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UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser criticizes “journalists wilfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view, giving bogus authority to people who misrepresent the absolute basics of science, and worse

By Joe Romm  

"UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser criticizes “journalists wilfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view, giving bogus authority to people who misrepresent the absolute basics of science, and worse"

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Beddington calls such selective use of science “as bad as racism”

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Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington is stepping up the war on pseudoscience with a call to his fellow government scientists to be “grossly intolerant” if science is being misused by religious or political groups.

In closing remarks to an annual conference of around 300 scientific civil servants on 3 February, in London, Beddington said that selective use of science ought to be treated in the same way as racism and homophobia. “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality….  We are not””and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this””grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method,” he said.

Beddington said he intends to take this agenda forward with his fellow chief scientists and also with the research councils. “I really believe that… we need to recognise that this is a pernicious influence, it is an increasingly pernicious influence and we need to be thinking about how we can actually deal with it.

I first reported on Beddington back in 2009 when he warned that by 2030, “A ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions.”  See “When the global Ponzi scheme collapses (circa 2030), the only jobs left will be green” for an amazing speech explaining why.

No doubt Beddington is thinking of UK journalists like David Rose and Richard North (see links below) — and James Delingpole, who recently melted down on the BBC and said, “It is not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers because I simply haven’t got the time”¦. I am an interpreter of interpretations.”

Here’s more from the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser:

“We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.”There are enough difficult and important problems out there without having to”¦ deal with what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense.”

Beddington also had harsh words for journalists who treat the opinions of non-scientist commentators as being equivalent to the opinions of what he called “properly trained, properly assessed” scientists. “The media see the discussions about really important scientific events as if it’s a bloody football match. It is ridiculous.”

His call has been welcomed by science groups, including the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Edzard Ernst, professor of the study of complementary medicine at Exeter University, whose department is being closed down, said he was “delighted that somebody in [Beddington's] position speaks out”. In an interview with Research Fortnight Ernst said that the analogy with racism was a good one and that he, like Beddington, questioned why journalists have what he called “a pathological need” to balance a scientific opinion with one from outside of science.

“You don’t have that balance in racism,” he said. “You’re not finishing [an article] by quoting the Ku Klux Klan when it is an article about racist ideas,” Ernst said.

“This is strong language because the frustration is so huge and because scientists are being misunderstood. For far too long we have been tolerant of these post-modern ideas that more than one truth is valid. All this sort of nonsense does make you very frustrated in the end.”

Ben Goldacre, a science journalist and medical doctor, agrees. “Society has been far too tolerant of politicians, lobbyists, and journalists wilfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view, giving bogus authority to people who misrepresent the absolute basics of science, and worse,” he told Research Fortnight. “This distorted evidence has real world implications, because people need good evidence to make informed decisions on policy, health, and more. Beddington is frustrated, and rightly so: for years I’ve had journalists and politicians repeatedly try to brush my concerns on these issues under the carpet.”

Scientists need to fight back, he says.

Hear!  Hear!

Perhaps he read the 2010 Nature editorial: “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

Related Post:

‹ Making Egypt More Food Secure

Accuweather’s Joe Bastardi, denier of basic climate science, resigns after 32 years ›

47 Responses to UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser criticizes “journalists wilfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view, giving bogus authority to people who misrepresent the absolute basics of science, and worse

  1. A commentator over the weekend cited journalist’s Ross Gelbspan’s excellent essay on climate denial and the media’s role. He came down hard on the media owners/editors as most to blame. If Delingpole told the same lies/distortions about race or religion or sports teams he’d be sacked in a flash as an incompetent hack.

    http://www.heatisonline.org/ contentserver/ objecthandlers/ index.cfm?id=7743&method=full

  2. pete best says:

    Best of luck to them in this regard but humanities types who run the media like to hear both sides of everything no matter have small in number they are and I doubt it will ever stop for its written in law to give credence to every counter argument.

    ACC is a very political animal and that means the science is not treated in a unbiased way. ACC is a potentialy life changing process and as such its not going to away the billions required in order to get it resolved in time for < 2C rise I would suggest. It certainly possible to achieve it or is it realistically I wonder?

    450 ppmv is not that far off for although the west is reducing emissions to some degree the east is not, in fact they are increasing emissions and hence we have not really started yet. Although replacemtn technologies exist so do powerful counter forces such as the fossil fuel industries who lobby well and make major profits for the stock markets and many thousands of workers. To transition will be a fight.

  3. Chris Winter says:

    If Super Bowl XLV were treated like climate change, there would be a group of Steelers fanatics who persistently deny that Green Bay won by a score of 35 to 21, and also claim that it’s impossible to throw a football more than 20 yards (debunking Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger’s 37-yarder to Antwaan Randle-El) — that only natural forces can propel a football so far.

  4. catman306 says:

    Perhaps Witsend will comment about how ‘intolerance of pseudo-science’ can have a down-side and just how this can happen to people with the best intentions. Scientists will often resist ideas that are just too new and run against the grain of accepted knowledge. Plate tectonics provides a perfect example.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plate_tectonics

    Global warming is not a good example because almost all of the dissent and denialism is manufactured with the generous application of cash. Almost all climate scientists accept that global warming is happening as the result of the burning of fossil fuels.

  5. Bravo! Defending facts, reason and evidence can’t be that hard, so let’s do it!

  6. Nelya Koteyko, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, published a blog post about this very issue over at Leicester Exchanges’ Climate Change discussion last month. The post particularly explores the importance that communications plays in relation to our understanding of climate change, and the impact that it has. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in what she had to say:
    http://leicesterexchanges.com/2011/02/10/climate-change-communication/

  7. Too bad we can’t sue journalists for malpractice.

  8. John Mason says:

    Good. It needs shouting loud, far and wide.

    I emailed one of the BBC environment correspondents several months ago, asking why, given the need to quote someone like Benny Peiser after a climate story, did they not extend this policy and bring in a creationist after every evolutionary biology piece.

    I never did get a satisfactory answer.

    Cheers – John

  9. Leif says:

    Flash Mob tomorrow.

    http://climateprogress.org/2011/02/19/weekend-question-how-to-deal-with-local-media/#more-43096

    Comment # 26 by Roger.

    “Be there”, (involved) or be square. You can participate from your bed. No one will shoot at you. “Bring” a friend! Liberation is a phone call away. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  10. Nick Bentley says:

    Though I agree fully that the cherry-picking is real and troublesome, I’m not sure it’s best to think of it as driven by malign intent or laziness. The Cherry Problem has grown in every domain of life in the last two decades simply because the information revolution gives us so much more information to sift through and our brains are biased toward the stuff we already suspect. I think it’s a failure of human cognition under these new circumstances, and that applies to every one of us. More on how to approach the problem vis-a-vis climate change here:

    http://climatepirate.com/another-smashing-activism-idea-the-bubble-brigade/

  11. Dennis says:

    Wait to the anti-science crowd puts its spin on this. They will accuse Beddington of calling them racists. If you read the complete quotation (as you have reproduced here), we know he has not done that. But that’s all they will say.

  12. Jeffrey Davis says:

    The difference between the acceptance of plate tectonics and the fight over AGW is that there weren’t plutocrats fighting off a threat to their income with plate tectonics. The fight over AGW has almost nothing to do with the science.

  13. Tim says:

    I think this kind of approach is one that climate scientists should use right now,before WUWT is awarded any kind of “best science blog”. Visible, highly credentialed climate scientists should communicate with the people running the ‘bloggies’ and ask whether they would allow

    (1) a NAMBLA blog to stand for a “best parenting” award?

    (2) a porn web site to compete for a “best entertainment” award?

    (3) a racist joke web site to compete for a “most humorous” award?

    (4) the Aryan nation web site to compete for a “politics” web site award?

    I’m serious, WUWT is as appropriate as a science web blog as any of these are appropriate in the categories named.

  14. Hugh Laue says:

    #11 “They will accuse Beddington of calling them racists.”

    Maybe not a far-fetched call – considering the racial make-up of the majority of the world’s poor who will suffer most from the ravages of climate disruption.

  15. Mark says:

    I think there is more of a consensus on this in Europe and the UK in particular, and I hope we shall provide positive leadership to the world by increasing the EU CO2 emissions reduction target for 2020 to 30% rather than 20% which it looks like we’ll achieve with ease. We have to accept that North america and Australia will take longer to come on board, but hopefully will leap ahead when they do so.

    Denialism is a problem over here, but it’s a shrinking rump of almost comic characters, were their trade not so poisonous and deadly. This makes it paradoxically grate even more when the wackos get put up against responsible science on the BBC as though its analysis of a soccer game. The media need to wake up to the fact that climate change is a matter of life and death on a truly genocidal canvas, and to think hard about what giving such people air time may have in future.

  16. K. Nockels says:

    The vicious cycle we seem stuck in with reguards to the media coverage of CC is basicly about the winners and losers in our current economic state. The fact that existing infastructure is completely geared to the use of fossil fuels means there are a lot of really rich losers if we change our basic energy profile. To maintan the BAU road into the future their only choice has been to distort and undermine the Science that proves beyond dought that the use of our planet as an unending resource is changing the climate. It’s like the statement “We don’t know what causes cancer” very broad and still used. Even though most
    researchers will tell you 95% of cancers are from evironmental containation by industrial pollution. Since that would mean changing the mode of opertion at great cost to the polluters, no evidence that does not show 100% positive causality are deemed unreliable or just wrong by polluters who make sure any uncertainty real or not is what the people hear about. This was true for smoking and is true for CC. When you have a scheme that has worked so well for so long and for which the results have been so good why change tactics now? Until we figure out how to top this effort, we won’t make progress here. Our biggest challenge is Time, nature is setting the pace and we are falling farther behind the curve every year. Change starts slowly with many ups and downs, this is true for our industral society and for natural systems as well but the pace of change in natural systems that are being push by us is out pacing our efforts to change this equation, we are still at the stage of trying to get change started. This lag time does not bode well for us. Sorry to say this but by the time nature showes the deniers to be liars it could well be to late.

  17. Richard says:

    Fine for the Brits. When is our Chief Scientist going to make the same statement?

  18. Wit's End says:

    Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed by Leonard Lopate on NPR this afternoon, about her new article “Enter the Anthropocene – Age of Man” in the March issue of National Geographic.

    You should be able to listen to it when it is posted later today. She was absolutely brilliant in her explanations – a lesson in messaging.

    http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2011/feb/21/age-man-and-climate-change/

    This discussion should be a great resource for people to share with anyone who is genuinely on the fence.

  19. Villabolo says:

    @10, Nick Bentley says:

    Though I agree fully that the cherry-picking is real and troublesome, I’m not sure it’s best to think of it as driven by malign intent or laziness.

    It most certainly is the result of maliciousness by Lord Monckton who has a 100% (Not 90% or even 99%) of misquoting scientists even to the point where his “quotations” are, often times, not taken out of context but completely fabricated.

    I have seen how deniers don’t merely cherry pick but justify it by ridiculing the idea of taking a full view of the facts. For example, on WUWT I have read how a two or three year variation, concerning the alleged “growth” of the Arctic ice cap is a trend regardless of what we otherwise say.

    My experience on “skeptic” websites has been that, no matter how politely, factually and comprehensively you explain things, you end up being ridiculed, evaded, responded to on the most trivial point you made, or ignored all together. I’ve been told that none of what I had to say had any legitimacy because I got one letter of a poster’s name wrong (Ana instead of the actual name Anna)!

    By the way, remember the “cockroach” incident with Anthony Watts of WUWT?

    Once you read enough of their claims, and view them with an intuitive knowledge of how people deliberately deceive others and themselves in day to day life, you invariably come up with the conclusion that they are both consciously lying and delusional.

    There is simply too much of a contrast between their behavior and that of genuinely confused people.

    Villabolo

  20. mike roddy says:

    Reporters are afraid for their jobs, as financially stressed owners lean on them.This is no excuse for their cowardice, however.

  21. bratisla says:

    @12 Dennis : already done. See Delingpole “I can’t read science papers” ranting about this, and the distortions made by WTFWT crowds …

  22. Nick Bentley says:

    @21 Villalobo,

    I’m not sure that an “astounding degree of oversight” is evidence of malignancy, or if it’s evidence of a very bad cognitive failure. Most of humanity has little experience dealing with big, complex, multi-threaded bodies of evidence. I know that many deniers with whom I have had the opportunity to interact directly (i.e. not on a message board) a) act in good faith; and b) genuinely believe their position. I’ve not personally interacted with any of the famous ones like Monckton, so those may be different. The ones I know may be horribly, tragically wrong, but I don’t think it’s because their hearts are in the wrong place. It’s probably bad to generalize though. There are many different motivations in the world.

  23. TimOfEngland says:

    Send your sceptics to watch potholer54 on You Tube – He is doing a great job!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbW-aHvjOgM&feature=uploademail

    Monkton Bunkum 1 :)

  24. Martin Vermeer says:

    Hugh Laue #16: also consider that, if scientists had been a racial group rather than a professional one, the denialists would have been, in many countries, guilty of hate crimes carrying serious sentences. And their conspiracy theories are straight from the Elders of Zion playbook.

  25. peter whitehead says:

    One of the differences between the UK and the USA is that you can’t pay for political TV ads in the UK. Each party gets free ‘Party Political Broadcasts’ allocated on BBC and ITV.

  26. Catchblue22 says:

    Any initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold. Aristotle

    In this topsy turvy world, I find reading the Greeks comforting.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s good to see the science community finally fighting back against this evil, Rightwing crusade to take us back to before the Enlightenment. The reason that the media presents ‘the other side’ of pseudoscience, lies and vicious cranks, in this debate, when, believe me, in debates to do with unions, Israel/Palestine, China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela etc, their coverage is utterly one-sided, is plain to anyone with eyes to see. Anthropogenic climate disruption denialism suits the owner’s ideology, is seen as useful in mobilising Rightwing Dunning Krugerites and protects the business and financial interest tied up in the fossil fuel business, the richest in history, worth trillions. And the MSM is stacked, and this certainly includes ‘public’ organs like the BBC, ABC, PBS etc, with Rightwingers whose ideological fervour cannot be doubted. Personally, when I can see them, I find Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today a welcome relief because they actually have debates with two sides with rational cases to put. And they generally stay fairly polite, unlike ‘debates’ in the MSM here which immediately descend into lies and abuse.
    As for the despicable Delingpole, if you visit ABC Radio National, and its Rightwing Groupthink flagship, Counterpoint, there is an interview with Delingpole. He comes across, in my opinion, as a nasty, self-regarding and vicious…..chap. Judge for yourself. The interviewer, one of the ABC’s army of Rightwing hacks, is suitably obsequious for such an eminence grease, this sort of groveling being known here as ‘pissing in his pockets’.

  28. Sou says:

    Not before time. A few months ago Beddington and others were being quoted as apologists – with the emphasis on ‘scientists have to do better and provide more transparency’. I don’t know if he was being misquoted or people were cherry-picking or if that was really the gist of his message.

    I recall Robyn Williams of the ABC Science Show objecting, and wrote about him saying ‘too much mea culpa’.

    At the time, not nearly enough people were pointing out that it wasn’t the scientists in the wrong at all and they had nothing to apologise for, and climate science was about as transparent as any scientific field could get.

    Anyway, in recent months more scientists have been learning how to talk to the media better, with less of the ‘we can’t attribute any one event to global warming’ and more of the ‘if we don’t act soon the weather will get much much worse’.

    I applaud this strong statement from Beddington and hope we get a lot more like this from him and other prominent scientists.

  29. David B. Benson says:

    Off topic, I suppose, but attempting to link to Real Climate resolves the URL to
    Computer Systems Lab UW Madison Mirror Web Site.

    Are others having the same difficulty, or is it a more local domain server problem?

  30. Reporters, news organizations and advertising and PR ventures are also described as part of the conspiracy and liable to global warming in the court case of “Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp, et al” It may soon be before the supreme court.

    Check the civil conspiracy sections that refer to using front groups and misleading advertising. p 47 http://bit.ly/gJ43Iy

  31. David B. Benson says:

    Cleared my (strange) browser problem.

  32. Davos says:

    Joe…This could bring a tear to your eye…but…

    Joe Bastardi has just left Accuweather after a 32-year career. Two other staffers are having their roles expanded to pick up the slack.

  33. David B. Benson says:

    To help stave off the CRUD purveyors, apply

    Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway
    Merchants of Doubt
    http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/

    Massimo Pigliucci
    Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
    University of Chicago Press, 2010.

  34. Adam R. says:

    Richard says:
    Fine for the Brits. When is our Chief Scientist going to make the same statement?

    Indeed. What about the U. S. Energy Secretary? Why isn’t he laying into Fox News and the WSJ over their repeated offenses of disinformation?

    We thought we were getting a hero with Chu, but it seems we got a nebbish—sadly similar to the case of his boss. Surely it has nothing to do with…
    http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/05/steven-chus-ties-bp

  35. Cody3 says:

    I have one last comment. I understand where we are currently heading under the greedy policies that drive our unsustainable economy. However, I fail to see how we could continue polluting once the world begins to heat.

    Eventually, I think people must figure out what is going to happen in mass. And when that happens, it will be panic. It will be wars to end pollution. At the very least. Polluting will have to reach equilibrium with a healthy enough eco-system to support the life that is polluting it! Otherwise, the polluting will end really fast.

    All of this information falsifying and intrigue is the result of greedy politicians and frightened scientists. This is my perception. But will the world really be destroyed before the people, you and me, figure out what is happening and put an end to it? 2100 is 90 years away. If 30 years from now, the problem becomes noticeable and people figure out where things are headed, there is no way that we will make it all the way to the 2100 numbers. Not as long as we retain a representative government and the most powerful global force in the world. We the people will not allow that to happen.

    We just need to remain vigilant, frugal, and sane.

  36. paulm says:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/feb/21/nuclear-risk-plane-crashes

    Nuclear risk from plane crashes is higher than estimated, inquiry shows
    A plane crash could trigger a ‘significant radiological release’, according to an inquiry into the expansion of Lydd airport in Kent

  37. Roger says:

    Reminder: Tomorrow (Tuesday) everyone who cares about a livable climate, please call Obama at 202-456-1111. Ask him to go on prime time TV to explain why we need to act on climate change NOW! (Thx Leif.)

    Back up number, if you get a busy signal, is 202-456-1414. Tell the White House operator you get that you want to make a comment but you can’t get through. So, can they please add more comment operators?

    YOU CAN, no MUST, do this! It only takes two minutes. It costs pennies. It could make all the difference to our futures. Is it too much to ask? NOTE: If you read this and don’t call, you should hide in shame!

    Seriously,
    Roger

    P.S. Please report on a CP comment tomorrow that you’ve made the call. I want to see at least 100 reports back. If not, I fear that all hope is lost! (Or if you want to, explain why you didn’t call–and it better be really good!)

  38. DaveW says:

    Mark #11 -
    “climate change is a matter of life and death on a truly genocidal canvas”

    True enough – maybe Koch brothers & cohorts should be had up before the courts on charges of genocide…

  39. Prokaryotes says:

    “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”, Joseph Pulitzer

  40. drewski says:

    This one made me laugh. It is a perfect parable about Climate Change Skeptics.

    A website named “Show Me the Money” by seeker401 used a satellite UAH graph showing temperature readings from 1978. Because of a recent drop in temperatures, he said that Global Warming was a sham. I pointed out to him that the entire graph still showed rising temperatures. He then went on to say that you can not trust the data that these institutions put out. I then asked why is he using data from an institution that he doesn’t trust in order to make his point. He then locked me out of the site.

  41. Mike Roddy says:

    Dave W,

    The Kochs will be tried for genocide, but it will take about 10 years before the horror of their crimes has become apparent. They will be hauled into court with their canes like Pinochet of Chile, muttering their innocence while the evidence is brought before the court.

    By that time the Kochs, if they are still alive, won’t care so much about the prison sentence, since they would become martyrs on the Far Right. More important will be seizing all of their cash and assets, and putting them into a climate change mitigation fund, not simply dumping the money into the Treasury. Pauperizing the Kochs- and holding them legally liable for far more than whatever their net worth is- would be true justice, and would actually do some good. David’s family would have to get jobs, which would be good for their characters.

  42. J Bowers says:

    The Research site linked to at the head of the story also has a blog, which is critical of John Beddington’s comments,…

    Let’s hear it for scepticism: its suppression is one of the principal threats to science

    …which is also the page that the GWPF is linking to…

    Beddington’s Promotion Of Intolerance Is A Threat To Science

    I left a comment at the Research blog the other day, which means anyone clicking on the GWPF link to it will also see an alternative opinion, along with a recommendation to read Merchants of Doubt.

  43. Chris Winter says:

    Villalobo wrote (#21): “I’ve been told that none of what I had to say had any legitimacy because I got one letter of a poster’s name wrong (Ana instead of the actual name Anna)!”

    Ah yes — that would be Anna V, correct? Such tactics indicate a sense of desperation on her part.

  44. Chris Winter says:

    RE: #31, problems linking to RealClimate

    No problems here, just now. I note that E&E has sent them a letter demanding a retraction of a statement Gavin made.