May 27, 2007

The apotheosis of bad science at the BBC

Yesterday, Ben Goldacre at Bad Science slagged the BBC again ("Wi-Fi Wants to Kill Your Children", 5/26/2007), for a Panorama piece based on the views of someone who quite literally sells tinfoil hats on his website. You couldn't make this stuff up. As one of Ben's commenters put it (edited for spelling and punctuation):

It's the perfect bad science story. It absolutely has it all. A made-up scare, non-scientist scientists, crap experiments, misrepresented results, smears of dissenters, silly scientology-like ‘technology’ with dials that go up to ‘red’, and to cap it all, its very own Panorama programme to give it some tabloid legs.

I'd like to point out that the mutant frog story that Ray Girvan uncovered a few years ago ("The alleged three-headed frog") enacted a similar drama, though on a smaller stage. As I observed at the time ("More junk science from the BBC", 3/10/2004):

[C]onfronted with three frogs mating, found by "children in a nursery", the Beeb's expert biologist Dilger said "I have never seen anything like this", and "it could be an early warning of environmental problems." The first statement was no doubt true, but he might have continued "but of course I don't know anything about frogs", instead of taking an allegedly expert poke at environmental problems. Though there are no doubt many environmental problems afflicting amphibians, this seems to be a pretty clear example of the tendentious, politically-driven "reporting" [typical of the BBC in other areas].

And despite Ray's extensive evidence that the BBC's biology reporter had been taken in by a silly non-story ("multiple amplexus, typical frog and toad mating behaviour"), the article is still up on their website today, with no correction or retraction ever issued. In fact, the Beeb's text-media website apparently never does corrections or retractions, at least openly, although they occasionally indulge in a Kremlin-style silent removal of part or all of a particularly egregious piece of nonsense.

The theme of "bad science at the BBC" is one that we've been following here for a while, though we only comment on language-related stories. (Well, there have been occasional side trips into frog sex and transmutation of wood chips, but only because of resonances with stories that are on our beat, like telepathic parrots and cow dialects.) You may be asking yourself, why do those Language Loggers care?

Speaking for myself, I can tell you that the basic answer is the one that summarizes most blogging motivation: "it's fun". The BBC's unique combination of upper-crust pomposity and tabloid-like credulity is irresistible as a source of shared amusement.

But poking fun at the Beeb also has some redeeming social value, I think. It's bad when a powerful institution tolerates ignorance and carelessness, and it's worse when it gives sensationalism and ideology precedence over truth. This applies to the British Broadcasting Corporation just as it does to the commercial media or to the American government.

I predict that this will not be our last post on the subject.

[Update -- Aidan Kehoe writes:

Your pomposity meters need recalibration. The modern BBC is not the organisation of Alvar Liddell; there remain a few holdouts from then, but Patrick Moore and David Attenborough (whose science I’m sure you won’t be faulting any time soon) are the exceptions, not the rule.

Well, I do recognize that there have been some changes in British social structures in general, and the BBC's relationship to them in particular. But what I mainly had in mind was not the class affinities of broadcasters' accents (though what I hear on the BBC World Service, as carried in the U.S. by NPR, doesn't sound especially proletarian to me). I was thinking of the aura of noblesse oblige that seems to permeate the whole enterprise. Here are a few quotes from the organization's self-presentation:

The BBC exists to enrich people's lives with great programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain. Its vision is to be the most creative, trusted organisation in the world.

It provides a wide range of distinctive programmes and services for everyone, free of commercial interests and political bias.

The BBC is not permitted to carry advertising or sponsorship on its public services. This keeps them independent of commercial interests and ensures that they can be run instead to serve the general public interest.

If the BBC sold airtime either wholly or partially, advertisers and other commercial pressures would dictate its programme and schedule priorities.

For us to stay relevant to our audiences we need to continue to make innovative and creative programmes. But we also want to provide our audiences with opportunities to learn and to explore what it means to be an active citizen.

Our role goes much further than simply making programmes that people find enjoyable or stimulating. We
think it is important to respond to the things that people care about, to react to the things that people are talking
about. Our aim is to connect communities and bring people together. We want to help people have a better
understanding of the world around them and encourage them to participate in that world.

These random but apparently typical selections express "noble sentiments", in several senses of the word noble. In particular, the organization appears to see itself as inhabiting an empyrean realm of social, cultural and moral superiority, above the stresses of commercial and political give-and-take, providing uplift to the mass of citizens of which the BBC's writers, editors and governors are apparently not a part.

These are not at all bad goals to have, but they are expressed in ways that merit the adjective "pompous", in my opinion. And the whole package seems quite similar to the traditional attitudes of the more enlightened members of the aristocracy towards the common folk.

Juxtaposed with the spectacular examples of careless tendentiousness that are under discussion here, these noble sentiments seem even more pompous, in the sense of being "characterized by an exaggerated display of self-importance or dignity", since the squalid reality emphasizes the extent to which the noble sentiments are exaggerated if not entirely deluded or insincere. ]

[Update #2 -- David Eddyshaw writes:

Keep on bashing the BBC!

In my own field, medicine, their reporting is equally flaky. It causes real people real grief, particularly by irresponsible scares and, perhaps worse, irresponsible raising of false hopes. I often have to specifically warn patients not to place much faith in BBC medical reports. Interestingly most of them accept this very readily; sad if you consider what the BBC evidently imagines to be its own high standards. Were they once better, or is this one of those Golden Age delusions?

The BBC deserves a kicking. More power to your elbow - er, ankle.

What, you mean that breast enlargement chewing-gum doesn't really work? I'm shocked.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 27, 2007 08:37 AM