This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
A decade ago, a scientist with the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia said snow would be rare in Britain within a few years. But plenty has fallen in 9 of the last 10.
On New Year’s Eve, a local radio station aired a brief report about an alleged psychic making her 2010 predictions. The report didn’t mention that psychic abilities have never been scientifically confirmed. Nor did it tell us what percentage of the psychic’s predictions from last year had actually come true.
Although it would have been straightforward to check what the psychic said a year earlier, the media doesn’t hold psychics accountable. Likewise, no one holds the media accountable for its false predictions.
In other words, there is no penalty for getting it wrong. There is no downside to behaving – despite all evidence to the contrary – as though it’s possible to predict the future. A newspaper may publish melodramatic headlines. It may alarm readers with dire, confidently-delivered prognostications. But in a month, a year, a decade (or three) when it becomes clear the story was nonsense, no one gets pelted with limp noodles. Nor do writers, editors, producers, and broadcasters publish year-end roundups that let you know just how mistaken they’ve all been.
Given this state of affairs, it’s sensible and appropriate to regard media scare stories with a healthy measure of skepticism. Some people, no doubt, read this Independent story in early 2000 (the headline of which appears above) and felt melancholy afterward.
Although a decade old, it reads much like the average “environment” news story today. The Independent told its readers:
Readers were assured the future could be accurately predicted because “Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia” said so.
They were told something important was happening because Britain’s biggest toyshop “had no sledges on display in its Regent Street store” for the first time.
They were invited to feel alarmed because a spokesman for the Fenland Indoor Speed Skating Club lamented that winters weren’t as cold as they used to be when he was a boy (his current age was not disclosed).
They were advised to be concerned because a second scientist, “David Parker, at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research” had mused (according to the journalistic paraphrase) that “ultimately, British children [will] have only virtual experience of snow.” [bold added]
Perhaps most persuasive of all, readers were told the lack of snow in the first two months of the year 2000 was “the continuation of a trend that has been increasingly visible in the past 15 years.”
The notion that a complex, dynamic system like the Earth’s climate might experience perfectly natural cycles lasting decades – or even centuries – went unmentioned. Instead, readers were told that “Global warming…is now accepted as a reality by the international community.”
Perhaps the international community would care to explain a few things. British citizens are currently in some distress due to heavy snowfalls. Hundreds of them have been rescued from their stranded automobiles by the armed forces. Their children attend the thousands of schools that have been shuttered. Still others have had their cancer treatments and operations postponed.
No doubt large numbers of these people would welcome an explanation from the CRU’s Dr. David Viner who advised, in 2000, that within a few years snow would become very rare.
In actual fact, Britain has experienced a great deal of snow since then. A mere two weeks after the Independent published this article, London’s “Luton Airport had to be closed, as snow equipment was unable to clear the runways sufficiently for aircraft to take-off…[Meanwhile] snowdrifts up to 60cm were reported…with many cars being abandoned.”
According to the website of Dr. Richard Wild (who recently completed a PhD on British snowstorms and recorded these events as they occurred), by December 2000 the country was experiencing the most “widespread snowfall over the UK since February 1996.”
Although he says “virtually no heavy snowfalls” fell in 2002, in January 2003 “snow caused havoc in many parts of the UK,” spurring the government to signal its intention to introduce “new legislation to force councils to grit roads.” In December of that year, “Heavy snowfall brought New Year[‘s] Eve misery to large parts of Northern England and Scotland.”
In January 2004, a snowstorm interrupted school for 70,000 Scottish children and “a 74-year-old man from Berwickshire died due to having a heart attack trying to free his wife’s car from a snowdrift.” In late February, Dr. Wild reports that “many schools across Scotland, SW England, N England, N Ireland and Wales…closed, with numerous roads remaining blocked with snow” and that “a football match…[had] to be called off.” In November, Middleton, Derbyshire, received 13 cm of snow – the “largest single fall of snow in November since records began in the year 1977.”
Dr. Wild sums up the year 2005 by observing that it “saw 25 heavy snowfall days, the highest (equal with the year 1876) since the heavy snowfall research began in the year 1861.” (See details here, here, here, and here.) [bold added]
In other words, during the five years immediately following the Independent‘s claim that snow was a “rapidly diminishing part” of British culture, snowfall was minimal in only one year (2002). Not only was there plenty of the white stuff during the remaining four, but 2005 was one for the history books.
So how did the next five years fare?
By mid-December 2009 parts of Britain were in the grips of snowy, cold, blizzard-like conditions that have yet to fully abate. The media is at last beginning to acknowledge a well-known, but under-reported fact: cold weather is far deadlier than hot weather. Britain’s elderly population and poorest families are especially vulnerable.
It turns out that Dr. Viner of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit was flat-out wrong when he told the Independent in early 2000 that within a few years snow would be rare. In fact, snow has been abundant during every year but one since then.
Ten years on, it’s clear the journalist and editors involved in this “news” story might as well have consulted a psychic. A crystal ball could hardly have been further off the mark.
Near the bottom of this Daily Mail article (which appeared three days after I posted here), there’s a photo of Dr. Viner. The third-last and second-last paragraphs from this article read as follows:
Now the head of a British Council programme with an annual £10 million budget that raises awareness of global warming among young people abroad, Dr Viner last week said he still stood by that prediction: ‘We’ve had three weeks of relatively cold weather, and that doesn’t change anything.
‘This winter is just a little cooler than average, and I still think that snow will become an increasingly rare event.’ [bold added]
So ten years ago Dr. Viner made a short-term prediction. This prediction was contradicted by shovelfuls of frosty white evidence in nine of the ten years that immediately followed. Ignoring these facts, Dr. Viner declares that three weeks of cold weather don’t mean anything and that he still believes his prediction is accurate.
As I note at the beginning of this post, there is no downside to making false predictions. We all need to remember this the next time we hear that “science says” that X or Y is going to happen.