The error of ‘errors’

October 17, 2007 at 8:49 am | Posted in AIT, Proof reading, Rapley, Shepherd, Word games, Word play | 9 Comments

UK scientists defend Gore film

By Roger Harrabin
BBC Environment Analyst

Two of the UK’s leading climate scientists have hit out at the judge who made the controversial ruling last week on Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth

Professor Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum (and also a Gore science adviser) and Professor John Shepherd from the National Oceanography Centre accuse the judge of misleading the public by ruling that Gore had made ‘errors’.

The professors have no grouse with Mr Justice Burton’s main conclusion that Al Gore’s film should be accompanied by guidance notes in class. And they agree that Gore presented some climate extreme scenarios.

But they say the judge’s comments themselves were liable to misinterpretation. The trouble, according to the professors, was that the judge referred to ‘errors’ in the film.

He put the word ‘errors’ in inverted commas because the points were debatable rather than wrong. But the professors say the judge should have known the error word would be repeated in the media without its inverted commas.

They say in general Gore’s film presented an exceptionally high standard of scientific accuracy. And they warn that the judge himself expressed unwarranted confidence on several issues subject to considerable scientific uncertainty.

Professor Rapley, former head of the British Antarctic Survey, told BBC News that the atmosphere over climate science was so confrontational that some scientists were reluctant to discuss uncertainties in their work for fear that they would be seized on by others anxious to discredit the whole theory of manmade climate change.

This, he said, was very unhealthy – and would lead to bad science.

Mr Justice Burton was asked to rule on whether An Inconvenient Truth could be shown in UK schools. He agreed that it could, provided the “one sided” film was accompanied by guidance notes for teachers.

The case was brought by school governor Stewart Dimmock, from Dover, a father of two, and who is a member of the New Party.

Mr Dimmock did not want the movie distributed to schools. He called the Oscar-winner a “shock-umentary” and objected to children being “indoctrinated with this political spin”.

I agree with Rapley and Shepherd. The judge seems naïve in his use of the word ‘errors’ in quotation marks, without even adding ‘so-called’. He appears to lack an appreciation of the larger context, which is most definitely the opposite of innocent.


And now we hand over to our media interpreter to get another view on this Environment Analyst’s use of language. Remember, Harrabin studied English at Cambridge University, so he knows how to use words.


Here we are, kids, reporting from the planet that used to be known as Earth. Let’s see what we picked up from that article.

The film is “one sided”, I hear you say. How do you know that? Ahhh … because Harrabin told you that’s what the judge called it.

So, did the judge really say “The film is “one sided”,” as Harrabin informs us? No!

Let’s take a look at the source document, Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education & Skills [2007] EWHC 2288 (Admin) (10 October 2007) to find out what was really meant. (All the following quotes refer to numbers in the High Court Judgment as handed down last week.)

The unhyphenated italicised “one sided” adjective appears first in the sentence I have emboldened. It is provided by Justice Burton in this context: a discussion of the definition of partisan (!) 😐 This is, indeed, ironic:


11. Again there was not in the event much difference between the parties in this regard. Although there was some earlier suggestion on behalf of the Defendant that partisan might relate to ‘party political’, it soon became clear that it could not be and is not so limited. Mr Downes pointed to dictionary definitions suggesting the relevance of commitment, or adherence to a cause. In my judgment, the best simile for it might be “one sided“. Mr Downes, in paragraph 27 of his skeleton argument, helpfully suggested that there were factors that could be considered by a court in determining whether the expression or promotion of a particular view could evidence or indicate partisan promotion of those views:

“(i) A superficial treatment of the subject matter typified by portraying factual or philosophical premises as being self-evident or trite with insufficient explanation or justification and without any indication that they may be the subject of legitimate controversy; the misleading use of scientific data; misrepresentations and half-truths; and one-sidedness.
(ii) The deployment of material in such a way as to prevent pupils meaningfully testing the veracity of the material and forming an independent understanding as to how reliable it is.
(iii) The exaltation of protagonists and their motives coupled with the demonisation of opponents and their motives.
(iv) The derivation of a moral expedient from assumed consequences requiring the viewer to adopt a particular view and course of action in order to do “right” as opposed to “wrong.”

This is clearly a useful analysis.

Clearly. Very useful. Thanks judge. The Roger Harrabins of the world can now describe the film as “one sided”. That’s it. But is it?

Take a look again at what was described as “one sided” in the legal Judgment (with a capital ‘J’, which includes the fascinating use of a personal judgment with a lower-case ‘j’ here, and which we normally spell as ‘judgement‘ in British English):

In my judgment, the best simile for it might be “one sided“.

Taken out of context, Justice Burton can now easily be quoted as saying the film An Inconvenient Truth is “one sided”.

What’s wrong with this interpretation of the subject of the sentence? The ‘it‘ Justice Burton was referring to is the word partisan‘!!!

(Read the paragraph again if you still don’t get ‘it’.)

See how easy it is to play games with words?!

In any case, any one sidedness only relates to views about political issues and this has already been covered:

40. The amended Guidance Note contains in its introduction a new and significant passage:

“[Schools] must bear in mind the following points
AIT promotes partisan political views (that is to say, one sided views about political issues)

For completeness, there is one other use of the adjective ‘one-sided’, this time with a hyphen. (Don’t ask me why the proof reader didn’t catch that inconsistency. It is exactly the kind of fine combing that is done by professionals before filing with the SEC, along with checking that decimal points are accurately located in quarterly and annual reports.)

I am satisfied that, because insufficient attempt was made to counter the more one-sided views of Mr Gore, and, to some extent, by silence in the Guidance Note, those views were adopted, or at any rate discussion of them was not facilitated (and no adequate warning was given), there would have been a breach of ss406 and 407 of the Act but for the bringing of these proceedings and the conclusion that has now eventuated. Indeed the spirit of co-operation in which this hearing has been carried through is a tribute to constructive litigation.

Here, it is in the context of ‘counter(ing) the more one-sided views of Mr. Gore’ that the adjective is used.

Roger Harrabin is again dragging the BBC down to tabloid-style sloppiness to get a reaction. I am not impressed. He knows how to use the English language, to good and bad effect.



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  1. AIT is, very clearly, one-sided and partisan. And unless you play word-games, it contains errors and misrepresentations.

    Speaking of getting the facts wrong, Rapley is an administrator, not a scientist, and has been for some time now. And has never been a leading climate scientist. AFAIK Shepherd is Kosher though.

    Shame the journos can’t give credit where its due, though, since it was me/tl that spotted the “errors” bit

  2. R+S also demonstrate that they are not exactly up to date on coral reefs, a point on which Gore was entirely consistent with the AR4. AFAICT the judge screwed this point up via a too-quick reading of the WGII SPM and TS.

  3. Hi William,
    Yes, it just goes to show how easy it is to criticise a word/phrase/sentence in and out of context.
    Also, I agree with you that Al Gore slipped up when he talked as if all the Pacific Islanders had evacuated. Some have, but not all, yet. He was ahead of himself there!
    BTW, you may have been ahead of the journalists, but blogging (about) something doesn’t mean you spotted it first. (Er, remember who tracked down the High Court Judgment for you to begin with? 😉 ) Journalists don’t regularly credit their sources.

  4. Hello Steve,

    I have not had time to look at R+S (and I only just figured out who tl is in William’s comment). Do you actually think the judge read the entire AR4? Perhaps …

  5. I think just the opposite, i.e. that he didn’t get past the summaries, although I haven’t looked at the other points to see if there’s evidence of that beyond the coral stuff.

  6. Its long established that first publication is what matters 🙂

  7. Ahhh … you’d better tell the journos then 😉

    BTW, I am jolly glad to hear from a couple of real persons here, after receiving copious amounts of linkless spam from water consultants and someone explaining the Bill of Rights to me this morning. Now I have a question for you, William, since you are a long-time blogger and have multiple blogs, and know about this stuff ~ do you ever retire old posts when they start attracting spam? I am talking about going beyond the usual ‘marking as spam’ and blocking of source urls. What’s your advice to a relative novice here?

  8. I haven’t had to retire any old posts for spam. The google blogs have captchas, which seems to stop them. I’m not sure why wordpress doesn’t get attacked.

  9. Ta. WP has Akismet, which catches most, but there are occasions when the odd (i.e. very odd) comments arrive, sometimes followed by a flurry …

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