Saturday, 13 August 2011


This post follows an exchange of comment on facebook between a science based techie, a journalist and me. The techie starts, “Problem with journalism investigating science is that they erroneously believe in balance. That gives nutjobs like Monckton a voice”. After some discussion about presenting a balanced view, the journalist commented, “When thousands of people are interested in what the alleged quack has to say, that constitutes public interest. Right or wrong. Money? Wish it didn't matter but it does. But in this instance, public interest and money aren't necessarily intrinsic. Part of journalism/media's role is to inform people. If they are asking questions then they deserve some answers. It's not so very complicated or dark - just a mirror of society”.

I wondered to myself if any law or ethics are currently taught to our young ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate. If journalists want to present a “balanced” view then they need to let the public compare apples with apples. Scientists by definition carry out their work according to established methodologies. Any results are then subject to the rigor of peer review. Balance in science journalism would be putting one scientist up against another. Put the loop quantum gravity proponent up against the string theorist. If journalists merely want to generate revenue by presenting outrageous opinion, then interview the creationist alongside the lady who thinks it’s turtles all the way down. Don’t mix them up. The first two are scientists, the second two are not.

The problem with poor standards of journalism in relation to science is the harm misinformation perpetrates. Quackery and pseudo science affect the public’s understanding of, inter alia, vaccination, cancer treatments and earth and climate science. Thoughtless dissemination of minority non-science based views can and does cost lives. By all means let lunatics have their say on their own page or on a soap box in Hyde Park. But, the constraints of quality journalism outweigh the public’s desire for ready access to odd-ball opinion through mainstream media, and, the right of mainstream media to generate revenue without constraint. Freedom of speech is not and never has been undelimited in any society, and, it is certainly not the right merely to make noise. Like all rights it comes with responsibilities. In this case, responsible journalism.


Anonymous said...

Ummm, it's actually the *fourth* estate

Lambcut said...

Anonymous, I have corrected the typo.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Why do I have the impression your 'techie' friend would regard (a)Al Gore as not a nut job and (b)climate modelling a science?

Lambcut said...

I would not like to speculate upon why you have that impression Adolf.

Lambcut said...

Perhaps we might all agree that Al Gore is not a scientist and that climate modelling is in its infancy.

But, this post is about standards in science journalism.

B.S. said...

Lamb Cut - climate science has been around since the early 1800's. Fourier theorized the role of the atmosphere in 1824.

Adolf - Gore is a politician who has been promoting the accepted science of climate change for 30 years. He is not a scientist.

I won't comment on your pejorative remarks about climate science: I never argue with a "true believer".

JC said...

"But, this post is about standards in science journalism."

But as Climategate showed, many scientists pushing the warmist line have conspired to exclude from publication the work of other peer reviewed scientists with a differing view or conclusions, are still conspiring to fight Official Information Act requests for information so that other scientists can attempt to replicate the work, have control of major science publications so as to exclude differing work, and have certain highly regarded science writers in their pockets.

Under these circumstances the role of the journalist is no less than to expose such conspiracies and the shoddy work that has been carried out with public money.

I've no love of Monckton, but right now he's doing exactly what the public want.. doing the work of journalists in providing the differing view and exposing some of the shoddy science.


Lambcut said...

It is true that journalists have had a valuable role in exposing climate scientists who have fallen below academic standards.

Journalism's role in communicating established data and conclusions does not appear to have been so valuable.

For the record, I don't know much about climate change. I have doubts that anyone knows enough. However, on that basis, I am of the view that a precautionary approach should be taken. This post is not about climate change and I won't publish any further comment that fixates on the subject.

B.S. said...

I find it disturbing that TVNZ7 will be canned next year. It is one of the few places on taxpayer funded FTA to find content that rises above the infantile. Stratos is another , Aljazeera in the morning is much better than watching the inane dribbling on Breakfast.

Public television in the form of TVNZ is a banal collection of vacuous models, their delusional masters and an infinite number of cuuking shows , emergency services porn and wannabe pop stars.

Even the commercial station Prime,being a promotional front for Sky , delivers much better content.

Lady said...


"But as Climategate showed, many scientists pushing the warmist line have conspired to exclude from publication the work of other peer reviewed scientists with a differing view or conclusions.

However what Monkton and others ignore is that there were six different committee investigations into Climategate which completely exonerated the accused scientists of any wrongdoing.

The fact that journalists have largely ignored the reporting of that fact and thus we continue to see comments such as Monkton's and yours JC, gives weight to Lambcut's argument.

mark said...

AGW deserves full reporting of sll sides. When one side refuses to debate their evidence and "model", then journalists have a duty to report both sides.

If science "is settled" no debate - we'd still think the sun revolved around earth.

I always suggest to people they read the "readme.txt" file from climate gate - authenticity has never been challenged. I'm in IT, and once you read the notes the programmers making as he prepares/models the data, you know it is all highly highly suspect. Hence the data manipulation. You also need to check the backgrounds and conflicts of those who reviewed/cleared climategate.

Lambcut - while you don't want to get into AGW - I'd argue that this is not just one guys view, there are many reputable scientists who question the AGW models - remeber this isn't so much sciemce as predictions. Now we're 15years into it, with no evidence backing up the models, the questions will just get more and more over time.

Also millions of people would be alive today, if DDT hadn't been banned, based on a politcial book, and no reporting of alternative views re it's safety. That's a high price to pay for the media to decide they don't have to report alternative views.

Lambcut said...

My point isn’t that alternative views should be suppressed Mark, it’s that they should be given appropriate context in the media.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss makes the point well, “Fair and balanced,” doesn’t mean putting all viewpoints, regardless of their underlying logic or validity, on an equal footing. Discerning the merits of competing claims is where the empirical basis of science should play a role. I cannot stress often enough that what science is all about is not proving things to be true but proving them to be false. What fails the test of empirical reality, as determined by observation and experiment, gets thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper. One doesn’t need to debate about whether the earth is flat or 6,000 years old. These claims can safely be discarded, and have been, by the scientific method.”

Lambcut said...

Also Mark, I am old enough to remember Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring. And am well familiar with the issues a professional context.

You made the point for me when you wrote:

"Also millions of people would be alive today, if DDT hadn't been banned, based on a political book, and no reporting of alternative views re its safety."

It was the science that was ignored in favour of unsupported opinion in a book given weight and promoted in the mainstream media.

I rest my case.

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