The Backstory to the ‘Fleeing Species’ Claim

August 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm

photo from Chris D. Thomas' academic bio page

In early 2004 Nature, a respected science journal, ran a cover story titled Feeling the Heat: biodiversity losses due to global warming.  As one critic would later observe:

It is rare for a scientific paper to be the lead item on the evening news, or to fill the front pages of our national newspapers, but [that particular study] received exceptional worldwide media attention.

The lead author was named Chris D. Thomas. Now he’s back in the news – this time for a paper published in Science whose very own press release begins:

Many different species of plants and animals have been moving higher in elevation and farther away from the equator to escape the Earth’s warming climate.

Once more, the media is all over the story – and the headlines are nothing if not dramatic. The BBC declares that species are fleeing a warm climate faster than previously thought. Time magazine tells us that climate change is turning plants and animals into refugees. CNN asserts that animals are being driven to higher ground by warmth. (Lots more news stories may be seen here.)

What no one seems to realize or remember is that things turned out rather badly the last time Thomas’ work was similarly fêted by journalists. (Although Thomas’ name isn’t listed first on the Science article, both the BBC and CNN say he led the project.)

I’m familiar with the 2004 Thomas paper because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chose to base its 2007 species extinction predictions on this work despite the fact that it had already been thoroughly trashed by other experts.

Nature published three separate critiques of the 2004 Thomas paper six months afterward. These were followed by challenges in other publications – including a 6,000-word evisceration by a conservation biologist at Oxford University. (See my blog post here.)

Daniel Botkin, who is described as “one of the preeminent ecologists of the 20th century” similarly lambasted the 2004 Thomas paper – both in the peer-reviewed literature as well as on his own blog. He’s called that study “the worst paper I have ever read in a major scientific journal.”

He explains (see the comment dated March 9, 2008):

First, the paper uses a theory that is inappropriate and illogical for the question. Second, the data on which the calculations are based — the areas of the world’s biomes — are crude, lacking estimates of measurement error. My textbook Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet has a chapter on the scientific method in which I state that “a measurement without a statement about its degree of uncertainty is meaningless.”

In other words, Thomas’ track record is, shall we say, problematic. It would seem that many of his peers hold his work in less-than-high regard. Six months from now it may be Science‘s turn to publish three critiques of this new paper.

But journalists won’t even notice. So we won’t hear a word about it.

(In this case, Bryan Walsh over at Time magazine bizarrely mentions  “[a]n influential 2004 paper in Nature” regarding species extinction. He also mentions that its conclusions are disputed. But he neglects to point out to his readers that Thomas is responsible for both pieces of scholarship.)

Until some amount of time has passed we have no way of knowing whether the quality of this new Thomas paper is any better than his previously notorious effort.

But that didn’t stop Science from issuing a press release. And, like so many lap dogs, journalists have reported Thomas’ new findings as though they are well-established.

In reality, this research hasn’t even been read by the larger scientific community yet – never mind withstood its collective scrutiny.

Indeed, the history of this particular researcher says there’s good reason to be concerned about the quality of these findings. But the media hasn’t alerted you to these facts, has it?

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