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Correction to climate change study highlights flaws in peer-review process

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“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Scientists and journalists alike were reminded of that oft-quoted phrase by famed cosmologist Carl Sagan when authors of a study published in Nature admitted this week that they needed to issue a correction. The study was widely covered by outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, BBC and Scientific American.

While the correction, which has yet to appear, may provide fodder for climate change skeptics, many in the scientific community are praising the authors for their quick action after recognizing their error. And some believe this is a reminder that there are inherent flaws in journal publication.

The study was led by Ralph Keeling, a professor in the geosciences research division at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Using a novel method that measures oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air from around the world, the researchers concluded Earth’s oceans are absorbing 60 per cent more heat than estimates by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I accept responsibility for these oversights.– Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Soon after it was published on Nov. 1, independent researcher Nic Lewis wrote there was a “major problem” with the study. While Lewis acknowledged that its method was novel and “certainly worthy of publication,” he found errors in the calculations that, he concluded, underestimated the uncertainty of the findings.

Three days later, the authors acknowledged the error, said they were redoing the calculations and preparing a correction to be published in Nature. The new calculations are expected to bring the oceans’ heat absorption rate more in line with IPCC estimates. 

“These problems do not invalidate the methodology or the new insights into ocean biogeochemistry on which it is based, but they do influence the mean rate of warming we infer, and more importantly, the uncertainties of that calculation,” Keeling said in a response published on the website Real Climate.

“I accept responsibility for these oversights, because it was my role to ensure that details of the measurements were correctly understood and taken up by co-authors.”

Nature says it’s looking into the matter “carefully.”

We take all concerns related to papers we have published very seriously and will issue an update once further information is available,” the weekly journal said in a statement to CBC News. 

Imperfect system

Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that tracks errors in science journals, believes that, while the error was unfortunate for the authors, part of the issue lies in the amount of faith the public — and journalists — put in the peer-review process.

“Science is done by human beings,” said Oransky. “When we start to think about peer review as a magical process that, somehow you put in something that may have some issues, but somehow the peer reviewers find all the problems, and then we should trust everything that’s peer reviewed, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

He still believes in the process, but says it’s not the catch-all that scientists and journalists believe it is.

“We need to stop thinking… that just because something is peer-reviewed means that it’s a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Oransky said.

Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University says the public and journalists put too much faith in the peer-review process. (CBC)

An important thing to consider, says Keeling, is that peer reviewers aren’t necessarily equipped to carefully pore over calculations. They may not even be experts in that field, particularly if the paper spans different disciplines, as was the case with this one. 

“It didn’t get seen by every audience that should have seen it, so perhaps we should have sent it to some of these other audiences for review,” Keeling told CBC News.

“That would perhaps be a lesson that I take from this: that particularly in a paper like this, it should have been circulated among other colleagues even informally. That would’ve been helpful.”

With division running deep between climatologists and those who believe they are simply being alarmist, there’s the danger that other studies will be dismissed as a result of this or any other study where an error has been made.

But Oransky says that it’s hot-button topics — like climate change, vaccines or GMOs — that are usually scrutinized far more closely than other topics. This, he says, could be a good thing, but if errors are present, it doesn’t invalidate the research or the issue.

“What happens now is, ‘See? The climate change researchers made a mistake.’ So you have this logical fallacy that everything that they’ve ever done is flawed and we can’t trust any of it,” Oransky said.

“Well, that’s not true either. We don’t live in a binary world, and we do ourselves a disservice when we act like it.”  



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Millions of Facebook users may have had their photos exposed due to privacy flaw

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Facebook’s privacy controls have broken down yet again, this time through a software flaw affecting nearly seven million users who had photos exposed to a much wider audience than intended.

The bug disclosed Friday gave hundreds of apps unauthorized access to photos that could in theory include images that would embarrass some of the affected users. They also included photos people may have uploaded but hadn’t yet posted, perhaps because they had changed their mind.

It’s not yet known whether anyone actually saw the photos, but the revelation of the now-fixed problem served as another reminder of just how much data Facebook has on its 2.27 billion users, as well has how frequently these slip-ups are recurring.

The bug is the latest in a series of privacy lapses that continue to crop up, despite Facebook’s repeated pledges to batten down its hatches and do a better job preventing unauthorized access to the pictures, thoughts and other personal information its users intend so share only with friends and family.

In general, when people grant permission for a third-party app to access their photos, they are sharing all the photos on their Facebook page, regardless of privacy settings meant to limit a photo to small circles such as family. The bug potentially gave developers access to even more photos, such as those shared on separate Marketplace and Facebook Stories features, as well as photos that weren’t actually posted.

Facebook said the users’ photos may have been exposed for 12 days in September. The company said the bug has been fixed.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes the keynote speech at F8, Facebook’s developer conference, in San Jose, Calif., in May. Friday’s bug is the latest in a series of privacy lapses that continue to crop up. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The company declined to say how many of the affected users are from Europe, where stricter privacy laws took effect in May and could subject companies to fines. Facebook said it has notified the Irish Data Protection Commission of the breach.

The problem comes in a year fraught with privacy scandals and other problems for the world’s biggest social network.

Revelations that the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data from as many as 87 million users led to U.S. congressional hearings and changes in what sorts of data Facebook lets outside developers access. In June, a bug affecting privacy settings led some users to post publicly by default regardless of their previous settings. This bug affected as many as 14 million users over several days in May.

With each breakdown, Facebook risks losing credibility with both its audience and the advertisers whose spending generates most of the company’s revenue.

“It’s like they keep getting these chinks in the armour that is causing this trust deficit,” said Michael Priem, CEO of Modern Impact, which places ads for a variety of major brands.

User base strong despite issues

Although Facebook doesn’t appear to be losing a lot of users, Priem said some advertisers have been seeing data indicating that people are spending less time on the social network. That’s raising concerns about whether the privacy breakdowns and problems with misinformation being spread on the services are taking a toll.

But it’s difficult to know how much Facebook’s recent wave of headaches has been affecting the service because its growth, particularly among younger people, had been slowing even before the problems began to crop up, said Nate Elliott, an analyst with the research firm Nineteen Insights.

Advertisers are unlikely to curtail their spending significantly as long as Facebook is able to maintain the current size of its audience, Elliott said. So far there has been little evidence a significant percentage of the users are worried enough about privacy to get off the service.

“Even if people don’t trust Facebook, as long as the value that the service provides is worth more than the cost of the privacy violations, then that may be a trade-off most people are willing to make,” Elliott said.

On Thursday, to counter the bad rap it’s gotten around privacy, Facebook hosted a one-day “pop-up” to talk to users about their settings and whatever else may be on their mind. Chief privacy officer Erin Egan gave Facebook’s work on privacy a “B” when asked by a reporter for a grade. By 2019, she said she hopes the improvements will result in an “A.”

Privacy experts might call it grade inflation. In any case, the company has its work cut out before it makes the top grade. The company has had to increase how much it spends on privacy and security, which put a dent in its bottom line and in August contributed to a stock price plunge .



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UN climate talks extended as island countries demand action

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Weary officials from almost 200 countries faced another day of negotiations at United Nations climate talks to bridge their last remaining differences as small island countries on Friday demanded an ambitious stance against global warming.

The talks in Poland were supposed to end Friday but Michal Kurtyka, a senior Polish official chairing the negotiations, told delegates they would resume talks on a revised draft text at 4 a.m. Saturday.

“All parties, with the support of the presidency, are working very hard right now in order to solve outstanding issues and in order to find the balanced package here in Katowice,” Kurtyka told reporters.

After two weeks of talks in the southern Polish city, diplomats have come closer to agreeing on the rules that govern the 2015 Paris climate accord. These include how countries should transparently report both their greenhouse gases emissions and their efforts to reduce them.

Scientists say global emissions need to drop dramatically by 2030 and reach near-zero by 2050 in order to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it’s possible to cap global warming at 1.5 C higher by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times. That’s the lower end of the 1.5 to 2 C scale mentioned in the Paris accord.

But this would require a drastic overhaul of the global economy, including ending the use of almost all fossil fuels.

The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have refused to “welcome” the IPCC report, angering other countries and environmentalists.

Emerging, industrialized economies clash

Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed warned that countries such as his, which consider themselves on the front lines of global warming, would veto the current draft because it lacks a clear commitment to the 1.5 C target.

“If necessary, we will rebel against the negotiations,” Nasheed told reporters.

Another issue haunting negotiators is the rules for an international market in carbon credits.

Participants take part in a plenary session, during what was supposed to be the final day of the climate conference. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

The clash pits emerging economies such as Brazil — which amassed large piles of carbon credits under the 1997 Kyoto treaty’s rules — against industrial countries such as those in the European Union, which believe the older credits aren’t worth the paper they were printed on.

Economists believe a functioning carbon trading system could be an effective way to drive down emissions and raise large amounts of money for measures to curb global warming.

Alex Hanafi, lead counsel at the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, said Brazil was trying to weaken the rules in such a way that would allow countries to count their emissions reductions twice, undermining the carbon markets.

“This loophole needs to be closed so zombie credits from the old [Kyoto] Clean Development Mechanism cannot infect the climate integrity of the Paris Agreement,” he said.

Brazil’s delegation rejected the claim.

“Brazil is currently working with other parties on a bridging proposal,” said the country’s chief negotiator, Antonio Marcondes.

Trump defends pulling out of Paris accord

Aid for poor countries — and whether they could benefit from a levy on the carbon market — is another key issue at the talks.

Poor countries insist they should get financial support not just to lower emissions and adapt to climate change, but also to make up for the global warming damages that have already occurred, largely because of emissions from industrial nations.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday waded into the debate over the costs of tackling climate change, telling Fox News that if he had remained in the Paris climate accord the U.S. “would be paying trillions of dollars, trillions of dollars for nothing, and I wouldn’t do that.”

Trump announced last year that the U.S. is pulling out of the Paris climate accord unless he can get a better deal — a possibility that others such as the EU and China have dismissed.

Germany’s environment minister said the failure to curb climate change would cost the world a lot more than the trillions Trump claims that he’s saving.

A group of participants leaves before the end of the final session of the summit on Friday. The Katowice summit is the biggest UN climate conference since the Paris climate accord was reached in 2015. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

“If we let entire stretches of this planet become uninhabitable, then it will trigger gigantic costs,” Schulze told reporters, adding that developing technology to lower emissions would give Germany a competitive economic advantage.

With climate delegates hoping to clinch a deal on Saturday, they were able to agree on one thing Friday: that next year’s climate talks will be held in Chile.



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Webcams and wearable tech are going to the dogs, literally

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Canadians will spend an average of $65 on their pets this holiday season, according to accounting firm PwC’s holiday outlook.

Some of the hottest gifts are new devices to help us monitor and better understand our pets when we aren’t home.

The Furbo is a dog camera that holds treats inside and allows the user to see their pet, speak to them and hit a button to release a treat, all from a smartphone.

It’s just one of many similar tech products available for pets.

CleverPet is designed to activate a dog’s mind and keep them busy throughout the day. The device sits on the floor and offers sequence and memory games using lights and sounds to stimulate their brains.

There are also tracking devices that attach to collars like Findster Duo+, a tiny, smart wearable device to monitor a pet’s location, and how much they’re moving or resting, in real time on a smartphone.

Customer worries new tech would confuse her pet

Jessi Grigor owns a dog and two cats in Toronto. She’s thinking about buying a device to observe them when nobody’s home.

“My partner was actually talking about getting the Furbo for Christmas,” said Grigor. “He’s into it; I’m still trying to decide whether it’s worth it or not.”

Though she’s intrigued, she worries about how her dog, Indy, might respond.

Jessi Grigor, with her dog Indy, is weighing the pros and cons of purchasing a dog camera. (Jason Osler/CBC)

“I like the technology. I like that we can give her treats. I like that we can see what she’s up to,” said Grigor. “[But] I feel like she would be very confused, personally. I think if she heard our voice, [she] couldn’t understand that we’re not there.”

Grigor says she wants to do some more research before spending the money on a web camera that dispenses treats.

“I think I still need to read more reviews and kind of get a better idea of what the experience is like,” said Grigor. “I think the way companies market things, they can sound perfect but, in theory, is it actually what it says it’s going to be?”

Tech can help identify issues of separation anxiety

Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour and welfare scientist in Vancouver who uses some of the technology professionally.

“I like using these webcams, because it really does give us a very independent look into what dogs are actually doing when they’re on their own,” said Ledger. “It helps us to implement treatment protocols for those dogs, as well.”

Treatment could address issues like separation anxiety a pet might experience when their owner is away from the home.

Rebecca Ledger lives in Vancouver with her husband, three children, two rescue cats, Gilly and Sisko, and her English springer spaniels, Pippa and Poppy. (Rebecca Ledger/Twitter)

“There’s a lot of stories of people who, until they got these products, had no idea how distressed their animals were when they were left on their own,” said Ledger.

Still, she cautions consumers to approach these products with a critical eye.

“I obviously see some value in knowing what our pets are doing when they’re by themselves, but these devices aren’t panaceas.”

‘Potential for your pet to become more anxious or frustrated’

Ledger is concerned that acquiring too much information about our pets could lead us to make assumptions about how they feel.

“We have to look at the whole animal — look at the whole context of what these devices are recording,” said Ledger. “And not necessarily assuming, that just because we observe these very key behaviours, that our dogs are suffering and need some kind of device.”

Ledger says it’s best to take the information acquired from a device to a veterinarian who is trained to diagnose a problem.

And most of all, she says to remember the tech may or may not appeal to all pets.

“If you are thinking of getting one of these devices, just bear in mind that it’s not that there’s something wrong with your pet if it isn’t for your pet,” said Ledger. “Know that there is the potential for your pet to become more anxious or frustrated as a result of being able to hear you, but not interact with you in any other way.”

Still, consumers appear to be lapping up the latest pet tech trends. Global market research company Technavio says the pet monitoring camera market will grow by 26 per cent annually over the next few years.



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