Saturday, July 12, 2014

What to do about science cranks

The foremost thing that attracted me to the study of science was that it was a form of thinking based on reproducible results.  Coming from a home where theological discussions based on absolutely nothing substantial at all were the norm, science was like finding a warm place to go on a very cold night.  And what I found especially heartwarming was the fact that science trafficked in facts that were provable no matter who believed in them.

What I did not even consider in those early heady days was that the legitimacy of scientific thought would be appropriated by charlatans and crackpots.  One practice is to dress up bullshit as science by surrounding the spurious claims with the charts and trappings of science.  The economics "profession" is more guilty of this than anyone but there are many other guilty parties like the "creation scientists".  The other practice is to take one of science's best features—the willingness to upgrade and amend almost any finding when new information arrives—and use it to spread doubt where none should exist.  This is the strategy of the climate-change deniers.

Because both practices are so common, one would assume that journalists and government officials could spot them from miles away.  But such an assumption would be wrong because the vast majority of them slept through their seventh-grade science classes—or were taught by people who hadn't properly learned how science arrives at the truth.  Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs extends to many with advanced degrees from fancy universities.

The BBC has decided that it wants to halt the runaway lunacy of inviting pseudo-scientists to debate the real thing.  I don't actually know if BBC is being especially brave here or are simply reacting to the fact that "scientific" cranks are common to British culture.  The second is possible because as anyone who ever watched Doc Martin has observed, the doc seems to spend half his waking hours trying to undo the damage caused by the scientifically illiterate cranks.  If UK wasn't overrun by such cranks, the Doc Martin writers wouldn't have much to work with and no one would get their jokes.  But lest anyone here is USA starts to gloat, just remember, BBC is at least TRYING to make it clear that there is a difference between scientific thinking and the rest.  People here in our media make statements on-air that would make time travelers from the Middles Ages actually wince.

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

BBC Trust says 200 senior managers trained not to insert 'false balance' into stories when issues were non-contentious

By Sarah Knapton, Science Correspondent  04 Jul 2014

BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air ‘marginal views’

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

“The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.

“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.”

The Trust said that man-made climate change was one area where too much weight had been given to unqualified critics.

In April the BBC was accused of misleading viewers about climate change and creating ‘false balance’ by allowing unqualified sceptics to have too much air-time.

In a damning parliamentary report, the corporation was criticised for distorting the debate, with Radio 4’s Today and World at One programmes coming in for particular criticism.

The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.

Andrew Montford, who runs the Bishop Hill climate sceptic blog, former children’s television presenter Johnny Ball and Bob Carter, a retired Australian geologist, are among the other climate sceptics that have appeared on the BBC.

The report highlighted World at One edition in September of a landmark UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research project which found concluded with 95 per cent certainty that the climate is changing and that human activity is the main cause.

The programme’s producers tried more than a dozen qualified UK scientists to give an opposing view but could not find one willing to do so – so they went to Mr Carter in Australia.

Pitted against Energy Secretary Ed Davey, Mr Carter described the findings of the most authoritative report ever undertaken into the science of climate change – put together by hundreds of scientists around the world – as “hocus-pocus science”. more

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