Headlines and heretics .. and what about the methods?

We’ve been thinking about how data, policy and ideas are presented and communicated – among politicians, researchers, reporters – between these groups and to the world at large. What makes news “news”? How do the “headlines” of journal articles affect our own perceptions? Where to introduce the Methods? Do “beliefs” among scientists taint objectivity? How have events such as “Climategate” affected public confidence in scientific integrity? We have investigated through the topic of climate change and carbon management, with a continuing angle on soils.

Do beliefs have a place in science?

By Christie. The role of the scientist is effectively to find out the truth in a situation. In order to do this, it is arguably a prerequisite that the scientist must start with a neutral stance. For example, in a court case, the jury must have no connection to the tied individual, or pre determined opinion of their guilt or innocence. In this instance, the trail would be considered bias. If a scientist has a pre-determined belief in a concept and is providing evidence for it, how much can we trust this evidence? There is a large difference between believing the evidence put forward is correct, and believing in a theory and presenting supporting evidence. In the name of belief, the latter situation can be subject to scientific misconduct. This has occurred over the years concerning the climate change debate, where information has been manipulated to provide evidence for a desired scenario. Other than creating distrust in the scientific community, this also represents a halt to valuable scientific development, where no real progress is being made due to the importance to belief. This is not to say that belief has no place in science. Contrasting ideas between scientists has stimulated interesting debate and increased research. So belief has a place in science, if it is in the name of its own valuable development.

Reference: Avery, G., 2010, Scientific Misconduct: The Manipulation of Evidence for Political Advocacy in Health Care and Climate Policy, CATO Institute, Briefing Paper no. 117. Warming hoax


By Christie. In 2009, the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was hacked. The hacker accessed thousands of documents and emails and posted them to multiple online destinations, just weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15). This became highly controversial because sceptics argued that the emails exposed climate change as a conspiracy made possible by scientists altering data to disprove critics. The Climatic Research Unit claimed this was untrue and that the emails had been taken out of context. This was investigated by eight committees who ultimately reported that there was no evidence of misconduct or conspiracy. However, did Climategate leave behind a legacy? Despite the timing, Climate Gate did not have a significant presence at COP15. However, since then, in countries such as the US and the UK, Climategate provided ammunition for politicians who were not supportive of efforts to reduce GHG emissions. It affected science in that many climate scientists were attacked with freedom on information requests, inquiries and in some cases law suits. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also came under fire, and was questioned on its capability and neutrality. Despite all of this, the scientific consensus that anthropogenically induced climate change is happening is unchanged, and had remained that way throughout the investigations.

Reference: Leiserowitz, A.A., Maibach, E.W., Roser-Renouf, C., Smith, N., Dawson, E., 2013, Climategate, Public Opinion, and the Loss of Trust, American Behavioural Scientist, 57(6), pp-818-837.

“Four per thousand”

In the run up to the Paris conference (COP21) a small news “story” surfaced, which connected to material in our last tutorial. It was hardly a major headline, but seemed to commit France a strategy to store carbon specifically using agricultural soils. We wondered about the origins  of this.

By Hannah. It is believed that limiting global warming to a 2C rise without significant reductions in agricultural emissions is not achievable. An alternative high potential method to reduce emissions is to sequester more carbon in soils, which has led to the French Government 4 per mil initiative, first proposed in the March 2015 conference on Climate Smart Agriculture. The French Agriculture Minister began the program called “4 per 1000” this week during climate talks in Paris, the target of which is to increase carbon in soils by 0.4 of one per cent per year.

How France plans to achieve this target is not yet clear, however, it is hoped through the maintenance and restoration of natural bogs and wetlands, reduced conversion of grassland and forests to arable land and the reconversion of arable land to grassland, the targets will be reached. Further efforts to increase soil carbon will include aiding returns of plant biomass to the soil through the improved use of organic manures and increased use of cover crops and ploughing in farming.

An alternative interesting global scheme is the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme (ASCAS). Australia is one of the few countries to have a national carbon regulatory regime which recognises the importance of soil carbon sequestration. This system allows farmers and land managers to earn carbon credits by storing carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their land. Stored soil carbon can even be sold by the farmers as offsets on the open market.

Earth on Fire

Elsewhere carbon in soil was on fire and creating a blip in CO2 emissions, discernible  in the global inventory.

By Hannah. Peatlands act as a major global sink for carbon, storing carbon in amounts equal to the size of the current atmospheric carbon pool, despite covering only 2–3% of the Earth’s land surface (Turetsky et al., 2015).  Thus, in the fight against global warming this vast source of carbon becomes increasingly important and has been described, somewhat dramatically, as a ‘carbon bomb’.

The high moisture content of peat naturally protects peat soils from burning, however, as a result of climate change and human activity extensive areas of peat are beginning to dry as the water table drops. Drying has resulted in peat becoming vulnerable to more frequent and severe burning.

Peat firePeat fire in Selangor, Malaysia

While increased combustion of peat can be seen in both tropical and boreal peatlands, Indonesia is currently in the spotlight of the Media. Indonesia is home to 84%  of Southeast Asia’s peatlands. In 2015 a strong El Niño climate phenomenon created drought conditions that fuelled extensive fires across the county, with over 127,000 detected fires in 2015. In 2015 the fires released 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2, a value on par with total annual emissions from Brazil. The fires alone have tripled Indonesia’s entire annual emissions.

The fires are started both naturally, due to lightning strikes or intense heat, and deliberately, to clear the forest for plantations of commodities such as palm oil. Peat fires often start above ground but move below the surface, where they can smoulder for weeks to months, despite rain events or changes in fire weather (Turetsky et al., 2015). The consequences of the Indonesian fires are widespread, from climatic costs to habitat loss and human health issues.

What is in a (scientific) headline?

By Alex. We recently examined an arguably misleading title to a journal article, ‘Fire-Derived Charcoal Causes Loss of Forest Humus’. The article itself, published in the well respected journal Science, does not fulfil the claim of the title (Wardle et al, 2008). The change in cumulative mass and carbon concentration between filled mesh bags of three compositions is compared: hummus only, mixed hummus and charcoal (50:50) and charcoal only. Reported results do suggest loss of mass and carbon release from mesh bags- buried within the soil- and an enhanced effect of charcoal (figures A and B).

16-01-27 image

However the author then jumps to the conclusion that these components are lost from the system and not merely through the mesh bag as colloidal material. The title generalises the application of findings to all “forest humus”. Unfortunately, the three sites of boreal forest in Sweden cannot reflect climatological and soil conditions of all global biomes. This shortcoming is acknowledged within the text begging the question, why use this title at all?

This lead us to question both the role of the title and the author’s motives for misleading readers. There is no question that the scientific reporting itself does not aim to pull the wool over the eyes of readers and such articles would merely be tossed aside during the peer-review process. However clever choice in titles have been linked to: increasing citation level by generalisation; catching the attention of media outlets; simplification to inspire the public to read literature; forced prior misconceptions and false claims based on titles alone. Numerous studies are striving to develop a “perfect” title in terms of length and the inclusion of the popular buzz phrases like ‘climate change’.


Hartley J. 2005. To attract or to inform: What are titles for? Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 35(2): 203-213.

Farrokh H and Mahboobeh Y. 2010. Are shorter article titles more attractive for citations? Crosssectional study of 22 scientific journals. Croatian medical journal 51(2): 165-170.

Lehmann J and Sohi SP. 2008. Comment on “Fire-derived charcoal causes loss of forest humus”. Science 321(5894): 1295-1295.

Wardle DA, Nilsson M and Zackrisson O. 2008. Fire-derived charcoal causes loss of forest humus. Science 320(5876): 629-629.

Where do methods belong in a journal article?

By Jakub: In most scientific journals the research methods section usually comes second after the introduction. By placing methods section after the introduction, the reader gets to know how project was executed before he gets to the results and discussion. In a renowned scientific journal Nature (and it’s ‘family’, including e.g. Scientific Reports) – the editorial policy demands methods to be placed at the end of the paper after the conclusion.

This may be a solid decision because majority of readers (be it students or scientists) are interested in the results of the study and their implications (sections which carry the primary message of the study) and therefore skip methods section. It may provide an efficient transition from introduction to the topic directly to the results without interrupting the string of thought by methodology, which is usually very technical and not comprehensible by general public. In addition to that, methodology is primarily referred to when somebody wants to reproduce the study to verify the results. Another instance of paying special attention to research methods is when one wants to identify flaws in the design that could lead to inaccurate results. In any of these cases the reader is an expert who spends extra time on this paper and therefore will not mind where the methods section is placed.

On the other hand, certain information from methodology is vital in order for the reader to understand results and thus has to be included somewhere in the text. Scientists are therefore forced to fit in bits and pieces of methodology into results section, which in times can be non-comprehensive – as we agreed on in this week’s session.


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