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  • Rex Widerstrom

Rigour, please!


There's something seriously wrong with the state of reporting when The Daily Mail Online can fisk other media in a way that, if it doesn't completely debunk what other outlets have reported, at least casts it in a doubtful light.

But The Mail was the only news site I saw delve into the recent NASA climate report which claimed 2014 set a new record for global warmth. Most other media opted for the Private Frazer approach (fans of Dad's Army will understand the reference).

They healdined the fact that Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies claimed its analysis of world temperatures showed ‘2014 was the warmest year on record’, but they didn't ask the follow-up questions that would allow readers to evaluate the information for themselves. What, for instance, was the margin of error?

Only approximately 0.1C, apparently. Well that must make the conclusion fairly sound, surely? But the increase over 2010, the previous warmest year, was just 0.02C. That doesn't totally invalidate the scientists' conclusions - and they certainly know more about the topic than the average Daily Mail reporter; indeed than most reporters, unless they happen to have a degree in the relevant science and have kept up to date with advances in their field.

But that's the point: they should have been asked about margins of error and degree of certainty by the first, and every subsequent journalist who picked up the story.

The Mail gleefully reported "GISS’s director Gavin Schmidt has now admitted NASA thinks the likelihood that 2014 was the warmest year since 1880 is just 38 percent. However, when asked by this newspaper whether he regretted that the news release did not mention this, he did not respond".

A Google of "NASA 'goddard institute for space studies' 2014 'margin of error'" shows very few other news outlets made reference to the margin of error, one of the most basic tests of validity of statistical data. A Washington Post story carried a piece, before the Mail story, citing other scientific studies that disagree with NASA, but noting that" NASA's and NOAA's joint statement will likely carry the most force". It mentions margin of error, but fails to tell us what it is in the NASA study.

The San Francisco Chronicle had an excellent analysis - in a blog post by James Temple. He explains the effect of margin of error on the data, and canvases the statistical variables and their effect on the conclusion. I don't know whether that made it to the print edition, or was considered too 'nerdish' for a mainstream audience.

Temple's point:

"The truth is there’s a huge amount of variability in the climate system, temperatures bounce up and down from year to year. It’s messy stuff. That’s why climate scientists more about long-term trends, favoring at least 30-year cycles. So let's look at that..."

So, accept there's a margin of error, explain it, then move on to explain that the most recent study is just that - just the most recent data point amongst data covering many decades, and have a look at what it tells us when seen in context. That seems to me to be the minimum which a publication should do for its readers.

Most of the other search results are opinion sites such as or - hardly unbiased sources.

Including "margin of error" in the search for information about the NASA report gave me 46 hits on Google News - most from sites whose credibility as news sources I'd doubt. Remove the phrase and I got 3,460 including, The Telegraph online, National Geographic, Turkish Press, Press TV, The New York Times, The Denver Post... even Chinese State television reported it sans analysis.

Amongst lead headlines on The Daily Mail site today:

  • "I'm not some type of scrubber who should not wear swimmers': Samantha Armytage strips down to a one-piece swimsuit for the cover Australian Women's Weekly" (an attempt to extract a non-story out of another publication's non-story... perhaps in some weird, double-negative way, they hope that counts as actual news)

  • "We resolved our differences in bed': Geoffrey Edelsten, 71, reignites romance with 'volatile' fiancée Gabi Grecko, 25, celebrating with movie and night of passion", which is not only non-news, but barely counts as gossip if one defines that as rumour about people most other people would find titillating.

Yet this is the medium that seems to have undertaken the most rigorous examination of a story which contributes to understanding of a major issue - one on which there are strident voices on both sides of the divide. It's certainly the one that has made that analysis accessible to a readership which wouldn't usually read an in-depth science story.

A great deal of navel-gazing is taking place at media headquarters the world over, as proprietors and editors try to figure out what value 'old' media can offer in the digital age. Surely part of the answer is to ensure that it fulfils the role it always has - to ask the questions we don't have the time or knowledge to ask, and to present that evidence, and their own findings, to us.

That, I'd pay for. Geoffrey Edelstein's adventures in bed, not so much.

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