It is not uncommon for bloggers to be critical of science reporting in the mainstream media. Now is our chance to do something constructive about it. If you have opinions about this, please leave them in the comments here, and/or email them to
Here are some of my own opinions, to get things going. Many programmes I haven’t seen/heard, so my selection may not be representative, but it is wide enough to include examples that are superb and examples of some that I think are not good enough.
There are two particular topics that are real problems for broadcasters. One is the whole area of alternative medicine and the ‘supplement’ industry. The other is anything to do with climate change. Both have formidable lobby groups which, to the inexperienced journalist, may sound like quite plausible scientists (some even have academic titles). Creationists can also be a problem. though not many programmes take them very seriously. Both quacks and climate deniers rarely have anything to say that is real science. They have different motivations. Examples are given below.
Many programmes are superb
David Attenbrough is an obvious example. His programmes can’t be bettered. The photography is breathtakingly beautiful and the science is always accurate. For me, they alone are worth the licence fee, and I don’t want the licence fee to be reduced. It helps that Attenborough knows the science so well. It also helps that most of the time the science isn’t very difficult and isn’t very controversial either.
There have been many other superb programmes. Steve Jones own 6-part TV series "In the blood" was a beautiful example. The fact that his comments are sought frequently by the BBC is greatly to their credit. Much depends on producers being sufficiently well-informed to know whom to ask.
More recently Brian Cox’s "Wonders" series has provided an excellent example of how science programmes can be made popular without being inaccurate,
Also excellent were Jim Al-Khalili’s Chemistry: A Volatile History and Michael Moseley’s Medical Mavericks.
Simon Singh has made consistently good programmes. His wonderful documentary on Fermat’s Last Theorem was a masterpiece.. He is a master at making programmes that make really difficult subjects accessible to the public, without making them misleading.
Tim Harford’s programm, More or Less has made a great contribution to public understanding of statistics.
Ben Goldacre‘s two part Radio 4 Programme, The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists was a superb explanation of a contentious area.
It would be useful if all presenters of programmes with any scientific content had to listen to Harford or Goldacre. It might make them a bit more critical about the problem of causality that beset the observational epidemiology items that predominate among the items picked out from press releases by so many news programmes.
These programmes were so successful because they were made by people who know what they are talking about. They confirm the view that the best science programmes are made by scientists, not by journalists. There are exceptions of course. It could be argued that some of Robert Winston’s programmes have strayed too far from his area of expertise to reach the same high standards. And some journalists have produced excellent programmes. Two examples follow.
Geoff Watts has kept up a consistently high standard on Radio 4. from Science Now, through Medicine Now to Leading Edge, the standard has always been high. It is good straight science in its social context. He avoids controversies, for example his excellent programme about Charles Darwin does not include a creationist to provide (phony) ‘balance’.
After the demise of Medicine Now in 1998, Watts wrote in the BMJ thus.
In the early days of the programme you could have listened for several weeks in a row without hearing from patients. I used to defend this on the grounds that Medicine Now was there to talk about disease and its treatment, not the experience of disease and its treatment. I was wrong. To make that distinction is simply to parallel the fault for which doctors themselves take a deal of stick—being interested in the illness to the exclusion of the person who’s suffering from it. I was persuaded, reluctantly, to accept more lay voices, and I am now embarrassed that I didn’t sooner see the need for them.
The swing of the pendulum may push the whole patient experience thing too far: to a point at which it’s professional knowledge and objective analysis that is elbowed into the wings. One of the vogue concepts among BBC managers in recent years has been “accessibility”. But this is a weasel word, too easily used as justification for editing out anything that might require the audience to concentrate and think. If a patient has a rash, it’s a lot simpler for the reporter to inquire about the urge to scratch than to explore the events in the immune system that caused the skin to redden, swell, and itch in the first place. How sad if people lose an opportunity to hear from the researchers, speaking their own words, who are actually trying to find out.
This summarises a lot of the problems of science programmes. They too easily become trivial vox pops, and Watts resisted this tendency very successfully.
A great problem for programmes about medicine arises from the pressure exerted by the alternative medicine industry (ot which more later). Watts would not tolerate nonsense. He says
Medicine Now was stabled in the BBC’s Science Unit, and it was the broad acceptance of science and its methodology which shaped editorial choices. When complementary medicine was on the agenda, we expected evidence from our contributors not testaments of faith.
Material World is another good Radio 4 programme. Quentin Cooper does, on the whole, a good job. But sometimes even he falls foul of the phony balance argument After my piece in Nature on the shameful degrees in pseudo-scientific medicine got discussed on Material World, (audio here) but my opponent was not a scientist at all, but the head of “Complementary Therapies” at the University of Westminster, a man who presides over courses that teach “amethysts emit high Yin energy“. It is simply impossible to have a proper scientific discussion with people who believe nonsense like that. They don’t accept the ground rules at all. It is a good example of phony balance (see below).
Some programmes are quite bad
Alternative Medicine: the evidence. This series if three TV programmes was shown in February 2006 on BBC 2, in conjunction with the Open University. It illustrates well three problems with science programming. (1) Despite the title, tt was surprisingly weak at showing evidence, (2) It showed the defensive and unhelpful response that, only too often, the BBC shows when complaints are made. And (3) it showed that association with a university is not, per se, enough to guarantee quality.
Because of the title, I’d looked forward to this programme, and made minute by minute notes, which are recounted in BBC2 and the Open University on Alternative Medicine. It turned out that the evidence was thin on the ground, and what there was was not always accurate I complained to the BBC, but got nowhere [download my complaint and some subsequent correspondence]. I was fobbed off with defensive PR. (Much the same happened when I complained to the Open University.)
Worse still, a letter in defence of the programme that appeared in the Guardian, turned out to have been written by the BBC and was not even seen by some of its "signatories" -see .Alternative Medicine series: dirty tricks at the BBC? All this took a lot of work and got nowhere.
Simon Singh, the eminent science author, wrote two articles that exposed the very misleading portrayal of anaesthesia with acupuncture In the Guardian he wrote A groundbreaking experiment … or a sensationalised TV stunt?, and in the Daily Telegraph he wrote Did we really witness the ‘amazing power’ of acupuncture?. Singh also sent complaints to the BBC, but he persisted after the complaints were fobbed off and eventually his complaints reached the BBC Trustees. Two of his three serious complaints were upheld.
Phone-in programmes are notoriously bad for both balance and phony balance. In the alternative medicine field, equal time is always given to scientists, astrologers and crystal healers. The presenters are usually ill-informed and the callers are usually even less well informed. A particularly bad example follows.
Call You and Yours. The Radio 4 programme, You and Yours, at its best, can be quite good. It did a good job on a "snoring remedy" that I’d investigated, though it omitted some things that should, in my view, have been included. But they also have phone in versions of the programme. On 29th February 2010, they ran a phone-in programme about herbal medicine, hosted by Julian Worricker, someone who clearly was totally unaware of the controversies that surrounded this subject and, particularly, its regulation. The worst thing about this programme was that it featured a resident ‘expert’ That was Michael McIntyre who is chair of the European Herbal & Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association. McIntyre is a well known advocate of alternative medicine, who constantly fudges the need for proper evidence.
I went through the programme carefully, making detailed notes, which appear at Some truly appalling reporting of science by the BBC. It was one of the most biassed programmes on the topic I have ever heard. i sent a complaint to the BBC, referring to the detailed analysis which had already appeared here. To my dismay, they wouldn’t accept a complaint in the form. They wanted me to type the whole thing in a little box on the complaint site. where there is no formatting and no live links. I protested in vain that if they wanted a printed version, all the had to do was print the web page. At this point I decided that there was no point in spending yet more time to cope with the inflexibility of the complaints procedure.
Today programme. I’m an avid listener toToday, the best news programme on radio John Humphrys has no greater fan than I. For politics it is superb. But for science it is, sad to say, not always so good. One reason is that the presenters don’t know enough about the topics to ask the same sort of tough questions that they fire at politicians. Another reason is that they suffer badly from the phony balance problem (see below). A third reason is that they tend to pick up on silly survey press releases (the sort of ‘men with long big toes are better in bed’ pseudo-science); They may quite rightly laugh at them but this sort of thing doesn’t count as science reporting.. The Today programme is admirably serious about politics, but the science is often dumbed down and uncritical.
What needs to be done to improve BBC science
Link to the sources. Despite pressure from bloggers, the BBC web site still does not usually link to original sources, the paper on which claims are based. The whole virtue of the web is that it makes this very easy to do.
Anonymity of reporters. Too often reports of science on the BBC web site are anonymous. There is no excuse for that. Every report should carry the name and email address of the person who wrote it, Most newspapers do this, but the BBC is lagging behind.
Reaction to criticism. In most cases that I’ve tried, the reaction to constructive criticism has been obstructive and defensive. Producers seem very reluctant to admit that any mistakes were made. That needs to be changed.
Science correspondents are too often uncritical. A few more with the approach of investigative journalists would improve standards. An example is provided by a recent report “It’s good to think – but not too much, scientists say“. This is typical of the sort of work that many people find a bit hard to take seriously, but the report reads a bit like a regurgitation of press releases. There is no link to original sources and no attempt at evaluation.
Press releases. One reason for misleading reports stems from misleading press releases. Press releases often come from media departments who regard their job as getting their university into the headlinse, rather than explaining science. Worse still, sometimes the misleading hyps stems from the authors themselves (one example here, but there are hundreds to choose from). This makes it very important that science reporters should read the paper and have good enough critical faculties to read through the hype.
Complaints procedure needs to be improved. Complaints should be accepted in any form, The present web form is suitable only for short and simple criticicisms. An email address should be provided and it should accept attached documents. Certainly complaints in the form of web pages should be welcomed, because the live links provide the simplest way to refer to source documents.
The problem of phony balance. This is biggest problem of the lot.
In the wake of the report by the Science and Technology Committee (STC) on the lack of evidence for homeopathy, and the Chinese medicine poisoning, the BBC carried at least three very bad reports. Being a strong supporter of the BBC that saddens me. These cases are summarised at Some truly appalling reporting of science by the BBC. The worst was the case of Call You and Yours. There was also a totally imbalanced and ill-informed report on statutory regulation, and a very irresponsible video of a woman who claimed homeopathy cured her cancer. .
The question of balance is important. Ofcom imposes an obligation that reporting should reflect the balance of viewpoints. Section 5 of Ofcom’s broadcasting code says (emphasis is mine).
“Section 5: Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions”
“To ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”
“Meaning of “due impartiality”: “Due” is an important qualification to the concept of impartiality. Impartiality itself means not favouring one side over another. “Due” means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme. So “due impartiality” does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented.”
The BBC Trust has a very similar definition of “due impartiality”.
Thus the rules stare quite explicitly that "impartial" does not mean giving equal time to any view, however batty,
In practice, though, producers often seem to play it too safe, and choose to give the same time time to the view that the earth is flat as is does to the view that the earth is spherical (OK, an oblate ellipsoid). This often gives a quite misleading impression of the state of play of informed opinion. Inappropriate use of “equal time” is the most common cause for misleading reports
Minority views should be heard of course, but they should not be given equal prominence to views that are held by the vast majority of informed people. Inevitably the worst cases arise in the areas of quack medicine, climate change and evolution.
Somebody said recently, it is as though after an air crash one gave equal time to the air accident investigator and a representative gravity-deniers association. That is scarcely an exaggeration of what happens on the BBC too often.
Worse still, far more time was given (especially on ‘Call You and Yours’) to the viewpoint that any scientist, indeed any informed person, would regard as quackery.
One thing that could be done about this false balance is to have better informed producers, or, more likely, to have better informed science reporters who can give advice on the state of opinion (and to make sure that their advice is sought).
Unless the BBC starts to be more critical in some of its reports, it could lose its preeminence. In the last few years it has become increasingly the case that the best critical evaluations of science are to be found not in the BBC or other mainstream media, but on blogs written by working scientists. Perhaps the BBC should ask them more often than it does at present.
Now give your opinions, below or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Open University is a wonderful institution
I should have made it clear the Open University has played a big role in producing some of the best programmes. I was, quite rightly, corrected by a letter from an OU scientist. I’ll quote from it.
David Attenborough’s series on Life In Cold Blood, Charles Darwin and the Tree Of Life, Life – these are all Open University commissions. Life In Cold Blood also won a BAFTA and we have a string of other awards. I believe this is some of the very best science broadcasting the Open University puts out and I’m not surprised to see it at the top of your list.
More Or Less is an Open University commission – see e.g. http://www.open2.net/moreorless/
Material World is another one of our occasional commissions -see e.g. http://www.open2.net/materialworld/index.html
Geoff Watts contributed to the BBC Darwin season last year, which was heavily supported by Open University programmes.
See for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/darwin/
We support the series with a considerable amount of on-line material both for credit and not for credit. This material is accessible to the public at these open2.net sites, and at http://www.open.ac.uk/openlearn/.
It is clear that the criticisms levelled at the Alternative Medicine series are very much the exception to the usual excellent work of the OU. I’m told that that programme had nothing to do with the science faculty. Clearly it was an unusual aberation. I presume it was connected with the OU’s course K221, which I wrote about in 2006, under the title Open University Quacks. That sort of thing is quite atypical of the Open University, and something of an embarrassment to the many top rate people who work there. As usual, the blame lies not with scientists but with senior managers. After hearing about course K221, I had a long correspondence with Professor David Vincent, a pro-vice chancellor. He made sympathetic noises, but did absolutely nothing. That’s par for the course with senior administrators.
The Open University has been a magnificent success from the outset. Its first vice-chancellor was Walter Laing Macdonald Perry . Before he took that job, he was professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (and one of my Ph.D. supervisors). He did a great job.
Failure to report negative results
A classic example of a sin of omission by the BBC (and the rest of the mainstream media too) occurred recently in the reporting of the alleged effect of B vitamins on the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A positive trial was widely reported, but two weeks later a trial appeared that measured the eight thing -cognitive deficiency – and that showed no effect at all. As far as I can tell it was barely reported at all, The details are at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=3516