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BBC’s (Im)partial Science Reporting

Posted by softestpawn on September 23, 2010

The BBC is holding another review on its impartiality, this time on how it presents scientific subjects: Science impartiality review – terms of reference (PDF). It has existing guidelines, and it has held such reviews before on how it reports on subjects such as religion and the middle east. This is all Good Stuff, as the BBC’s reputation rests somewhat on the quality and reliability of its reporting, and reliability requires, among other things, impartial reporting. 

One of the many frustrations for medically trained scientists however is the airtime and article space given to ‘alternative’ treatments such as homeopathy, reiki, accupuncture and so on. These are treatments that have not passed the objective tests used to identify those that actually work. These tests (double blinded, randomised control groups, etc) are meant to bypass the personal and social prejudices and biases that affect our abilities to properly evaluate effectiveness. They do not always succeed.

The concern is largely that by giving publicity to unproved, useless and sometimes dangerous treatments, the BBC lends them credibility and authority, and so more people may be taken in by them.  By providing BBC publicity to such sites as JABS, people may believe them to be officially sanctioned.

And so these concerned people do not want the BBC to give equal space to these cranks, charlatans and quacks. Such reporting is not truly balanced, they claim. If you’re going to report science, they say, you should report scientific science not pseudoscience.

Scientific science vs pseudoscience

Which all sounds well and good, but the BBC does not have the funds or indeed the expertise to properly evaluate every controversial issue.  For a start, only a few controversies can be tested in the clearly objective way that medical treatments can. 

The BBC may instead decide to defer all evaluation to certain establishment scientists and report only the expert opinions of people with certain qualifications from certain institutions; but this is not scientific. It’s not uncommen for academic research scientists to fall prey to their own or others pseudoscience, even in related fields.

Nor does the BBC have the remit to make such evaluations or deferrals. A public controversy is one with many people who believe opposing things, for frequently unscientific reasons, and the BBC’s audience is public. If the BBC were to fail to report the views of such people and how they were derived, then it is failing to engage with or inform the discussion.

The concerned may argue that such a discussion is not a scientific one: a programme on ghosts has no place under the Science label for example. Yet the evaluation of sparse evidence is vital to science; a negative result is still a useful result. And we need not be sheltered from uncertain and ambiguous evidence, leaving us to make up our own minds – this too, is science. 

Impartial to the audience, not the evidence

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.

This doesn’t mean having to give airtime to any old crackpot view, but if large proportions of the public are, say, worried about vaccinations then it is quite right of the BBC to air those concerns along with objective evaluations of them. The BBC rightly provides a platform for those advocates to present their case to the public, for the public to evaluate. 

The public – everyone – is indeed ignorant and stooopid about most subjects (who has time to evaluate everything?). But to be protected from our own folly and expertise by filtering what is presented to us leaves us in the hands – and frequently inexpert opinions – of those doing the filtering. 

So yes, let’s have links to sources so we can check back and do our own evaluations. Let’s have more entertaining educating articles and programmes such as those from More-or-Less and Ben Goldacre. And let’s have more time to hear the cases rather than have them forced into small soundbites. 

But let’s not start letting partisan groups decide on our behalf what we should hear about when it comes to science topics. Because that’s really not good scientific practice.

From Stuff and Nonsense &  DC’s Improbable Science, although the review started back in March. A cutdown version of this has been sent to the BBC’s feedback email: trust.science@bbc.co.uk

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