I recently heaped abuse and ridicule on the people at HarperCollins, when they goofed very badly on Greenland ice in the latest Times Atlas. Now, they have done the right thing and are publishing a correction. Details at Realclimate. Even better, there is a paper (currently in review and a preprint posted for public discussion here) by Jeff Kargel and 15 other experts in the field that discusses a correct version of the map created by the authors, plus the incident’s causes and development. Excerpts below the fold.
Fig. 1 of Kargel et al. (submitted): This (or something highly similar) is what the Times Atlas SHOULD have shown.
The Kargel et al. paper is really worth a read. I didn’t have time for a thorough digestion, but one paragraph jumped out at me right away:
“Scientists cannot challenge all of the innumerable
misunderstandings and misrepresentations of their work
in public discourse. Distinguishing manifest, ignorable
nonsense from falsehoods that might take root in the
public mind is difficult, but the magnitude of and apparent
authority behind this particular mistake seemed to
warrant a rapid and firm response.” (Kargel et al. [subm.], p. 3).
Indeed – innocent and harmless mistakes happen a lot. If, however, as in this case, the mis-reporting entity can be expected to have a strong effect on public opinion, for example because it has a big outreach and is highly trusted, then it is of paramount importance to yell “Hell NO!” loudly and clearly, and right away. And to detail the reasons so that any layperson can immediately understand what went wrong, and how things really are.
Sadly, the Internet (wonderful and helpful as it can be) makes it much too easy for mistakes to become public opinion, both honest and deliberate mistakes. Especially on issues where politics is involved. We should all try to “do more” to fight misinformation about science. And the press, I have to admit, can help! I just had another very positive experience with a journalist who knows how to ask, how to listen, how to fact-check and how to balance a text. And how it important it is to give the quoted people a chance to counter-check before publication (more on that soon). Overall, not all is lost 🙂
Edit: From the conclusions:
“The Times Atlas mistake was unfortunate and
avoidable. The publisher could have made a much
better map, and in consultation with glaciologists has
now done so. The publisher corrected the mistake
quickly because the scientific community reacted immediately
to the incorrect description of climate-related
change in public media. We hope that as a result public
trust in science is strengthened.”
hear, hear! – this is really a prime example of how science data is often used carelessly, sloppily (at least, in this case it wasn’t deliberate). A case on which it can be quickly explained how the media and others get things wrong, why it is always important to get experts opinions on complex issues (they may show up errors rather quickly), and how important a quick fact check is.