The book of the mimicry of the living

The Scientific Argument for Scientific Argument 1 – Angry at Auntie (i.e. The BBC)


So, after the hard science of the grand inaugural Biomimiquiz to round off last month, here’s a little discussion on science reporting, just to take a moment of Zen. Part 2 on Wednesday!

The Background

The Telegraph heralded a ‘glorious dawn’ of science programming by Auntie in 2010, largely based on Professor Brian CoxStargazing Live, which was brilliant, despite a recent revelation by the pop sensation that the BBC had a little more creative control than he would have liked.

Cox does sorta bite Sagans steeze...

Cox does sorta bite Sagans steeze…

However Martin Robbins, a Guardian Science commentator was much more critical of science coverage at the start of the year. His dismissive assessment of the UEA climate research scandal, but still marking it as the turning point in the Beebs science coverage is deeply ironic, and itself symptomatic of the problem.

The Flashpoint

In case you were living under a rock in November 2009, don’t worry. I was living in a caravan in the woods, so I missed a chunk to. This is what happened:

1)     Scientists scienced

2)    Not scientists hacked UEA and read science

3)    ???????

4)    Journalists wrote about the hacking and doubt, but not the science

Robbins goes on to say that debate programs like question time didn’t get real scientists on them, because the BBC never let them out of their “glossy 1080p” cage on documentaries, derisively citing the BBC science policy. Confusingly Robbins then embedded a link to the Guardian Science Policy Page. A better source might have been this one. Obviously biased, but still more informative IMHO.

The Question

The BBC have, and will continue, in my opinion both as a degree educated scientist and a highly selective TV viewer, an excellent history and current practice in science coverage. News and debate programs maybe not so much, but that is almost the point. Robbins seems to view scientific progress as a dramatic butting of heads, filled with factual testosterone, the winner posturing over his bloodied, less well informed opponent. While this might be more desirable to keep the attention of the masses, it is a scientific disservice. Hard science, i.e. how stuff works, tends to progress through constructive, cumulative reasoning. “Standing on the shoulders of giants” is not a biblical quote referring to David vs. Goliath.


Should scientists be encouraged to pause from building the firm human pyramid of facts and figures, in order to enter the treacherous waters of developing public understanding through argument with diametrically opposed viewpoints (in most cases read ‘Religious right/conspiracy theorists’)? It may solve some problems, but as the BBC report insinuates, if you air Scientific Consensus vs. Unscientific Rhetoric, you give added credence to the counter argument by elevating the source of the material.

Obviously in Climategate, failing to elevate Scientific Consensus to the level already achieved by Unscientific Rhetoric was a huge failing by most broadcasters, but generally speaking I think manufacturing heated debate would do little to promote the cause. Regardless Robbins seems to have presented an awkward paradox:

a)      Climategate was an open and shut case to scientists that was blown out of proportion by media outlets which thrive on conflict

b)      Science coverage needs to have more “conflict and debate” in order to accurately portray the foundations of science to the public

Stay tuned for Part 2 on what could be done to address this, plus recommendations on the top 4 science shows of the year, which were all last month!



Author: DaveParr

Data Science, Environmental Science, Making and Music

2 thoughts on “The Scientific Argument for Scientific Argument 1 – Angry at Auntie (i.e. The BBC)

  1. You are exactly right on the urge for conflict in order to gain media audience. For science (or indeed anything these days) to ever get it’s point across it needs to step further away from the current “set up” of media as all news does these days is avoid the main point of something and look each side of it for something controversial. This would also involve Joeseph D. Public changing their media consumption habits from tiny tidbits of nothing into actually applying some thought to what they consume, and that may be the biggest challenge around.

    Science’s sidestepping of the media shouldn’t, however, absolve some of the CRU researchers for their shoddy work. Some of their assumptions were frankly lazy, regardless of how correct they may or may not have been. Likewise they were equally responsible for hunting only positive media spin instead of getting their work correctly peer-reviewed. Their problem is based upon their own funding depending a lot on perception and I understand they need that correct perception, but they didn’t obtain it in the right way and were (rightly) caught out on that.

    As always with these “debates” you can pretty much follow the money to where something “scientific” becomes impure. Usually wherever there’s a chance to make a considerable amount of money for a businessman (especially one with influence – MPs should never be allowed outside interests) then that’s where a piece of science begins to be manipulated. And it is usually those vested interests who push the matter into the media for a bit more distortion.

  2. Pingback: The Scientific Argument for Scientific Argument 2 – | The Biomimicron

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