona Fox's organization was funded by big oil. My point is that the PR battle is very important (as evidenced by Andrew's latest post, and that since nobody is going to limit the amount of money liberal envronmental groups pour into their CAGW campaigns - we should try to legitimate all accurate PR campaigns no matter what the source of their funding. The only way to counter the smear tactics of folks like Oreske is to defend the rights of fossil fuel companies to make their case where they can. In so doing the vested interests of all players can be put on the table. A favorite current tactic of CAGW activists is to delegitimize an argument based on who makes it. This type of argument needs to be strongly countered. My guess is that few people know the level of expenditures of the environmental groups, the tactics they use to raise money - see for example Dana Fisher's Activism, Inc. - and how the money flows into the various mouthpieces. This does not make their arguments wrong, per se - it does, however, invite scrutiny and skepticism.

Jun 30, 2010 at 9:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernie

Leave Fiona Fox alone. Your nasty ad feminam comments are as close to gender racism as they could be. She makes important points that need addressing. Rather thn tearing her down, answer her points.

Jun 30, 2010 at 11:27 PM | Unregistered Commenterolebjarne

Fiona Fox needs to be watched. She's leveraged a degree from a Polytechnic, a job as a press officer and a network from the now "defunct" Revolutionary Communist Party (aka Living Marxism/LM/Spiked) into a bully pulpit on science, science policy and science journalism. She appears to have reached her level of incompetence.

And she has clearly not read the sources she cites in the case of Pearse, and centres her arguments on vapour.

Jul 1, 2010 at 12:31 AM | Unregistered Commenterslowjoe

olebjarne,

I agree that we should look at her points and counter each and every one of them. So first off here is a list of her main points.
1. ......
2. .......
3. .......

Right now we can see there are no main points , what next?

Jul 1, 2010 at 1:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterJantar

Ms Fox said-

"One of the reasons none of us even knew those disputes had been raging in scientific literature and conferences for the past ten years is that.."

Journalists were ignoring it, not reporting it, or missing the significance of it. MWP? Where'd that go?

She made a statement at the Pearce RI debate that her team had been giving Stott and a new paper a thorough grilling to ensure quality reporting. That's nice, because a lot of the MSM doesn't have proper science reporters and often just repackages press releases or wire service stories. So I see this as a bit of a sales pitch to further embed her organisation into science and the media as 'CE' journalists.

But from looking at this list-

http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/pages/about/smc_board.htm

there are some familiar names and organisations, like Luther Pendragon who are currently running interference for the UEA, or our old friend of neutral and unbiased reporting, Bob Ward. But no doubt there'll be more opportunities to generate consulting fees helping the scientists with PR.

Jul 1, 2010 at 2:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

On BBC Newswatch a lilttle while ago:
Ref bias in science reporting and the media
Fiona Fox had written a report for the science minister...

Newswatch interview: ( 23/04/2010 )

Fiona Fox:

"to have a sceptic in every interview is misleading the public about 'climate science'" -

Fiona Fox:

"People like Richard Black and Roger Harrabin, fighting internally (at the BBC) to say we DON'T have to have a sceptic every time we have a climate story."


Listen very carefully, about 9mins 24 secs in, Fiona Fox very nearly said 'Climategate',

subject changed direction very rapidly… ;) :)

Jul 1, 2010 at 4:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

It is almost a given that new advances in science start from a minority position, often opposed by the mainstream.

What we seem to need more than an interface between science and journalism like SMC, is an apolitical body to recognise, asess, rank and promote emerging scientific advances.

Silly me, I thought that was what Associations for the Advancement of Science were supposed to do - apolitically.

Oct 17, 2010 at 6:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeof Sherington

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