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Terrible disease rips through BBC staff

The news out of the UK is grim. Various voices in the media are falling silent, victims of an affliction called “reason”. The staff have been told that false impartiality, which allows kooks to air their views side-by-side with legitimate experts, must stop.

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.’

They specifically mention anti-vaccine kooks, climate change denialists, and GMO hysterics, but I imagine it applies to creationists, flat-earthers, and people who claim to be able to square circles. For the BBC, this disease is going to sweep through them like a high fever requiring a bit of bed rest — they’re going to have to kick interviews with James Delingpole or Christopher Monckton to the curb.

But if Reason proves infectious and jumps the Atlantic, sweeping through American newsrooms, the effects could be devastating. We have no natural immunity. Our media revels in crankery of all kinds. Imagine this rule enforced on the executives of the History Channel: we’d have 24 hours of dead air. What if Fox News came down with it? It’d be like the Zombie Apocalypse there. Roger Ailes would have to be hospitalized; Fox & Friends would be populated with stunned, broken, speechless idiots staring teary-eyed and mute at one other; Bill O’Reilly wouldn’t be able to vent gas and would eventually explode. The Sunday morning pundit shows across all the networks would be destroyed. Imagine if they had to face the fact that Dick Cheney was disastrously wrong and simply not a respectable source to be consulted on foreign affairs?

Oh, the humanity.

Comments

  1. busterggi says

    Dick Cheney wasn’t wrong, its the entire population of Iraq that’s wrong.

  2. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    we’d have 24 hours of dead air

    No, just 42 minutes of dead air per hour. With 18 minutes of commercials.

    Which, come to think of it, would be an improvement.

    The other possibility is that they could actually fulfill the implied promise they made when they called it The History Channel.

  3. says

    Unless things have changed a lot since I left England, the BBC is a publicly owned and operated institution. This change doesn’t appear to extend to the privately run stations. So, while the symptoms of this disease manifest in media organizations, I think the root infection is of the government. Alas, the US government’s immune system is far more active in targeting this type of infection, and it has never developed the organs in which the symptoms express, so I wouldn’t hold your breath, or even don a surgical mask.

  4. gardengnome says

    Seems to me the BBC staff are simply guilty of trying too hard to appear impartial. Fox News et al have never made the slightest attempt at impartiality so they’re pretty much vaccinated against this malady…

  5. says

    As some commenters on that Telegraph article note, it’s not just the cranks who turn up on the BBC’s programmes that are a concern, it’s the cranks within the BBC who extend the invitation. It will be interesting to see if the other main broadcast news organisations here in the UK – Sky, ITN, Channel 4 – also decide to undertake any such re-examination.

    Sadly, I don’t hold out any hope for the Daily Mail. If anything, they’ll probably be overjoyed at the news, as it will give them a stick to bash both science and the BBC simultaneously. :(

  6. says

    Okay, but please define “GMO hysterics.” There are many entirely legitimate controversies surrounding specific GMO applications, and regulatory policy, as I trust you know. GMOs are not a means of increasing the food supply or easing the lot of small farmers. On the contrary, they are an inextricable component of the destruction of small farming and the corporatization of agriculture, accompanied by numerous social and environmental detriments. In principle, genetic engineering doesn’t have to produce those results, but in the real world of capitalism, it does. There is a conventional wisdom about this which is sadly ill informed. For example, Roundup Ready seeds don’t increase yields, on the contrary — but they do put farm hands out of work, increase herbicide use, encourage vast capital intensive monocultures while turning smaller farmers into a new kind of sharecropper. There’s plenty not to like about that.

  7. Bernard Bumner says

    For all of its problems, the BBC has a very strong system of accountability. Unfortunately, the flipside is that it is very prone to political influence due to the funding mechanism and charter renewal cycle. Much of the overblown criticism which led to over reliance on impartiality policies originated from governments which would like to privatise the Beeb.

    Still better than media organisations which are prone to political interference but lack any meaningful oversight mechanisms.

  8. Matt Penfold says

    Here in the West Wales we had a serious measles outbreak about 6 months ago, that sadly resulted in one death from complications of the disease.

    BBC Wales were wonderful in the way they covered the story. They made it very clear that Wakefield faked his data, and that his research had been discredit. They refused to interview anyone pushing an anti-vaccination view but did interview experts in infectious disease and public health. They also gave good publicity to when and where clinics were being held for people with children who were vaccinated to remedy that.

  9. says

    @9
    cervantes

    I’m not sure why you bothered to write your post. It certainly doesn’t help me at all.

    GMOs are not a means of increasing the food supply

    no? citation?

    or easing the lot of small farmers.

    problem?

    On the contrary, they are an inextricable component of the destruction of small farming

    citation? problem?

    the corporatization of agriculture

    problem?

    accompanied by numerous social and environmental detriments.

    vague, no citation.

    For example, Roundup Ready seeds don’t increase yields, on the contrary — but they do put farm hands out of work, increase herbicide use, encourage vast capital intensive monocultures while turning smaller farmers into a new kind of sharecropper.

    at least this part is kind of specific enough that I could probably google it myself, but I don’t have the time.

  10. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    @cervantes, 9

    Great GMO and some of the GMO hysterics surrounding it. Also, every single domesticated organism is GMO, so I’m guessing you mean the modern method of directly modifying the genetic sequence without all that slow and messy selective breeding to introduce new variation. Yes, there are plenty of greedy shitweasels out there, but not everything they make (or have others make for them) shares their shittiness.

  11. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Fox News et al have never made the slightest attempt at impartiality so they’re pretty much vaccinated against this malady…

    ORLY? Truely not the _slightest_ attempt, but a *big*farking*assertion*: Fox News, Fair and Balanced, quote-unquote.
    All the instances of Faux Noise I have seen have convinced me, that they’re not vaccinated, they are inherently immune to the disease of reason. Or maybe so vulnerable to it that they stay as far from it as possible. I really hope the Beeb is infectious enough to reach Auzzie Murdoch as the vector to FauxNoise.
    Reason is so lacking on today’s television; Cosmos so lonely…

  12. says

    But if Reason proves infectious and jumps the Atlantic, sweeping through American newsrooms, the effects could be devastating.

    If this actually happened here, I might just be persuaded to pay for television once again.

  13. blf says

    With a bit of luck, the BBC’s definition of “kook” will include all the political parties (with the notable exception of the Monster Raving Loony Party), and especially Charlie “Never Seen a Pseudoscience I didn’t Endorse” Windsor.

  14. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    The problem is not that journalists are “trying too hard to be impartial.” It’s that the entire conception of “impartial” and relevance are deeply perverted in journalism. I watched this shift happening when I was a reporter in the 90s. It was becoming, by degree, forbidden to actually state, as the writer, that one source was not telling the truth or that their “opinion” was demonstrably false.

  15. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    BBC has always sucked at covering science–at least as long as I’ve been listening…25 years or so. It’s the two-cultures thing–the artsy-fartsy types who go into journalism disdain the hard sciences. Moreover, it is much easier for a journalist to make a story interesting if they have some conflict and if it fits a standard meme. Unfortunately, the standard meme for the lone kook opposing the science establishment is David vs. Goliath.

  16. says

    Brianpansky: It seems a lot to ask me to provide a fully referenced essay in a brief comment on a blog but . . . you can start with:
    Gilles-Eric Saralini, et al. Longterm toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and Roundup tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicity 50(2012):4221-4231

    Sahais, S. The Bt Cotton Story:The ethics of science an its reportage. Current Science. 84:974-75

    “Most farmers who committed suicide were Bt cotton growers: VJAS” Genet 20/04/06 (this is about an epidemic of suicide among Indian farmers due to economic failure. GMO cropping systems are widely blamed because they cost so much up front and the farmers can’t save their own seed.)

    FoEI-CFS (2008) Who benefits from GM crops? The rise in pesticide use. Friends of the Earth– International Center for Food Safety, January 2008.

    Black et al.Case studies on the use of biotechnologies and on biosafety provisions in five African countries. Journal of Biotechnology. 2011

    Levitt, T. (2011) Worldwatch report attacks criminalizing of seed saving and promotes agroecology. The ecologist.

    National Research Council 2010. The impact of genetically engineered crops on farm sustainability in the United States. National Academies press.

    Gurian-Sherman (2009) Failure to yield: evaluating the performance of genetically modified crops. Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Gouse M., et al. Assessing the performance of GM maize amongst smallholders in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. AgBioForum 12 (278-79

    Gurian-Sherman D. 2012. High and dry: Why genetic engineering is not solving agriculture’s drought problem in a thirsty world. Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Goodman MM and Carson ML. 2000. Reality vs. myth: Corn breeding, exotics and genetic engineering. Annual Corn Sorghum Research Conference Proceedings 55:149-172

    I could go on for many pages. Yes, this is a real debate engaged in by real scientists, political scientists, and economists. And GMO means genetic engineering — inserting specific genes in organisms using microbe vectors or physical means. It’s different in many ways from selective breeding, but I’m not going into that here. The point is how it is actually used in practice by giant corporations and the impact on the rural economy around the world and the environmental externalities. It isn’t some crackpot cause, and you need to engage it seriously, as many people who are far more knowledgeable than you are doing.

  17. zmidponk says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space, BBC journalists generally suck at covering science. However, look at the BBC science documentaries, and they’re generally pretty damn good.

  18. Blattafrax says

    Cervantes:
    It’s kind of hard to take your list of citations seriously when the first is a retracted paper. But I suspect you knew that and decided to use it anyway, because almost all you have is hype and scare-stories.

  19. says

    Josh @17

    There’s also the whole “let’s you and him fight” aspect of journalism under the guise of “equal time” fairness in “reporting”. It’s all so much more newsey if there can be an argument over some fact.

  20. ck says

    It’s not impartiality that much of the news media practices these days but neutrality. Neutrality simply means they never pick a side, so you can have the cosmologist on one side, and the flat-earther on the other and never challenge the one who is actually wrong about damn near everything. In this respect, neutrality is far easier to practice and can often masquerade as impartiality if you’re not paying enough attention to it.

  21. zetopan says

    Unsurprisingly, if you read the comments following “The Telegraph” article you will see AGW denialists
    screaming about censorship, the BBC’s “leftist agenda”, and how the actual climate has wildly diverged
    from the climate models (zero data provided of course). And of course, any consensus means nothing
    because of Galileo (the patron saint of cranks), etc. Also lot of name calling and unsupported claims, as
    can always be expected whenever cranks and crackpots get challenged.

  22. David Marjanović says

    It’s kind of hard to take your list of citations seriously when the first is a retracted paper.

    Blattafrax on Cervantes = Netherlands on Spain.

  23. Liz says

    The loss of interviews with the likes of Delingpole would bring joy to my heart. Having seen him in action in the flesh I can confirm that he’s a self-absorbed nitwit with no manners whatsoever.

  24. tccc says

    Re: #8 David Marjanović

    Blattafrax on Cervantes = Netherlands on Spain.

    I am not to sure that the retraction itself does not support Cervantes’ point that GMO products are highly suspect when it comes to the big business aspect.

    The Elsevier retraction notice:

    Elsevier Announces Article Retraction from Journal Food and Chemical Toxicology

    Specifies only that the data is inconclusive because only 20 rats were in each group and the rat type might have been overly prone to tumors.

    However the study was modeled on the Monsanto study submitted to the EU for approval of the modified corn and used the exact same strain of rats and the same number of rats in the results reporting, except Monsanto used 40 rats per group but only tested 20 of them. The Monsanto study found significant abnormalities in the blood level indicators for organ problems, but dismissed them as precursors to tumors or other problems, which was easy to do since it was only a 90 day study.

    The retracted study was 2 years long and more detailed in dosing (more rat groups).

    Both were published in the same journal, it does seem a little suspect that only 1 of them was retracted, they were both toxicity studies, using the same methods basically.

    Others who know more than I do can tell me if the dozens of scientists, many in the field of plant sciences or genetics, who strongly oppose the retraction are cranks or not:

    150 scientists condemn retraction of Séralini study as bow to commercial interests

  25. Arren ›‹ neverbound says

    @ a_r_i_d_s #18

    It’s the two-cultures thing–the artsy-fartsy types who go into journalism disdain the hard sciences.

    Is that ever a two-way street…..

  26. chrislawson says

    tccc@27:

    The Monsanto study found significant abnormalities in the blood level indicators for organ problems, but dismissed them as precursors to tumors or other problems, which was easy to do since it was only a 90 day study.

    The study reported no such thing. You can check the paper yourself.

  27. ravenred says

    GMOs have always held a very ambiguous place in my personal schema. The health concerns raised seem based on a lot of flimsy data and small studies run by activist-scientists who’ve made up their minds before the first bag of feed was purchased.

    Having said THAT, I don’t generally regard the big agribusiness researchers as having public health uppermost in their minds during the research and (especially) the marketing phases, especially when the product is being marketed to small farmers in developing or semi-developing countries, with the destruction of traditional social structure that this often entails. Would really prefer that more of the R&D was performed in public-interest institutions, but that’s my regular pipedream.

    So… yeah, if the BBC wants to run principled debates on Development Economics or stories about large scale safety studies by disinterested institutions, all to the good. If it’s merely Monsanto Flacks vs “I haz a study an’ I iz angry” Researchers…

  28. chrislawson says

    ravenred:

    That’s my point of view as well. The anti-GMO activists take any criticism as some kind of pro-Monsanto position when I see Monsanto as no different to Microsoft or Pfizer or Union Carbide. It’s a large multinational for-profit company that will, when the opportunity arises, manipulate data and take safety shortcuts for their own benefit. They need to be watched closely. But most anti-GMO activists are like people opposing Microsoft, Pfizer, or Union Carbide by denying the benefits of computer software, medicines, and ethylene.

  29. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    @28: As far as I know, scientists don’t usually report on the arts and pretend to know what they are talking about. And yes, Snow was saying that scientists need to understand the humanities to a greater extent.

    My primary disdain is for what journalism has become–a receptacle for those who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and learn enough about the subject they are reporting on that they can present a realistic appraisal, and so they substitute false balance instead.

  30. ravenred says

    ChrisLawson – yeah, it’s the reason I do have sympathy for the ORIGINAL Luddites, for example. Technology may be morally neutral, but the application and socioeconomic effects are always going to be contested, and a legit source for concern. The tricky bit is always going to be separating the argument into criticism of the science as a research enterprise and the criticism of the science as an applied force on peoples lives.

    Always felt the anti-GMO crowd conflate the two as bit.

  31. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Okay, but please define “GMO hysterics.”

    I assume PZ is using the definition he’s used in his various other posts about it.

    And yes, there are some issues with GMOs in the current agricultural and social regime, which will never see the light of day since Big Ag is only too happy to see them buried in an unmarked grave under a steaming pile of O MAH GAWERD IT R NOT TEH NACHURALS IT R EAT MAH BABBY D: D: D: D: !!!!!!!1111111111111111111!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  32. tccc says

    @ chrislawson 29

    The study reported no such thing. You can check the paper yourself.

    Thanks for the link to the Monsanto 90 day study.

    You are correct, it was not the blood testing they found the statistically significant differences, it was in the body weight and food consumption, clinical pathology parameters, urine chemistry and organ weight data.

    So it repeatedly says there were statistically significant differences in a number of measures but since they were within the mean standard deviation of a control group they decided they were not “test article related” which is exactly what I said: They found significant differences that were easy to hand wave away in a 90 day study. Doing a longer study seemed appropriate.

  33. says

    Thanks to many for springing the trap I set. The Seralini study was retracted only in response to a massive campaign of pressure and threats from Monsanto. The retraction was protested by hundreds of scientists and the authors continue to stand behind the study, as they should. There is nothing wrong with it. The point is, the GMO debate is like the tobacco and the lead poisoning and the climate change debates before it — powerful corporate interests are distorting the science. And unfortunately, it seems a lot of PZ’s followers are falling for it.

  34. ravenred says

    Any citations, cervantes, for the massive campaign of intimidation (non partisan sources if possible)?

    And 10 rats per group DOES seem like a rather small number to be drawing definitive conclusions about.

  35. Blattafrax says

    #37
    A scratch? Your arm’s off!

    Well, the overwhelming response to the paper was that the data didn’t support the conclusions and that a conventional statistical analysis showed no significant effect in any* of the groups. The journal editors agreed. Unless you can show evidence to the contrary, implying they’re dishonest in drawing that conclusion is slanderous.

    Monsanto were no doubt delighted and I take little pleasure in that. But the appropriate response is to either 1) accept that your idea – GMOs are inherently evil – is wrong and that the experiment showed there is little danger to a rat of GMO corn or 2) do better experiments (which may also fail).

    Whining that the scientific community doesn’t like your hero isn’t on that list.

    * Sitting in a tent, dodgy internet: Maybe “any” should be “most”. Don’t think so from memory, but could be wrong.

  36. thelaplacedemon says

    @37 cervantes

    Whether or not it has been retracted is not really the point. Even if it had not been retracted, the combination of rat strain and the low N make it utterly uninterpretable.

  37. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Whether or not it has been retracted is not really the point.

    But the original authors disavowed it, just like Darwin and his theory!

  38. Nick Gotts says

    Well, the overwhelming response to the paper was that the data didn’t support the conclusions and that a conventional statistical analysis showed no significant effect in any* of the groups. – blattafrax@39

    [citation needed]

    Even if it had not been retracted, the combination of rat strain and the low N make it utterly uninterpretable. – thelaplacedemon@41

    Then the same must necessarily apply to the Monsanto study which concluded that Roundup Ready and the GMO corn used are safe, since it used the same strain and (as far as testing was concerned), the same N.

    I don’t have the expertise to assess either study, but the statement signed by many relevant experts opposing the retraction, linked to by tccc@27, can’t be hand-waved away by people who are much less knowledgeable in the area. And it should surely be recognised that it’s a real problem, here as in pharmaceutical studies, that most of the studies relied on to assess safety are done by scientists closely linked to those with a commercial interest in selling the products being tested.

  39. Nick Gotts says

    In #43, my “many relevant experts” is not intended to imply that all the signatories come into this category, which many clearly don’t.

  40. ravenred says

    Yeah, did note a law professor and a physicist, a vet and a few development economists. This sort of reinforces the point I was making earlier, that the economic and political ramifications of the technology are wrapped up in the science, and untangling the threads takes a lot more patience than some people have. .

    FWIW, I wouldn’t necessarily trust an industry-run study either (industry sponsored is another ambiguous kettle). Both streams seem to reflect some motivated reasoning, which I’d sort of like to not see in an argument on the scientific merits of research.

  41. Blattafrax says

    #44

    Citation needed

    Sorry, I had assumed that anyone who had read the paper would have known about the long list of published responses. All referenced here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637

    On the second point: The same _does_ apply to the Monsanto report. Both and in fact all (to my knowledge) studies show the same thing. i.e. that within the limits of the experiment, there is no detectable harmful effect to SD rats of eating GMO corn.

    Not the same as saying that eating GMO corn is perfectly safe – just that the experiment does not show it isn’t.

    There’s a lot written above about the low number of rats in each group. It’s a bit low, agreed, but there is no inherent reason why a few rats shouldn’t be used. The results are perfectly valid as long as there is a) a large enough effect and b) low enough variability to achieve a statistically relevant outcome. The number of rats isn’t the problem, the “problem” is that there isn’t a big enough effect to demonstrate the political point the anti-GMO activists are desperately trying to make. But personally (since I am presumably a consumer of Roundup) I find it rather comforting.

  42. thelaplacedemon says

    Nick Gotts @ 44 “Then the same must necessarily apply to the Monsanto study which concluded that Roundup Ready and the GMO corn used are safe, since it used the same strain and (as far as testing was concerned), the same N.”

    Actually there are some really key differences here.

    The reason Seralini’s N and strain choice are so unimaginably horrible is because Sprague-Dawley rats historically have a high level of tumor incidence. Important here is that the older the rat is the more likely it is to develop a tumor. For a study as long as Seralini’s – two years, right? – you will have a lot of spontaneous tumor “noise” along with whatever data you are trying to collect. And this is where the N particularly kills you. When you have low variation in your population overall, you can often get away with a smaller N – and as those of us who have spent time interfacing with animal care and use committees know, scientists are frequently trained to use as few animals as we can in order to get the statistical power we need (if you want to actually see the math, or play with the numbers yourself, there is a great simulation here: http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2012/09/why-i-think-the-seralini-gm-feeding-trial-is-bogus/).

    So this is an important distinction between the Seralini study and the Monsanto study. Seralini wasn’t “just” replicating the Monsanto study, as many claim. He was conducting a study with a MUCH longer endpoint. A Sprague-Dawley rat may be appropriate for a shorter term study like Monsanto’s (because there will be less background noise in tumor numbers), but it’s not appropriate for a longer term study like Seralini’s, unless you are willing to massively increase the N. This doesn’t mean the Monsanto study is something I’d hold up as best practices (it’s not), but you can’t necessarily say “anything that’s true of the Seralini study is true of the Monsanto study” because Seralini isn’t actually doing a straight replication.

    I’m going to leave aside the sketchy statistical methods Seralini used, because others have commented on this, but I do want to make a point of mentioning that this is yet another issue with the paper. Combine that with the “secondary offenses” of misleading figure design and the fact that journalists who were originally shown the paper were not allowed to consult outside experts, and I just can’t understand why anyone with a background in biology is willing to take this study seriously.

  43. militantagnostic says

    Seralini is a homeopath – perhaps he thought that reducing the number of rats would make that study more statistically powerful :) I suspect that the motivation for increasing the duration of the study (and not euthanizing rats no matter how bad their tumors got) was to produce more horrifying photographs. Not allowing journalists to consult outside experts during the embargo period is another red flag indicating that this was a PR driven study.

  44. says

    What Fox’s viewers fail to understand is that “fair and balanced” simply can’t work – and that’s why that slogan is so absurd. And at long last, the BBC and a few others are figuring that out.

    Because more often than not, there’s nothing “balanced” about reality. The veracity of climate science supporting anthropogenic global warming is so overwhelming – and growing more so with every passing day – that it’s ludicrous to pretend that presenting some crackpot “science” from the global warming skeptics is going to present a more “balanced” picture of reality than presenting the overwhelming consensus view. It’s like bringing on members of the Flat Earth Society for “balance” whenever someone points out that satellites require a round earth for a satellite orbit to work.

    Fairness is another matter. If the skeptics can offer compelling, verifiable, and testable evidence for their views that clearly call into queston the consensus, then that evidence should be heard. But so far, there hasn’t been. So why bother wasting time with their Flat Earth pseudoscience? That’s why journalists need to have training not only in science, but any other discipline on which they are reporting. And for chrissakes, they need some basic training in the philosophy of fairness.

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