When invited to make a guest appearance as panellist on the ABC's Q and A a few weeks ago, of course Senator Jacqui (I tell you what) Lambie would not have thought to take a barrister's load of supporting material with her. After all Q and A is for the most part an informal, unscripted entertainment programme where panellists talk off the top of their head. For me, it is hard viewing for in the space of an hour, one hears and sees more outrageous comments and claims that one can poke a stick at. As an example, it was on this same programme that one of the Senator's fellow (is there a gender-neutral synonym?) panellists made the claim that Islam was "the most feminist of all religions'! And so it goes.
But although that claim drew the most breath nationwide and featured as a hot media topic for more than a week, Q and A's compere Tony Jones did not blink an eye. Instead he pounced on poor Senator Lambie because she dared to challenge the conventional wisdom held on matters of climate change. I tell you what, the Senator said "First of all, we've always had climate change – it's been much, much hotter and much, much colder." In full voice and now unstoppable, the Senator unfortunately made a mistake. She went on "Even 110,000 years ago, it was four degrees hotter…." And here she was given the yellow card by compere Jones who put her on report. "There will be fact checkers on that one" he warned. I tell you what, the Senator was quick to get back into line.
The ABC has only this month resumed their Fact Check unit so it fell to The Conversation, the on-line media outlet to do the Fact Check. Their by-line is 'Academic rigour, journalistic flair' and this is how it works. Having found a fact they think is worth checking, they engage an academic to do the research and write it up. They then engage another academic to do a 'blind review' – that is the two academics do not know either is involved. The Fact Check editor then edits and consults a colleague to cast an eye over what has been presented. The Conversation boasts that their approach to Fact Checking is regarded as 'unique and fascinating' and has been described by an American expert as an approach 'that fact checkers around the world could benefit from observing'! That may be true, but one could say the same of the leadership approach of Kim Jong-un.
But Blind Freddy could drive a bus through this approach. For starters, a Fact Checking editor is not going to Fact Check a claim they essentially agree with, are they? Therefore, the editor is already of a mind that the claim is dubious then selects people who they expect will support that. If the Donald decided some media outlet was delivering 'fake news' or 'alternate facts' can you imagine the apoplectic outbreak that would emanate from The Conversation if he then said, he would appoint the people who would research the matter and return reports to him for editing?
Needless to say, two academics were duly commissioned and their reviewed and edited reports were published in The Conversation.
So where did the Senator go wrong? The lead researcher (Nerelie Abrams, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at ANU) essentially found the Senator was 'not entirely correct'. She was right to say the earth's climate has always changed but wrong to say '110,000 years ago'. According to Abrams, if the Senator had said 115,000 to 130,000 years she would have been correct! Abrams did seek to correct the Senator for wrongly claiming it was 4 degrees centigrade hotter globally 110,000 years ago but if she, and the Fact Check editor had checked the facts, Senator Lambie never made that claim. Abrams conceded that it is understood by scientists that the temperatures over Antarctica and Greenland have been 4 degrees centigrade warmer and more. So maybe Senator Lambie was more right than wrong and both Tony Jones and The Conversation more than missed the mark. And they were hardly playing fair. After all, the Senator's central point was that "..we have always had climate change – it's been much, much hotter and much, much colder". So you tell them what Jacqui.
However the more fascinating issue is where do we get the truth on climate change? The Senator advised The Conversation she got her facts from reading among other things, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The book was also distributed as documentary and won an Oscar. Research In a July 2007, 47-country Internet survey conducted by The Nielsen Company and Oxford Universityfound that 66% of those respondents who said they had seen An Inconvenient Truth stated that it had "changed their mind" about global warming and 89% said it had made them more aware of the problem. Well the Senator wouldn't be the first politician to have been persuaded by this apocalyptic foretelling of our future.
Has An Inconvenient Truth ever been put through the Fact Finder process? Well yesit has and the findings have not been too flattering.
In his book, Gore claims 'that global warming is linked to a significant increase in both the duration and intensity of hurricanes'. In fact, the scientific literature says precisely the opposite – refer Thomas Knutsen and Robert Tuleya. In another claim, Gore also depicted the extent of Northern Hemisphere sea ice with little discernible trend from 1900 to around 1970, followed by a sharp decline that coincides with human induced climate change. But further research (Ahlmann / Mahoney/Cyrosphere Today) quite clearly explains sea ice data prior to mid-20th century is either unavailable or unreliable. It is obvious Gore simply massaged the figures to suit his story.
On Larry King Live in 2007, Gore claimed that there was a real possibility of sea level rise of more than three feet (one metre) within 10 years – that is, by now. There is not one shred of evidence in the scientific literature indicating that sea levels could rise more than three feet in a decade. The best estimate published by the IPCC to that time was that sea levels may rise between 0.8 and 1.7 inches. Once again Gore doesn't want facts to get in the way of a good story. He wrote and says whatever suits his political agenda.
Unfortunately, the level of criticism from the scientific community of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth does not stop there.
Perhaps Senator Lambie's only mistake is that she may rely too heavily on claims such as those outlined in An Inconvenient Truth. But she is not alone. Too many of her colleagues in Canberra have probably made the same mistake. Is it any wonder government policy in this matter is all over the place?
The worry is this. In The Conversation's Fact Check, there is absolutely no critical evaluation of the source of Senator Lambie's claim. To compound the problem, Abrams comments in response to a reader "….the books by Al Gore and Tim Flannery are good resources for starting to learn about climate change".
If that is the view within our ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at ANU then heaven help us!
Senator Lambie wasn't the first and won't be the last person to be undone by An Inconvenient Truth!