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Cherry Picking and a Sleeping Watchdog: How The Times and Press Regulator IPSO Ignored the Facts on the Climate Crisis

The inside look at how a Times columnist with ties to coal mining, distorted climate data in The Times – while the press regulator turned a blind eye

Photo: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

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This January, The Times published a piece by columnist Matt Ridley: “Walrus comeback is more good news the Greens won’t admit.” 

As always when given a soapbox, Viscount Ridley, a coal mine owner and former peer, pushed a self-serving agenda. But this time, it was with such brazen cherry picking that it is worth digging down into it. 

It’s a case study not only in the mental gymnastics required of a science denier, but the complicity of the billionaire press which too often gives a platform to the contrarian voices of Tufton Street – and the shortcomings of the press’ self-regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).

In this article, Ridley claimed that: “Arctic sea ice has declined hardly at all in winter since 2002…Why won’t activists report good news about the environment?”

I complained to the mainstream press regulator Ipso, citing their protocols on accuracy, that he had made this misleading claim when peer-reviewed data shows a downward trend since 1979. 

In effect, by averaging out some well-chosen data points from a single decade, Ridley had given the impression that the decline over time was insignificant.

Essentially, the chosen comparative dates were peaks which aligned with troughs so as to downplay the decline:

A graph with a line going up

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Extraordinarily, one defence presented was that, since he hadn’t taken it into account the downward trend since 1979, my complaint was invalid.  They went on to say: “The article in question was a clearly designated opinion column. 

The Times is committed to freedom of expression and to promoting debate on important questions through publication of a broad spectrum of opinion in its Comment section, including opinion that may be at odds with the consensus on a particular topic.”

I responded that although it was an opinion column, there is no indication for the casual reader that the piece was merely conjecture. Without such a qualifier, the whole Ipso protocol on accuracy becomes meaningless. 

In its correspondence with me over the complaint, The Times claimed that the article does not purport to be a scientific study, yet Ridley spuriously cites scientists and debunked data which indicates that that is exactly what he is doing. They also suggested that Ridley’s claim is supported by an “informed” source in Susan Crockford. As experts in the field point out, Crockford has not “conducted any original research [in] peer-reviewed literature…However, she has published notes and “briefings” through…the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”

As Ridley is an associate of the GWPF, this is not a case of being informed – but one of marking his own homework. The GWPF frequently seeks to cast doubt on the climate consensus through its research and does not reveal its funders.

Previously I’d been dealing with The Times via Ipso. But then Ridley himself broke cover to weigh in, doubling down with an intellectually incomprehensible flurry of spurious data. 

The misdirection was so convincing even I thought I must be missing something, so I contacted my sister, Dr Mary Hardy, a former actuary for the UK Government, for her unimpeachable analysis and forwarded her letter to The Times. 


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Academic Unpicks Ridley’s Riddles

She told me Ridley was “taking the average of the maximum spread for each day of each year, which makes no sense. He’s averaging over decades giving a sample of only three values, which means that he’s throwing away most of the richness of the data. ”

“All he is saying is that if we only look at one day each year – and we use 20-20 hindsight to pick the day with the most ice – and then we average out the trends, then we lose the information about diminishing arctic sea ice. But if you don’t do those things, the loss of Arctic ice is blindingly obvious.  This is a blatant misuse of statistics. Cherry-picking the values that support his view and ignoring the wealth of data that does not, and then arbitrarily smoothing out the trends just to obscure any significant information that the data is offering,” she said.

Dr Hardy also submitted Ridley’s workings to Michael Wallace, Associate Professor, Biostatistics, Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of Waterloo who responded that in the article Ridley was “clearly cherry picking…Doubtless what is presented will mislead people.”

What Ridley fails to show is the overall trend which, despite the peaks and troughs he so easily exploits, the trend is inexorably downward. However, The Times responded: “[Dr Hardy’s concerns] about Matt Ridley’s methodology are not universally shared. I’ve attached a note to Matt from Nic Lewis, a climate researcher with a background in mathematics and statistics …It shows, I hope, that while the data involved may be open to different interpretations, there was no failure on Matt Ridley’s part to take care when he relied on it.”  

But, by once again referring only to the period from 2002, Lewis, someone described by the UN as “a darling of the climate-change deniers” also ignored the implications of the overall trend.

And for all of his confidence trickery, the projection (below) in his chosen data set tells the same incontrovertible story. Anyone who looks at these graphs and concludes that little has changed over time, or that the decline is no reason to be concerned, can only be extraordinarily ignorant or wilfully disingenuous. 

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I responded that using Nic Lewis, a colleague of Ridley’s at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, is not really bringing an objective eye to the piece. Lewis shuns blind peer review and his flawed data interpretation has been widely discredited – not least of all by Dan Nuccitelli who reviewed his work, saying: “The authors merely dismiss or ignore the research that doesn’t support their desired conclusion and overlook the shortcomings of the research that does.”

Ipso Says: “So What?”

Despite weeks of peer-reviewed rebuttal on my part, Ipso sided with The Times

In their ruling, they stated: “The Committee noted, firstly, that the article was a comment piece…The Committee also noted that the article covered a subject of great public interest, and contentious debate, where there were different interpretations of the data available, including those of a scientific minority.

“With regards to the matter of the sea ice, the Committee firstly made clear that it was only making findings on what was reported in the article itself – the level of sea ice change since 2002. The publication had set out its data and methodology for reaching its conclusions, which supported the information in the article. In the context of a short opinion piece, and not an academic journal, it was not misleading for the calculations not to appear in the article itself.” 

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In other words, no recognition of the dishonesty of cherry-picking, no recognition of settled science, and no recognition of the perniciousness of the disinformation industry.  

Although Ipso protocols require that the press “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact” in opinion pieces, disingenuous cherry-picking of data – which deliberately misrepresents original research on the subject of climate change – is rife and invariably approved. Even, as is often the case, when the author of the original research complains about the distortion.

So how is it that successful complaints to Ipso are so rare and the Accuracy protocols remain so exploitable?

I don’t think that one needs to look further than who comprises the ‘Code Committee’: editors of the Telegraph, Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, the Daily Express, among others. There is an overwhelming representation of editors from the very newspapers most implicated in this mess.

It begs the question, who now will regulate the regulators – who themselves appear to have been cherry-picked from the ranks of climate denial?

Matt Ridley and The Times were contacted for comment.

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