David Rose wrote in The Daily Mail that Mr MacLeod, head of editorial standards and compliance for BBC Scotland, sent an email to his colleagues:
Nigel Lawson, not a scientist, but confuses public about science helped by the BBC.
Nigel Lawson, not a scientist, but confuses public about science helped by the BBC.
"When covering climate change stories, we should not run debates / discussions directly between scientists and sceptics. If a programme does run such a discussion, it will... be in breach of the editorial guidelines on impartiality."Anthony Watts wrote a response in his usual elderly statesman manner; it was titled: "Climate change campaigners fear debate, can’t face climate skeptics anymore, so they rig TV news shows". No link, you can find the cesspit yourself. Note the word fear that is so important to the conservatives and the concealed message that climate scientists are climate change campaigners.
The Daily Mail is not the most reliable source around. The only article missing in the side bar is "Britney beheaded two-headed baby in satanic ritual". Thus I have asked the BBC for confirmation. They replied:
[I]t is not the case that “the new policy of the BBC is to no longer have debates between climate scientists & climate "sceptics"” as you state – our policy is and remains that all views are given due weight in BBC coverage of the issue.Sounds like the bad news for Watts' blood pressure and the good news for science and democracy is wrong. The BBC will continue having fake debates on climate science. Or at least there does not seem to be a BBC-wide consensus opinion yet. What I found especially worrying is that the BBC does not distinguish between false balance ("due weight") and fake public debates. They are related, but separate problems.
What is wrong with the media?Why is this a problem for democracy? I would like to explain the importance of accurate media reporting on climate science using a great new video that was just released called Can we trust scientists? h/t The New Anthropocene.
It reminds us of the huge trust the public has in science and contrasts it to the large percentage of people holding opinions that deviate from the scientific consensus. Not only when it comes to climate change, but also evolution and vaccination.
It argues that people who know of the consensus generally accept it. This makes sense because a consensus opinion is much more reliable as the opinion of single persons. However, many people have the wrong impression that scientists are not sure yet whether climate change is a problem. Also the climate dissenters often claim there is no consensus.
As a consequence climate scientists are forced to state that there is a consensus on the basics. A somewhat awkward position as the job of a scientist is to refute existing hypothesis and there is nothing more beautiful for a scientist to refute a consensus idea. That means you are better than all the others. Or more modestly, that you were lucky and had a better idea. :-)
The video argues that vocal individual dissenters and the press are responsible for the misperception of how sure scientists are that climate change is real. The problem with the press is that they like controversy and that they present both sides as equal.
I think that the press is just part of the problem. Some people seem really determined not to understand what science has found. And I am not so sure whether the solution presented in the video, reading and watching bloggers and YouTube v-bloggers, will help. But maybe WUWT and Co. have damaged my trust in blogging. Apart from that, this is a video well worth watching and sharing.
I have this vision of a few theoretical physicists leaving the Large Hadron Collider after a long night of experiments, and stopping in at the local pub for a drink, where a few of the rowdier locals decide to challenge them on the fundamentals of quantum chromodynamics and a nonsense argument (debate) ensues.
As reason to give climate dissenters airtime, people often refer to balance or due weight. For example before the above mentioned quote the BBC wrote (my link):
The BBC covers climate change fully on all its outlets with analysis from specialist journalists. As part of the BBC's commitment to impartiality, a number of global warming sceptics will be interviewed across the BBC's coverage.The problem with framing the problem in terms of balance or weight is that this emphasises quantity, whereas the main problem is quality. Normally this is clear, when it comes to science, normally another independent scientist is asked for a second opinion. Everyone that reads the science section at BBC news will have noticed that they do this very consistently. The exception is somehow climate science, where scientists, activists and politicians are freely jumbled.
This is consistent with the BBC's response to the Jones report in which we said all viewpoints would be given due weight in our output. The email was merely clarifying this notion of “due weight” in that with there being well-established fact and opinion and a general scientific consensus on the premise of climate change, it would create what’s described as a “false balance” were the BBC to give “equal weight” to sceptics. Put simply, the amount of airtime given to sceptics should accord with the prevalence of their views on the subject matter.
Journalist like to personalise stories and thus focus on single scientists. In this way a single fringe idea easily gets as much weight as a consensus position with a huge amount of evidence behind it. Preventing such a wrong impression requires the journalist to explicitly write about the credibility of both positions, to put everything into context.
The problem with balance is not so much how much of the time is spend on fringe ideas versus mainstream. Reporting on the ideas of the dissenters is no problem as long as it is put in perspective. The most effective way HotWhopper ridicules dissenters is by simply quoting their nonsense and explaining the fallacies. Also at this blog I currently write more about climate change dissenters as about science. That is fine, as long as you put it in perspective.
The problem of false balance is not making clear that one position is at best a fresh interesting idea and the other one established science with a huge amount of evidence behind it. Unfortunately, journalists have the infuriating habit of ending such a conversation claiming that the truth is probably in the middle.
"Debates"The quality problem also comes back when it comes to fake debates. After a fake debate between a climate scientist and Andrew Montford, a blogger and accountant, or Lord Lawson, a former politician without any scientific background, Shiv Malik tweeted cynically:
There's an old lady down the road who's skeptical about climate change. WHY hasn't the Beeb invited her on to debate with scientists???— Shiv Malik (@shivmalik1) February 13, 2014
The largest problem with fake debates is called the Gish Gallop, after the strategy of the creationist Duane Gish, may God have mercy on his soul, to spew such a gallop of misinformation, that the other side would not have enough time to correct all the falsehoods.
In the recent EconTalk debate of John Christy and Kerry Emanuel on Climate Change. Christy used this strategy in this opening statement, combined with a strawman argument about restrictions to energy for poor people in Africa. [UPDATE: Please be warned that all half-way scientific statements are wrong, but that debunking all these claim would be impossible in this post, which is exactly the intention of such a gallop.]:
Ultimately the question before us is a moral question, not a scientific question. Is it good to enhance human life? Today and for the foreseeable future, the reliable energy that enhances human life and which is economically viable comes from burning carbon. That will continue no matter what our country decides to do. Does extra CO2 cause climate problems? The observations tell us not much is happening to the climate that hasn't happened before. Now, a fundamental aspect about the scientific method is that when we understand a system, we can predict its behavior. That has not happened for our climate system. It is true that we have an expensive climate modeling industry that shows scary changes. But they are unable to replicate the actual climate system today. In fact, 100% of the latest climate models overshoot the key target variable of climate change detection. And there is no model that has been rigorously validated for reliability.In a debate you would need a few minutes for every sentence to show the errors, in this time several additional errors will be added. A time-limited oral debate is not well suited to find the truth. Blog discussions are already a bit better, that gives you time to look up information and all questions can be answered in depth. Down to the level of detail where it becomes clear the the dissenters are simply and plainly wrong with their crude thesis. For more complicated and interesting challenges one has the scientific literature. That is how one improves scientific understanding, not by debates.
The irony is that there is quite some evidence of climate change dissenters not wanting to debate climate science on blogs. For example, some time ago, a "moderator" at WUWT challenged William M. Connolley to debate Monckton. However Monckton was not interested in debating WMC on WUWT.
Both Dumb Scientist and I are still waiting for an answer by Eric Worrall and are already waiting for a long long time.
Since this is just a re-run, I'll wait for Eric to critique my statements on quantum physics and relativity, which he was apparently too busy to bother with the first time.And I wrote:
Interesting. I am also still waiting for an answer from this busy guy. At my blog he asked: "How do you know the climate didn't actually cool?" I gave him multiple lines of evidence and since he did not show up any more.Another reason why public debates and live interviews with climate change deniers do not work is that often you have to check the facts, look information up or make a calculation to show where the climate dissenter goes wrong. This is possible in a blog debate or in the scientific literature. A climate dissenter has no reputation to lose by presenting misinformation, his followers do not care as is evidenced by nearly every post at WUWT as shown by HotWhopper. A scientist has a reputation to lose and is used to formulating carefully, which makes it difficult to produce the strong statements that would be warranted when someone misinforms the public.
If Kerry Emanuel did not know in advance what the error was that corresponds to Christy's claim: "100% of the latest climate models overshoot the key target variable of climate change detection.", it would have been nearly impossible to understand the error Christy made to shift the model results up during a debate.
In a scientific discussion among scientists falsehoods are not common as both sides stick to the facts and are interested in understanding the problems better. Normal scientists are not experienced in the adversarial character of public debates that are aimed at scoring points, rather than understanding. While climate dissenters feel qualified to comment on any topic, a normal researcher will often only feel qualified to talk about his area of expertise. In many cases, a normal citizen who follows the public/blog "debate" is likely more familiar with the weird thoughts of climate dissenters and better able to respond as a scientist that only knows the scientific debate.
Finally, such debates are also not of much use. As Phil Plait aka @BadAstronomer wrote:
My own stance on this [public science debates] is complicated; personally I’d rather not do it, as I have done it in the past and find it unsatisfying. In general even when I destroy my opponents, they still claim victory. It has the risk of elevating someone with marginal and/or fringe beliefs to something worth debating. And it can also be used by your anti-science opponent to fundraise … which is precisely what Ham did [in his debate with the science guy on creationism].This argument is likely valid for almost any type of communication with a contrarian audience that is determined not to be convinced by any argument, that did not come to their position based on arguments and will thus also not change its position based on arguments.
Concluding, I hope that the mail of Mr MacLeod, BBC Scotland, was real and that he can convince the rest of his colleagues that fake debates and live interviews are not a good way to improve our understanding of the climate system, nor that they are a good way to educate the public on science.
How to fix itAnalysing the situation is just a first step. What can we do to improve the situation?
Bob Ward, Director of policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, suggest that science literacy is the problem:
“The BBC has a problem. It is an organisation dominated by people who don't have a science background and think that everything is a matter of opinion. The laws of physics are not a matter of opinion…"I think it is good to improve science literacy among journalists, if only because all the errors in science reporting are annoying. However, I do not think that a lack of science literacy explains the bad reporting of climate science. False balance is far from universal and fake debates on television are mainly limited to climate science. This suggests that journalists are able to get it right for most topics.
When a new member of our solar system was discovered, there was no debate with an astrologer claiming there was no empirical evidence, because you could not see VP113 with the naked eye.
When gravity waves from the big bang were discovered, there was no debate between a cosmologist and a young Earth creationist claiming that the universe is only six thousand years old and those polarization patterns were drawn by God.
Thus, I would argue that the journalists know what they are doing and will not improve their ways if only we explain that science is something else as politics or by making appeals to their moral values. The ones that uses these methods know what they are doing.
An important step would be if scientists refuse to participate in such fake debates. We should not ignore the dissenters. Responding to their claims after having had the time to study them is fine. The misinformation they put into the public's head already needs to be challenged. If the public chooses not to respond to the problem, I feel that that would be foolish, but that is democracy. If this choice is based on misinformation, that would be a catastrophe.
A caveat might be that this leads to more interviews of dissenters. Interviews with journalists that are even less able to see through the misinformation than a scientist. However, I would hope that this is a less attractive alternative for the media and that the media produces documentaries and news items instead.
For newspapers a step everyone can make is to cancel your newspaper subscription if they publish nonsense. For online news, you can disable AdbLock for good resources. (Firefox: Tools|Adblock Plus|Disable on ...) That could be effective, newspapers are commercial companies after all.
More ideas are welcome. How can we make sure that climatology is treated like any other science?
[UPDATE An anonymous coward using the name "dh7fb" at the forum of Wetterzentrale summarizes this post as: "Und nicht mit Laien diskutieren!". Translated: do not discus with amateurs. Disingenuous nonsense, expecting that people will not read the post well. I clearly wrote that I have noting against discussions on blogs and in the scientific literature. That is also the main way in which professional scientists communicate. Public debates are, however, not a good way to discover the truth. Especially when dealing with pseudo-sceptics who often have no hesitation to pervert the truth.
For what it is worth, I feel that amateurs can contribute very well to science. Especially to climate science as so much data is openly available and many studies consequently only need a computer with free analysis software such as R. I am currently working on a study with an amateur, Zeke Hausfather. An amateur that is interested in understanding the climate better.
[UPDATE of UPDATE: dh7fb Feels that the use of the term "anonymous coward" is: "Traurig, traurig, traurig". Sad, sad, sad. I fully agree. It is the favourite term of Anthony Watts for people that want to contribute to the discussion, but would prefer to avoid harassment by pseudo-sceptics.]]
Related readingBBC climate coverage singled out for criticism by cross-party parliamentary committee
'BBC News sticking two fingers up to management' says prof behind Trust's science impartiality report
An article on a discussion of the BBC policy around debates, making many of the same arguments. Definitely worth reading.
BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science. With an independent assessment by Professor Steve Jones and content research from Imperial College London.
The Independent - The BBC must not confuse climate change with politics
The value of peer review for science and the press
On consensus and dissent in science - consensus signals credibility