I’m currently working on the pilot for an exciting new undergrad course at Imperial which uses science policy issues to challenge students to think about a range of areas of scientific research (not just their degree stream) and put this in some social, political, ethical, epistemological and cultural context. The topic we’ve picked for the pilot is climate change, so we kicked things off this week with a keynote lecture from Brian Hoskins (EDIT 31/1: listen to a podcast of the lecture) Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, and one of the most striking things he said was that he tries to avoid agreeing to take part in debates.
I don’t think he was necessarily against either scientific discussion or democratic engagement. It was more than he didn’t feel climate science could be communicated well via a structure which pits one extreme view up against another. He happened to use the example of the Today Programme putting Nigel Lawson up against a climate scientist and coincidentally, Lawson popped up on Today the following morning. This was a debate on shale gas and he was debating Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, not a Professor of Meteorology, but in many respects it’s a good example of the problem Sir Brian was flagging up. You can have a listen to the interview yourself on the BBC’s website. The interviewer didn’t challenge Lawson’s views as much as many would have wanted, but perhaps you agree that this is appropriate (the Daily Express seem to). Perhaps more straightforwardly, Today could have challenged Lawson on the motivations of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (see this report of a recent campaign on this, and an older post by Bob Ward). Which they did not. My personal position is that providing that sort of context, if not an outright challenge to Lawson, would be basic active journalism. I also think it makes him a slightly suspect choice, though I’m sure some people might say the same about Juniper.
The issue of “false balance” – where a marginal view is put up against scientific consensus as if they were equivalent – is something the BBC has been accused of before (recent BMJ editorial on this). Although it is also worth stressing that empirical research undertaken at Imperial College last year found that, if anything, the problem was lack of context, number and diversity of voices in science reports. Too often there simply weren’t enough people interviewed for balance to be an issue (old post from me when the report was published outlining this). With this in mind, I thought it was odd that although Today did also produce a longer package which gave more context and several other voices, this was broadcast over an hour before. Why not put this with the Lawson/ Juniper interview?
This isn’t just a UK issue (although it might be an English Language one). Earlier this week the Knight Science Journalism Tracker summed up US and Australian coverage of a similar story which they dubbed “the fracking duel“, noting the appeal of an apparent fight for the news business.
On the topic of how and if we can debate climate science, it’s probably worth reading Naomi Oreskes’ recent oped for the LA Times – “The verdict is in on climate change” – where she argues for leadership not debate when it comes to climate change, suggesting it’s unfair to expect the public to make up their own minds. You might also be interested in a recent interview with climate scientist Micheal Mann where he warns that “Scientists have to recognise that they are in a street fight”. I don’t think what Mann suggests is the same as the issue of being set up in a polarised debate, but his view is something to think about along side the others.
A version of this is cross-posted to the Imperial Horizon’s blog. Something I left off there, but worth flagging up is that I noticed Brian Hoskins’ name in the list of attendees at the ‘Chemistry Club’ exclusive networking events for corporate lobbyists (see Guardian datablog). At least when the Today Programme invite Nigel Lawson to debate a Fellow of the Royal Society, we can all listen in.