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Truth, falsehood and evidence: investigations of dubious and dishonest science

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Science reporting on the BBC. Your chance to have a say.

September 19th, 2010 · 47 Comments

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Steve Jones, UCL’s star geneticist, has been commissioned by the BBC Trust to write a report on the impartiality of science journalism on the BBC.  It covers both TV and radio, and all channels. Current programmes can be found by the BBC Science home page.

Steve Jones

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

trust.science@bbc.co.uk

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.

Problem areas

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
on science.

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 trust.science@bbc.co.uk

Follow-up

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

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Tags: Bad journalism · badscience · BBC · Journalism

47 responses so far ↓

  • 1 tonyryan // Sep 19, 2010 at 18:33

    In response to the commissioned report I have to say that science reporting is a little too weak on the BBC considering it is supposed to be a non-partisan organisation. Its coverage today of the pope’s visit for hours on end even though the man is essentially a wanted criminal travelling the world with his anti-science propaganda is testament to the BBC having a weak spine when it comes to reporting the truth about science and religion.

    I would like to see more science programmes from the likes of richard dawkins, Ben goldacre and so on who truly challenge the lies and Ill informed practices of pseudo-science including homeopathy, creationism, abortion, stem cell research misinformation and similar areas.

  • 2 BBC Science Journalism Review « Stuff And Nonsense // Sep 19, 2010 at 19:38

    [...] 19, 2010 at 6:37 pm (Media) David Colquhoun has posted something on the BBC’s announcement of a report on the impartiality of science journalism on [...]

  • 3 twaza // Sep 19, 2010 at 20:47

    This is an excellent review of the problem that the BBC (and media generally) create when they try to provide “balance” by alternating presenting people who have a scientific or non-scientific approach.

    I watched the recent BBC Scotland programme on homeopathy, which was sensitively done, but made no attempt to explain to viewers what was wrong, scientifically and ethically, with the statements made by the homeopaths. So, at the end of the programme, a naive viewer would have come away with an unjustifiably favourable opinion of it.

    Programmes like this need to ask awkward questions, such “Would you accept as good evidence a drug manufacturer’s statement that people are cured by their product?”. This can then lead on to an explanation of what evidence is reliable and what evidence is not — for drugs and for homeopathy.

    I do believe that viewers would like to be served up more than just opposing opinions. They would like explanations too. And I believe they would like to explore ethical issues such as professionals not paying due diligence in assessing the evidence, or lying to their patients, or using real or pseudoscience to avoid using words such as “empathy”.

  • 4 rogueclassicist // Sep 20, 2010 at 00:17

    I have often wondered whether ‘archaeology’ is considered science by the BBC because very frequently, it has absolutely no concept of ‘due impartiality’ and instead hypes the ‘sexy theory’ at the expense of others which make more sense. Three examples:

    1. Documentary called Cleopatra, Portrait of a Killer spends quite a bit of time with tenuous evidence to prove a tomb in Ephesus belonged to Cleo’s sister, to then make a skull reconstruction based on lost data, from which the length of the skull is used to claim African ancestry (despite the fact that elongated skulls belong to several non-african cultures) and then leap to the conclusion from all this that Cleo had African ancestry, despite the fact we do not know if she had the same mother as Arsinoe.

    2. The single-minded pursuit of one archaeologist’s theory (one which she herself is not confident of) — in the Digging For Britain Program — that infant burials in Hambledon are the indication of a brothel (while not taking into account that the long period of occupation at H. might suggest that so many infant burials aren’t necessary ‘odd’ at all; nor is there mention that the ‘infanticide’ seen there is not characteristic of the type we are presented with in Roman sources in general)

    3. The suggestion that a large female skeleton in Herefordshire must have belonged to a gladiatrix … listening to the BBC’s audio report sounds very much like the reporter is the one almost putting the suggestion in the archaeologist’s mouth, but the gladiatrix angle is promoted and picked up by several news sources … the retraction by the archaeologist a short while later made the local paper, but not the BBC as far as I can tell.

    Given the time, I can probably come up with several other examples … the skinny is, though, that the BBC fairly regularly succumbs to the temptations of sensationalism when it comes to archaeological finds and, being the BBC, their views make their way around the world and are picked up by other news agencies. It’s a rather irresponsible approach …

  • 5 Majikthyse // Sep 20, 2010 at 09:25

    Every time a science story comes up, there is the opportunity to explain, bit by bit, what science is. This is almost always missed. The good science programmes put across the good evidence, but even they rarely explain why such evidence is good. Understanding of science by non-scientists is pretty abysmal, whereas appreciation of the arts and humanities by scientists is in my experience quite extensive. The BBC needs to recognise this mismatch and seek to remedy it.

  • 6 David Colquhoun // Sep 20, 2010 at 09:58

    @Majikthyse
    That is a very good point, which I missed entirely. Science is a method, above all, and you hardly ever hear any decent account of why some conclusions are soundly-based and others not.

    That is a particular problem in the thorny area of diet and health. Everyone is interested, contradictory conclusions abound, but when did you hear anyone explain why it’s so hard?

    The last time I can recall was in Goldacre’s The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists, but it is very rare.

  • 7 James8855 // Sep 20, 2010 at 10:28

    @rogueclassicist

    I agree entirely, although I think the situation is slowly improving – though whether that improvement is a temporary blip is anyone’s guess.

    I would be interested to find out whether the temptation to succumb to sensationalism tends to originate from the archaeologists briefing the producers, who presumably would not be archaeological experts, on their ‘sexy theory’ but not on any alternative explanations, or if it originates from the producers telling the archaeologists that, although it would be accurate to say that these holes in the ground may or may not have been storage pits, the programme would be much better if they were touted as the product of gladiators, a famous historical figure or King Arthur.

    I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to the BBC. A site excavated by some colleagues in the heart of a major city unearthed some Saxon burials, including of an one adult female which contained a rather nice gold and garnet broach, now in a major regional museum. It was a very nice piece of jewellery and indicated that the burial might be of a high status person. But it equally might not have been.

    All this was explained to the papers, who then ran headlines like “Archaeologists find grave of Saxon princess!” regardless…

  • 8 Ulrich // Sep 20, 2010 at 11:29

    Just a detail about the article “It’s good to think – but not too much, scientists say”. You complain that there is no link to original sources and no attempt at evaluation. This is only partly true. At the end of the article there is a link to the published Science paper.

  • 9 pollik // Sep 20, 2010 at 16:45

    I hope that this exercise will not become a demonstration of outright rejection from, say climate change deniers or advocates of homeopathy.

    For example, homeopathy is dismissed on the basis that it has no scientific basis and that, at best, any improvement are due to the placebo effect (this last is usually expressed in a derogatory way). My feeling is the placebo effect is quite remarkable – if people can be ‘cured’ without chemical invasion of their bodies, I would see this as a good thing. Advocates may not have a known scientific basis, but if there are beneficial effects to be had, then surely it is the role of the scientist to find out why.

    It is also the case that science can have a political or religious dimension. Forty years ago, homosexuality was both an illness and illegal and science/medicine believed it had ‘cures’.

    The point I am trying to make (perhaps inexpertly) is the need for science to maintain an open and, impartial mind. I am sure that many scientists manage this. Equally, I am sure that many do not (I have seen plenty of evidence for this in the field of psychological research).

    The man on the Clapham omnibus may be a climate denier or he may simply not trust the provenance of the information being given to him – the Mafia reportedly cashing in on subsidised wind farms being one example.

  • 10 David Colquhoun // Sep 20, 2010 at 17:45

    @pollik
    I was aware when writing this that there was a danger of sounding like “believe me, I’m a scientist”. I hope not though. The fact of the matter is that 99.9% of scientists, and most people who have the faintest appreciation of science, believe that homeopathy is fraud, and that reporting should reflect that fact more closely than it usually does. It is also the case that even homeopathy has been taken seriously. It wasn’t ignored, it was tested, and when tested properly, it failed. It would be wonderful if sugar pills could cure all ills, but real life is a bit more complicated than that.

    The question of placebos is interesting, though many apparent effects of ineffective treatments is probably not placebo effect at all, but just the ‘got better anyway” effect.

    Insofar as placebo effects are beneficial, the discussion should centre on how to exploit that effect without lying to patients. Actually goo doctors do this every day.

  • 11 skepticalstu // Sep 20, 2010 at 20:59

    As you may remember, I also complained to the BBC about the preposterous You and Yours program following the Science Committee recommendations. Part of my complaint was also related to BBC News 24 putting you up alongside a representative from the “alternative” industry – prompting my “gravity deniers” comment.

    The BBC’s feeble response to my complaint was little more than a boilerplate one and didn’t really address any of the points I made, particularly ignoring the point that with regard to reporting the science committee findings their report should have been just that, a report. Instead, across the BBC it became a “what do you think?” piece!

    There must be some staffers with a good working knowledge of science at the BBC and yet they have to sit there and listen to “homeopathy cured my cancer” nonsense – nonsense that is not only often completely unchallenged by the interviewer, it is often even encouraged. I would suggest that perhaps a little more briefing of newsreaders and interviewers with a few bullet-point facts, prior to a bulletin, might help to deal with this. Although, it really shouldn’t be necessary. In the same way that my aviation example can be put forward when dealing with issues of fact, it seems obvious that if you’ve got someone coming on to your astronomy programme claiming the moom is made of cheese, you wouldn’t give them house room. So why the need to give airtime to all these “alternative” practitioners? The BBC appear to have fallen into the trap of thinking that all their output must entertain, including the news – the result is that science is reported as a “he said, she said” affair, instead of in the manner of economic news where this silliness doesn’t happen (with the exception of the ludicrous graphics of course!).

  • 12 phayes // Sep 21, 2010 at 03:06

    “The point I am trying to make (perhaps inexpertly) is the need for science to maintain an open and, impartial mind.”

    It’s an infuriatingly ironic point. Science, almost by definition, is the fruit of *informed and rational* open-mindedness. It’s pseudoscience such as homeopathy that is the fruit of intransigently *ignorant and irrational* closed-mindedness.

  • 13 deevybee // Sep 21, 2010 at 06:59

    Excellent analysis. I think the BBC is generally superb, and science coverage has got better and better on TV, esp BBC4.
    However, DC is correct about coverage of science stories on news programmes, which shows all the hallmarks of lack of science expertise in interviewers and programme makers. Consequently anyone who makes an exciting-sounding claim in a press release tends to get attention, regardless of the quality of the science.

    Does the BBC has a panel of ‘rapid reaction’ scientists who could be called up for advice on breaking stories? If not, maybe they could assemble one? Obviously, not people with axes to grind, but respected mainstream voices, who could at least give them a steer as to what is to be taken seriously. On medical stories, NHSChoices provides consistently high quality rapid evaluation of stories in the media: it would be good if they were consulted *before* a story went out – and if consultants in other areas of science were also available.

    I also agree with the need for links to sources: now that we are all Googlers, it seems odd not to do this, and to force us to hunt out sources for ourselves.

    Finally: I am dismayed at the government’s plans to cut the licence fee: BBC is excellent value for money.

  • 14 David Colquhoun // Sep 21, 2010 at 07:26

    @deevybee
    Your proposal for a panel of ‘rapid reaction’ scientists sounds good to me. Of course it would essential to have sensible people on the panel. At present it seems that who gets asked is almost random.

  • 15 Nash // Sep 21, 2010 at 09:42

    One problem with alt-med experts brought in for debates is their tendancy to either make things up as they go along or just tell outright lies.

    eg http://www.badscience.net/2009/01/the-barefaced-cheek-of-these-characters-will-never-cease-to-amaze-and-delight-me/

    Why the today programme never followed this up never ceases to amaze me.

  • 16 CrewsControl // Sep 21, 2010 at 15:49

    But a BBC journalist needing a balanced view on a science topic in the news, need only contact the Science Media Centre (SMC) to be put in contact with an appropriate mainstream science professional. The remit of the SMC ….’is first and foremost a press office for science when science hits the headlines. We provide journalists with what they need….’
    My understanding is that the SMC is partly financed by, for example, the Royal Society, the Research Councils and various professional bodies; so it must have the respect of the funding bodies. Indeed Prof Steve Jones and media luvvie Susan Greenfield are on the Advisory board so there’s your imprimatur.
    The fact that the director has been associated with Living Marxism as pointed out by George Monbiot in 2003, and may have a non-scientific agenda, is neither here nor there.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2003/dec/09/highereducation.uk2

  • 17 Margaret // Sep 22, 2010 at 20:23

    Excellent and I agree with every word you said.

    One scientist you forgot and who does a good job is Prof Ian Stewart.

    I might be a scientist but find it difficult to keep up with everything. His BBC documentary explained wonderfully the science around our climate. I now simply refer any doubters to ‘Earth: The Climate Wars’ and that does the job because it is so thoughtfully and clearly presented.

    And let’s not forget his other documentaries. All of them are worth repeating as is Jim Al-Khalili’s ‘Science and Islam’.

    What the BBC really need to watch is the difference between science and what the quacks see as an opportunity to create business. The nonsense debate has gone on long enough with homeopathy so why it is ever discussed at all on air is, IMHO, bizarre. After all, there isn’t the endless debate about a fantastical form of gravity!

  • 18 David Colquhoun // Sep 22, 2010 at 20:39

    @Margaret

    Thanks very much for reminding me about Ian Stewart

    I’m sure there are many more good people that I’ve left out. For example, I think Susan Watts on Newsnight does a good job.

  • 19 Dangerous Conventional // Sep 22, 2010 at 22:03

    I thought I’d logged into the Ben Goldacre fan club site by mistake.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that the BBC is becoming a bloated waste of money.
    If I want to read balanced articles on healthcare issues I find the American Bloomberg website to be excellent. Well researched articles from professional journalists. Not bad for a business organisation, then again they haven’t got the public sector iron rice bowl to feed them.

  • 20 David Colquhoun // Sep 22, 2010 at 23:04

    @dangerous
    Wonderful. I love posting comments from anti-science people because they usually make themselves look rather silly.

    Companies like Boiron are, I suppose, excellent examples of the unacceptable face of capitalism. Vast profits from products that cost next to nothing to make and don’t work.

    I think I prefer David Attenborough,

  • 21 MarcusB // Sep 23, 2010 at 06:30

    Great post. One thing to add. You quite rightly “shoot” the OU for the travesty that was “alternative medicine”. I was grinding my teeth as well. But if the OU gets shot for that – then it ought to get a bit of a pat n the back for programmes such as Tim Hartfords “More or Less”, and various David Attenborough programmes such as Life in Cold Blood, or the Darwin season (including Charles Darwin and the tree of life) or the Climate Season, and many others because they are co-productions as well. The difference is the latter ones clearly have “A” team presenters, brilliant producers and directors and a good team of academics supporting the program. Whereas in the former the Prof who was working as a presenter did not do her job as a physicist, and from where I sit the link between production and university was broken. I don’t think it is like that now so I guess that is progress.

  • 22 Majikthyse // Sep 23, 2010 at 09:13

    I have submitted my comments to the Beeb, including this bit:

    I don’t think I have ever seen risk explained properly in a news report. In my field of medical science, clinical trials emerge which show a better or worse risk of something happening to patients. This is usually expressed by the BBC, especially online, as relative risk, eg “People given antipsychotics in the past two years had a third greater risk of clots like deep vein thrombosis (DVT)”. This is from a current story. Many readers will think that they stand a one in three chance of a getting a DVT, but this is not true, because what really matters is absolute risk. Thus the risk of a DVT in the general population is 0.1% per annum, so the risk for someone taking an antispychotic will be 0.13%, which patients might consider to be worthwhile. Yet absolute risk is almost never explained. Again, this is a chance to educate the public, but presumably doesn’t sound interesting enough to be news.

  • 23 Majikthyse // Sep 23, 2010 at 09:33

    I just got this reply from Steve Jones:

    Thank you very much for your email and your contribution to the BBC Trust’s Impartiality Review of Science Coverage which I’ve read with interest.

    The findings of the Review will be published in spring 2011.

    Background notes about this Review can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/news/press_releases/march/science_impartiality.shtml

    Thank you for contacting us.

    Professor Steve Jones Author,
    Impartiality Review of Science Coverage

    Hilariously, the email box that sent it is called `Trust Science auto-reply’!

  • 24 Martin // Sep 23, 2010 at 10:19

    Is it now the BBC’s job to fully evaluate the scientific evidence behind any story? Does it have the funding or the expertise to do this?

    Impartiality is not the same as correctness. The BBC can and should provide time to the different parties in a discussion that the general public is interested in.

    The public is interested in homeopathy and ‘conventional’ medicine, for example, and so the BBC rightly provides a platform for their advocates to present their case to the public, for the *public* to evaluate.

    So yes, I would like links to sources, more background mental toolsets such as those from more-or-less and Goldacre, and more time to hear the cases rather than have them forced into small soundbites.

    I certainly would not like to think that the BBC are filtering publically-interesting views based on their own largely inexpert opinions.

  • 25 rw // Sep 23, 2010 at 16:28

    This is no more than another BBC generated agitprop initiative – qv the following:

    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.

    So, even before the research for the Report has been done, the conclusion has already been reached.

    What is very clear is that one no more needs to have an ‘academic title’ to see through the climate change scam than one needs to be a policeman to recognise a ram raid on a jeweller’s shop.

    Depressing, but now par for the course, is the sheer wealth of ignorance embodied in some of the contributions.

    RW

  • 26 Majikthyse // Sep 23, 2010 at 16:44

    I have now received a reply from the real Steve Jones (his UCL mailbox), which is impressive as I only sent the email this morning.

  • 27 David Colquhoun // Sep 23, 2010 at 20:25

    @RW
    You do not say who you are, but I assume from the incoherent angriness that you don’t like the idea of climate change.

    My understanding is that prediction of future climate change involves some pretty fancy calculations, and of course it is not exact. It seems that you feel you can guess the answer without having to bother with all that tedious analysis. If only science were that easy.

  • 28 rw // Sep 24, 2010 at 08:07

    Hello Mr. Colquhoun

    What is ‘angriness’?

    “My understanding is that prediction of future climate change involves some pretty fancy calculations, and of course it is not exact.”

    You don’t say! Yes, indeed, climate predicition may well involve a few sums, if I can stay with the terminology you appear to favour. Another prerequisite, however, is recourse to plausible physics. Since our redoubtable Met Office has problems even with 24 hour forecasts, whilst you may have confidence in its ability to look further ahead, there are others who are less easily persuaded. Unfortunately for the position you advocate, these include rafts of climatologists, as well as physicists from numerous related disciplines, of authentic stature in contrast, that is, to most global warming principal promoters, who emerge from manifestly third tier institutions. Of course, there are also numerous bit players from first tier universities who, to their lasting shame, give such montebanks a veneer of respectability. However, the problem, of course, with veneers is that they keep flaking off.

    Perhaps you’d noticed. On the other hand, perhaps the self-adopted blindfold has obscured your perception.

    RW

  • 29 David Colquhoun // Sep 24, 2010 at 09:50

    @RW
    Do I presume then that you have looked at all the data and done your own calculations, and so arrived at a different conclusion? If so, please tell us where your calculations are published.

    I imagine though, that yours is a faith-based position. Like a homeopath, you just know the answer without having to go through all that tedious hard work.

  • 30 phayes // Sep 24, 2010 at 09:53

    @rw

    “Since our redoubtable Met Office has problems even with 24 hour forecasts, whilst you may have confidence in its ability to look further ahead, there are others who are less easily persuaded.”

    Sure. The kind of people whose awareness of the problems with predicting the local fluid flows in their kettles leaves them unpersuaded by the third tier institution physicists’ crazy claims that the water in them will most likely become hot enough to brew them their morning cuppas. We all know one or two people like that, and they are best avoided even after their caffeine enemas have kicked in.

  • 31 rw // Sep 24, 2010 at 13:12

    No, Mr. Colquhoun – I’m afraid that you don’t understand scientific method. It is for the proponents of the anthropogenic global warming explanation to prove that it is more than a mere hypothetical speculation – er, given that it even warrants having applied to it the normally respectable term, hypothesis. It is not for me or others to have to disprove your assertion(s). All that is encumbent on the unconvinced is to maintain an attitude of informed intellectual neutrality. They can then usefully contribute to a debate by pointing out inconsistencies or possible contra-indications – such as, for example, the fact that rises in CO2 concentrations lag increases in global mean temperatures. But then, of course, I’m forgetting, am I not, that discourse in relation to this dogma is the one thing that AGW charlatans cannot/will not tolerate under any circumstances.

    However, if perchance you are minded to assist the search for truth by breaking the mould, then you would certainly do so by providing even one piece of evidence in support of AGW drawn from the real world as opposed, that is to say, to numbers extracted from general circulation models assuming, that is, that you know what these are. Anyway, as yet, no-one has succeeded in doing this, so it would be a real advance for your cause. Of course, major, if not insuperable, problems would remain, but at least it might be one brick in the wall. On the other hand, there’s a vast amount of bogus and fraudulent data on which AGW routinely relies – from cherry picked and otherwise manipulated temperature statistics to melting Himalayan glaciers to fanciful tales of species extinction.

    You might also care to reflect upon the admission made by Prof. Phil Jones to the BBC (the valiant Harrabin no less) that AGW hinges upon the absence (well, at least in the minds of cultist groupies), of any other explanation for the alleged increase in global mean temperature since the commencement of the industrial era – let’s call that 150-160 years, say.

    But, Mr. Colquhoun, this is supposed to be science, an activity that calls for certain standards of rigour which, by and large, until the advent of AGW pseudo-science, precluded the deployment of arguments from ignorance as marks of proof. They, on the other hand, were fashionable as pretexts for witch trials long ago and/or for boldly asserting that disease was spread by malignant vapours less long ago. It’s entertaining that you should accuse me of adopting a faith based position.

    Since I think you’re having difficulties, let me try and distil the essence of what you need to demonstrate. You need to show that a vast chaotic system can be influenced in any way at all, let alone catastrophically, by a trace gas, which accounts of less that 1/400th part of a single percentage point of atmospheric volume, when it is known that its radiative potential bears a logarithmic not a linear relationship to concentration (and is thereby self-limiting in any effect it might theoretically have) and when the so-called forcing effects/signs of other vastly more important so-termed greenhouse gasses (eg water vapour) are not known, but are just as likely to be negative as positive. You then have to reveal how a piddling contribution to that trace gas delivered by human activity can have any influence of any kind whatever.

    Get it?

    phayes – you’ve lost me.

    Best wishes

    RW

  • 32 Weekly news and blog roundup: I predict a riot | The Skeptic: Blog // Sep 24, 2010 at 13:45

    [...] Read more here. [...]

  • 33 phayes // Sep 24, 2010 at 14:12

    @rw

    “phayes – you’ve lost me.”

    Yes – with a simple observation about the nature of a certain kind of physical system. Perhaps if you’d given it a little thought you wouldn’t have gone on to make an even bigger fool of yourself lecturing DC about scientific method etc. and parading yet more of your physics and climatology illiteracy. Oh well!

  • 34 David Colquhoun // Sep 24, 2010 at 15:53

    @RW
    If you are interested in my scientific credentials, please look here http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Pharmacology/dc-bits/dcpubs.html

    The fact that you were not able to understand phayes analogy, does not speak well for your scientific knowledge,

    This post is aimed at encouraging constructive criticism of the BBC’s scientific output. Future comments from you will have to be on that topic.

  • 35 Eric the half // Sep 24, 2010 at 16:14

    @rw

    /You need to show that a vast chaotic system can be influenced in any way at all/

    …the butterfly effect (by definition), perhaps?

  • 36 CrewsControl // Sep 25, 2010 at 10:41

    The BBC should be applauded for Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ moderated by Melvin Bragg who presents himself as a quizzical everyman* in this program about scientific (and non-scientific) ideas in a discussion with three experts on that week’s topic.

    This week’s programme about Imaginary Numbers was excellent. Other topics covered have been Carbon, Immunisation, Perception of the Senses, Neuroscience, Probability, Animal Experiments and Rights, Godel’s Theorems. The web site has an excellent reading list and links for those sufficiently emboldened to find out more.

    *(Let it pass that he is an unelected legislator in his other life as a Peer of the Realm)

  • 37 David Colquhoun // Sep 25, 2010 at 11:55

    @CrewsControl
    You are quite right. Melvyn Bragg is an astonishing polymath. The latest of the new series of In Our Time, on imaginary numbers, was wonderful. I sometimes wonder how many people can follow the arguments in their head, with no blackboard. Bragg gets as near to success as anyone could.

  • 38 David Colquhoun // Sep 25, 2010 at 12:03

    @RW
    I have had yet another long rambling comment from “RW”, largely about his obsession with climate change. I very rarely censor comments, but he has already had over 900 words of space devoted to his interest rather than tit topic of this post. Enough is enough,

  • 39 David Colquhoun // Sep 25, 2010 at 15:33

    Oh dear, another climate rant, this time from someone calling themselves “MikeB”. Like “RW” it makes all sorts of rather hysterical assertions, but presents no evidence. Most of the raw information is available now and I hope it will all be available soon, as I said in the Guardian environment section (Climate: science, politics and honesty). If you don’t agree with the way the data have been interpreted, then do your own analysis and present your conclusions.

    I’ll quote from MikeB’s long comment,

    “We all know that climate varies naturally. The assertion that natural variation has suddenly stopped and climate variations from now on must therefore be due to human activity is absurd.”

    Yes it would indeed be absurd if anyone had said that, but of course they have not said anything of the sort.

    Sorry MikeB but abusive posts will not be published.

  • 40 David Colquhoun // Sep 26, 2010 at 00:41

    MikeB responded to the last comment by saying

    “Now you see the problem for those sceptical of climate change. Only one side is allowed a voice. It is a subject to be preached rather than explained.”

    If you were to give us a serious interpretation of the data, you would have no difficulty in getting it published. As long as you resort to abusive rants and assertions without justification, it is likely that your difficulties will cinntinue,

  • 41 David Colquhoun // Sep 26, 2010 at 21:44

    Yet another long comment from RW. Here is part of it.

    Yes, I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake! I thought this site was kosha, and directly connected with the BBC’s latest stunt to try and underpin its fatuous claim to being impartial. I was wrong. It turns out to be no more than an AGW jihadist wet dream operated by some Guardian reading, sandal toting, bed wetting, cuddly bunny hugger named David Colquhoun, ever on the lookout to parade his oh-so-sensitive, pea green conscience for the applause of the pseudo-environmentalist faction whilst, at the same time, dripping his bleeding heart over all and sundry as he churns and burns “to save the planet”. The sanctimonious pretentiousness of these people is matched only by their dedicated dishonesty. Like realclimate, this poltroon prefers vituperation and censorship to rational discourse. Inter alia, it’s clear that he’s obviously exercised over Christopher Monckton; no doubt others as well, who know anything about the subject.

    Uhuh, he forgot “CND-supporting, solar heating and Prius owning“.

    I gather he has sent his comments to the BBC email address, Since the purpose of this post was to solicit contributions to the BBC, so I see no need to give him more space here.

  • 42 Daveip1966 // Sep 27, 2010 at 12:22

    “What is very clear is that one no more needs to have an ‘academic title’ to see through the climate change scam than one needs to be a policeman to recognise a ram raid on a jeweller’s shop.”

    Rather an interesting quandary, this one. How does one distinguish between an attempted ram-raid on a jeweller’s shop, and a road accident where a driver has lost control of a vehicle and unfortunately crashed into a jeweller’s shop?

    I suppose the hypothetical policeman (or lay bystander if one prefers) would need to collect evidence such as looking at the point an angle of impact, fragments of glass on the ground and inside and outside the premises, any paint flakes to help to determine positively the car involved (and rule out those from any incident prior to the current one). One might also want to look for signs of an an attempt at an emergency stop, such as tyre-marks on the road surface or kerb, or carry out such innovative tasks as interview any eye-witnesses, however one rates their reliability.

    Just from an initial assessment of what might be needed, then, it seems that one might actually need to be a policeman to say “Yes, that was a ram-raid”.

  • 43 martinbudden // Sep 28, 2010 at 07:45

    I’d like to echo CrewsControl’s comments about the excellence of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time”.

    One of the reasons that this is such a good programme is because Bragg brings the Feynmanian qualities of intense curiosity and not caring what people think. Listening to any of these programme’s it’s obvious that Bragg is genuinely interested in and curious about the subject. But even better, Bragg is not afraid to say he doesn’t understand something, nor is he afraid to ask a stupid question.

    Although I tend to agree with your assertion that the best science programmes are made by scientists, “In Our Time”‘s format of acknowledged experts being moderated by a non-expert is also very effective. Indeed it echoes an effective technique used in literature: the one where the story’s protagonist has a stupid or ignorant sidekick who is used to explain background material to the reader. The quality of Bragg’s guests helps make the programe (“Imaginary numbers” had Marcus du Sautoy, Ian Stewart, and Caroline Series – you can’t really get better than that).

    Bragg also deserves credit for seeking out and tackling fundamental issues, in a way that few other science programmes do. Many science programs are either topical, or tread well-worn paths. Topical science is often very interesting and I am not denigrating it, but it seems there are few science programme’s that deal with the fundamentals, and Bragg is one of the few broadcasters making these programmes.

    And finally Bragg bridges the “two cultures”. His audience includes people who probably would do not listen to the other science radio programmes that you mention. Indeed, as someone with a science background, I prefer the non-science programmes: my two favourite of all time are “Kierkegaard” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b009fycc) and “The Library at Nineveh” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00b7r71).

  • 44 David Colquhoun // Sep 28, 2010 at 11:00

    @martinbudden
    I couldn’t agree more. Melvyn Bragg is a real polymath, and there are very few of them around. You make two important points. His is one of very few programmes that deal with fundamentals. And he bridges the two cultures. “In our time” is a programme that one can’t imagine being on any other radio station, and the BBC deserves enormou credit for that.

  • 45 anotherwelshpharmacist // Sep 30, 2010 at 08:04

    Radio 4 is, and has been, the soundtrack to my life for 30 years. The science programmes are usually truly excellent.

    My main beef is with the Today programme’s science coverage. Like David, I love John Humphrys. However, I have to be physically restrained when he introduces a scientist and says “don’t make this too difficult for us now, will you” (I am of course paraphrasing).

    This spills over the whole of the Today programme. As the flagship news programme on Radio (not just the BBC IMHO), they let themselves down time after time on science.

    When they cover Economics, they have Evan Davis, whose previous role was as the BBC’s Economics Editor, “responsible for reporting and analysing economic developments on a range of programmes on BBC radio and television”. (They also have Robert Preston, but don’t get me started on that!)

    On politics, you have Humphreys, Sarah Montague, James Naughtie and Edward Stourton. All of them are able to carry out an informed and detailed analysis on political matters.

    But when it comes to science and maths, they frequently sound as if they are

    - in awe of the incredible things they are being told about the universe, and unable to enter into a detailed discussion or
    - as if they are tolerating a little bit of science in amongst the stuff that really interests them, and want to get the mad scientist off the line so they an get back to their comfort zone.

    Let’s not ignore the fact that much of UK policy revolves around science – global warming, energy policy, IT, health & medicine. Notice that when the politicians responsible for these areas come on, they are rarely probed about the science, but usually about policy. When the science is driving the policy, they *must* be put on the spot about both policy *and* the science.

    Finally, why put the science story on at 7:25 so they have 3 minutes before Gary Richardson ?

  • 46 martinbudden // Oct 2, 2010 at 08:33

    As a result of this blogpost, I have written to the BBC trust. I’ve commented on a particular form of bias – the bias towards the banal. Here’s the main body of my email:

    I’d like to make a comment that the BBC is not impartial in the way it targets its audience. The problem is that the BBC’s science programmes almost invariably target a general audience, rather people who have a particular enthusiasm for, or knowledge of science.

    Compare this with cultural programes – the BBC does not obtain cultural impartiality by producing bland programmes of general cultural interest, instead it obtains its impartiality by producing a variety of programmes targeted at people with differing cultural interests and backgrounds.

    Although this general targettng may have been excusable and even acceptable in the old days of terrestrial broadcasts it is no longer so. The advent of multiple BBC channels and BBC iPlayer means that it is perfectly feasible to produce a “scientist’s cut” of science broadcasts. Analogous to the “director’s cut” of a film these would be versions of science programmes freed from normal broadcasting pressures and targeted to the specific audience of the science enthusiast. In particular:

    i) the programme would not be constrained in length to fit a particular sized time slot (one hour, half an hour etc), and so boring filler could be removed. If the programme was naturally 43 minutes long, then it could be provided on iPlayer at that length.
    ii) the programme, no longer targeted at a general audience, would no longer need to include explanations of the basics, which are often boring to the enthusiast.
    iii) the programme, targeted at the enthusiast, could contain more detail and more complicated science.

    I don’t believe that producing two cuts of science programmes would necessarily be much more costly than producing a single cut. Most of the extra work would be in the editing and the commentary.

    For a more detailed argument, see my blogpost: http://martinbudden.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/popular-science-on-tv-call-for-a-scientists-cut/

  • 47 kerledan // Oct 2, 2010 at 09:26

    @martinbudden

    You are so right. A classic example to me is the way that *every* programme on anything to do with astronomy just has to remind us that the sun is a star, there are just zillions of stars, these stars are in shedloads of galaxies…the earth orbits the sun, there are other planets, Mercury is nearest to the sun, Jupiter is a gas giant, and so on, through all the stuff that the average primary school child would surely know. Only then can we get to the nitty-gritty, which is then, as you say, padded out, lots of moody music and constant repetition of the one or two (only) key points in the programme. The way Horizon has been dumbed down over the years is telling evidence for what you wrote to the Trust.

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