Data is a very important thing in science. Be it words, predictions, concepts or numbers, it is important that we can trust it. With this in mind, let us open up the venerable pages of the Daily Express and its take on our recent weather.
Jonathan Powell is kind enough to provide reliably sensationalist stories to the newspaper on a remarkably regular basis; in January of this year he was quoted in 10 out of twelve consecutive editions of the paper. Yet the information that he provides may not meet the high standards one would expect from someone who purports to be a weather forecaster.
Until last year, he ran Positive Weather Solutions, a company that provided weather predictions to a number of national newspapers. But this first venture was wound up with astonishing rapidity after a couple of unsolicited questions from the Guardian’s George Monbiot. Undeterred, Powell is now director and, presumably, chief bull-shitter, of Vantage Weather Solutions. Its website is well worth a visit. While it doesn’t do to judge by appearances, it is strange that a company with such a low-rent website has apparent access to such impressive (read ‘expensive’) forecasting software. The computers required to perform long-range forecasts are few and far between; the Met Office’s super computer is one of the most powerful in the world.
But it is from this company that the Express get its latest round of shock-and-awe stories. At the end of last month we were promised the “driest May on record”. A fortnight later, the same paper implored that we have our umbrellas “ready for drenching”. Mr Powell is quoted, alongside Met Office spokespersons, in both articles.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with changing one’s mind. Weather forecasting can be as much of an art as a science, and some meteorological features remain stubbornly difficult to predict. So it is not for inconsistency that the Express is at fault. Rather, it is unsettling that they appear to be so willing to disregard the fact that they are giving so large a platform to a man who is, at best, a well-intentioned, if somewhat short-sighted, amateur.
Perhaps it is this disregard for rigorous science that allows the Express to publish, apparently with a straight face, articles such as 2012’s famous “Global warming ‘stopped in 1997’ ”. As late as this March, Ann Widdecombe, the former MP who combines writing “exclusively for the Daily Express” with her day job as Britain’s leading climate scientist, intoned solemnly that “the dissenters have now been proved right”. She doesn’t say quite why this should be – one suspects that her intellect inhabits a higher realm where justification is unnecessary – but she doesn’t half fart on about wind turbines.
News is presented as truth, for that is what it aims to be. But with this lofty ambition comes a responsibility to use reliable sources. Printing any old nonsense handed to you by a meteorological quack doctor undermines not only the integrity of a paper’s reporting, but also damages trust in science more generally. As it is, the Express lets forth enough hot air to keep the planet warming for centuries.