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Andrew Turnbull: Even Darwin And Galileo Would Fail The BBC’s Latest Science Test

New reporting guidelines published in a recent BBC Trust report risk turning scientific debate into a popularity contest

The BBC Trust recently published the report it commissioned from Professor Steve Jones on the quality of the BBC’s science programming. One difficult issue that Jones addressed was how to apply the corporation’s long-standing principle of impartiality to science: this is a doctrine which is valid in the area of political belief — where there is no absolute truth — but it does not work when applied to science. How can one be impartial in the MMR controversy, for instance, between Andrew Wakefield, who claimed to have linked the vaccine to autism, and the chief medical officer, backed by evidence from around the world?

Before the report was complete the BBC Trust modified its guidance, so that it now talks about “due weight” and states that “minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus”. But there are dangers in this approach, too, if “due weight” means giving an easy ride to the consensus while marginalising those who challenge it. Science cannot be a popularity contest like Strictly Come Dancing.

There are many examples of an orthodoxy being challenged and eventually overturned. Malaria was once believed to be a marsh fever carried by “bad air”; peptic ulcers were once believed to be caused by stress but the main cause is now accepted as the bacterium H pylori.

One can imagine how consensus as the measure of “due weight” might have been applied in history. A knighthood for Charles Darwin? Sorry, public opinion is strongly against your theory of evolution. (He never did receive a knighthood.) Signor Galileo? We cannot permit publication of your work on the solar system as it flies in the face of centuries of Christian teaching.

The correct approach for determining whether minority views are reported or ignored is first to examine whether the consensus opinion is as solid as its spokesmen claim and then to examine rigorously the arguments and evidence of the minority. They should not be dismissed simply because they are in a minority. The guiding principle should be the motto of the Royal Society, “nullius in verba”, which roughly translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.

To do this effectively the BBC’s analysts and reporters need the ability to distinguish between good and bad science. The BBC Trust has acknowledged Jones’s concerns and belatedly decided to appoint a science editor for BBC News.

Those who do not accept the whole of the global warming narrative developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have expressed concerns about the way the new “due weight” principle will be applied. On that subject, the danger is that the BBC is too trusting of the current consensus.

In his report Jones sets up a false dichotomy between the consensus and “climate change deniers”. I know of none. The climate has been changing for thousands, even millions of years. Nor do I know of any serious observers who deny that the planet has warmed over the past 150 years. Most scientists accept that on its own CO2 has greenhouse properties. The real debate is not about whether the planet has warmed, but about the climate change sensitivity, ie the coefficient linking CO2 and temperature, the strength of feedback mechanisms such as water vapour and the relative contributions of mankind and nature — sun, oceans, clouds and so on.

Jones’s report was accompanied by a commentary by Alison Hastings, chairwoman of the trust’s editorial standards committee. Her message on the BBC website starts with the statement: “Climate change is 90% likely to have been caused by humans. That was the conclusion of the influential IPCC.”

As well as being absurd — does this mean there would be no climate without human activity? — it is also an inaccurate transcription of what the IPCC said. The issue is not whether humans have caused climate change, but what are the relative contributions of man and nature in the observed warming.

There is also the issue of whether the consensus is as solid as is claimed by the IPCC. Its governance procedures have been criticised for failing to take adequate account of the full range of scientific opinion. The “climategate” emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia reveal a culture of denying information to rivals and seeking to prevent their views from being adopted.

A number of observers have commented on the changing nature of scientific research, which is increasingly being funded by governments to support their policy stance. Those who hold pole position have every incentive to portray themselves as the consensus in order to hang on to their funding and to dress up review by like-minded colleagues as genuine peer review.

The BBC’s watchwords may be due weight, but both sides in the argument have to earn that weight.

Finally, can the BBC give us a sophisticated account of the climate change debate, not Jones’s Janet and John version?

Lord Turnbull was cabinet secretary in 2002-5. He is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation

The Sunday Times, 31 July 2011