Tuesday, July 8, 2014

BBC Reducing Scientific "False Balance"

Occasionally in political discussions someone will suggest that we should bring back the "fairness doctrine" for American news programs that was eliminated by the FCC in 1987. Usually the idea is that a return to said doctrine would lead to more balanced news coverage, but the problem there is that news programs do it anyway, sometimes with ridiculous results. The problem with trying to present "balance" is that these days it's pretty easy to find somebody who represents "the other side" on just about any issue, whether or not they're even remotely qualified to comment on the subject.

The BBC is now moving to reduce this sort of "false balance" in science coverage, in which unqualified individuals are given airtime to discuss views contrary to established scientific conclusions. While this is a broad brush that will likely reduce the coverage of fringe subjects such as paranormal phenomena, it's also true that said phenomena are paranormal precisely because they haven't been verified by formal science. Also, most of the "experts" who get airtime on those subjects are people like media psychics who don't have much to say about it anyway aside from self-promotion.

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues. The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’ “The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.

“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.”

Cultivating "balance" for its own sake is not helpful from the standpoint of scientific inquiry, and can do a lot more harm than whatever good producers hope to achieve. In the United States, for example, it's already becoming clear that promoting the views of anti-vaccine activists is leading to fewer vaccinated children and a return of diseases that we thought were taken care of years ago. The debate over climate change is another area where it's becoming more and more difficult to find qualified scientists who dispute that the Earth is getting warmer, leaving few people besides unqualified political activists to provide "balance."

I'm strongly opposed to censorship, so hopefully that's not what this turns into. Every so often a "marginal view" does turn out to be right, but it seems reasonable to me that we need to wait and see if such views hold up to scientific scrutiny before we present them as science, which by definition always trails behind the cutting edge of observations and hypotheses. It would also be useful if people understood scientific terminology better. Creationists who describe evolution as "just a theory" because they think "theory" and "guess" mean the same thing are a real pet peeve of mine.

It's all the more important to be clear on the science because people tend to favor their political and religious beliefs over scientific knowledge.

Belief appears trumps fact and reason, which is why dealing with anti-vaxxers, creationists, or climate change deniers can be such a rage-inducing experience. This news is also a bit disheartening, as changing minds is not as easy as explaining the facts. What can we do to combat the fact that scientifically-literate individuals are turning their backs on facts in order to toe the line for political party or religious sect?

This is why "false balance" that merely introduces uncertainty into scientific debate works so well. People accept the position they agree with as true, with no regard to the qualifications of the individual adopting it. While this survey shows that this tendency is likely inevitable, it seems to me that news media outlets should do their part to limit it as best they can.

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mike said...

"..the debate over climate change is another area where it's becoming more and more difficult to find qualified scientists who dispute that the Earth is getting warmer, leaving few people besides unqualified political activists to provide "balance.""

Gun meets foot moment.?
I realise you don't have the faintest idea about what you are talking about so I will not automatically assume you are being wilfully obtuse.
You will not find anyone on earth who is scientifically literate, who doesn't realise we are in an interglacial period called the Holocene epoch and that the earth has been slowly warming(with some cool periods) for about 10,000 years.

"I'm strongly opposed to censorship, so hopefully that's not what this turns into."

You are being too kind.
Its the BBC..its censorship..they have been doing it for about 15 years now.
Most of their reporters have as much knowledge as you do regarding Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global warming.
Which was the term you would have used, if you had the slightest idea what you were talking about.
The last time they were being lectured too by "experts" they refused to say who the "experts" were.
Because thats the right thing.!!
After some legal battles, it was found out that most of their "experts" were mostly highly paid green activists and Green NGO`s.

This is why "false balance" that merely introduces uncertainty into scientific debate works so well.

Actually, the whole BBC debacle is done for one thing..its Called Noble Cause Corruption.
The climate science arena , is full of uncertainties.
But when critics point out the problems/uncertainties/mistakes or that the majority of the models/projections have failed....they are marginalised.
Its that Flipping simple.
Go to this site and see what a mathematician and sometime IPCC referee has found over the years with the "settled science".
If a mathematician+consensus majority said 5 and 5 = 11..and I said.."your maths are wrong"..in the post modern world of the BBC world, and your`s I gather..my view would be labelled as "introducing uncertainties" and I would be marginalised and have my view not aired.
Whilst people die from malnutrition and starve..the BBC forgets to mention that 11 BILLION dollars per year is spent on "cutting CO2" but that doesn't matter right.?
And for the last time, anytime someone waves around the words settled science..people known they are clueless.
And the second thing is the word/implication of a "consensus"..a consensus is used for voting etc..it has zero to do with science.
If a "consensus" view dictates what is right and sane..then you views and web site are by that line of "logic" insane.
You cannot have it both ways.

Scott Stenwick said...

So you're assuming that because I simply mentioned the climate change debate in the context of this article I'm automatically some sort of climate alarmist and your "enemy" or something? That's a pretty big leap.

In fact, I'm a professional computer scientist and have been following the saga of the various computer models for a long time. I'm also quite familiar with their many failings and uncertainties. Because of that, I can't say that I'm completely convinced by either ideological "side" in this debate - the computer models have been wrong a lot of the time, but they're not the only data climate scientists use.

I see no reason why global climate change couldn't be caused by both human activity and other unrelated environmental factors, and given that most problems of this sort involve highly complex systems I expect that explanation will probably turn out to be correct. For one thing, would explain why computer models that base everything around human activity have proved more inaccurate than expected.

I'm also quite familiar with Lomborg's work, and agree that there are a lot of cases where it will likely prove far more cost-effective to mediate the effects of climate change rather than putting forth some massive effort to try and reverse it, and that there are other problems in the world where we might see better results with substantially less investment of resources.

As somebody in a more "middle" position, though, what I see in the media is a lot more unqualified people on the "denier" side. Maybe your experience is different, but at the same time the idea that there's some sort of massive conspiracy among the world's scientists surrounding this issue, as suggested by many of those same unqualified folks, strikes me as pretty silly.

So let me be clear: if qualified climate scientists on either side of the debate are being deliberately excluded then it's censorship and I oppose it. But I'm still far from convinced that's what's going on. It's not like there aren't paid lobbyists and activists on both sides, after all.