Friday, October 04, 2013

Who reads the letters?

I often wonder how the letters pages of newspapers and magazines work. For the main articles, most publications use some form of fact-checking. But what can you do about letters in which anyone can make any claim? Does anyone check up on them before publishing? I was struck by a recent letter in New Statesman, for example, which purportedly came from David Cameron’s former schoolteacher. Who could say if it was genuine? (And, while loath to offer the slightest succour to Cameron, is it quite proper for a former teacher to be revealing stuff about his onetime pupils?)

The problem is particularly acute for science. Many a time this or that sound scientific article has been challenged by a letter from an obvious crank. Of course, sometimes factual errors are indeed pointed out this way, but who can tell which is which? I’ve seen letters printed that a newspaper’s science editor would surely have trashed very easily.

This is the case with a letter in the Observer last Sunday from a chap keen to perpetuate the myth that the world’s climate scientists are hiding behind a veil of secrecy. Philip Symmons says that he hasn’t been able to work out for himself if the models currently used for climate projections are actually capable of accurate hindcasts of past climate, since those dastardly folks at the Hadley Centre refuse to let him have the information, even after he has invoked the Freedom of Information Act. What are they afraid of, eh? What are they hiding?

If the Letters editor had asked Robin McKie, I’m sure he would have lost no time in pointing out that this is utter nonsense. The hindcast simulations Symmons is looking for are freely available to all in the last IPCC report (2007 – Figure 9.5). I found that figure after all of five minutes’ checking on the web. And incidentally, the results are extremely striking – without anthropogenic forcings, the hindcasts go badly astray after about 1950, but with them they stay right on track.

It’s clear, then, that Symmons in fact has no interest in actually getting an answer to his question – he just wants to cast aspersions. I can’t figure out why the Observer would let him do that, given how easy it should be to discover that his letter is nonsense. Surely they aren’t still feeling that one needs to present “both sides”?

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