The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

BBC Will No Longer Provide False “Balance” in Science Stories

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 9, 2014

For far too long, the media landscape has increasingly gone down the rabbit hole when discussing science-oriented topics.  Often, the notion that journalists and editors should provide balanced coverage and diverse viewpoints has been abused to the point where pseudo-scientists, cranks, and charlatans are given equal time and (implicitly, at least) equal validity on various news shows and in print.  And this gives the general public a false impression of what is and isn’t science.

This demand by pseudo-scientists for “equal time” is a real problem.  Creationists have been at it for decades in the U.S. public school system, thankfully with little to no success, and many other pseudo-scientists are starting to employ the same tactic.  For example, many news stories in recent years on climate change often include at least one token “skeptic” of global warming.  In addition, this kind of demand for “equal time” pops up in other venues: on at least two occasions, when participating in skeptical and science panels at Dragon*Con and Convergence, our panel was challenged on “why we didn’t include a believer?”  In one case, creationists were demanding a seat on a science panel about evolution and why creationism was problematic, and in the other case, believers in ghosts were demanding a seat on a panel of skeptics who were there to specifically discuss the scientific and cultural reasons why people still believe in ghosts.

The implication by believers in pseudo-science is, I think, that scientists and skeptics have an “ivory tower” mentality and are just trying to talk down to people when, in fact, we are simply attempting to educate them in science and good critical thinking.  And, unfortunately, for far too long the media landscape has given folks like these way too much air and print time to spew their nonsense… until now.

Recently the BBC announced that they will no longer tolerate pseudo-scientific abuse of the idea of providing diverse viewpoints:

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

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. …

Read the rest of the story here

This is welcome news indeed!  It is my hope that this will be the beginning of a trend by more media outlets to do away with the facade of false “balance” on scientific matters and more good science will be presented as a result.  Stay tuned and we’ll see.

**Hat tip to Tim Farley at Whatstheharm.net for the heads up on this story!  :)

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