BBC about to bite bullet on climate BS

“I recommend that the BBC takes a less rigid view of ‘due impartiality’ as it applies to science (in practice and not just in its guidelines) and takes into account the non‐contentious nature of some material and the need to avoid giving undue attention to marginal opinion.” This is one of the recommendations of a review commissioned last year by the BBC Trust from Professor Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London. He was asked to assess the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage across television, radio and the internet. His review and the Trust report which responds to it have now been published, along with the news that the BBC has accepted his recommendations.

Professor Jones was impressed by the professionalism of the BBC’s science coverage and the progress it has shown over the past decade. His suggestions in conclusion were intended to ensure continuing improvement. I’ve highlighted the one which bears most closely on climate change denial, though he related the concern to other issues as well, such as the MMR vaccine and GM food. His discussion of due impartiality, on pages 53-77 of the report, is thoughtful and thorough. I’ll extract a few of its main points.

He reports “widespread concern within the scientific community that in News and Current Affairs undue attention is given, when certain subjects are discussed, to oppositional views of received results.”

“To identify impartiality is a particular difficulty when it comes to science, for that field, unlike any other, claims to present objective, tested, and accepted truth. Most of the time, it does; and without a widespread acceptance of that agenda science could not progress. Often, there is little reason to dispute its assertions: the world is not flat, life is not six thousand years old, carbon dioxide levels are rising through human activity and smoking does cause lung cancer. Millions choose to disagree with each of those statements but within the world of science there is almost no difference of opinion about any of them, nor for most of the corpus of physics, chemistry, biology and the rest. In most areas of endeavour, the famous ‘wagon wheel’ involves the presentation of divergent opinions; but science deals, most of the time, with opposed evidence. To confuse the two can destroy the whole basis of impartiality.”

He remarks on a frequent conflation of balance and impartiality in science reporting. Journalists uncertain of the facts presented by each side in strongly opposed views may apply balance while describing it as impartiality. But balance is not impartiality if one proponent is presenting dubious evidence.

Broadcasters may not all be aware that impartiality checks are built into the scientific enterprise.

“The objectivity of researchers is judged as they undergo a series of painful processes from the successful grant application, to endless discussion within a group as to the validity of a result, to a journal’s peer review before a piece of work becomes public and then, quite often, to the presentation of contrary views in the scientific literature.”

By contrast, many of those put up in opposition to a scientist on the broadcast media have had no scrutiny at all of the claims they put forward. He suggests that this differential examination of the ideas of each party might be taken into account by broadcasters considering the need for due impartiality.

Scientists are generally not liars.

“Financially driven or otherwise, bias, fraud and self‐delusion are uncommon in science. To listen to some of the BBC’s coverage would be to doubt that statement. Although much of it is excellent, again and again news and current affairs return to the sub‐text that the correct way to treat a scientist on air is as if he or she were a politician: someone whose devotion to the truth is determined by a pre‐existing agenda.

“…science is not intrinsically, as elements of the media sometimes imply, a shady pastime awaiting exposure by the bright beam of reportorial truth.”

On the specific matter of global warming Jones describes denialism as the use of rhetoric to give the appearance of debate.

“This is not the same as scepticism, for a sceptic is willing to change his or her mind when provided with evidence. A denialist is not.”

He notes approvingly the BBC Executive’s Impartiality Report of 2008 which said:

“Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently…”

However it is not clear to him that these words are reflected in the practice of some programmes, which have continued to suggest that a real scientific disagreement was present long after a consensus had been reached.

“For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story even when the internal statements of the BBC suggest that no controversy exists. There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC’s written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air.”

However Jones remains generally appreciative of the BBC’s treatment of science, and his criticisms are gently offered. The BBC in its response to Professor Jones’ recommendation on due impartiality has accepted, with caveats, that providing an opposite view without consideration of ‘due weight’ can lead to ‘false balance’, meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is. Specifically, it has announced what looks like a sensible outcome:

The BBC Executive will establish a new training programme for journalists on impartiality as it applies to science and will run seminars with science journalists to debate current issues and coverage in the media.

On a much humbler level than the BBC I can’t leave the subject without pointing to a recent example in New Zealand’s newsprint media of where the provision of so-called balance can lead an otherwise sensible and serious coverage of a climate change issue. Under the heading Climate change evidence ‘undeniable’ Kiran Chug reported the comments of prominent climatologist Dr Kevin Trenberth, Professor Lionel Carter of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre and Professor Martin Manning, of Victoria’s Climate Change Research Institute. They all pointed in the same direction – that extreme weather events, warming oceans and Antarctic ice melt are signs that global warming is under way and its consequences are global and serious. Then suddenly, in a final brief paragraph, the reader was informed that ACT candidate and agriculture spokesman Don Nicolson sees it all as a matter of natural variations in climate: “No-one can give me conclusive proof that mankind is actually having an effect on the weather.”

What happened?  It’s an obvious add-on. Did the writer think, “Gee, I’d better get an opposing opinion in before I finish”?  Or did someone up the editorial chain say to her, “You need a balance. Give Don Nicholson a ring”? Either way it’s patently ridiculous and a good local example of exactly the false balance that Professor Jones points to in his BBC report.

27 thoughts on “BBC about to bite bullet on climate BS”

  1. “Scientists are generally not liars.”

    Please post evidence to support the claim that scientists are not as susceptible to ego and self-interest as people from any other walk of life.

    1. Steve, you missed the point of the word “generally” which I was careful to include. Jones spends quite a bit of time explaining what he means and is far from claiming scientists to be free from ego and self-interest. Here’s some of what he writes:

      “Scientists may be biased, and they have no shortage of prejudice, over‐confidence, self‐delusion, carelessness, jealousy and personal loathing. However, much though they may deceive themselves about the value of their own work they rarely tell lies to each other or to the public.

      “Rarely does not mean never. Scientists do not belong to a priesthood (although some might disagree). Fraud exists.”

      1. Nobody is claiming that lab technicians inhabit a higher moral realm and therefore the world needs to massively restrict it’s freedom because 97% of lab technicians say we must. Ditto for interior decorators, dentists or cheesemakers.

        However that is the implicit proposition we are being required to swallow regarding scientists.

        “So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” -Stephen Schneider
        But hey, I sure he was generally not a liar.

        1. Steve, it is very, very important when you quote Schneider to not complete it with the statement, “I hope that means being both.” Otherwise, he comes across as reasonable with a desire to be effective while remaining honest.

          Oh, I see you were careful to do that. Never mind. Carry on.

            1. Please post evidence to support your claim that Schneider has presented information which is “effective” to the point of being dishonest.

            2. Well, since it’s been established that quote mining is not any kind of trouble:

              “97% of lab technicians say … we are being required to swallow. I sure … was.” ~Steve Wrathall

              BTW, I want to hear more about your fantasies where Stephen Schneider lies, ineffectively. That’s amusing stuff.

      2. “Scientists are generally not liars.”

        At a pedantic level I think it is a silly statement. Scientists are as human as anybody else.
        Better perhaps: peer reviewed scientific research is almost never fraudulent.

      3. Eh – so most people are generally liars? In order for this to be a claim that scientists somehow inhabit a higher moral realm this statement would have to be true.

        And could any statement hope to be as silly as Steve’s?

        If 97% of lab technicians tell me it’s not a good idea to boil benzene in an open flask I’d be strongly inclined to believe them. Yes, even you, Steve, because this is the area in which you know what you’re talking about (not a side of you we get to see much of!)

        And I’d certainly be inclined to believe you as opposed to, say, some superannuated hack who was loudly claiming lab expertise but who actually turned out to have been merely a minor bag carrier for a Tory Prime-Minister, but who was nonetheless energetically declaiming that it was all perfectly safe because of the Treaty of Westphalia and post-coitum omnia animal triste est, dont’cha know?

        1. But the point is that the open boiling of benzene being a bad idea is a proposition that requires no “argument of authority” from lab technicians, or anyone else. It is supportable by argument and evidence alone. Ditto the sphericity of the earth and the existence of evolution and the Holocaust, and all the other analogies whose “denial” is fraudulently compared with skepticism of catastrophic AGW.

          Yet CAGW is a proposition that is not supportable by argument and evidence. Whenever it is challenged its believers immediately repair to thie argument of authority. Thus revealing its fundamental weakness.

          1. Steve, that’s utter bullshit and you know it. There’s a mountain of evidence, underpinned by basic physics. You assert the mountain doesn’t exist, but your blindness is not in itself evidence of anything but a shortcoming on your part.

            Your opinion is worth, what, diddly squat? Or has the squat cross rate been plunging along with the US $?

          2. Predictable.

            Yes, Steve, I wrote that because a: I know FA about chemistry (but a I can remember an incident – broken up by a vigilant lab assistant, I might add – from high school!) and b: I was trying to be amusing and provide an illustration of reckless behaviour where even people who know FA about chemistry would get the idea that doing that would be pretty stupid.

            But the point is – if you told me some Chemical X was dangerous in a lab I’d believe you. Even if ‘everyone was using it’ with assumed impunity only two weeks ago.

            And if 96 of your colleagues – having read the latest papers – agreed, two weren’t sure, and one said it was fine… I’d certainly assume it was dangerous.

            Particularly if it transpired the latter tech was substantially funded by HulkingGreatBastardChemical GmbH of Hanover, which just happened to be in court defending itself from a class action undertaken by the victims of Chemical X…

            All analogies break down under scrutiny. Nevertheless, one fact remains: the people who know what they are talking about in any given field are the people who know what they are talking about in any given field.

            You’re well outside your competence (so am I, of course), and I don’t believe you. Or your tiny-minority – and frequently compromised – sources. Only a fool (or a zealot) would.

  2. Steve, are you talking about the freedom to burn ever increasing amounts of fossil fuels and consume more & more resources to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle?
    What ‘massive restrictions’ are you talking about?
    Are the bulk of climate scientists out there part of some giant conspiracy to restrict your freedoms or is it all just co-incidence that their individual predjudices, self delusions etc happen to be saying the same thing? Don’t you think they’d all rather climate change wasn’t real? Wouldn’t everyone rather just go home & pretend it isn’t happening?
    Get real.
    What about the rights & freedoms of people born in this century to inhabit a planet with at least some of the resources ( water, a stable climate, a stable coastline) that we had.
    Constantly challenging the existence of global warming looks like a tactic to try & avoid the really important discussion about what we should be doing about it.

    1. -water,

      There’s the same amount of water on this planet that there always has been. It’s called the water cycle. Look it up in a text book.

      – a stable climate,

      the climate has never been stable. Especially during cold periods.
      The claim that “instability is increasing” is bereft of evidence and meaning.

      -stable coastline

      Again, coastal evolution, text book.

      And latest research shows sea level rise is decelerating

      1. Liquid water, running in a river, in a lake or a water table, is a resource. Water which is dissolved in hot air is a recipe for death by heat exhaustion. Perhaps you’ve heard of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or is that just some gravy train liberal nonsense?

      2. Steve, again- what ‘massive restrictions’ to your freedom are you talking about?

        The weather has never been ‘stable’ but in the time that our industrial western civilisation has developed the climate & the coastlines have been relatively so.

        Thanks samv – ‘i should have written ‘available freshwater’.

      3. Steve W: You said “-water,

        There’s the same amount of water on this planet that there always has been. It’s called the water cycle. Look it up in a text book.”

        What an idiotic comment indeed. Of cause the talk is about fresh water, drinking water, water that is useful for irrigation to grow the crops that feed the billions…
        How about spending some time in India perhaps and looking at the dire predictions of what is going to happen when they reach the end of the line of their water mining (depleting ancient aquifers well above the rate of natural water cycles refilling these). In some areas the water table is dropping many meters a year now. Often the energy locally available is not enough to pump it up anymore.

        Steve wake up. You are seriously deluded at best, a Machiavellian cynic more likely.

        1. “How about spending some time in India perhaps and looking at the dire predictions…”
          Yes, like the Dire predictions of “experts” like Paul Ehrlich that 100s of millions would die in countries like India in the 1970s-never happened. Funny how the same tired shopworn doomists seem to nonetheless be able to recruit fresh believers to their lates doomcast, in the current case AGW.

          Meanwhile even the UN has been forced to admit that it is wealth creation, not wealth “redistribution” that is lifting billions out of poverty.

          1. Steve you really are either incredibly ignorant or incredibly insensitive. Either way you fail to address the issue that Thomas directed you to.
            A moments google search produced this
            and to save you the bother – but really you should go and read it – amongst other things it says this:
            ‘About 60 per cent of aquifers in India will be in a critical condition in another 15 years if the trend of indiscriminate exploitation of ground water continues, the World Bank has said in a report.”

            Note: it is the WORLD BANK which is saying this – not some greenie, commie, in it for the money, “neo-nazi”, do gooder, wishy washy, pinko scientist.

            And just how do you imagine wealth creation amongst the billions in poverty is to be achieved?

          2. I vote for ‘seriously deluded cynic’.

            When facing hopeless defeated in argument – change the subject. Were we discussing Ehrlich? No. Has anyone mentioned him in recent memory? No. Never mind, run out some ‘shopworn’ non-point.

            Then run on to some cornucopian crap about ‘wealth creation’ – let me guess; they can pay to truck in water with their new-found $millions, which automatically appear as soon as they embrace the one-true-faith?

            In Steve’s Pollyanna-ish world, just wishing makes it true… there are no constraints.

            And we’re to believe you really care about the lot of Indian peasants, are we? Shall I retrieve the previous ‘Mr. Sensitive’ quotes? ‘You know, ‘dirt’ and ‘drowning’?

  3. Steve –

    Richard Christie, in his comment above said it more succinctly. If you got that then skip this harangue but if you somehow missed his point or its implications, read on –

    It’s perfectly obvious that scientists, like all humans are susceptible to ego issues and to satisfying their self-interest, although I would argue that their training and education weeds-out many of those who are incapable of constraining these tendencies.

    We are not comparing scientists to ‘people from any other walk of life’. We are comparing scientists to ‘deniers’. The central issue here is that scientific research by any group or individual is open to considerable comment and criticism not only by their immediate colleagues but, when published, by the world-wide scientific community. Publish anything driven by ego need or self-interest and you can be very badly embarrassed if not ‘laughed-out’ of the profession – read the history of the discovery of ‘N-rays’ by members of the French Academy of Science in 1903 for an illustrative example. Scientists, generally, are not dishonest – they cannot afford to be – their research is open to scrutiny long before it is reported in the press. It’s called peer review – your results will be questioned. You, of course, already know this

    ‘Deniers’ work and publish under no constraints at all and many of them have little or no appropriate education or training in the field in question. For an example of egotism I give you the Honorable Lord Monkton and for an example of self interest and dishonesty we have Dr. Ed Wegman. And these are not isolated cases – these tendencies are common, if not ubiquitous, among the ‘deniers’. They are not subject to peer review and if you question their conclusions you will be attacked – you will characterized as a Nazi or worse and you may receive death threats. You know this as well.

    I do not imagine that you will feel chastised by this response or feel any shame at having posted such a transparently dishonest comment – deniers are like that – they know that the point is not to engage in honest discourse but rather to propagate confusion and dissension by whatever means available. And yes, you already know this as well. You also know the meaning of a ‘straw-man’ argument.

  4. Steve. I notice that you prefer to go off on your own tangent ,however for the third time… you said
    ” Nobody is claiming that lab technicians inhabit a higher moral realm and therefore the world needs to massively restrict it’s freedom because 97% of lab technicians say we must. Ditto for interior decorators, dentists or cheesemakers.
    However that is the implicit proposition we are being required to swallow regarding scientists.”

    and again I am asking you what freedoms are to be massively restricted? You talk of “scary scenarios” and “simplified, dramatic statements”, I suggest that is exactly what your statement is.

    Society needs to discuss, plan and make changes to try and avert the worst of the damage that global warming will do (sadly too late to stop it).
    I suspect it is a waste of time trying to discuss this with you, but I’m snowed in here, can’t get to work. I guess you might be busy on some other blog site claiming that this snow means global warming is a non event. Most of the other visitors to hot topic will know better.

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