ABC claims Ian Plimer is “a legitimate voice”

A few days ago, I received a response from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation concerning a complaint I had submitted concerning climate contrarian Ian Plimer’s outrageous “Unleashed” online column. The email, from Kirsten McLeod of ABC’s Audience & Consumer Affairs, claims that the Plimer piece was “in keeping with the ABC’s editorial requirements for opinion content” and even calls Plimer’s opinion “a legitimate voice for the debate” on climate change.

However, it appears that ABC has not followed its own requirement that “reasonable steps” be taken “to ensure factual content is accurate”. Moreover, ABC policy on opinion pieces contains a major loophole: there is no requirement to disclose past and current affiliations to lobby groups or other political organizations, even when those links are clearly relevant to the subject matter at hand. In Plimer’s case, of course, such organizations include the Australian Climate Science Coalition and its progenitors, the Australian Environment Foundation and the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs.

[Update, September 8: As detailed below, ABC is now claiming that the requirement “to ensure factual content is accurate” does not apply to opinion content, even though that specific section of ABC’s Code of Practice does explicitly apply to opinion content (as opposed to news or topical programming).]

My original complaint focused on the gross factual errors in Plimer’s piece, specifically the lucicrous claim that a single volcano could emit more CO2 in one day than all of human generated emissions in the past 150 years, as well as obvious distortions of the global temperature record. ABC’s response (see complete text here) focused on the need to provide a “range of opinion” and “balance” in the climate change “debate” and presented Plimer as a credible spokesperson for the skeptic point of view.

Professor Plimer is a credentialed scientist, currently the Professor of Mining Geology at The University of Adelaide and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne. As a high-profile participant in the climate change debate, his opinion was considered a legitimate voice for the debate, contributing to the diversity of perspectives on the topic presented on Unleashed.

As we shall see shortly, that’s problematic enough, but even more worrisome was ABC’s obfuscation of the difference between fact and opinion.

The ABC does not endorse opinions expressed in opinion content, nor present those opinions as factual content. … Unleashed provides the opportunity for readers to debate the matters raised and the merits of the argument, including disputing the facts or information on which an argument is based. In the case of Professor Plimer’s article, more than 400 posts have been published on the message board to date, with several disputing Professor Plimer’s scientific claims, such as those to which you refer … We strongly encourage you to participate in the debate on the subject and correct what you believe to be errors of fact in Professor Plimer’s article by adding a comment to the message board. [Emphasis added]

Here ABC appears to assert that scientific facts at issue are debatable, at least in the context of opinion on policy issues. Apparently, ABC holds that Plimer is “entitled to his own facts” (in Tim Lambert’s felicitous phrase), though others may “believe” that his “errors of fact” should be corrected. The letter closes with the astonishing conclusion that all this is in keeping with ABC’s Code of Practice.

Having reviewed the article in respect to your concerns, we are satisfied that it was in keeping with the ABC’s editorial requirements for opinion content.

Indeed, ABC’s Code of Practice was recently revised to provide looser strictures on opinion, instead of the more rigorous ones that apply to news and other topical programming. The section on opinion content is quite brief, as follows:

4. Opinion Content
4.1 This section applies to content categorised by the ABC as opinion content in accordance with Section 6 of the ABC Editorial Policies 2007.

4.2 Content must be signposted to audiences in advance.

4.3 The ABC is committed to impartiality and must demonstrate this through the presentation of a diversity of perspectives across a network or platform in an appropriate timeframe.

4.4 Reasonable steps will be taken to ensure factual content is accurate and that content does not misrepresent other viewpoints. [Emphasis added]

But even though there is no requirement to promptly correct errors in opinion pieces (as there is in, say, news programming), the Code certainly does not mandate a blatant disregard for factual accuracy, despite the absurd and exaggerated claims to the contrary in ABC’s response to my complaint. Indeed, it is clear that the “Unleashed” editors failed to take “reasonable steps” to “ensure factual content is accurate”, in a flagrant breach of ABC policy.

[Update, September 8: As noted above, ABC’s Kirsten McLeod now claims that section 4.4 requiring ABC to take “reasonable steps … to ensure factual content is accurate” does not apply to opinion content. She writes:

The opinions expressed in opinion content are not endorsed by the ABC, nor are they presented as factual content. Accordingly, section 4.4 of the ABC’s Code of Practice is not applicable to the views expressed by Professor Plimer in the opinion piece.

Yet section 4 is clearly labeled as applying to opinion content, and sub-section 4.1 states categorically: “This section [i.e. all of section 4] applies to content categorised by the ABC as opinion content.” Section 4.4 may not apply to the Plimer’s views on ETS, say, but it most certainly does apply to the material asserted by Plimer to be scientific facts.

Ms. McLeod and the nameless, faceless “Unleashed” editors have obviously misinterpreted their own Code of Practice.]

By now, Plimer’s history of prevarication and deception is arguably unsurpassed among contrarian scientists (and that’s saying something). Since the release of Plimer’s execrable tome, Heaven and Earth, his myriad claims have come under scrutiny and attack by a wide range of scientists and journalists:

  • In a devastating critique of Heaven and Earth, astrophysicist Michael Ashley pointed out innumerable errors and fallacies, including Plimer’s wild claim of unreliability in the hitherto widely accepted smooth rise in CO2 atmospheric concentration, and the “loony” assertion that the sun is not composed of 98% hydrogen and helium, but “is instead similar in composition to a meteorite”.
  • Plimer has consistently refused to provide sources, or indeed any substantiation whatsoever, for several of his most ludicrous contentions, as detailed in a series of columns by George Monbiot.
  • [Updated and corrected, Sept. 5]: As Michael Ashley pointed out in his piece and in comments below, Plimer has claimed to have “numerous publications in professional and academy journals on climate”. But Ashley was unable to identify a single one of these. Plimer’s University of Adelaide web page shows 17 publications since 1994, none of which appear to be relevant to the study of climate change.
  • Well before the Unleashed piece, Plimer’s fanciful science had also been debunked in great detail in columns by Tim Lambert, Ian Enting and Barry Brook.
  • Finally, ABC itself has broadcast several enumerations of Plimer’s factual inacuracy. ABC science shows have featured scathing reviews of Heaven and Earth by University of Melbourne professor David Karoly and Professor Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science. And Lateline journalist Tony Jones caught Plimer out in a series of evasions and deceptions, including the utterly ridiculous claim that “in the 1930s, it was much hotter”.

“Unleashed” editors can not have been unaware of Plimer’s scurrilous record of deception and evasion when they tapped Plimer for a column. And yet they proceeded with reckless disregard, knowing full well that Plimer’s “facts” were no more than unsubstantiated and widely debunked contrarian talking points with no scientific basis whatsoever.

“Unleashed” has also done a great disservice to ABC’s online audience by failing to disclose Plimer’s long-standing links to climate contrarian lobby groups. Plimer is scientific advisor to the Australian Climate Science Coalition, a lobby group rabidly opposed to regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The Coalition is wholly owned by the Australian Environment Foundation, a non-profit group that was fast-tracked for a full range of tax advantages by the previous Australian Liberal government headed by climate change skeptic PM John Howard.

In turn, the Foundation is a spinoff of the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, which also has strong links to the Liberal party. Plimer’s biography still appears on the Institute’s website, although his current status as an Instute associate is unclear. Nevertheless, the launch of Heaven and Earth was sponsored by the Institute. According to Plimer’s biography, he is also “director of a UK and Australian listed public companies”. Clearly, then, ABC’s biography of Plimer has left out a great deal of relevant information.

Nor is this the first time that “Unleashed” editors have failed to provide such key information in contributors’ biographies. Engineer David Evans, another oponnent of greenhouse gas regulation, is another Australian Climate Science Coalition advisor, but that link was also omitted in ABC’s online thumbnail biography.

ABC apparently has a formal complaint appeal process that involves review of a rejected complaint by a high-level ABC manager with no direct connection to the affected ABC department. I hope that that process will go some way to restoring confidence in ABC’s respect for minimal journalistic standards of accuracy and disclosure. ABC’s handling of the Plimer fiasco, together with its regrettable decison to air the Great Global Warming Swindle, is an unfortunate stain on an organization that has hitherto enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for incisive journalism.

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24 responses to “ABC claims Ian Plimer is “a legitimate voice”

  1. Your comments on Ian Plimer’s publication record need re-wording. In my review, I was careful to point out that I was referring to the publications listed on Plimer’s University of Adelaide website, which may not be a complete record, and which only covered the time period since 1994. Plimer certainly has many publications up to and including 1994.

    Plimer has said that he has “numerous publications in professional and academy journals on climate”. Personally, I haven’t been able to find a single one, but I could well be wrong. The way to settle this would be for Plimer, or anyone, to provide a list of his refereed publications on climate in peer-reviewed journals. Can someone find a single example?

  2. Good luck on this one.

    The norm is for TV commentators to have a financial stake in the stuff they’re commenting on. A really good example is how the “independent military analysts” on US TV are all in the pay of weapons vendors and mercenary companies.

  3. Excellent post DC,

    This type of critique seem to be only be happening from one side, until now.

  4. To provide a balance in the climate change debate? Then we may soon see an ABC’s balanced debate on helocentrism, evolution, relativity… Very sad.

  5. I am increasingly dumbfounded by views such as we have here that seek to silence any dissent. Is this a new inquisition? If Plimer is as wrong as you have represented him to be that will become generally accepted over time. What gives you the right to determine whose voices will be heard and whose will not? And to try to change the editorial policies of responsible media organisations such as the ABC? Other’s are well able to assess the data presented by Plimer and his antagonists without any censorship imposed by narrow minds.

    [DC: I’d be satisfied if ABC actually followed their own policy to take “reasonable steps” to “ensure factual accuracy”. That clearly did not happen in this case.

    Plimer has had plenty of opportunities to present his nonsensical “science”, thanks to a slick public relations campaign, no doubt funded indirectly by cororporate interests opposed to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the real untold story here, and it’s about time mainstream media began covering it. At the very least, a good start would be to properly identify Ian Plimer’s associations with lobby groups and corporations.]

  6. NEILC,
    If you think “Other’s are well able to assess the data presented by Plimer”, you’d be dead wrong. Several people desperately want him to be right, and anyone showing them evidence to the contrary will be ignored or vehemently attacked. Time has already shown Plimer to be wrong on several facts, and still he is allowed to speak out on an area of science in which he is shown to be unaware of even some of the most basic facts.

    But I guess you would not mind if your newspaper and your newsprogramme whip out a creationist every time someone dares to claim the earth is more than just a few thousand years old…

  7. My observation is that since the release of Plimer’s book there has been much more debate on the topic. The blogs, such as this one, are full of it. Surely that is a good thing and I suggest that, as the ABC suggested in their response, you endeavour to engage in the debate rather than try to silence it. We must treasure freedom of speech – whether you believe the speaker to be right or wrong. Otherwise it’s 1984.

    [DC: Let me exercise my freedom of speech to state the obvious:

    Freedom of speech is not a license for Plimer to propagate obvious falsehoods, much less an obligation on ABC to disseminate those falsehoods. Nor is there any excuse for Plimer and the PR/lobby groups backing him to assiduously hide their connection to the corporate interests who are promoting this nonsense for political and financial gain. And there is certainly no excuse for ABC to pretend those connections do not exist.

    “Otherwise it’s 1984″? Give me a break. Your suggestion that pointing out these obvious facts is somehow Orwellian is despicable. I think I’ve had enough of your blathering.]

  8. Pingback: “Global warming stopped in 1998″ Revisited, and Plimergate « Greenfyre’s

  9. NEILC,

    Freedom of speech does not include giving idiots a forum to spout their nonsense.

    And what debate? Plimer’s been caught on his lies (see also Monbiot’s challenge), and runs like a chicken. I can tell you that on the blogs ‘that matter’, those that heralded Plimer and his book’o’nonsense, there is no discussion on his obvious falsehoods. The abc-piece isn’t changing that either, because most people don’t wade through the comments.

  10. Dear Dr. Ashley,

    I checked through the various science databases our library has access to. I have only come up with these two, neither of which would seem to count as a peer-reviewed piece in a journal devoted to climate science:

    Plimer, I. (March 2009). Climate change, a geologist’s view. Materials World, Vol. 17, #3, pp. 38-39.

    In the next issue, a one-page correction is published, listing Plimer as author. Unfortunately, my university does not subscribe to this journal so I have no idea what the paper is about, although given its length and title, I would imagine it to be an “opinion” piece by Dr. Plimer. The piece has been cited once–in Dr. Plimer’s correction the subsequent month. I found the journal online, but the papers are behind a paywall.

    Plimer, I (1995). “Greenhouse abatement measures; no regrets action now; proceedings of the 1995 invitation symposium.” Proceedings of the Invitation Symposium – Australian Academy of Technological Sciences, vol. 19, pp.9-14, 1995. This is evidently a piece on “Greenhouse debate in the context of geological processes over geological time.”

    Aside from Dr. Plimer as author, I used the following search terms: “climate,” “weather,” “atmosphere,” “warming.” Just for good measure, I went through some 149 papers on any subject that turned up with his name as author, co-author, or conference convenor, going back as far as 1968.

  11. Dear Charles,

    Well done on tracking those two “papers” down. As you guessed, neither of them are in refereed journals.

    So the count of Plimer’s peer-reviewed journal articles on climate remains at zero.

    There is a world of difference in publishing an OpEd article in a magazine compared to a scientific paper in a high-profile refereed journal.

    I note that the U. of Adelaide website lists Plimer’s “Refereed Conference Papers”, however, all the ones I checked were not in fact refereed.

  12. The phenomenon of, um, exaggeration of climate contrarians’ publication record is by no means limited to Plimer.

    Economist Ross McKitrick’s research web page lists twelve “Peer-Reviewed Science Journal Articles”, including seven co-authored with Stephen McIntyre.

    Of those seven, only one (the pair’s 2005 GRL article) is a peer-reviewed publication in a bona fide science journal. Two are replies to comments on that article, another is the 2004 “materials complaint” to Nature, and two were articles published in the climate skeptic social science journal, “Energy and Environment” (one of which was not even peer-reviewed, so eager was the editor to get it published).

    At the top of the list is this one:

    McIntyre, Stephen and Ross R. McKitrick (2009) Proxy Inconsistency and Other Problems in Millennial Paleoclimate Reconstructions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press.

    Sounds impressive, but in fact this was a short letter commenting on the landmark Mann et al 2008 PNAS article.

    For those keeping score that’s:
    McIntyre & McKitrick 1, Plimer 0.

  13. There is an air of desperation here. Any attempts at silencing debate, by whatever means, indicates to me that the greenhouse arguments are somewhat weak. While Plimer is the current punching bag I still await reasoned arguments as to why Plimer is so wrong. If Prof Ashley’s inference to a lack of Plimer’s peer-reviewed climate papers is as strong as it gets then you guys are only digging a deeper hole for yourselves.

    [Rest off topic - reposted to Unthreaded as per comment policy]

    [DC: I summarized two of Professor Ashley’s substantive criticisms of Plimer, and gave the link for further reading.

    There are so many errors in Plimer, one hardly knows where to start. However, one of the most obvious clunkers was his assertion that the 1930s were “much hotter” than now, as I discussed here.

    Lack of peer-reviewed climate papers not only casts further doubt on Plimer’s suitability as an expert (if his obvious mistakes were not enough), but also appears to catch him out in yet another prevarication.]

  14. Dear John Smith101,

    The issue I have raised here is very simple: Plimer says he has “numerous publications in professional and academy journals on climate”.

    I’m interested in reading these publications, but I haven’t been able to identify them.

    I can’t see how you can possibly construe this as an attempt to silence debate.

  15. Deep Climate:
    Doesn’t McKitrick also feature as a co-author on the Essex-paper (“no global temperature”)? It’s a peer-reviewed journal…

    [DC: I haven’t analyzed McKitrick’s other output – there may well be one or two other peer-reviwed science journal publications. My analysis only applies to the McKitrick-McIntyre duo.]

  16. Dear John Smith101,

    I am not interested in being side-tracked into discussions about Henry’s Law and CO2, etc, or indeed any questions that you might have about my review.

    For the purpose of this thread, my only interest is in identifying Plimer’s peer-reviewed papers on climate.

    If you would like to propose one of Plimer’s geology papers as being one of his “numerous publications in professional and academy journals on climate”, then please tell us which one.

  17. Hi Michael Ashley. Thanks for your response. My comments about silencing debate were with reference to the author of this blog and his reaction to the response he received from the ABC’s Unleashed website, a site that I am sure you would be well aware, is an opinion site. I simply used your comment re Plimers lack of “climate” peer-reviewed papers as an example of “shaky ground”. Unfortunately, with this site’s off-topic protocals, some meaning is lost. I did however direct a question to you that, I believe, is now in the unthreaded section regarding Henrys Law and CO2 ocean-atmosphere transfers. I am aware though, having read very widely across the spectrum of the climate debate, from IPCC reports through to respected peer-reviewed climatologists who are sceptical of the role CO2 plays in “global warming”, that Plimer’s “climate work” lies within his peer-reviewed geological-based papers. Whilst I have not read Plimer’s book I did read your review of it and for me it asked as many questions as it answered.

    [DC: How is it “silencing debate” to suggest that ABC should apply its own rules? Are you saying that ABC should not take “reasonable steps” to “ensure factual accuracy” in opinion pieces, as they promised to do?

    You state that “Plimer’s ‘climate work’ lies within his peer-reviewed geological-based papers”. Which ones would those be? Could you give us one, just one, citation of a Plimer peer-reviewed geology paper containing “climate work”? Thanks!

    Yes, discussion of carbon sinks is decidedly off-topic for this thread. On the open thread, I suggested you read this RealClimate explanation by David Archer. That’s still good advice.

    I thought Professor Ashley’s review of Plimer’s book was most illuminating and clear.]

  18. What defines a “legitimate voice” on a science issue? Should media outlets run editorials from real estate agents covering their views on a particular kind of heart disease? Should they run editorials from financial advisors on land surveying techniques? There are thousands of climate scientists ABC can choose from. But publishing their views in a representative manner would be boring. So they feel the need to shake things up by publishing views from individuals skilled in rhetoric but lacking an accurate scientific argument or credentials – individuals who make provocative claims with no basis for them. It’s disconcerting to see this behavior and it’s one reason why there’s a major disconnect between public and scientific opinion on the issue.

  19. Dude, you are so right. I also advocate freedom of speech, but only if the facts are correct, i.e. if it is also my opinion.

    And Mr. Pilmer doesn’t need to disclose his connection to Lobby-Group: Every Climate-Denier is paid by Big Oil.

    [DC: Sounds like you have trouble distinguishing fact from opinion. You should consider working for ABC Audience Relations.]

  20. [Deleted: Abusive, inappropriate language.]

  21. It would seem that Mr. Pilmer and Mr. Gore have about the same credibility would it not?

    [DC: No, of course not. But discussion of Gore or AIT is off-topic.]

  22. What is AIT ?
    [DC: It’s Al Gore’s film, An Incovenient Truth. As for supposed issues or errors in AIT, please see this excellent discussion at RealClimate.]

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  24. DC is biased. I will not visit you again.