Misrepresenting The Facts: "Amazongate" Retracted

Back in March I wrote a dismissive post about “Amazongate,” a story making the rounds of the climate denial echo chamber at the time. It was a relative minor story at that point. But in the climate deniers’ alternate universe where scientific fraud and conspiracy abound — and not, strangely, ever on the side of industry-funded scientists — the ubiquitous “–gate” suffix, as we are now required to designate all scandals, had already been applied.

Except this “scandal” was nothing more than another of the deniers’ latest attempts to discredit climate science indirectly, by influencing public opinion. I dismissed it then as a strawman, and had no idea how right I was. The newspaper that “broke” the Amazongate story has just retracted the entire thing.

A recap: originally, London’s Sunday Times published accusations that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had used a non-scientific paper prepared by “green campaigners” as the basis for claims in its report. Specifically in dispute was its statement that unchecked global warming and changing rainfall patterns could turn about 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest into a savannah.

Now, in a correction published this past weekend, the Sunday Times said “whoops,” the IPCC’s statements about the Amazon were indeed based on peer-reviewed evidence.

The paper’s story was fishy from the start. As soon as the Amazongate allegations surfaced, many forests and climate researchers were quick to defend the science supporting the IPCC’s claim.

In particular, Simon Lewis, a rainforest expert at the University of Leeds, filed a complaint with Britain’s Press Complaints Commission alleging that not only had the Sunday Times published inaccurate and misleading information about climate change, but also that he himself had been wrongly portrayed in the article as critical of the IPCC’s Amazon findings. In reality, Lewis’ original criticism was that the IPCC hadn’t fully cited the peer-reviewed research that formed the basis for its conclusions — a far less serious accusation than the paper had made it seem.

“I welcome the Sunday Times’ apology,” Mr. Lewis wrote to the NYT’s Green blog. “The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments.”

Of course, the deniers want misleading reporting, because they can’t attack the science head-on. They have to wage a war of public opinion by instead poisoning the debate. Not surprisingly — and not unlike the so-called Climategate scandal — Amazongate turns out to be another case of wildly trumped up charges with little basis in reality. The ultimate irony is that, in supposedly watch-dogging the IPCC to make sure it is accurate about climate science, the denier camp often bases its allegations on gross inaccuracies.

It’s time for every single news outlet that ran a piece on Amazongate to issue a retraction similar to what the Sunday Times issued last weekend. And for god’s sake, do some journalistic due diligence before posting the next breathless denier allegation.

Image credit: leetlegreenman

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