False Balance Exposed: BBC Gives Too Much Weight to Fringe Views on Climate Change, Independent Review Finds. Duh.

False Balance Exposed: BBC Gives Too Much Weight to Fringe Views on Climate Change, Independent Review Finds. Duh.

The BBC is to revamp its science coverage after an independent review highlighted weaknesses and concluded that journalists boosted the apparent controversy of scientific news stories such as climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine by giving too much weight to fringe scientific viewpoints….

Commissioned last year to assess impartiality and accuracy in BBC science coverage across television, radio and the internet, the review said the network was at times so determined to be impartial that it put fringe views on a par with well-established fact: a strategy that made some scientific debates appear more controversial than they were.

The criticism was particularly relevant to stories on issues such as global warming, GM and the MMR vaccine, where minority views were sometimes given equal weighting to broad scientific consensus, creating what the report describes as “false balance”.

Let’s file this Guardian story under,”Duh”!

The BBC’s coverage of climate change has deteriorated noticeably (see “Exclusive: Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage” and links below).

Still, it is remarkable that one of the most highly regarded news organizations in the world would conduct this review in the first place.  In this country, the media coverage has also dropped in quantity and quality (see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010).  But there’s very little introspection here — and what there is often ends up as circular benchmarking (“we’re as good as everyone else”) or self congratulation (“we ran a couple of global warming stories”).

Every major media outlet in this country should do what the BBC did:

The review comprised an independent report by Professor Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, and an in-depth analysis by researchers at Imperial College London of science coverage across the BBC in May, June and July of 2009 and 2010.

Jones likened the BBC’s approach to oppositional debates to asking a mathematician and maverick biologist what two plus two equals. When the mathematician says four and the maverick says five, the public are left to conclude the answer is somewhere in between.


The extensive BBC review and content analysis, BBC Trust – Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science, can be found here.  It is particularly impressive that Jones lays out

the mind‐set, and the tactics, of some (but not all) proponents of the idea that global warming is a myth into context.

They, with many others, practise denialism: 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.

Precisely.  It is time for the media to stop pretending that the fringe deniers they keep citing are in any way part of the scientific process.  These deniers are pure rejectionists who have mastered rhetoric to twist the debate, but they have never been open to the actual evidence.

Here are the key parts of the BBC report on “false impartiality” and “false balance”:

A frequent comment received during this review is that elements of the BBC – particularly in the area of news and current affairs – does not fully understand the nature of scientific discourse and, as a result, is often guilty of “false impartiality”; of presenting the views of tiny and unqualified minorities as if they have the same weight as the scientific consensus. That approach has for some (but not all) topics become widespread. Conflictual reporting of this kind has the ability to distort public perception. It arises in part because news and current affairs presenters, who have to think on their feet in a live interview, may have little insight into the topic being discussed and hence find it more difficult to establish balance than when dealing with politics, the media or finance.

That problem is certainly endemic in the U.S. media.

Man‐made global warming: a microcosm of “false balance”?

A belief in alternative medicine or in astrology and a fear of vaccines or of GM food are symptoms of a deep mistrust in conventional wisdom. Such scepticism should be part of every scientist’s, every journalist’s or every politician’s, armoury. However, mistrust can harden into denial. That faces the media with a problem for, in their desire to give an objective account of what appears to be an emerging controversy, they face the danger of being trapped into false balance; into giving equal coverage to the views of a determined but deluded minority and to those of a united but less insistent majority. Nowhere is the struggle to find the correct position better seen than in the issue of global warming22.

The topic illuminates some of the weaknesses – and of the real strengths – of the BBC’s attempts to report science. News of the Trust’s decision to commission this Review was greeted by some anti‐global warming enthusiasts as a statement of its desire to haul the Corporation over the coals for supposed failings around this topic. Nothing could be further from the truth: this is one of a regular series of evaluations of its output. I have had a number of communications from the public on this issue and the BBC has received many complaints about alleged weaknesses in its treatment of the subject. Many emerge from an organised response by determined climate‐change deniers rather than being objective disagreements with particular programmes. Thus, Climate Wars (broadcast on 14th    September 2008) had 88, the news coverage of the East Anglia e‐mail “scandal” at around that time got 122, Panorama’s “What’s up with the Weather?” of 28th June 2010, just 45; Horizon on “Science under Attack” (24th Jan 2011) 101, and the Storyville documentary of 31st Jan 2011 “Meet the Climate Sceptics” stimulated 67 written complaints. There has in addition been a drizzle of criticism of BBC coverage of the topic in some newspapers, much of it arising from a handful of journalists who have taken it upon themselves to keep disbelief alive. This barrage of criticism by one side of the argument (matched, to a lesser degree, by complaints from those who believe that man‐ made global warming is real) shows that the BBC is at least annoying both parties to the debate and is achieving a measure of impartiality by so doing.

Even so, the coverage of this topic, and the tone of some reports, has led to many comments during my Review. In some ways global warming shows how hard it is reach due impartiality in the treatment of science and how the BBC in its attempts to do so may inadvertently achieve almost the opposite….

Before discussing the subject in detail it may be worth putting the mind‐set, and the tactics, of some (but not all) proponents of the idea that global warming is a myth into context….

The tale is told of a vast conspiracy to hide the truth and of dissent quashed by secret forces. People with strong opinions should be given equal weight with experts. Any evidence that contradicts their ideas must be publicised and the rest ignored, while any statement of doubt about conventional wisdom is trumpeted from the rooftops. Standards of proof should be set so high as to be impossible to attain. Personal attacks (Hitler was against smoking) are acceptable and absolutism is useful (one ninety year old smoker proves that tobacco is harmless). Doubt shades into certainty: a scientist can never be sure that a vaccine is always safe – which means that it never is. Often, the proponents unite into a movement that can, in these electronic days, bombard its enemies and give the impression of being far larger than it really is.

Most important in the context of this Report, any concession by the establishment that it is less than certain of the accuracy of its claims – that there is, in other words, room for discussion – is taken as a statement of surrender. Because so much of science involves uncertainty, it is open to attack from those who have never experienced that sensation. Purity of belief makes it easy for denialists to attract the attention of news organisations but hard for them to balance their ideas against those of the majority. This can lead to undue publicity for views supported by no factual information at all.

In its early days, two decades ago, there was a genuine scientific debate about the reality of climate change (although that attracted rather little attention). Now, there is general agreement that warming is a fact even if there remain uncertainties about how fast, and how much, the temperature might rise. At present, the pessimists are in the ascendant and today’s increase in floods and snow (as predicted for a warmer atmosphere which can take up more water) is on their side. A debate remains, and it deserves to be reported with as much objectivity as would any other unresolved issue….

Where policy is concerned, the argument is far from resolved. Science can inform the debate, but policy implications of global warming remain a legitimate part of the news agenda. In its submission to this Report, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (active in casting doubt on the truth of man‐made climate change) told me that they are producing a review with a focus on climate science and science policy. As they say, “… it is one thing to get basic science facts right yet quite another to promote (or criticise) particular science policies”. That is a reasonable point and they should, no doubt, have a voice in this debate. All of us involved in this debate need to remember that we are entitled to our own opinions but none of us are entitled to our own facts.

That is not the case for warming itself, for the evidence is overwhelming. Starting in 1959 with measurements on Hawaii it is clear that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. Ice cores shows that for half a million years before the Industrial Revolution its level fluctuated between 180 and 300 parts per million. Since around 1800 it has risen from 280 to 390 parts per million; a 40% increase. Basic physics shows that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. There have been many computer models of what may happen in future, and although there remains controversy as to how much the feedbacks – melting ice, rising seas, dying plants – will multiply the direct effect of the gas, almost every climatologist predicts a period of rising temperature. Three independent sets of records of global temperature agree that 2010 was one of the three hottest years since figures were first collected and that nine of the ten warmest years on record have been since 2000. To bring matters up to date, 2011 saw the warmest April in Central England for 350 years.

This goes on for a few pages, which are well worth reading.

The Guardian story adds several quote from independent experts:

Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the report “highlights the issue that, from time to time, a drive for ‘impartiality at any cost’ by the BBC can lead to a highly misleading presentation of science in situations where the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction rather than another. It is encouraging that the BBC executive and BBC Trust accept this criticism and will work with programme makers to improve their understanding of this issue.”

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said: “The BBC has played a significant part in creating the current surge of interest in science. The way in which it covers science is generally of a very high quality. It is, however, important that the need to separate opinion from evidence in coverage of some topics has been recognised. It is important to have debate, but marginal opinion – prominently expressed but not well based on evidence – can mislead the audience. The BBC usually respects this but the challenge is to get it right all of the time.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said it was crucial for the BBC to “challenge inaccurate and misleading claims made by bloggers, campaigners and politicians who ‘reject and deny the findings of mainstream science for ideological reasons.’

“The BBC is required by law not to sacrifice accuracy for impartiality in the coverage of controversial scientific issues such as climate change. Yet it is well known that there are particular BBC presenters and editors who allow self-proclaimed climate change ‘sceptics’ to mislead the public with unsubstantiated and inaccurate statements,” he said.

What major U.S. news outlet would be willing to allow an independent scientific review of its coverage?  Sadly, none, I expect.

It will be interesting to see just how much the BBC fixes the flaws in its climate and science coverage that have been identified by this important report.

Related Posts:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s