Scientists' Quick Actions Avert P.R. Problems

Part II: Anatomy of a Times Atlas Screw-Up: Lessons for Scientists, Media

A week after first releasing the 13th edition of its Times Atlas, the publisher steps up to apologize for its ‘incorrect claim’ concerning Greenland ice melt. Observers question whether that goes far enough and whether the flawed atlas and its information are still ‘out there.’ Part I of this series was posted here.

Climate scientists responded quickly this time when they spotted flawed information. After a week of global reporting and commentary, the Times Atlas publisher began backtracking, leaving others to pick up the pieces and learn from the experience. To continue from where we left off with Part I:

Thursday, September 22

  • HarperCollins and post an identical statement on their websites, apologizing for the “incorrect claim” in publicity statements and also saying that staff at the Times Atlas are working with scientists to correct the Greenland map. “On reflection and in discussion with the scientific community, the current map does not make the explanation of this topic as clear as it should be,” the groups say. “We are now urgently reviewing the depiction of ice in the Atlas against all the current research and data available, and will work with the scientific community to produce a map of Greenland which reflects all the latest data. We will then create an insert for the current atlas showing this map and also give an explanation of the situation and how we have mapped it. Any material generated as a result of this activity will also be made available online and incorporated into the Atlas.” The statement suggests that the scientific community bears some responsibility for the error: “The one thing that is very apparent is that there is no clarity in the scientific and cartographic community on this issue but we have been consulting widely over the last week with experts in the field and have received a good response and support with new sources and data.” The statement concludes: “This most up-to-date information from all the latest sources would be a positive outcome. If the controversy about the Times Atlas encourages scientists to come together and clarify some of the confusion about our climate and how it is changing, the outcome will help the general public, and indeed all of us, better understand this complex issue.”

    The September 22 statement stands as the most recent public comment from HarperCollins and the Times Atlas staff on the matter.

  • BBC News posts a podcast of an interview with Sheena Barclay from Collins Geo, who struggles in a tough exchange with her interviewer, Tom Feilden.
  • Columnist Christopher Booker of The Mail Online laments that the new edition of the Times Atlas, with its Greenland error, will be used to mislead school children in the UK. “So one of the world’s most respected reference books, it seems, has been caught out perpetrating what amounts to yet more propaganda for the belief in global warming,” Booker writes. “One of the most disturbing features of this is that copies of the new atlas may soon be found in school libraries, where it will be cited by teachers as yet more evidence that climate change is now dramatically changing the world we live in. With active encouragement from the government, whole generations of school-children have now had the apocalyptic threat of climate change pushed down their throats.”

Friday, September 23

Saturday, September 24

  • The New York Times catches up on the story, essentially recapping the news published to date. The Times, though a latecomer to the story, gets points for its headline: “Scientists Want Publisher to Refreeze Greenland.”

Monday, September 26

  • The New American, the Appleton, Wisconsin, magazine owned by the right-wing John Birch Society, takes a stab at the Times Atlas controversy. Using the now-stale headline: “Atlasgate Shrugged: Downplaying Greenland’s Fictional Ice Melt,” The New American uses the atlas story as an opportunity to celebrate the prospect of a warmer Greenland:”Greenland’s farmers are certainly enjoying their global warming boon. Until recently, the only vegetables they could grow were potatoes, but now locally grown cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and even strawberries are lining the shelves of neighborhood supermarkets. Potato harvests are booming. In areas formerly weather-restricted to sheep and reindeer herds, farmers have established successful cattle and dairy operations. The Wall Street Journal reported one rancher described his experience as a genesis. “We have so many cold places in Greenland, and a lot of it is covered with ice,” said Stefan Magnusson. “So we are grateful for those two extra degrees we get.”

Tuesday, September 27

  • Commentary, the neoconservative magazine in New York City that covers politics, Judaism, and social and cultural issues, offers another story from a climate skeptics’ viewpoint. In “More Global Warming Baloney: Atlas Erased Greenland’s Glaciers,” writer Jonathan S. Tobin conflates the Times Atlas story with the University of East Anglia e-mail episode and Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”"The problem here is not just that a publisher made an error,” Tobin writes. “There is a strong suspicion every time something like this happens it is the result of a deliberate effort to exaggerate the extent of warming so as to scare the public into backing measures that global warming activists support. That was the lesson of the Climategate e-mails. That story revealed the cynical efforts by some in the scientific community to fudge data in order to come up with results that might exploit the public’s fears about warming. Many researchers now understand the tendency by some to hype this issue with implausible and unsubstantiated claims of imminent catastrophe, such as those put forward in Al Gore’s lamentable film ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ do more to damage the credibility of climate science than anything else.”

Wednesday, September 28

  • The Denver Post runs an editorial that worries that the Times Atlas error will “pour fuel on climate skeptics’ fire.” After reviewing the story, the editors criticize Collins Geo for claiming there is widespread confusion over Greenland ice cover, even in the scientific community. “The confusion rests not with the scientists, but with the publisher’s cartographers,” Post editors write. “They should acknowledge that fact, rather than trot out a face-saving straw man that will be fuel for the skeptics’ fire.”
  • The New York Times posts a blog discussing the challenge of measuring changes in ice cover in Greenland, or anywhere else. The piece conveys how difficult it is for researchers to closely determine how ice cover is changing, whether they are in the field or at a computer analyzing satellite images — or both.

Wednesday, October 5

  • steps back a bit from the story and offers a post about the long history of speculative polar cartography. “This curious mismapping of Greenland’s ice sheet … follows an old tradition of speculative cartography of the polar regions. ‘Modern’ mapmakers as early as the 16th century combined real facts and scientific knowledge with fundamental misinterpretations of that knowledge to create speculative mappings of the world’s unknown shores — and nowhere was this more prevalent than at the poles. In the early days of polar exploration such maps often inspired to ill-fated nautical expeditions in search of pygmies, polar seas, and new lands. In modern times, such speculative mappings, both early and contemporary, have been used by some to disprove global warming, advocate for the continent of Atlantis, and prove that space aliens mapped the earth in antiquity. It should therefore probably be always borne in mind that cartography has always been a blend of art and science — which of course is one of the reasons why it so fascinates us.”
  • Freelance writer Rick Blue, who apparently is also half of the Canadian musical-comedy duo Bowser and Blue, writes a column in The Montreal Gazette in which he spins the Times Atlas controversy as a lie that was exposed only because of pressure from climate change skeptics. “Thanks to the skeptics who are eager to debunk the entire theory of climate change and its correlative human guilt factor, real scientists were quick to react,” Blue writes. “Why should this matter to us? Because this is an example of the kind of exaggeration and hysteria that is rampant among environmentalists these days and so governments are being pressed to pass laws about and increase taxes on anything carbon …. It is only thanks to the fact that scientists are becoming more aware of the skepticism surrounding the whole climate change issue, and so are becoming more concerned with guarding their good name, that they were outspoken in their criticism of this particular published lie.” “There is hope,” concludes Blue. “It was truly refreshing to read how they hurried to correct the record …. In this case it was the skeptics who kept everyone honest.”

Tuesday, October 18

  • New Scientist posts an analysis by Syracuse University geographer Mark Monmonier — author of several cartography books, including Maps with the News and How to Lie With Maps — that speculates on Collins Geo’s most fundamental mistake as it was putting the Times Atlastogether. “How does this kind of mega-glitch happen?” Monmonier writes. “An explanation lies partly in Collins Geo’s apparent decision to produce the map in house. If that was the case, the firm might have avoided its embarrassment with the obvious quality-assurance step of sending page proofs to carefully chosen experts.” Monmonier credits scientists for acting quickly to challenge the error. “In Atlasgate, the pro-warming community, which outnumbers naysayers by perhaps 50 to 1, wasted no time in trashing the HarperCollins map,” he writes. “Skeptics never had an opportunity to cast themselves in their preferred role of the cautious challenger resisting a bloated, politically biased scientific establishment.”

Tuesday, November 8

  • The website, RealClimate, reports that HarperCollins has produced a new map of Greenland as an insert to the 13th Edition. The news comes from Jeff Kargel, from the University of Arizona. The new map will be made available as a large-format, 2-side map insert for the Atlas and also will be made available online, RealClimate reports. The Collins Geo website and its Times Atlas page only have the September 22 clarification posted. In its post, RealClimate commends HarperCollins for consulting with scientists and producing a new map, but its authors criticize the publisher for still not taking full responsibility for the error: “Unfortunately, and despite recent events demonstrating that popular allegations against climate scientists are all wrong, HarperCollins still says on their website that it’s all the scientists’ fault for not being clear. (“The one thing that is very apparent is that there is no clarity in the scientific and cartographic community on this issue,” they write.) Hmm. Our own view is that anyone flying over Greenland en route to Europe from North America would instantly have recognized a problem with the Times Atlas (assuming they knew their location of course).” In their own pre-print paper, now under review, Kargel and colleagues summarize the episode and review the latest scientific record of glacier melt on Greenland. They conclude their paper with these words: “The publisher corrected the mistake quickly because the scientific community reacted immediately to the incorrect description of climate-related change in public media. We hope that as a result public trust in science is strengthened.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail:, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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One Response to Part II: Anatomy of a Times Atlas Screw-Up: Lessons for Scientists, Media

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have recently purchased a copy of this 13th edition of the atlas itself. Wondering if it actually does come with the insert, I left an inquiry on the publisher’s site and within hours they have replied my question. They have confirmed that the map is already printed according to many advisors. I now process a copy of this corrected map, showing a large 1:8,000,000 scale of Greenland on the obverse and different information and satellite imagery of Greenland, explaining how they came up with the new projection. The ice extent data is now supplied by Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS). Ice thickness information and bedrock elevation is also shown on two small geological maps. I am very pleased with the publisher’s effort to correct what’s doubted wrong by the broad scientific community and is willing to listen to comments and improve upon. The insert is definitely an extent of geological and glaciological information on Greenland of what’s available on the original atlas.