21 October 2010

Nature's Muddled Views on Science and the Media

Nature has an editorial that reflects some muddled thinking about public debates that invoke science. Here is an excerpt:
There is more to communication of uncertainty than tone and content — the audience must also be considered, which brings us to the BBC. Like the IPCC, the BBC is an easy target for critics, who leap on claimed examples of bias and errors of judgement. And, like the IPCC, the BBC has launched a review of its procedures, in its case, the impartiality and accuracy of its science coverage. All radio, television and online content is under scrutiny, but it seems likely that the review will address news coverage in particular, and, within that, climate change. (BBC insiders think that complaints from climate sceptics prompted the review.)

The terms of reference for the review define science as “statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists”. In reality, perhaps the most common complaint from scientists about the corporation's coverage of global warming is the exposure handed to sceptical non-scientists, such as former UK chancellor Nigel Lawson. This is the source of the long-standing 'false balance' problem. The BBC Trust, which is running the review, should take a stricter line here. If BBC staff want to use non-experts to criticize widely accepted science, they must explain this lack of expertise to the audience, and why the BBC has invited them to participate. Too many of those responsible for news and current affairs at the BBC, and across other media, consider themselves primarily in the entertainment business. It is generally not a lack of scientific understanding by reporters that produces poor science content, as often alleged, but that straight news coverage of science is often thought to make for poor entertainment.
Nature misses a central point that the BBC appears to understand, specifically, that scientific debates are not ultimately about science, but embedded in a broader political debate.  The BBC's terms of reference for the review states:
It will assess news and factual output that refers to scientific findings, particularly where the science is itself controversial and where it relates to public policy and political controversy. "Science" in this context will be defined to include not just the natural sciences but also aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists.
By this definition, any claim made by a politician such as Lord Lawson is not "science."  Rather it is politics, and politicians of all persuasions invoke science to justify their political views.  To expect that the BBC would add a disclaimer to any utterance by a non-scientist who invokes science in political debate that calls attention to their qualifications to issue such an utterance is nonsensicle.

Now, when the BBC engages competing experts to address factual disputes, should the BBC be in the business of assessing their expertise?  This too is problematic.

Here is an example:  Last February I appeared on BBC Newsnight with Chris Field to discuss the IPCC's misrepresentation of the science of disasters and climate change.  Should the BBC have pointed out to its audience that Prof. Field, while widely respected in his own field, has absolutely no expertise in disasters and climate change and that his appearance on the show was simply a function of his role as an official in the IPCC?  In other words, he was there to mount a public relations defense, as he was not scientifically qualified to actually engage the substance as an expert.  Following Nature's logic the BBC should have warned its audience that there was only one person in that debate who had published in the area being debated.  Silly, huh?

The scientific community too often takes the public to be fools and characterizes the media as incompetent.  The result of this orientation is to demand that the public be protected from hearing certain views, with the gatekeepers the scientists themselves.  As such debates are ultimately about politics, such a role would place scientists in the authoritarian position of determining who gets to speak (or at least how those allowed to speak are portrayed) on important public issues.  

When politicians make political claims justified by appeals to science of any sort, a responsible media will evaluate those claims by calling upon relevant experts.  The role of the media is not to evaluate the legitimacy of politicians to participate in public debate based on the quality of their judgments (if so, public debate might suddenly become very quiet;-). Arguably the media has erred on the side of not challenging certain claims made in political debate, hence the current BBC review. Nature has little to complain about.

The scientific community, particularly as related to climate change, continues to struggle with an authoritarian impulse, characterized by continued efforts to serve as gatekeepers to public debate and efforts to delegitimize views that they disagree with.  The reality is that public opinion on climate change is plenty strong enough for action (the UK has the strongest national legislation for emissions reduction of any nation), and over the long term, the media has done a good job covering climate change.  In fact, if the media has made mistakes in the past, it has been in being too deferential to those in the scientific community who seek to limit debate and discussion.  Nature's current views represent steps back rather than forward.


  1. The Nature article also assumes that the "false balance" problem can be eliminated by removing non-experts from the discussion, whereas it would be quite easy for the BBC to find themselves an opposing expert (or "expert") to keep balancing their stories.

  2. Good blog post. Should the Railway Engineer head of the IPCC be excluded from debate on climate science because he isn't a climate scientist? That seems to be a logical conclusion from the Nature editorial. Lord Stern is no more a scientist than Lord Lawson, but no doubt Nature are happy with Stern's views.

    I'd take you to task on one point though - there isn't strong public support for the UK's unilateral climate change act - we were never asked. The majority of UK public don't believe in man-made climate change, so are hardly likely to support something that no other country is doing at a cost of £800 billion to £1000 billion. I guess that's where the RPJ 'iron law' comes in.

  3. Budiansky:

    "My three years at Nature left me painfully aware that scientists are about the worst people on earth when it comes to confusing their political inclinations with objective fact — and absolutely the worst in the concomitant certainty that one's opponents must be liars, frauds, or corruptly motivated, since (obviously) no honest person could possibly have reached a contrary conclusion through objective reasoning. As absurd and unwieldy as democracy is in handling scientific matters, I found myself constantly thankful that scientists weren't running things, mainly because of this supreme intolerance for differing political conclusions."

  4. A different angle

    The reason the BBC use Lawson is that he has no kudos, credibility or status. He is 78 (but looks about 40 years older), is a former very right wing Thatcherite finance minister, and he has no science background. Lord Monckton, (extremely capable individual that he is), would feel more at home in a circus than a TV studio. Telling Americans the reason they believe bogus science is " because they are Yanks" is pathetic, even if you pretend it was a joke. There is a British Labour MP who is sceptical and has a science degree. He doesn't seem to get a look in.

    The reason there are no outright sceptical climate scientists is that they want to be on the right side of the MacDonald's counter on Saturday morning. See the attack on Daniel Greenburg and Roger the host (a while ago). Why don't we hear from intelligent scientists (physicists) like Freeman Dyson* ?

    The corporate media are running a very one side view of carbon trading science and will continue to do so.

    My methodology is to stick to the politics, there is no point in arguing with liars.

  5. Roger - David Adam of Nature has joined in a debate at Bishop Hill's blog on this precise subject, which you might find interesting.

    I made the same point you did (only less well, natch) that there is no pure science debate without impacts/economics/politics etc, on which subject Lawson is perfectly qualified.

  6. Well, in defense of my fellow scientists, I wouldn't describe it as 'authoritarian', so much as 'intellectually elitist'.

    Look where we're coming from. Our primary means of communication are journals and conferences. Scientific journals are guarded first by a high degree of self selection, and second by a peer reviewing process that most of the time works reasonably well but is undoubtedly pretty authoritarian. The result is, picking up a copy of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, I expect most of what I read to be both expert and correct. Obviously, that doesn't happen with the Times.

    Most conferences are similarly selective, at least in their invited and contributed speakers list (and for that reason the less-vetted or unvetted poster sessions are considered less desirable venues).

    Most of our communication in our fields, outside of conferences, is an unequal discourse in a college setting where we teach and others learn. Granted, the better teachers listen to their students and try to avoid seeming to talk down, but let's face it, we rarely have a discussion among equals in the classroom.

    So take a scientist out of those settings, and into an engagement with a citizen or politician or journalist, and all of his learned behavior is pushing him the wrong way. He expects there to be an imbalance of scientific knowledge and understanding, and of course there is; and he has relatively little experience in politics or journalism. So he does not realise that Congressman Bloggs or Journalist Doe is as expert in his field of public policy or media as Professor Quark is in the area of the redox chemistry of bismuth. In the areas in which we communicate most frequently, we are used to, and expect, respect and even deference.

    And frankly, a lot of skeptics can be damn irritating in *their* lack of humility. There are some things in science that you won't get without a lot of study and hard work, and thinking you can 'intuit' radiation physics with no knowledge of physics is just as arrogant as assuming that because you understand radiation physics, you can dictate atmospheric CO2 levels and how to reach them. If I had a dollar for every person who'd told me that a single volcano emits more CO2 than humanity has in its entire history, I'd have, well, more than ten dollars.

    So, it's tough. I don't think there is a good working model yet for a democratic dialog between experts and the citizenry. [Granted, 'The Honest Broker' is still on my 'to be read' list. :-)]

  7. There is real irony in the "Nature" approach. By taking the position that there is only one competant point of view in climate science, it logically follows that there is nothing to debate. The refusal by the consensus scientists to debate other climate scientists with a different perspective then leads the general public to think that the consensus position cannot be defended. Which leads by default to a win for the skeptic opposition. If you don't believe me, just follow the decline in belief of AGW alarmism in surveys over the last few years. Al Gores favorite line "The debate is over" never made much sense to me for such an immature field but I could see that it had tactical utility 4 years ago when many more people were on the climate change bandwagon. Now that the tide of public opinion has shifted, that tactic just breeds more contempt. Its time Nature realized that the best approach to shift the public's opinion is to encourage debate of different points of view on climate science by competent people in the field. If the consensus carries the day, the public will follow.

  8. Over at Bishop Hill Blog, David Adam of Nature has confirmed my interpretation in this post, with the following comment:

    "in my view, people who take a strong line on economic or political grounds that we should not sign kyoto, build wind farms etc should not be characterised as climate sceptics, and I do not refer to them as such. Bjorn Lomborg for instance is not a climate sceptic -- he accepts the mainstream climate science view, and i agree with him that whether it is sensible to spend so much on mitigation to counter the threat is a legitimate debate.

    the problem I have is where people who object to such policies don't argue on economic grounds, or political grounds, or just that they don't want a windmill near their house, but that they try to attack what they perceive as a softer target and attempt to undermine the scientific basis of the problem, as a way to derail the responses they disagree with. that was the basis of the oil-funded climate denial stuff in the 1990s, and it still pervades the 'sceptic' community today. Nigel Lawson says on the BBC that wind farms are too expensive and intermittent to base UK energy policy on? fine. Nigel Lawson says they are an expensive waste of time because global warming science is shaky and fossil fuels pose no danger? not so.

    David Adam

    Thanks Roddy for the pointer.

    Adam does not realize that hearing how politicians justify their views -- not matter how inane those justifications may be -- is an important function for media to serve in a democracy.

  9. "Nigel Lawson says they are an expensive waste of time because global warming science is shaky and fossil fuels pose no danger? not so."

    We have to remember that like Bob Ward, David Adam is being paid to make these comments. They may not represent his own opinion. He is employed by a giant German publishing corporation with an annual turnover of 2.1 billion euros. There is no possibility he would be anything less than totally committed to corporate carbon trading 'science'.

    His employers also own Scientific American.

    Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group

    "Established by Georg von Holtzbrinck (He joined the National Socialist German Students League in 1931) in 1948, the group first began as a German book club.


    One year later, the company acquired Scientific American magazine for $52.6 million. In 1994, it purchased a majority interest in Farrar, Straus & Giroux from retiring Roger W. Straus, Jr.. A year later, it purchased a 70% majority interest in The Macmillan Group (owners of Nature) and then the remaining shares in 1999.


    As Bob Dylan wrote

    "But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,
    Yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody
    Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody"

  10. So, there are 'climate science sceptics' who are therefore also sceptical about current climate policy, and there 'climate policy sceptics' who aren't necessarily sceptical about climate science (or choose not to admit it), but are sceptical about climate policy. Either way, current policy is deeply flawed in the opinion of both types of sceptics. The science can be legitimately considered to be irrelevant in terms of practical and affordable policy.

    But, David Adam claims that the IPCC version of the science is unquestionable and that there must be something wrong with anyone who dares to dissent - not so. There are number of areas where the science is far too shaky to draw alarmist conclusions about the future of climate, let alone base policy on them, that have been fudged by the likes of UEA CRUminals in the IPCC reports.

    It certainly didn't take David Adam (formerly of left-wing 'The Guardian') long to join with the rest of Nature's liberal left in writing op-ed's that lack objectivity.

  11. Nature and Science have, through numerous editorial decisions and editorials, clearly established themselves as climate partisans.

    They have an agenda. They want to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions through legislation.

    There was a time when I was shocked by the blunt terms that these supposedly impartial scientific institutions use to advance their agenda, but that time has passed.

    At least in terms of the climate debate, Nature and Science are partisan institutions committed to advancing a particular political view. That has two obvious consequences:

    1. We should no longer be surprised when they write something like this most recent editorial.

    2. We should discount the significance of anything Nature and Science write on the subject (as well as their editorial decisions on individual papers) because they are no longer acting as scientific entities, but are instead acting as political partisans.

  12. "Following Nature's logic the BBC should have warned its audience that there was only one person in that debate who had published in the area being debated. Silly, huh?"

    Yes, the BBC should actually have notified its audience about which person in the debate was taller:


    ;-) God, those guys were geniuses!

  13. In my view, global warming is an information issue.

    The corporate world controls all the information and employs people who will write what is expected of them. Chomsky argues that no intelligent human being would ever be employed as a journalist (these days), but in reality, an intelligent human being who pretended to be stupid, could. Notwithstanding the complex reality of the science, global warming is a pack of media created lies.

    According to George Woodcock (The Crystal Spirit), Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984 was directly based on his time working at the BBC. The book is about the control of information through the manipulation of language and history. It is a work of true genius.

    An old friend blurted out something about the war in Yugoslavia the other day. I exclaimed "my God, you have a functional memory". I think that is why he said it, to see if I remembered it too. It could have been a scene from 1984. President Milosevic used the same interrogation technique for almost all of his accusers which was "you are lying".

    Some of them were tortured first.


  14. I am reminded reading the above a quote from David Dobb's book Reef madness- the account of the Darwin wars. He described Alexander Agassiz (Louis's son)as one who “viewed skeptically the more strident expressions of Darwinism and creationism because he had seen the madness made when scientists took theory as dogma.”

  15. Roger

    You say:
    "Adam does not realize that hearing how politicians justify their views -- not matter how inane those justifications may be -- is an important function for media to serve in a democracy."

    On the contrary, I do realise that. But how is the public audience to judge that the views are inane? I do not believe Lawson et al should be censored, but that the BBC and others should honestly explain why they have been given a platform. In my view it is because (a) the media can't find any reputable scientist to make the case against the mainstream position and (b) they know it will provoke a fight and so be entertaining. It is little more than scripted drama, and should be viewed as such.

    David Adam

  16. -15-David

    Thanks for dropping by. Your comment illustrates the muddle. Media debates about climate change are not scientific debates. They are political debates. If you want science debates go to the peer reviewed literature, not political discourse.

    Scientists and the science media should regulate and oversee what appears in outlets such as the journal Nature and other peer reviewed publications. They should not see to manage the broader media or public debates.

    While I am sure that you are well-meaning in your efforts to protect the public from certain views, what you recommend is nothing more than scientific paternalism and is anti-democratic.

  17. Roger
    Again, I am not seeking to protect anybody from certain views, just to make sure those views are understood to be managed entertainment under the guise of news.
    I don't follow your logic. Do you think that media debates about climate *science* are political debates? If so, then why does shifting the frame from a journal to the BBC and the audience from scientists to the public make a scientific debate a political one?

  18. -17-David

    "Do you think that media debates about climate *science* are political debates?"

    Seriously? Of course they are political debates. You even said so yourself:

    "where people who object to such policies don't argue on economic grounds, or political grounds, or just that they don't want a windmill near their house, but that they try to attack what they perceive as a softer target and attempt to undermine the scientific basis of the problem"

    How could a debate involving Lord Lawson on the BBC be anything other than political? Whether it is entertaining or not is irrelevant.

    Your efforts to make political debates abide by the rules of scientific discourse ultimately have the effect of making science more political.

  19. -15- David

    "In my view it is because (a) the media can't find any reputable scientist to make the case against the mainstream position"

    Really now? They couldn't contact Dr. Richard Lindzen of MIT, or Dr. Spencer of UAH, or Dr. Christy also of UAH or, Dr. Bob Carter, or even Dr. Pielke Sr. for reputable scientists that do not toe the IPCC's CO2 driven line. Lets face the fact that the reason they don't contact "reputable" skeptical scientists is not because they couldn't find one, it's because they didn't want to.

    Setting up silly strawmen arguments such as you did in your post does not help in your cause, it just makes you look silly.

  20. -17-David

    "why does shifting the frame from a journal to the BBC and the audience from scientists to the public make a scientific debate a political one?"

    This would seem obvious -- the former is a venue for scientific discourse, the latter a fora for political discourse. Journals engage in political speech (obviously) and the public encounters scientific arguments. But that does not alter the fact that debates over politics and policy are inherently political. And if the activities of journals to enter political debates are perceived to influence their scientific standards, they will lose credibility in a hurry.

    Scientific journals and the BBC serve different functions, and it is a mistake to try to hold one to the standards of the other.

  21. boballab -- i know bbc journalists and i know how difficult they have found it, particularly in the UK.

    roger -- i still struggle with the boundaries you have defined. i think the issue is of perception -- you may see all scientific debate in the media as political, but the media absolutely don't, and crucially, they don't present it that way to the audience. they present it as a debate about 'the science'.

    you say i am out to make political debates abide by the rules of scientific discourse. well, let's assume you are right, and that a BBC discussion of climate science is a political debate. then shouldn't the BBC make it abide by the rules of a political debate? in discussions clearly identified as politics, they fall over themselves to expose conflicts of interests, lack of supporting evidence for claims, inconsistencies of argument and secondary agendas, yet they allow lawson (and others) an unchallenged platform to talk about 'science'.

  22. -21-David

    The BBC "allows" all sorts of people on its news programs to talk about all sorts of issues. And they typically do this by presenting a range of views. Ironically, their current review is apparently motivated by a perception that the BBC has not met such a standard. I can't say I've seen all of Lawson's appearances on the BBC but I'd be surprised if he ever gets away unchallenged.

    The BBC allows people like Bob Ward on, who like Lawson is not a scientist, and yet speaks about science to justify a political perspective. Do your rules apply to someone like Ward also? What about Chris Field as in the example int his post? Who would your rules *not* apply to?

    Media debates that invoke science (or for that matter economics or medicine) are not about addressing scientific questions, but invoking scientific claims in support of a political agenda. They are political debates. If you want to debate science, submit a paper or letter to Nature ;-)

  23. -21-

    Here then pass this along since the BBC journalists seem not able to use this new fangled inventions called the "internet" and "Google"

    Lindzen, Richard S.
    (617) 253-2432

    Dr. John R. Christy
    Professor and Director
    Earth System Science Center, NSSTC
    University of Alabama in Huntsville
    320 Sparkman Drive, NSSTC 4040
    Huntsville, AL 35805
    Telephone: (256) 961-7763
    FAX: (256) 961-7751
    Email: john.christy@nsstc.uah.edu

    Roy Spencer
    U.S. AMSR-E Science Team Leader
    (256) 961-7960

    There is three there that took me all of .... 5 minutes to find ways to contact them.

    Or are you trying to say there is a severe shortage of Telephones, Satellite links,and Computers with Internet access?

    Like I said before it is not hard to find "reputable" scientists that do not toe the IPCC line and contact them.

  24. I think we should just do whatever the scientists say! They are smart, super smart in fact. Some of them go to school for like ten years! If a group of them say we should abandon a technology/resource that has provided the arguably largest, most unprecedented spike in human well being in history we should just do it. Don't be stupid, these guys are smart!

    ***end sarcasm***
    The conversation about the science takes place within the larger conversation of what we do about it(democratic politics). Scientific debate in the media is made for public consumption not just for consumption by scientists. Since the public has a MASSIVE stake in this debate you can't be surprised or aghast when the public element is incorporated into it or is (gasp!) skeptical of your argument.

  25. I agree that it hard to find an openly sceptical climate scientist in the UK, and the BBC have tried. How long would such a person be in a job if they openly challenged the 'consensus.' We saw how sceptics and journal editors who published papers by sceptics were treated by the CRUminals in the Climategate emails. If we have to listen to the likes of climate alarmist history and politics graduate Mark Lynas talking about climate science 'unopposed' on BBC Radio 2, why not Lord Lawson of the GWPF? It seems to me that David Adam is simply trying to prevent alternative views based on peer reviewed science being heard. As an example, we saw in the Climategate emails how Phil Jones discussed with Ben Santer who would review McIntyre and McKitrick' comment on Santer 2008, which, surprise, surprise, was blocked from publication. Undeterred, it is expanded and published as *McKitrick, Ross R., Stephen McIntyre and Chad Herman (2010)showing that climate models are wrong by 200% in the lower troposphere, and 400% in the mid troposphere compared to observations.

  26. The public should take care to read Eisenhower's warning about academic and intellectual elites, and then wonder why only the military industrial complex is taght. Oh, that's right: because academics write the text books.
    BTW, an openly skeptical academic in the UK would have the job security of Juan williams.

  27. What David Adam is missing is that an organization like the BBC is only interested in broadcasting a "debate about the science" because it has a political dimension. I don't see the BBC doing regular segments where scientists debate string theory. The science and the politics of climate change cannot be pulled apart, no matter how much he would like to pretend that is the case.

  28. Mike Hulme is less than enthusiastic about the efficacy of computer models. Let's see an article in Nature about this lecture.


    The truth is that the corporate media is only interested in publishing carbon trading propaganda for their 'partners in crime' below.

    International Emissions Trading Association (IETA)

    The International Emissions Trading Association which was created to promote carbon trading more than ten years ago.

    Its members include :-

    BP, Conoco Philips, Shell, E.ON (coal power stations owner), EDF (one of the largest participants in the global coal market), Gazprom (Russian oil and gas), Goldman Sachs, Barclays, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley..


  29. The Nature article supports the work of Wm Anderson who wrote that media supports the government paradigm not for ideological but self interest. "Facts, Fiction and the Fourth Estate" William L. Anderson's PhD Dissertation Auburn Univ 1999). He followed the regional media coverage of the acid rain crisis and tested selected media incentives to explain coverage behavior. He has more recently published updated and expanded statistics.

    Anderson cites Weaver:
    “Thus the press, which has special constitutional freedoms to keep government in check, now conspires with the government in a devil’s bargain, says Weaver. The press benefits from using government officials as news sources; those same sources use the media in an effort to convince the public that the solution to any set of present “crises” is to expand the power of the state.”

    Anderson says:
    “Weaver and others do not say, that journalists promote the growth of government because of ideology. They promote government because it is in their best interest to do so.”

    Of interest was his quote from Washington Post's Howard Kurtz "Some reporters say privately that it is difficult to write stories that debunk conventional wisdom of environmental activists, whom the press treats more deferentially than industry spokesman and other lobbyists. “