Friday, 4 October 2013

The role of experts vs interest groups when science-related issues are dicussed in the media

A recent piece in the Guardian has criticised the BBC over its coverage of climate change issues, and in particular the release of the latest IPCC report. In the interests of so-called "editorial balance", there has a tendency to include non-specialists, so-called 'climate deniers' (not a term I'm particularly fond of, given its connotations, despite being a 'climate-believer' myself).

It was a complaint that immediately stuck me as ironic coming from the Guardian, given much of its recent reporting about shale gas. Particular Guardian highlights include letting Lucy Mangan, a lifestyle columnist, free reign make up whatever she liked about shale development, including, my particular favourite, the claim that the UK has no history of onshore operations, which must have come as a surprise to the operators of Wytch Farm (the largest onshore field in the EU) and the other 40 or so existing onshore oil and gas fields.

Similarly flawed was their piece accusing an operator of gagging a family claiming that their water had been impacted by drilling, while failing to mention that the Pennsylvania DEP had been in to test the water, and had found no evidence of any drilling-related contamination.

Meanwhile Andrew Rawnsley felt sufficiently geologically-qualified to claim that UK shales were unlikely to be profitable because they were "typically among the thinnest" of Europe, when in fact at over 6,000 feet the Bowland shale is probably the thickest shale deposit found anywhere to date.

These are the headline mistakes, but of course every piece on shale must be accompanied by a statement from a protest group detailing imminent environmental catastrophe, without ever being asked to provide any evidence or justification of any kind. Certainly there's been no attempt to highlight the difference between ill-informed shale hype (and there is plenty of this from both sides of the debate) and expert scientific opinion as expressed, for example, by the Royal Society report, by the BGS, or perhaps even from John Hanger, one-time Pennsylvania environmental chief (whose 'Facts of the Day' blog is well worth a read).  

There are many areas of modern life where science intersects with social and political viewpoints (global warming, GM food, nuclear power, vaccinations, creationism, all spring to mind). At this point I want to move my discussion away from shale gas specifically to treat the subject of expert representation in the media more generally.

With unsurprising regularity, wherever the science agrees with a particular viewpoint you'll see protagonists urging: "let the scientists speak - don't let the unscientific opponents be given equal footing to the actual experts", only to find that when the boot is on the other foot over a different issue, suddenly having balance in the debate is crucial: interested parties, even if not experts, should be given a platform to express their views.

I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, the scientist in me feels that on every issue we should ensure that it is the experts that are given prime time in the debate, and that editors/producers must make sure to differentiate what is evidence based from what is (socio-)politically motivated. We can see direct examples where the failure to do so leads directly to harm (the MMR scare and resulting South Wales measles outbreak springs most immediately to mind).

Sadly however, I suspect that many editors lack the expertise needed to do this, having neither the ability nor inclination to cross-examine their sources to differentiate expertise from BS. Moreover, we should not be insensitive to the fact that many of these issues provoke very strong emotions some sections of the non-expert general public, who will come to be represented by partisan organisations and spokespeople. Is there a case to be made that, if a certain view is held by a significant portion of the population, then it is right that the media provide air-time to that view-point, even if misinformed?

For me it's a difficult question, a difficult balance to be found. Comments and thoughts welcome in the comment section as always.


  1. I think you miss a key point. Newspapers (and for that matter the TV news) publish or show what they think will sell best. They are not about balance of views or informing us about key issues. As for experts, I'm always a bit worried by self declared experts, I'd rather hear informed and rational opinion and have access to the facts. That will not come from the press.

    1. Hi Anonymous,
      I've not missed that point. The motivation behind this post was my shock at the sheer hypocrisy of the Guardian article, which got me on to thinking more generally about this issue. Perhaps I should have had a lie down and a nice cuppa before posting, rather than rushing straight to blogger to pour out my feelings....

  2. I find it always helps. I gave up on the media outlets years ago. Great for the highlights, less good for a reflection of reality. The problem is where can the ordinary person go for real facts and how do they know they can trust them? Indeed do they really care? I have a number of friends who believe what they see via various social media platforms, they are not bad people or stupid people, they just do not have access to more informed views.

  3. Good post Dr JV - fair & balanced (unlike any Guardian article on the environment).

    I think there is a further point - the BBC in particular seems to define an expert as 'someone who knows more about a subject than anyone else in the room'. Being mostly liberal arts graduates, they are unable to understand the science itself or the scientific method. So they will get shouty people they already know (often journalists and ex-politicians) rather than rational scientists, as spokespeople.

    This means that the rational people on both sides generally are not represented, and extremists have the floor. This is not just on environmental issues, but on things like religion and politics too. For any religious debate, there may or may not be a token Humanist or Atheist. This gives the impressions that most people are religious, as several devout religious people will be present. The opposite is actually true - a very small percentage of people actually go to church, mosque, synagogue etc.

    Finally, it looks to me like the BBC, having been caught being over-sensational on AGW, is now looking for people to represent the sceptical side who are at the extreme end, so they make it look bad without representing the majority view at all.

    Of course the Guardian doesn't realsie that it is doing the same for the Climate Activist cause, by having all sorts of ignorance, as long as it is pro-CAGW, across its Comment is Free pages, and even in the 'News' section it self.

  4. As if to make your point for you, the Guardian feels it is unable to print any more sensational articles because they get trashed in the comments.

    So now they are publishing fairy stores as metaphors - see 'The end of the world is nigh… anyone out there interested?' ( by Stewart Lee, a 'comedian'.

    And comments aren't enabled.

  5. It doesn't add up...6 October 2013 at 04:06

    The BBC's inclusion of non-specialists in the climate debate is precisely designed to discredit any attack on the position the BBC have taken that climate science is "settled" and treated as if it were Newton's Laws of Motion. In fact it has proved to be a great disservice to proper scientific enquiry on the factors affecting climate, which still remains at a relatively rudimentary level of understanding, as the failure of climate models amply demonstrates. Modellers are now inventing deferrents and epicycles to try to cater for these failings.

    The concern is - or should be - that climate science has been hijacked for political ends, much as happened with Lysenkoism. Theories that do not fit the political agenda are discarded untested; experiments that disprove politically accepted theory are covered up and ignored; alternatives invented with no evidential foundation (e.g. heat reservoirs in the lower oceans). Just as with Lysenkoism, there are severe economic consequences from acting on this "science".

    It is precisely the politically driven agenda and the process of inadequate scientific education that lies behind the rubbishing of well established geoscience.

    Politics is a matter of opinion: science should be a matter of facts.