The UK Parliament's Science and Technology Committee has recently delivered a report on the state of climate knowledge and communication in the country. Although it doesn't spare the government from criticism, the report notes that most of the public looks to the BBC to provide authoritative coverage on science.
The report concludes that in this case, the BBC's news division is failing its readership and viewers. Rather than providing authoritative information, the BBC is succumbing to false balance, and its director of Editorial Policy and Standards gave testimony on science coverage that appears to be incoherent. In the UK, the major political parties largely accept the scientific evidence for climate change; official skepticism is limited to a few parties on the conservative fringe. As such, the report starts with the acceptance of the conclusions reached by the majority of scientists: the Earth is warming, and humans are the main factor driving that warming.
But when it comes to getting that message to the public, the committee concluded that there's almost no coordination of communication efforts among different government departments, and the efforts to craft a coherent narrative have been "disappointingly limited." Science communication also fails to separate scientific understanding from the policies that attempt to address it. "The Government's current approach to communicating conflates the scientific basis of climate change and the proposed solutions," the report says.
That's not the first time governments have come up short in this area, but the report is notable because it levels significant criticisms at an organization that is generally considered excellent: the BBC. Back in 2011, the BBC Trust commissioned a review of the organization's science coverage that concluded that the organization suffered from false balance, the desire to present two contrary opinions as if they were both equally based in fact. In response to an IPCC report, for example, "they gave equal time to a well-known expert and to [an] Australian retired geologist with no background in the field."
Things haven't gotten any better. The committee took testimony from the BBC's director of Editorial Policy and Standards for the BBC, and his testimony was rather confused. At one point he said, "We do not have specific evidence of climate change itself," while later he admitted, "There are now very few people who say that no global warming is happening and it is not the result of man-made activity."
The committee said that it was "very surprised" that the science training the BBC introduced in response to the earlier report "did not include any direct interaction with scientists because 'debates about science are approached from a journalistic point of view.'" "It is not clear to us," the committee concluded, "how a 'journalistic point of view' which presumably emphasises accuracy, can be at odds with a scientific approach whose prime objective is the establishment of empirical fact."
The committee also examined the country's newspapers, where it found that most of the inaccuracies appeared in opinion columns rather than news pieces. But the two most frequently mentioned offenders, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, declined to send anyone to meet with the committee. Both papers sent written statements indicating that they counted on their readers to note which pieces were reporting and which were opinion, a stance that left the parliamentarians "very disappointed."
The Mail inadvertently used its written testimony to illustrate why the readers might end up confused. "The Mail considers climate science to be a political issue and is of the view 'that not every piece of science by every scientist should be reported as fact.' This ambiguous view of science may explain the claim in the Mail's submissions that scientists were predicting an ice age 20 years ago. An examination of the scientific knowledge at the time shows that this was clearly not the case."
SOURCE: Ars Technica, April 4ht, 2014, http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/04/uk-parliament-slams-the-bbc-for-s...