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Mea culpa and au revoir

Richard Black | 17:40 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010

As several readers have pointed out in comments on my previous post, and several more by e-mail, I made a schoolboy howler in this week's article about how rice yields are responding to temperature rise in Asia.

Rice growing in CambodiaThere are 101 reasons I could bore you with as to why it happened, but essentially it's my error for mis-reading a scientific paper. And I've been kicking myself ever since, because it was such a crass mistake.

So the news article has been changed, and in line with BBC News website policy it's explicitly acknowledged on the story page.

In terms of what the research might suggest about the world of several decades hence, the paper in question doesn't materially change the picture painted in reports from such bodies as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

In 2006, CGIAR released as comprehensive an assessment as science would then allow. It's worth re-visiting what one of the authors, Louis Verchot, told me was the central message of that assessment:

"We're talking about challenges that have to be dealt with at every level, from ideas about social justice to the technology of food production.
 
"We're talking about large-scale human migration and the return to large-scale famines in developing countries, something which we decided 40 or 50 years ago was unacceptable and did something about."

This is not just a climate issue. Human population growth, growing demand for water, and declining biodiversity are other issues wrapped up in the warnings of a coming food crisis.

There is another school of thought - that human ingenuity and economic progress will get round the problem, as they have in the past, notably in the Green Revolution that transformed food-scarce countries such as India into lands of abundance, with food exports contributing to the national coffers.

In principle, of course it could happen again. But as others have pointed out, there seems to be a gap between the resources going into agricultural research now and the size of the potential challenge.

Hungry childAnyway, in contrast to some e-mails I've had about the amended version of this week's article, the headline is accurate - a decline in yields hasn't been seen here, but it is projected from this research, and that is consistent with other studies.

Projections may not turn into reality, of course - but there it is.

Last month, on the occasion of Stephen Schneider's death, I blogged on the extraordinary vitriol to which he and some of his fellow climate scientists have been subjected.

Some of the same stuff comes the way of journalists too; and so it may not surprise to you learn that some of the e-mails I've received on the rice story have accused me not of sloppiness, but of deliberate manipulation of the conclusions through a desire, or possibly a remit, to promulgate some underlying theological stance.

That is not the case, and it's extraordinary to me that anyone could seriously reach such a conclusion - but clearly, some do.

If any positives can come out of a piece of poor reporting, here's one I would highlight.

A number of readers went beyond the news report into the press release - and presumably if Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) were an open-access journal, a number of you would have gone into the scientific paper as well.

Press releases sometimes don't give an entirely accurate account of a piece or work, so going into the paper itself has to be desirable, and that's as much a challenge for PNAS and other subscription journals as it was when the issue of open-access publishing first arose.

The web is the only news medium that offers you the opportunity. When we journalists make mistakes, it means we are more likely to be called to account, and that has to be a positive thing.

Boom and shorelineThis blog is now about to be left untended for several weeks, as I head off for a badly-needed holiday.

But there's a couple of other things I want to flag up.

I had an e-mail this week from my former colleague Tim Hirsch. He sent me a link to an article he wrote for the then fledgling BBC News website back in 1999, a few years after the oil tanker Sea Empress ran aground on the coast of Wales, spilling more than 72,000 tonnes of crude along a coastline that's a favourite for ramblers and nature enthusiasts, not to mention the fishing grounds.

When Tim visited the site, three years had passed since the spill, and there were few signs of oil to be found. With the Deepwater Horizon leak fresh in mind, and questions abounding over whether its environmental effect has been exaggerated, his article made instructive reading.

The second issue is that in a couple of weeks' time - 30 August, to be precise - we should see the release of the InterAcademy Council's review of the IPCC.

It's the last of the major inquiries and reviews surrounding climate science that were commissioned in the wake of "ClimateGate", "HimalayaGate" and so on - and probably the most important, as it could significantly affect how the organisation pursues its work towards its fifth major assessment of climate change, due out in 2013.

You'll have to do without my reporting on that one as I'll still be on leave. But as I understand things, the report itself will be fully available online - so you'll be able to check and doublecheck interpretations put on it by we fallible journalists.

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