BBC More or Less debunks IPPR

Last week I wrote about a new scaremongering report from the IPPR that was given an unquestioning blaze of publicity by the BBC and other media, despite containing numerous errors. Some of the false claims originated from an article by a man called Jeremy Grantham, who isn’t a scientist but just happens to provide a significant amount of funding for the IPPR.

I wrote a complaint to the BBC about one particular false claim about flooding in the report, read out to millions of listeners by Martha Kearney on the Today Programme. I haven’t yet had a reply.

However, the issue was discussed on Radio 4 on Sunday evening on “More or Less”, which questions statistical claims made in the media. The programme was pretty good, and made some of the same points I made in my blog post, including the dubiousness of the IPPR’s claim that 2005 was a “typo” for 1950, and the fact that the IPCC says there’s no trend in flooding. The presenter Tim Harford interviewed Mark Lynas, one of the few on the warmist side who raised doubts about the IPPR report.

So, credit due to Tim Harford and Mark Lynas. But nul points to the UK climate science community. As far as I’m aware, no climate scientists commented publicly on this; they seem to be quite happy to have false statements about their field presented to the public, as long as they are false in the direction of exaggeration and alarmism.

You can listen to More or Less here on the Radio 4 site or here on BBC Sounds. Later on in the programme there’s an item debunking the latest alcohol scare, featuring an interview with statistician David Spiegelhalter.

It’s probably not accessible to some readers, so below is a transcript, with links to some of the tweets referred to. Alex Cull has done a more professional transcript at his site.

Tim Harford: On Tuesday, Today Programme listeners woke up to the news that the left-leaning think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research had new statistics that showed the scale of the damage we humans are doing to the planet.

Martha Kearney: When you look at the scale of the problems outlined in the report like the number of floods increasing  by 15 times since 2005, extinction rates increasing by a huge rate, are these reversible?

TH: The same numbers were reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, but they just didn’t sound quite right to some people, for example Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, a book about the effects of climate change.

Mark Lynas: So this jumped out at me, because I was just in the middle of doing some research about the impacts of climate change, and it struck me that the claim that was being made about floods increasing by 15 times in the last few years since 2005 did not ring true with what I understood about the science so far.

TH: So what happened next?

ML: This is one of those rare instances where twitter actually leads to a positive engagement and a friendly result on a debate about something. I tweeted that this didn’t sound right to me and one of the authors of the IPPR report responded and said that actually it was a typo and that where they put since 2005 that should have been since 1950 that these increases in climate damages had supposedly happened.

TH: I’m not sure that’s really how typos work, maybe we should call that a mistake rather than a typo, but anyway, fine.

ML: Yes, and also I still wasn’t quite satisfied with that either because it still didn’t sound right, because if you look at the IPCC, where all of the scientific consensus material is written in these weighty reports every few years, they say they’re not confident that there’s been any increase in flooding around the world, so heavy rainfall’s got worse, yes there’s an increase in heatwaves, but nothing like the magnitude of what was being claimed in the IPPR report, and I wanted to know the source, and they said it came from Jeremy Grantham, who’s a rich person who writes reports on environmental things, and his source supposedly was the database of emergencies and disasters, and then twitter being amazing, the administrator of the database then got onto this, and said that they didn’t think it was correct for their database to be used to claim trends in numbers of floods.

TH: Why not? It sounds like a reasonable source?

ML: It does, but the thing is there’s lots of other things that affect flood impacts other than just climate change, for example what’s happening in the built environment, more structures there which are likely to get flooded, so economic growth and population changes can have a much bigger impact on recorded damages than just climate trends.

TH: OK, so the source of the claim was a database, and the administrator of the database says you shouldn’t use our database to draw conclusions about the impact of climate change. So what do we know about the impact of climate change on extreme weather, flooding and so on?

ML: We actually know quite a lot. The IPPR had said that floods had increased 15 times since 2005, or corrected to 1950, but if you look at what the scientists are saying, so look at the IPCC, and if I quote you from their latest report issued only a few months ago they say “In summary, streamflow trends since 1950 are not statistically significant in most of the world’s largest rivers, while flood frequency  and extreme streamflow have increased in some regions”, so it’s very different from what the IPPR were claiming, and, you know, I’m not a climate sceptic, I’m not someone who goes out there trying to debunk what’s being said about the urgency of climate change, but if you overstate the case, and you use erroneous facts and figures, then I think you undermine a lot of what was in the report which I thought was actually very valuable.

17 thoughts on “BBC More or Less debunks IPPR

  1. More or Less is one of the few vaguely reliable programmes on the BBC these days, but I’m still pleasantly surprised. I’m usually a big critic of the BBC’s reporting, which I see as frequently biased, inaccurate, and//or pushing an agenda or point of view, but credit where credit is due. Well done, BBC!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. No mention that the frequency of reporting in the database has a hockey stick shape, so it is unsurprising that the data has a hockey stick shape. That was the central point that I was waiting for Lynas to mention, but he did not.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is ironic. The IPPR is running something called the “Oxford Media Convention” on 18 March.

    “At this year’s convention leading policy experts will debate issues including the threats of misinformation, press sustainability, media ownership models, and media freedom.”


  4. The Debunking Handbook (Cook and Lewandowsky 2011) opens with

    It’s self-evident that democratic societies should
    base their decisions on accurate information. On
    many issues, however, misinformation can become
    entrenched in parts of the community, particularly
    when vested interests are involved. Reducing
    the influence of misinformation is a difficult and
    complex challenge.

    I would suggest that an obscure verbal rebuttal would hardly count as countering the pernicious impacts misinformation. What is more Mark Lynas misses the true scale of the misinformation through relaying on a secondary opinion rather than looking at the original claim by Jeremy Grantham and the underlying database itself. This is what I did last week.
    The claim by the IPPR & repeated by Roger Harrabin is :-

    Since 1950, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times, extreme temperature events by 20 times, and wildfires sevenfold

    That statement is false based on the available evidence for two reasons.
    First is that the time periods are all different ranges. For instance, the 15 times “floods” increase is for 2001-2017 compared to 1950-1966.
    Second, the EM-DAT database is not an unbiased sample of all actual disasters across all periods. Disaster data collection improved significantly through to the 1990s. This means that in the current decade, compared to 1900-1949, “Climate” disasters are 65 times more frequent. Similarly epidemics are 47 times more frequent, geological events (earthquakes, landslides etc.) 16 times and “other” disasters (industrial, transport etc.) 34 times. The control check is the number of reported deaths in the database. Compared to 1900-1949, “Climate” disaster deaths are down 84%. If one looks at the death rate per reported occurrence, “Climate” disaster death rates have declined by 97.7% between 1900-1949 and the 2010s.
    The database is now including very trivial disasters, whereas in the early twentieth century it was just well-documented disasters, with a distinct first world bias. The misinformation of a worsening climate is in replacing the very good news that globally people are much less vulnerable to disasters of all types.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Paul @ 1.34pm
    I was just writing my comment when you posted about upcoming the IPPR convention on the “threats of misinformation…”. No doubt the convention will be drawing in the academic literature. But what is misinformation?
    From Note 1 of
    Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing” 2012
    Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, John Cook

    We use the term “misinformation” here to refer to any piece of information that is initially processed as valid but that is subsequently retracted or corrected. This is in contrast to so-called post-event misinformation, the literature on which has been reviewed extensively elsewhere (e.g., Ayers & Reder, 1998, Loftus, 2005) and has focused on the effects of suggestive and misleading information presented to witnesses after an event.

    Alternatively, dictionary.com definition of “misinformation” is

    false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead

    The difference is that in the dictionary definition, a statement is misinformation regardless of whether anyone recognizes it as such, whereas for Lewandowsky et al, the statement only becomes misinformation when it is declared as such. Using the same logic, somebody is guilty of a crime because they have committed that crime, against when a court decides they are guilty. Or, in science, a conjecture is true (or a good approximation of the natural world) regardless of observations or experiments that verify the conjecture, nor because a consensus of the leading experts in the field collectively believe it to be true.
    In today’s post-truth world, what is recognized as misinformation is the result of a power struggle. In climatology and associated political discourse, the environmentalist prejudices are taking center stage. Whereas the criminal courts in this country have taken great strides in trying to stop cultural prejudice or hearsay trying to influence the result, in climate alarmism qualification to speak based on the acceptance of the prevailing consensus beliefs that “climate change is happening, is human-caused, serious and solvable.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wikipedia says: “Sir David John Spiegelhalter, OBE FRS (born 16 August 1953), is a British statistician and Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge[4] and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.[2][5][6][7] Spiegelhalter is an ISI highly cited researcher.”

    But, that did not stop him from stating recently on the BBC World Service that the recent drought in Cape Town (now ended) is a “once in 300 year event”. This claim, with the now ubiquitous implication that its uncertainty is zero, comes not from a scientific paper, but from an online article deploying highly dubious methods on a mere 150 years of data.

    I have always found More or Less to have an unjustified smugness, reflecting the fact that statisticians generally have more expertise and fairness in dealing with data than those promoting pre-ordained conclusions, but have very little expertise in the phenomena that give rise to the data. You can only apply sophisticated statistical methods when you have a sophisticated understanding of the phenomena, which you would think would be in lesson 1 in statistics 101.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I had a holding reply to my BBC complaint, which suggests that they may be taking it seriously rather than immediately dismissing it:

    This is an update to let you know that we had referred your complaint to the relevant people and regret that it may take a little longer before we can reply. Please do not contact us in the meantime.

    Although we reply to most complaints within 2 weeks we cannot achieve this every time. It depends on what your complaint was about and how many others we are handling, or may sometimes be due to more practical issues. For example a production team may already be working on another programme or have gone on location.

    Or maybe they just have a huge number of complaints to deal with as a result of their constant stream of climateballs.


  8. Paul Homewood has a new blog post drawing attention to the fact that the Harrabin BBC article about the IPPR report was amended slightly on 28 Feb, after more than two weeks. One sentence about increasing floods and wildfires was removed, but the all the rest of the Harrabin / IPPR exaggeration and alarmism wasn’t changed at all.

    In a follow-up post mirrored at WUWT, Homewood discusses how the IPPR has edited its own report.


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