The BBC Trust Review of Impartiality and Accuracy of the BBC’s Coverage of Science, July 2011, Independent Assessment by Professor Steve Jones, Imperial College London
I have just read this review, and liked it. It’s made some very interesting points and I would like to share and expand upon a few of the nuggets of wisdom I encountered [please note, this will be a 3-phase review, as I will comment on it in this post and then develop 3 case study spin-offs]. For ease, I shall break this review into sections.
Impartiality and accuracy were examined in the report, wherein accuracy was highly reported and pretty much no comments made about it. Where errors were made, they were either incredibly minor, or corrected later. The BBC is pretty damn accurate.
However, there was some issue of misrepresenting facts, which I will class separately to impartiality, although it is related.
One example of misrepresentation, which I shall discuss in more detail in a later post, is the example of a GM discussion on Today, where an opponent made a series of wild and unfounded claims, in the face of which “the programme simply moved on”. Similar issues have been noted in the MMR hysteria (again, more later), where “at the height of the panic most people felt that because both sides of the argument had been given equal time by the media, then there must have been equal evidence for both (although by then the result had been thoroughly discredited by experts). An attempt to be impartial had had exactly the opposite result.”
Professor Jones summates the problem to this: that the BBC “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.”
Thus misrepresentation arises from poorly considered attempts at impartiality and also “favourite” topics that seem to go down well. This can lead to disproportionation (chemistry joke) with real life dangers: Jones also mentions
“marked over-representation of breast cancer reports over others while lung cancer – which causes one-fifth of all cancer morbidity and mortality – was mentioned far less than its disease burden merits. This is undesirable, for women over-estimate their risk of breast cancer, while smokers have an unduly optimistic view of their chances of escaping cancer of the lung.”
“outside the Corporation, there is widespread concern that its reporting of science sometimes gives an unbalanced view of particular issues because of its insistence on bringing dissident voices into what are in effect settled debates.”
…which fails in the basic understanding of scientific development that it does not acknowledge the difference between further developments in science and unsettled debates.
Impartiality can also extend to the image of science as portrayed by the BBC and marginalising of contributions which do not fall within their preferred scope. Rather shockingly,
“A disproportionate number of men presenting science programmes and contributing to content as scientists, relative to the actual numbers of male and female scientists in the UK; the domination of science stories emanating from the South East of England; …a lack of content considering science in a social context … an excess of coverage of astronomy, anthropology, geosciences, ecology and evolution … and of medical stories in broadcast news in relation to their weight in the scientific world… Many… were struck by the preponderance of interviews given by people from within the “Golden Triangle” of science delineated by Oxford, Cambridge and London.” [bold mine]
Perhaps part of the problem is that, according to the report, the BBC is more reactive than proactive in its story-finding, waiting for interesting science to come to them before properly researching it, rather than exploring scientific news themselves. Jones suggests that the inaccessibility of journal articles might be partly to blame for this, and it would be interesting to see how this changes if and when open access comes into fruition.
As a northern female scientist (who did go to Oxford, but isn’t there now), it’s incredibly annoying to be under-represented, especially since I like talking about science. As a chemist, I’m already very aware that my subject isn’t applauded for having enough sex appeal to grab public interest (which is silly, when this is a subject which includes bangs and explosions, food, pharmacy and environmental sciences). I also agree with Jones’ comment that “[s]ome of the greatest advances have come from collaboration between distantly related fields”: huge variety within broadcasting could be hugely useful to science, afterall, the media brings together ideas in a way that research might not, opening discussion to the public and making it available to similar disciplines or discussing them concurrently.
Finally, Jones reports on the REF and dangers of linking science funding to public engagement for maintaining high impartiality standards within the BBC:
“if scientists’ funding is indeed dependent on their relationships with the media and the Corporation must be careful to ensure that appropriate balance is applied.”
The search on public opinion always inevitably leads me to two conclusions:
1. That the public are actually very bright, very thoughtful, and very genuinely interested, and that bringing them into specialist debates is only going to be beneficial to those fields.
2. That educating the public about current science is vital to society and that poor scientific literacy is probably responsible for many of the nutjob clubs and fantasies floating about out there.
In the Review,
“In it’s 2001 report the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology claimed that “Society’s relationship with science is in a critical phase” and that “public unease, mistrust and occasional outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists.” They blame that, inter alia, on increasing “ghettoisation” of the subject in the media (the BBC included) on a tendency for non-science journalists to prove provocative pieces with no input from experts.”
In one survey mentioned, basic science true/false questions were asked, such as “the oxygen we breathe comes from plants” with disastrous results. People just don’t know these kinds of things – and, if I’m honest, I had to think about some of the questions. GCSE science and a bit of common sense, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that we’re not used to thinking about the world in these terms. In terms of our breathing security, for example.
So people are isolated from science, ill-educated about science, and afraid of scientists, their motives, and science reporting.
Not only that, but scientists are also isolated (to men in the SE, apparently). Certainly, “[t]he BBC needs to consider how to reduce its tendency to Balkanise science”, made clear by the recent furore over the use of “Boffins” to denote scientists, which set of a mad twitter rage which lasted for days (see my comments here, and Dean Burnett’s article). Whilst I’m sure well-intentioned programmes try to excuse all the bewildering technical language and academic costs to the country by selling scientists as a novelty commodity, behaviour like this acts only in distancing the public from scientists and science.
“The Research Councils UK 2008 survey of Public Attitudes to Science reports that 79% of the population thinks that science plays a major part in their lives; a proportion that has increased over the past decade even as that of people who state that they feel uninformed about the subject has gone down by half.”
“three quarters of the people polled felt that scientists “should discuss research and its social and ethical implications with the general public””
Of course, these are just opinions. It doesn’t mean scientists don’t do it, just maybe not enough, or not well enough. And the BBC is obviously only one means to this end (just one which reaches millions of people in their living rooms).
The Way Science Works
Part of Jones’ report is given over to explaining the methodology of science because”[t]he ecology of this factual jungle is complicated, obscure and little understood outside the profession itself.”. If the public are scared that scientists can make up facts and distort their world, someone please tell them about peer review, journals standards, funding applications and the burden of proof.
Journalists should really read journals. They’re nomenclature-ly linked for god’s sake. Corporations should make sure they can gain access and that they know the stuff is there and are expected to use it. Afterall, journalists are usually pretty equipped with analytical tools: they should be able to quickly identify and question poorly constructed articles with flimsy foundations.
“As some within the world of broadcasting perhaps fail to realise, impartiality checks are built in to the scientific enterprise… science is not intrinsically, as elements of the media sometimes imply, a shady pastime awaiting exposure by the bright beam of reportorial truth.”
Also, science is not full of world-changing discoveries. I am trying to make materials to provide incremental improvement on environmental clean up. Unless something goes wrong that is right, I am not about to make world changing discoveries.
“In 1904 the President of the Royal Society advised British physicists to give up their subject as everything worth knowing had been discovered”
and the existing laws of physics, e.g. Newton’s Laws, worked fine. So even important scientists can make mistakes when looking at how science works!
Of course, sometimes research is driven by answering questions like how do I clean up carcinogenic waste? – sometimes by exploration, which poses very different questions: what does this material do, and what can it be used for? The two approaches can lead to the same result, but what they mean is that you don’t need to be looking for something to progress science.