Media coverage of a dubious paper

Most scientific papers receive no media interest: nothing in the newspapers, nothing on TV, nothing on blogs. Given the number of papers published, this is probably inevitable.

Some papers receive lots of media attention. Ideally, these would be the most important papers, and the coverage would approach the papers critically. Alas, coverage can be little more than near copies of press releases for entertaining papers.

Skjærvø et al, whose paper “Solar activity at birth predicted infant survival and women’s fertility in historical Norway” has, I think, near zero credibility, received a lot of press attention.

To recap, the paper reports that children born in periods of high solar activity have lower life expectancy, lower survival to adulthood, lower fertility, and a lower lifetime reproductive success. The proposed mechanism, that increased UV dose during solar maxima depletes the mothers’ folic acid reserves is implausible because year on year variability in UV dose due to variability in cloud cover is an order of magnitude large than the variability in UV due to solar activity. It is far more likely that the result is a chance finding when the null hypothesis, that there is no link between solar activity and survival/fertility, is true.

The problems with the hypothesis in this paper should be fairly obvious to anybody who has ever tried camping in a British summer. What do the media make of it?

There seem to be hundreds of media articles about this paper. Most seem to reproduce the press release from NTNU with more or less editing.

The Daily Telegraph thinks that the “secret of long life may be written in stars”, but is the only newspaper I’ve found that includes a critical comment: a quote from a solar physicist who is clearly sceptical about the paper is tagged on the end.

The Daily Mail think the papers finding are “bizarre”, but not so bizarre that it wouldn’t include a handy table of solar maxima to work out if you will live five years longer or not.

Science has a news article about the paper (at least on its website). Did no-one at Science have their critical facilities turned on? Same problem at Scientific American.

The website Science 2.0 get confused and writes “In Norway, Being Born In A Year With Sunshine Meant Higher Mortality”. Even the most miserable summers in Norway have at least some sun.

Climate sceptic blog tend to think that the solar variability is important so predictably wrote about the paper. WUWT briefly had an post about this paper written by David Archibald, but it vanished for unknown reasons.

Jo Nova reproduces the same text from Archibald, but writes “The authors seem fairly sure it has something to do with UV, but I’m not convinced.” The glimmer of hope I felt was dashed when she mentioned magnetic effects as a possible cause.

Luboš Motl is rightly sceptical about the paper. As is William M. Briggs, a co-author of Monckton’s awful paper.

Science journalism at the newspapers failed in regard to this paper. Infotainment triumphed over analysis. Even the science-focused websites just copy-paste the press release. It is only a few of the blogs that have critical discussion of the paper.

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Luboš Motl and William Briggs.

The Altmetrics for this paper will be enormous. Yet another reason to distrust them.


About richard telford

Ecologist with interests in quantitative methods and palaeoenvironments
This entry was posted in Fake climate sceptics, Peer reviewed literature and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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