Channel 4’s Problem with Science

It doesn’t give a damn about whether the facts stack up – as long as it creates a controversy.


By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th March 2007.

Were it not for dissent, science, like politics, would have stayed in the Dark Ages. All the great heroes of the discipline – Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein – took tremendous risks in confronting mainstream opinion. Today’s crank has often proved to be tomorrow’s visionary.

But the syllogism does not apply. Being a crank does not automatically make you a visionary. There is little prospect, for example, that Dr Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, the South African health minister who has claimed that AIDS can be treated with garlic, lemon and beetroot, will one day be hailed as a genius. But the point is often confused. Professor David Bellamy, for example, while making the incorrect claim that wind farms do not have “any measurable effect” on total emissions of carbon dioxide, has compared himself to Galileo(1).

The problem with “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, which caused a sensation when it was broadcast on Channel 4 last week, is that to make its case it relies not on future visionaries, but on people whose findings have already been proved wrong. The implications could not be graver. Just as the British government launches its climate change bill and Gordon Brown and David Cameron start jostling to establish their green credentials, thousands of people have been misled into believing that there is no problem to address.

The film’s main contention is that the current increase in global temperatures is caused not by rising greenhouse gases, but by changes in the activity of the Sun. It is built around the discovery in 1991 by the Danish atmospheric physicist Dr Eigil Friis-Christensen that recent temperature variations on earth are in “strikingly good agreement” with the length of the cycle of sunspots – the shorter they are, the higher the temperature(2).

Unfortunately, he found nothing of the kind. A paper published in the journal Eos in 2004 reveals that the “agreement” was the result of “incorrect handling of the physical data”(3). The real data for recent years show the opposite: that temperatures have continued to rise as the length of the sunspot cycle has increased. When this error was exposed, Friis-Christensen and his co-author published a new paper, purporting to produce similar results(4). But this too turned out to be an artefact of mistakes they had made – in this case in their arithmetic(5).

So Friis-Christensen and another author developed yet another means of demonstrating that the Sun is responsible, claiming to have discovered a remarkable agreement between cosmic radiation influenced by the Sun and global cloud cover(6). This is the mechanism the film proposes for global warming. But, yet again, the method was exposed as faulty. They had been using satellite data which did not in fact measure global cloud cover. A paper in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics shows that when the right data are used, a correlation is not found(7).

So the hypothesis changed again. Without acknowledging that his previous paper was wrong, Friis-Christensen’s co-author, Henrik Svensmark, declared that there was in fact a correlation – not with total cloud cover but with “low cloud cover”(8). This too turned out to be incorrect(9). Then, last year, Svensmark published a paper purporting to show that cosmic rays could form tiny particles in the atmosphere(10). Accompanying it was a press release which went way beyond the findings reported in the paper, claiming it showed that both past and current climate events are the result of cosmic rays(11).

As Dr Gavin Schmidt of NASA has shown on, five missing steps would have to be taken to justify the wild claims in the press release. “We’ve often criticised press releases that we felt gave misleading impressions of the underlying work”, Schmidt says, “but this example is by far the most blatant extrapolation-beyond-reasonableness that we’ve seen.”(12) None of this seems to have troubled the programme makers, who report the cosmic ray theory as if it trounces all competing explanations.

The film also maintains that manmade global warming is disproved by conflicting temperature data. Professor John Christy speaks about the discrepancy he discovered between temperatures at the earth’s surface and temperatures in the troposphere (or lower atmosphere). But the programme fails to mention that in 2005 his data were proved wrong, by three papers in Science magazine(13,14,15).

Christy himself admitted last year that he was mistaken. He was one of the lead authors of a paper which states the opposite of what he says in the film. “Previously reported discrepancies between the amount of warming near the surface and higher in the atmosphere have been used to challenge the reliability of climate models and the reality of human-induced global warming. Specifically, surface data showed substantial global-average warming, while early versions of satellite and radiosonde data showed little or no warming above the surface. This significant discrepancy no longer exists because errors in the satellite and radiosonde data have been identified and corrected.”(16)

Until recently, when found to be wrong, scientists went quietly back to their labs to start again. Now, emboldened by the global denial industry, some of them, like the film makers, shriek “censorship!” This is the best example of manufactured victimhood I have ever come across. If you demonstrate that someone is wrong, you are now deemed to be silencing him.

But there is one scientist in the film whose work has not been debunked: the oceanographer Carl Wunsch. He appears to support the idea that increasing carbon dioxide is not responsible for rising global temperatures. Professor Wunsch says that he was “completely misrepresented” by the programme, and “totally misled” by the people who made it(17).

This is a familiar story to those who have followed the career of the director, Martin Durkin. In 1998 the Independent Television Commission found that, when making a similar series, he had “misled” his interviewees about “the content and purpose of the programmes”. Their views had been “distorted through selective editing”(18). Channel 4 had to make a prime-time apology.

Cherry-pick your results, choose work which is already outdated and discredited, and anything and everything becomes true. The Twin Towers were brought down by controlled explosions; MMR injections cause autism; homeopathy works; black people are less intelligent than white people; species came about through intelligent design. You can find lines of evidence which appear to support all these contentions, and, in most cases, professors who will speak up in their favour. But this does not mean that any of them are correct. You can sustain a belief in these propositions only by ignoring the overwhelming body of contradictory data. To form a balanced, scientific view, you have to consider all the evidence, on both sides of the question.

But for the people who commissioned this film, all that counts is the sensation. Channel 4 has always had a problem with science. No one in its science unit appears to understand the difference between a peer-reviewed scientific paper and a clipping from the Daily Mail. It keeps commissioning people whose claims have been discredited – like Martin Durkin and a certain nutritionist of our acquaintance. But its failure to understand the scientific process just makes the job of whipping up a storm that much easier. The less true a programme is, the greater the controversy.



1. David Bellamy, 14th August 2004. An ill wind blows for turbines. Letter to the Guardian.

2. Eigil Friis-Christensen and Knud Lassen, 1991. Length of the solar cycle: an indicator of solar activity closely associated with climate. Science, Vol 254, 698-700.

3. Paul Damon and Peter Laut, 2004. Pattern of Strange Errors Plagues Solar Activity and Terrestrial Climate Data. Eos, Vol. 85, No. 39.

4. Knud Lassen and Eigil Friis-Christensen, 2000. Reply to “Solar cycle lengths and climate: A reference revisited” by P. Laut and J.Gundermann. Journal of Geophysical Research Vol 105, No 27, 493-495.

5. Paul Damon and Peter Laut, ibid.

6. Henrik Svensmark and Eigil Friis-Christensen, 1997. Variation of cosmic ray flux and global cloud coverage: A missing link in solar-climate relationships. The Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, Vol 59, 1225-1232.

7. Peter Laut, 2003. Solar activity and terrestrial climate: an analysis of some purported correlations. Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics Vol 65, 801-812.

8. Nigel Marsh and Henrik Svensmark, 2000. Low cloud properties influenced by cosmic rays. Physical Review Letters Vol 85, no 23. 5004-5007.

9. Paul Damon and Peter Laut, ibid.

10. Henrik Svensmark et al, 2007. Experimental evidence for the role of ions in particle nucleation under atmospheric conditions. Proceedings of the Royal Society Volume 463, Number 2078, 1364-5021.

11. Danish National Space centre, October 2006. Getting closer to the cosmic connection to climate.

12. Gavin Schmidt, 16th October 2006. Taking Cosmic Rays for a spin.

13. Carl A. Mears and Frank J. Wentz, 2nd September 2005. The Effect of Diurnal Correction on Satellite-Derived Lower Tropospheric Temperature. Science. Vol 309, pp1548-1551.

14. B.D. Santer et al, 2nd September 2005. Amplification of Surface Temperature Trends and Variability in the Tropical Atmosphere. Science. Vol 309, pp1548-1551.

15. Steven J. Sherwood, John R. Lanzante and Cathryn L. Meyer, 2nd September 2005. Radiosonde Daytime Biases and Late-20th Century Warming. Science. Vol 309, pp1556-1559.

16. Tom Wigley et al, April 2006. Temperature Trends in the Lower Atmosphere – Understanding and Reconciling Differences: Executive Summary. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

17. Geoffrey Lean, 11th March 2007. An inconvenient truth… for C4. Independent on Sunday.

18. Independent Television Commission, 1st April 1998. Channel 4 to apologise to four interviewees in “Against Nature” series. Press release.