Time for the Beeb to rethink its appearance on at least one aspect of science reporting.
I was gobsmacked by Tuesday’s news predicting a sunspot cycle shutdown. I mean, yes I have been following the science, theories and speculation about the quiet sun on Watts up with That and Tallbloke’s Talkshop, but it was a big shock to hear the announcement. It’s been well covered in the MSM – The Telegraph: New Little Ice Age in store? – The Daily Mail: Earth facing a mini-Ice Age ‘within ten years’ due to rare drop in sunspot activity (commendably discussing much of the science in detail) – The Guardian: Solar cycle may go into ‘hibernation’, scientists say.
I did catch a 20 second report on the Thursday morning 8am news on BBC Radio 4:
“Scientists in the United States say the sun appears to be entering a period of hibernation, with far fewer sunspots than have been expected. A previous quiet episode in the middle of the 17thC is said by some experts to have led to cooler temperatures on Earth.”
No more than an understated sound bite. No experts trotted out to discuss it, nothing.
Here we have possibly one of the biggest stories in years about our nearest star, on which we depend for our very existence. It might be based on preliminary, as yet unverified and unpublished data, but it was big enough and important enough to merit a press release and teleconference by the American Astronomical Society Solar Physics Division. Even without considering climate – just as a science story – this is important. Mainstream science expected to see a normal solar cycle and can’t explain the cause of a sun this quiet. Surely this aspect alone merited a mention by a BBC Science Correspondent on the BBC website – no?
In the past week the BBC News Science & Environment website has had the following astronomical articles: Skywatchers enjoy lunar eclipse (of course), and Massive black hole devours star (understandable), but Stunning green ring nebula imaged, and Messenger spies Mercury in detail too. Nothing about the sunspot story; why not? We’ve all seen the BBC speculate on less.
The BBC’s top web ‘sunspot’ story, dates from 2004 – Sunspots reaching 1,000-year high. This also covered a paper presented at an astronomy meeting – on a reconstruction of beryllium in ice cores. Written by Dr David Whitehouse (BBC News Online science editor) it too is about climate.
… the reconstruction shows the Maunder Minimum and the other minima that are known in the past thousand years.
Over the past 20 years, however, the number of sunspots has remained roughly constant, yet the average temperature of the Earth has continued to increase.
This is put down to a human-produced greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels.
Back to this week’s big story… it is mentioned on the BBC website – Solar predictions bring heat and light by the BBC’s Environment Correspondent Richard Black.
Black commits hardly any more words to the science than the Radio 4 news but instead focuses on one thing – playing down the speculation of the possible effect on climate, diminishing any possible significance or effects that might be attributed to it. He sneers the at the response of The Register “the science story of the century” and James Delingpole for “treating it as fact” in a tongue-in-cheek 10 reasons to be cheerful about the coming new Ice Age.
Instead he offers three reasons why it should be ignored.
Firstly, the research itself has been presented at one rather small and rather select science meeting – not, as yet, formally published and peer reviewed.
OK – but ‘select’ does not mean biased – this is not a meeting of climate scientists ;-) Yes of course it needs to be dissected and go through peer review, but as above, it would hardly be the first time the BBC has reported on conference science.
Soundings taken by dot.earth’s Andy Revkin suggest that not everyone in the solar physics community likes what they’ve seen – so publication could yet prove a hurdle.
I say again, this is not climate science – let’s hope solar physics can still hold up its head and function properly as a science without a cabal looking to stifle new theories. This is based on evidence – you know – measurements compared with what we have seen in the past, not just models and projections. Of course evidence can be misread as to what it means, but the evidence in this case – three separate lines of observation no less each showing the lack of a normal cycle progression – is news even without the prediction.
Secondly, the predictions made about the next solar cycle would have to turn into reality – which might not happen, however sound the science.
Now let’s turn that one back on climate science – catastrophic global warming might not happen, however sound the science ;-)
Thirdly, even if all that happens, the Sun’s activity would have to diminish enough to overwhelm the man-made contribution to the greenhouse effect.
Black’s article then rolls out a tidal wave of ‘there is so much published material supporting global warming’ and ‘latest studies suggest warming will overwhelm cooling’. He ends with:
The battle for public opinion on climate change is largely fought with memes; and solar changes leading to a cooling planet is one of them.
On this battleground, where the bigger picture can be conveniently forgotten, it has proven remarkably persistent.
Part of its appeal is that it has some scientific grounding; but it melts away in the light of the bigger research picture, and that’s why it has little credence in mainstream scientific circles as a major factor in modern-day temperature fluctuations.
Time will tell – we’ll just have to wait and see. Overall it is an exercise in ‘move along nothing to see here’ and does him and the BBC no credit.
The comments below the article are delicious too. If you list them by ranking the high ranked ones are sceptical while the low ranked ones are overtly
warmist* pro-AGW; this pattern is repeated over and over on newspaper coverage of the story. No wonder Richard’s post smacks of desperation.
With a government adviser last week saying “Climate change should be removed from the national curriculum” – that the school syllabus needs to “get back to the science in science”, it is time for the BBC to recognise the need for change too. Heck, even the populist Daily Mail has it beaten on this one.
*Altered 02Oct2011 in line with new policy: http://diggingintheclay.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/cleaning-house/ VJ.