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.