Has the BBC broken faith with the General Public?

Guest Post by Barry Woods

It is my opinion that the BBC in broadcasting the BBC 2 Horizon program ‘Science Under Attack’ did not treat the general public in the UK and at least one of the interviewees with the ‘good faith’ that they should be able to expect from the BBC. After the program aired, I contacted James Delingpole, who was one of the sceptics portrayed in the program and he told me how he was approached to participate by the BBC.

“I am making a film for BBC’s Horizon on public trust in science and I was hoping you may be able to help.”  – BBC Producer

However, the programs underlying message to the general public came across to me as that climate science was under attack by climate sceptics or deniers of science who are on a par with those that deny Aids, vaccines and extreme anti GM environmentalist activists.

Yet, in discussion with a NASA scientist, the presenter Professor Paul Nurse apparently makes a gross factual error informing the viewer that annual man-made CO2 emissions are;

seven times

that of the total natural annual emissions. This raised a number of eyebrows and is now subject to some discussion amongst the blogs, including at Bishop Hill[1].

That such an apparent major error was presented to the public as fact, in the BBC’s flagship science program, should I think raise questions with respect to the handling of all the issues within the program.

Paul Nurse: The scientific consensus is, of course, that the changes we are seeing are caused by emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. But given the complexity of the climate system, how can we be sure that humans are to blame for this?

Bob Bindschadler[NASA]: We know how much fossil fuel we take out of the ground. We know how much we sell. We know how much we burn. And that is a huge amount of carbon dioxide. It’s about seven gigatons per year right now.

Paul Nurse: And is that enough to explain…?

Bob Bindschadler: Natural causes only can produce – yes, there are volcanoes popping off and things like that, and coming out of the ocean, only about one gigaton per year. So there’s just no question that human activity is producing a massively large proportion of the carbon dioxide.

Paul Nurse: So seven times more.

Bob Bindschadler: That’s right.

Paul Nurse: I mean, why do some people say that isn’t the case?

(from a transcript of BBC Horizon – Science Under Attack)

Following the program I contacted James Delingpole and he agreed to a telephone interview about the program. We had a few telephone conversations about the program  and he sent me a copy of the email from a BBC producer at the  BBC inviting James to participate in the program. (my bold)

“The tone of the film is very questioning but with no preconceptions.  On the issue of who is to blame no-one will be left unscathed, whether that is science sceptics, the media or most particularly scientists themselves.   Sir Paul is very aware of the culpability of scientists and that will come across in the film. They will not be portrayed as white coated magicians who should be left to work in their ivory towers – their failings will be dealt with in detail.”

–  BBC Producer to James Delingpole

The contents of that invitation put the presentation of his interview in the program into a different context. In my opinion it demonstrates bad faith on the part of the BBC in failing to present to the public the details of the sceptical argument about climategate and ‘climate science’ yet allowing those involved to present their defence without serious challenge.

The premise will be  ‘This is a  turbulent time for science.  After the debacles of Climate-gate, GM products and MMR, I want to explore why science isn’t trusted and whether we as scientists are largely to blame’. By looking at these different areas he will dig into the difficult questions of how to deal with uncertainty in science, the communication of this uncertainty, and the difficulties when science meets policy and the media.

– BBC Producer to James Delingpole

The BBC is the UK’s national public service broadcaster (funded by a per household TV Licence) and by its Charter it has a duty to its audience to be fair and balanced.

The Horizon program is the BBC’s flagship science program, so when it uses the weight of the BBC’s authority alongside, Sir Professor Paul Nurse, a Nobel Laureate and the new President of the Royal Society it has a clear responsibilty to the public to fairly present the detail of the sceptical views  climate science and the issues around the climategate emails.

My interview with James Delingpole

James actually received a lot of criticism from sceptics for somehow ‘failing’ to get across the sceptical arguments in this program. When I spoke to him his frustration was obvious as he said he had spent three hours talking to Professor Paul Nurse about the detail of the climategate emails, the failings of the inquiries and the many and varied sceptical arguments with respect to man-made climate change.

James said he had explained in detail why sceptics describe the inquiries as whitewashes, this included the vested interest of the participants, the fact that no one actually asked Jones about whether he had deleted emails, the failure of scientists to provide data to critics and journals (as scientific process would expect) the importance of hiding the decline in proxies, the fact that scientist had become advocates for policy.

Yet in the program all that comes across is a fade to voice over where Professor Paul Nurse states that James believes the inquiries were whitewashes. Why not allow the public to consider some of these reason from James Delingpole

Why did Professor Phil Jones say to delete emails?  Why did he ask colleagues to delete emails relating to the IPCC reports. And most importantly of all. Why did Phil Jones feel the need to ask colleagues to delete these emails?

Those question surely support James Delingpole’s view that the peer-review process and the IPCC processes had been corrupted.

Another question that has been often asked was, why did James trust the BBC?

To put the interview into context the BBC had received a number of complaints regarding both the BBC’s coverage of Copenhagen and the coverage of the climategate emails. The BBC had seemed genuinely surprised by this response from the public and had even launched a review of how science in the media handled subjects like climate science, vaccines and GM.

The invitation that James received from the BBC to be involved in this program appeared to be very much in this context.

“As an influential blogger on climate change, among other subjects, I’d really like Paul to meet you and chat to you about your views – how you see your role and that more generally the influence of the internet in changing the debate; your views on climate-gate and how that was handled by the media; the failings or otherwise of scientists in communicating the science.”

– BBC Producer to James Delingpole

James said that he had looked forward to this opportunity to discuss and present sceptical issues in the apparent spirit of the invitation.

The ‘trick’ and ‘hide the decline’

The BBC described the ‘trick’ and ‘hide the decline’ as at the crux of the climategate email scandal. Why would they not at least allow a sceptic to voice to the public the  sceptical viewpoint on this issue.

Paul Nurse (voice over): Tree rings have been shown to be a good way of measuring ancient temperatures, and they’ve mostly matched instrumental measurements since the advent of thermometers.

However, after about 1960, some tree ring data stopped fitting real temperatures so well. The cause of this isn’t known. When Dr Jones was asked by the World Meteorological Organisation to prepare a graph of how temperatures had changed over the last 1000 years, he had to decide how to deal with this divergence between the datasets.

He decided to use the direct measurements of temperature change from thermometers and instruments rather than indirect data from the tree rings, to cover the period from 1960. It was this data splicing, and his e-mail referring to it as a “trick” that formed the crux of Climategate.

Phil Jones: The Organisation wanted a relatively simple diagram for their particular audience. What we started off doing was the three series, with the instrumental temperatures on the end, clearly differentiated from the tree ring series. But they thought that was too complicated to explain to their audience.

So what we did was just to add them on, and bring them up to the present. And as I say, this was a World Meteorological Organisation statement. It had hardly any coverage in the media at the time, and had virtually no coverage for the next ten years, until the release of the e-mails. (transcript)

The program was supposed to deal with the failure of the presentation of uncertainties regarding climate science, the criticism is that climate science has presented to politicians a narrative of ‘unprecedented’ temperature rise which ‘must be due to humans.

Yet the ‘complication’ that is not explained clearly to the public or politicians, is that temperature proxies declined when modern thermometers showed warming.  Even the simplest of politicians could grasp that if the proxies decline when thermometers show warming it reduces their credibility of recording historic temperatures.

Yet somehow it is deemed to complicated, this is a prime example of scientist becoming advocates for policy and presenting the issues as certain when they are not.  Remember this was the described purpose of the program.

An interesting response to ‘hide the decline’

James Delingpole wrote in his blog [2]about how the mathematician Simon Singh, the best selling author of ‘Fermat’s Last Theorum’ had tweeted:

Sorry, but @JamesDelingpole[3] deserves mockery ‘cos he has the arrogance to think he knows more of science than a Nobel Laureate

Simon Singh wrote a rebuttal in his own blog, yet in the the comments there arose an excellent rebuttal to the programs description of ‘hide the decline’ from a respected scientist Paul Dennis who is also at the University of East Anglia

Paul Dennis said…

Before I add anything further to the debate I should say that I’m an Isotope Geochemist and Head of the Stable Isotope and Noble Gas Laboratories in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. I’ve also contributed to and published a large number of peer-reviewed scientific papers in the general field of palaoclimate studies.

I don’t say this because I think my views should carry any more weight. They shouldn’t. But they show there is a range and diversity of opinion amongst professionals working in this area.

What concerns me about the hide the decline debate is that the divergence between tree ring width and temperature in the latter half of the 20th century points to possibly both a strong non-linear response and threshold type behaviour.

There is nothing particularly different about conditions in the latter half of the 20th century and earlier periods. The temperatures, certainly in the 1960’s, are similar, nutrient inputs may have changed a little and water stress may have been different in some regions but not of a level that has not ben recorded in the past.

Given this and the observed divergence one can’t have any confidence that such a response has not occurred in the past and before the modern instrumental record starting in about 1880.

Paul Dennis was thought by many newspapers to be the potential ‘whistleblower’ of the climategate emails. He commented a few times at Simon Singh’s blog and his identity was confirmed at Bishop Hill[4][5]

Thus it could be said that on this particular issue at least and that the ‘science is not settled’ even at UEA!

The Conduct of the BBC

I last spoke to James Delingpole after the BBC4 program Meet The Sceptics had been aired that focussed on Christopher Monckton.  James had also been involved in the making of this program and had got to know the makers well and trusted them. (from his blog)

“The BBC? Not bloody likely. You’ve come to stitch us up, haven’t you?” I said.

“Not at all,” said Murray. “Look, there’s something you need to realise. I’m an independent filmmaker, I have no big budget for this, so I’m dependent on my work being original and interesting. The very last thing the BBC wants to commission is another hatchet job on sceptics. How boring and predictable would that be?”

Over the next few months I came to like and trust Murray. He was there filming Lord Lawson, Lord Monckton, Lord Leach and me when we debated at the Oxford Union. And he was there to capture our joy and surprise when we won – and to hang out drinking with us, afterwards, like he was our mate.

By this stage, we’d all come to accept that Murray was genuinely interested in presenting our case sympathetically. In fact, I must admit, I was really looking forward to seeing the finished product. “God this is going to be fantastic!” I thought. “At long bloody last, the BBC is going to do the right thing – and at feature length too.”  – from James Delingpole’s blog[6]

When I last spoke to him, James was genuinely angry and felt badly let down by the BBC. He had taken part in the making of both programmes in good faith, yet the BBC had basically said to the world in his view, that climate sceptics are deniers and an organised group of these deniers are responsible for stalling political action to ‘save the planet. It appears to me that this was the program makers intention all along.

I asked James if he felt concerned for his safety now, and he said absolutely that was a concern, following how sceptics were depicted in these programmes.

Prior to this program being aired apparently both people at the BBC and Paul Nurse spoke to the Guardian [7]with comments that gives every reason for me to think the program was intended all along to present sceptics in a bad light.

I believe that in this type of BBC science program the public has an expectation that the BBC would present fairly both pro and sceptical arguments on the issues in enough detail to allow the public to take own view. If a respected main stream journalist can be treated like this by the BBC, what hope and expectations of being treated fairly should a member of the public or a blogger (like me – RealClimategate[8]) have of the BBC?

The issue I have with this program and the BBC is not who is right or wrong in climate science, but the failure of the BBC to fairly present in the program the sceptical arguments in detail (which it must be fully aware of) with respect to climate science, the climategate emails and the inquiries to the general public.

I would like to leave the final words to James Delingpole that he said to me (and ones that he left in the comments at Bishop Hill[9]) about why he participated in BBC Horizon  – Science Under Attack program  and trusted the producers of the  BBC 4 program, Storyville – Meet the Sceptics.

Why shouldn’t one have faith in one’s national broadcaster to tell the other side of the story? – James Delingpole

Links/sources:

BBC Horizon -Science Under Attack – transcript[10]

BBC Horizon – Science Under Attack – video[11] (youtube)

The BBC email invitation to James Delingpole (my bold)

From: “Emma” [email address removed by author]

Date: 3 August 2010 19:25:08 GMT+01:00

To:  James [email address removed by author]

Subject: BBC Horizon

Dear James

I hope you don’t mind me contacting you on this email address but I was given it by Louise Gray at the Telegraph.

I am making a film for BBC’s Horizon on public trust in science and I was hoping you may be able to help.

The film will explore our current relationship with science, whether we as a society do and should trust it.  It is being presented by the nominated President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse.  If he is voted in later this summer he will be taking over the at RS at the end of the year at around the same time the film will be transmitted so it would very much launch his presidency.  The premise will be  ‘This is a  turbulent time for science.  After the debacles of Climate-gate, GM products and MMR, I want to explore why science isn’t trusted and whether we as scientists are largely to blame’. By looking at these different areas he will dig into the difficult questions of how to deal with uncertainty in science, the communication of this uncertainty, and the difficulties when science meets policy and the media.

The tone of the film is very questioning but with no preconceptions.  On the issue of who is to blame no-one will be left unscathed, whether that is science sceptics, the media or most particularly scientists themselves.   Sir Paul is very aware of the culpability of scientists and that will come across in the film.  They will not be portrayed as white coated magicians who should be left to work in their ivory towers – their failings will be dealt with in detail.

Now obviously one of the other great areas of contention is when science meets the media.  Much as most scientists would like their papers to be published unedited in the mainstream media that obviously does not work. We will be visiting the newsroom of a national newspaper (most likely the Times although we have also been talking to the Telegraph) to explore the realities of where science fits in the news agenda, but I also want to explore the equally important role of the online world.

As an influential blogger on climate change, among other subjects, I’d really like Paul to meet you and chat to you about your views – how you see your role and that more generally the influence of the internet in changing the debate; your views on climate-gate and how that was handled by the media; the failings or otherwise of scientists in communicating the science.

Filming would be on the afternoon of 18 August ideally.

If you are interested please drop me a line or give me a call.

Kind regards

Emma [removed by author]

Producer/Director

BBC Vision Productions

References

  1. ^ Bishop Hill (www.bishop-hill.net)
  2. ^ in his blog (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
  3. ^ JamesDelingpole (twitter.com)
  4. ^ Simon Singh’s blog (slsingh.posterous.com)
  5. ^ Bishop Hill (bishophill.squarespace.com)
  6. ^ James Delingpole’s blog (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
  7. ^ Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk)
  8. ^ RealClimategate (www.realclimategate.org)
  9. ^ the comments at Bishop Hill (www.bishop-hill.net)
  10. ^ transcript (sites.google.com)
  11. ^ video (www.youtube.com)

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