The BBC and its balance, again

I had been struggling to find things to write about, but I listened this morning to the Today show on BBC Radio 4. It included an interview with David Hempleman-Adams, expedition leader of the Polar Ocean Challenge, which has successfully transited both the North East and North West passages; circumnavigating the North Pole in a single Arctic summer.

Even though he was clearly concerned about the reduction in Arctic sea ice, and highlighting this was clearly one reason for the expedition, he was also clear that they aren’t scientists and that you can’t infer too much from their expedition. Their intent was really to encourage people to pay more attention to what scientists are saying about the Arctic and, in particular, Arctic sea ice. It was all going well, and then the interviewer said:

… the well-known science writer, Matt Ridley, has written about your expedition and said, look, there are times in the past where, routinely, ice has disappeared during the summer, and his argument is that really, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t actually tell us anything.

Why Matt Ridley, and why should we care what he thinks? He doesn’t have any expertise that would suggest his view carries more weight than those of anyone else. Also, he may be a well-known science writer, but he’s also a Viscount, a member of the House of Lords, the ex-Chairman of Northern Rock, and Academic Advisor to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and has coal mines on his land. Referring to his simply as a well-known science writer would seem to be ignoring many other relevant descriptors.

Matt Ridley’s views on Arctic sea ice appears to come from an article he wrote for the Times called an ice-free arctic ocean has happened before. His basic point is that the Arctic has been ice-free in summer before everything was fine. He concludes with

The effect on human welfare, and on animal and plant life, will be small. For all the attention it gets, the reduction in Arctic ice is the most visible, but least harmful, effect of global warming.

Really? No caveats. Absolute certainty. The effect will be small and it will be the least harmful effect of global warming. How can he possibly know this? He can’t even write like a scientist and we’re supposed to take his views seriously?

What about his sources? Well, he provides none for his absolutely certain conclusions, but earlier in his article, he does say

It seems that the quantity of Arctic sea ice varies more than we used to think. We don’t really know how much ice there was in the 1920s and 1930s — satellites only started measuring it in 1979, a relatively cold time in the Arctic — but there is anecdotal evidence of considerable ice retreat in those decades, when temperatures were high in the Arctic.

Where does his anecdotal evidence come from? Why, it comes from Anthony Watts and Steven Goddard, two people who have contributed significantly to the promotion of science denial. I know Matt Ridley objects to being regarded as a science denier, but it is hard to see why; if he really doesn’t like it, maybe he should stop getting his information from sites that are clearly promoting science denial. If you want a more reliable source, you could try this, which says:

The consolidated database shows that there is no precedent as far back as 1850 for the 21st century’s minimum ice extent of sea ice on the pan-Arctic scale.

So, in an interview with someone who undertook an expedition so as to encourage people to listen more to what scientists are saying about the Arctic, the BBC manages to introduce the views of Matt Ridley, an advisor to the Global Warming Policy Foundation and someone who gets their information from sites that promote science denial. Could it have been more ironic?

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62 Responses to The BBC and its balance, again

  1. dana1981 says:

    There’s a newly-improved Arctic sea ice reconstruction showing that current levels are much lower than the past 150 years.

    BBC routinely concludes that it has a problem of false balance in climate reporting, and routinely ignores those conclusions.

  2. Dana,
    Thanks. I think the source for your article is also where I got the quote about there being no precedent back to 1850.

    BBC routinely concludes that it has a problem of false balance in climate reporting, and routinely ignores those conclusions.

    Indeed, and it almost always involves someone associated with the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

  3. Sometimes asking a ‘devil’s advocate’ question, which this might have been, is the best way to get an interviewee to come back with a strong statement, which is what you want of an interviewee. If you just agree with them about everything they say it can often end up a bit flat. I do agree though that it was wrong to give the view of Matt Ridley, for the reasons you state. It would have been better to phrase it as “some people think that Arctic ice has been as thin in the past; how would you respond?” But of course that’s not a sensible question to ask of an explorers who says he’s not a scientist, anyway.

  4. But of course that’s not a sensible question to ask of an explorers who says he’s not a scientist, anyway.

    Indeed, you had a situation with someone expressly stating that they aren’t a scientists, being countered by the views of someone pretending to be one.

  5. Rob Painting says:

    What it seems to demonstrate, once again, is that climate change deniers have managed to wrangle themselves into decision-making positions within the BBC.

    And the loss of land-based ice in the Arctic Circle is having a profound effect upon marine life. Perrhaps the most notable of which is the accelerated ocean acidification there as once frozen plant and animal matter thaws, decomposes and the carbon it contains is flushed into the ocean in the form of carbon dioxide (remineralization).

    Of course Ridley is in denial about the science of ocean chemistry too.

  6. Magma says:

    Regarding the Ridley reference, that sort of laziness has been a common failing of journalism since pretty much forever, but in recent years declining budgets and staff levels at many news organizations hasn’t helped. In addition, where climate change is concerned non-specialist journalists may feel intimidated by the thought that it’s a subject that is technical, complicated and ‘controversial’, and they or their producers may feel the need to play it safe by adding a false balance.

    Unfortunately they can’t all be Dana Nuccitelli, Chris Mooney or Justin Gillis, to name a few standouts.

  7. Magma says:

    @Rob Painting To be fair, for Ridley to have an solid grasp of some of the more severe potential consequences of ocean acidification it would help if he had a graduate degree in biology.

    Or, you know, something like that.

  8. Jim Hunt says:

    ATTP – After seeing your heads up on Twitter I listened to that interview earlier than I might otherwise have done. I have been closely following the voyage of Northabout, and would have got around to it soon enough in any case. My own conclusions seem similar to yours:

    Radio Four in Arctic Sea Ice Bias Shock Today!

    At this juncture you might have supposed that one or more of those “hundreds of scientists” [referred to by David Hempleman-Adams] might have been mentioned, but you would have been wrong.

    I do however also point out some sea ice specific porky pies perpetrated by Mr.Ridley in his recent Times article. As regards “Goddard” & Watts, I’m also defending poor little Northabout’s reputation in those dens of iniquitous cryodenialism. Hopefully this will bring at least a wry smile to your lips?

    Dumb and Dumberer at the Blog of Fools

    It seems as though a certain Tony Heller and his many merry minions are already shitting themselves at the prospect of the plucky little yacht Northabout NOT getting “trapped in ice”. Hence we can provide this preliminary report on the astonishing ignorance of Tony and his faithful flock concerning all things Arctic.

  9. Magma says:

    @ Jim Hunt — Did one of those dopes actually challenge you to sail the NWP next year with no charts, fuel or navigational aids? While he stays home, I assume.

  10. Jim Hunt says:

    @Magma – He did indeed, but I invited him to don a Polar Bear suit and come surf a calving glacier:

    He didn’t seem terribly keen on that idea though, for some unfathomable reason:

  11. John Hartz says:

    For more on the snail-paced evolutionof BBC’s coverage of manmade climate change, see:

    BBC climate coverage is evolving, but too slowly by Geoffry Supran, Climate Consensus – the 97%, Guardian, Sep 12, 2016

  12. Geoff Price says:

    “Indeed, and it almost always involves someone associated with the Global Warming Policy Foundation”

    Yes, this. “Balance” ends up meaning the same rotating cast get a chance to provide “counter-point” to the endless roster of scientists presenting some finding or another (albeit not in this case), with the net effect that they end up with 10x or 50x the opportunities to be heard while usually managing not to have any objective relevant expertise on anything. All in service of ‘fairness’.

    And as a movement, their animating core identity is one of persecution, so even under conditions of this arbitrary amplification of their inexpert opinion they simultaneously wax on about the degree of victimization associated with the privilege. Epic.

  13. paulski0 says:

    It’s all about contacts: who you know, not what you know. David Whitehouse used to be on the BBC news team. Lawson and Ridley no doubt have easy links due to their political positions.

  14. John Hartz says:

    Geoff Price: Your assessment of the climate science deniers’ psyche is spot on. Back in the days when I did battle with them on comment threads, I would frequently tell them they lived in an alternative universe. Now I am not so sure that is the case. I now tend to think they have crossed into the Twilight Zone. Either way, they are a rather super-sensitive bunch.

    PS – As a US citizen, I can unequivocally state that the 2016 Presidential race crossed into the Twilight Zone the day that Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination.

  15. pete best says:

    look at the climate the climate change ladder and see that every run is 0.5C so where do we get off. Well until recently it was around run 12 (6C) but now it might be run 5 or 6 (2.5 to 3C). So we are making progress. Ok disaster could be 2C but its wishful thinking to grow the global economy by 2-3C per annum and cut fossil fuel usage by 2050 by 90%. Therefore we are doing something meaningful regardless of a few GWPF people and others in the USA.

  16. Pingback: Radio Four in Arctic Sea Ice Bias Shock Today! | The Great White Con

  17. Michael 2 says:

    John Hartz says: “Back in the days when I did battle with them on comment threads…”

    Now most of them are banned so no worries on being triggered.

    Consider this page right here. I would like to have seen mention of what was the actual response to the question of what about previous instances of less ice? But that seems irrelevant; what matters is that OMG, someone gave Matt Ridley some exposure. Into my mind pops a vision of the Skeksis panic on realizing there’s a Gelfling still alive.

    So now I will have to go dig into this story if it is available online and see what was the response. Maybe that is intentional; I will get more out of it if I have to go find it.

  18. M2,
    The interviewee wasn’t given much chance to respond, and – even if he was – he had already acknowledged that he wasn’t a scientist.

  19. Michael 2 says:

    As it happens I did not know about this voyage and found it quite interesting. I admire those who set sail in dangerous waters; I admire more those who take many precautions even though the result then seems a bit unexciting because of preparation and technology (traveling to the south pole for instance). There’s only a fine distinction between bravery and stupidity and it isn’t always known in advance. Still, the people doing it are having a better life experience than I who sit at a computer.

  20. Michael 2 says:

    The BBC radio episode being discussed can be heard at and drag the time slider to 2:21 (two hours, 21 minutes).

    “There’s been dramatic changes over the past 30 years” he says. Well, yes, I was stationed twice in Alaska while in the Navy and the climate had indeed changed in that time, and it continued to change reaching a peak of pleasantness in 1998 or so.

    I admire that he did not leap on an opportunity to claim things he cannot know for sure (but doubtless believes while reporting on the consensus), instead reporting on his actual observations (“no ice at all until Lancaster sound” at 2:26:00). So that’s respectable.

    30 years is enough to personally notice a change. Whether that’s “bad” is a different conversation. Change will be bad for almost everyone since people tend to be adapted to their current, not future or past circumstances. Trying to stop change is itself a change and thus not automatically any less bad than any other change.

  21. anoilman says:

    M2: I’m not sure why you or anyone else would care about the words of an uneducated man like Matt Ridley. That seems pretty silly right? I mean if you wanted medical advice you’d go to… a vet, or a doctor? Which would you actually pick? Most people here pick doctors, but you’d pick a vet? And Matt knows less than a vet.

    Wow… Matt Ridley is an expert in the mating practices of the Common Pheasant. Cool.

    Do you think Matt studied a lot of math, physics, and chemistry for that? No huh?

    How did he do as an economist? Wow, first bank to crash since 1878. I suppose that’s an accomplishment.

    At no point does Matt Ridley inspire me to think he’s knows anything of value, and I certainly don’t think I’d accord him with as much trust as you seem to.

    And just for the record, I do check people’s credentials as I look at their work. Its the prudent thing to do. I recommend you start doing that.

  22. John Hartz says:

    Tom Toles, perhaps the Dean of US political cartoonists, has a long history of skewering politicians about their rejection of what climate scientists are telling us about manmade climate change. This hard-hitting Op-ed is his latest written statement on this matter. It directly relates to both the OP and to Michael 2’s musings.

    Are there two sides to the carbon dioxide/climate argument? Yes. There were also two sides to the tobacco/cancer argument. One of them turned out to be held, supported and funded by an industry that made tremendous amounts of money from selling a beloved product that unfortunately turned out to have lethal side effects.

    The big difference between the two situations is that the carbon dioxide problem is actually far WORSE.

    The basis for the climate change argument is a straightforward one. That carbon dioxide has always been known to be a heat-trapping gas, and that if you double its concentration in the atmosphere, significantly more heat trapping is likely to occur, and a hotter atmosphere has significant consequences.

    The other side of the argument has been every conceivable position that excludes either the possibility that this simple heat-trapping proposition is correct, or if it is, that it could possibly be dangerous.

    The opponents of climate science have been highly successful in confusing both the press and the public. If you would like to see a good slice of their roster, please read this excerpt adapted from The Madhouse Effect, a book I recently wrote with climate scientist Michael Mann. History will decide who was right about this issue, and I think everybody deserves to be remembered for their role in the debate.

    There are two sides to the climate argument, the facts and the falsehoods, Op-ed by Tom Toles, Washington Post, Sep 19, 2016

  23. Jim Hunt says:

    Should anyone else wish to join me in registering an official complaint with the BBC about yesterday’s Today programme a link to the requisite online form and my own humble effort can be seen at:

    I took the liberty of providing a link to ATTP’s article in my missive to the powers that be at the Beeb. They assure me that:

    “We aim to reply within about 2 weeks”

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  25. Magma says:

    @anoilman: You think it’s easy to crash a bank? You think just anyone can do it? If you’re like me, maxxing out a line of credit is probably the limit of your reach.

    @Jim Hunt: Does the BBC care about complaints from readers/listeners outside the UK? Off topic, over at Climate Etc. there are a few commenters on the Arctic ice thread who seem to be under the impression Northabout is stuck in ice somewhere in the Canadian Arctic.

  26. Jim Hunt says:

    Actually I just left Judy’s place, having endeavoured to correct a couple of Greg’s misconceptions, including the one you mention.

    In my experience the BBC doesn’t seem to care about listeners from within the UK. Perhaps that only applies to my complaints though?! I guess if you can listen to the programme from wherever you are located you are free to complain? They do have a “country” box on the complaint form though. Perhaps they tell you not to bother if you select something other than “UK”. I might try that next time!

  27. izen says:

    The misconception that the yacht was stuck in ice probably came from the alt-right news sources that reported this.
    Breibart, Trumps favourite, has now corrected this impression with a report discussing the BBC radio report.

    A perusal of the comment thread is instructive.

  28. Jim Hunt says:

    Thanks for the heads up izen. My initial comment on James Delingpole’s pile of porky pies (PPP for short) is (perhaps surprisingly?) still visible, and generating a lively “debate” as we speak. More at:

    Please feel free to put your thumbs up on Disqus!

  29. Magma says:

    A perusal of the comment thread is instructive. — izen

    In real life you’d cross the street to avoid many of these people. As someone said, one of the bad things about the Internet was that it let village [self-moderated deletion] know they weren’t alone.

  30. John Hartz says:

    Re the OP, perhaps the powers-to-be in the BBC are extremely sensitive to scaring its audience by presenting the unvarnished findings of the scientific community about manmade climate change…

    Is the media scaring the public too much about climate change and extreme weather? Op-ed by Jason Samenow, Capital Weather Gang, Washington Post, Sep 19, 2016

  31. guthrie says:

    I did tweet at them mentioning this post, but no reply.

  32. Jim Hunt says:

    On the supplementary matter of Breitbart’s reporting of the BBC interview with David Hempleman-Adams, I am pleased to be able to announce that some, but not all, of my words of wisdom over there have now been removed from public view:

  33. jrkrideau says:

    @ John Hart
    Is the media scaring the public too much about climate change and extreme

    Silly op-ed and, from the abstract, a silly paper.

    Climate change is an existential threat to many/most of the lifeforms on the planet. The media is not being anywhere near alarmist enough.

    It wastes time bleating about ISIS as some terrible threat. It is a minor, albeit deadly, problem but of no real consequence compared to global warming. Other “serious problems” are the same. Essentially of little or no consequence compared to climate change

  34. Given the aetiology of ME/CFS is completely unknown, or even whether it has a single underlying cause or is a multitude of different problems (and hence different treatments may be required), I think we are expecting too much at this stage to say that any given line of treatment is good or bad or to be too dogmatic about it. I speak from personal experience on this one (as someone with moderate ME/CFS) that exercise can help (I think mostly by maintaining baseline health/fitness such that it is a bit more difficult to overdo things and suffer the consequences) but I suspect it won’t help everybody and people may need different exercise regimes. It took me a long time to find what worked for me (and that is not what was done in the PACE trials) and I know other sufferers who couldn’t manage the regime that I find helpful. Twenty five years ago, many doctors didn’t even thing ME/CFS existed, so there has been a lot of progress made since then. I would agree that bad medical studies can do a lot of damage, but then again so can being insistent that a particular form of treatment can’t help anybody, just because it makes a lot of people worse, when we don’t know the underlying aetiology. Personally I think the press share the blame for overstating more or less any scientific/medical story they get their hands on (because they need to sell papers). A bit of skeptcism is in order, all round.

  35. Jim Hunt says:

    Which is interesting Dikran, since my partner suffers from ME/CFS/IBS/who the hell knows, but isn’t it more than somewhat off topic? Channeling ATTP:

    What is Steven’s point? Everything’s the fault of the MSM? Including “Anthropogenic Climate Change”?

  36. izen says:

    @-John Hartz
    The WaPo is paywalled for anyone who visits it more than a few times a month.

  37. I suspect Steven’s point may be about the effectiveness of sciences self-correction methods, the problems with the PACE study have been exposed and discussed and the data re-analysed.

    BTW I think a real danger of the PACE study that has been missed slightly:

    “And efforts to propagate this approach continue: A trial of graded exercise in children with ME/CFS has recently begun, and patients are protesting it.”

    I suspect the PACE study may have resulted in an anti-placebo effect where the patients are expecting graduated exercise therapy to be harmful from the outset, which makes evaluating any benefit it may have rather tricky.

    “But we shouldn’t take solace in the comforting notion that science is self-correcting. Many people, including many very sick people, had to invest immense effort and withstand vitriol to use science to correct these mistakes.”

    I disagree, as I said 25 years ago most doctors thought ME/CFS sufferers were basically malingerers, but science has self corrected. The vitriol isn’t part of scientific method, so it is a bit unfair to criticise scientific method for the vitriol, and getting things right always takes effort, especially if you have to overturn incorrect assumptions. Scientific method helps us to overcome the problems of human nature to some extent, but nobody said it would eliminate them entirely, or quickly or at low cost.

    “We do not currently have a sustainable, reliable method of overturning flawed research.”

    Actually, we do, we can write peer-reviewed comments papers exposing the flaws in the study, or we can perform better studies and publish them That is the way science corrects errors, rather than by blogging (which has its place, but is not nearly sufficient by itself).

    “For that, we need to invest in some serious, good science.”

    I can’t disagree with that!

  38. JH I think it does have some relevance to balance in media reporting, but also ME/CFS is an example of how the media can’t cope with uncertainty as it isn’t exciting or dramatic, which is what the media most wants, and we end up with bias or false balance in order to create something exciting to talk about. I hope ATTP doesn’t mind the digression too much.

  39. verytallguy says:

    There are sites who ban the posting of links without accompanying rationale or comment.

    In my opinion, that would be a Good Thing.

  40. izen says:

    ME is of little interest to the medical business. It is rare and The only treatment with any measured success is graduated exercise, but this is an inherently unprofitable treatment. If a drug was able to reduced the symptoms it would get a lot more attention. A one off cure would not be attractive however.

  41. izen, it is of interest to the disability insurance business though, which IIRC is one of the issues with the PACE study (some of the authors apparently have links to the insurance industry, but I haven’t checked that). A plausible, but ineffective treatment is not without financial benefit, depending on your point of view (i.e. not the patients).

  42. Jim Hunt says:

    Only slightly off topic, here’s the first episode in what may well be a long series of articles dissecting the horrific inaccuracies in James Delingpole’s “comprehension” of both BBC bias and Arctic sea ice:

    The Son of the Blog of Fools Gets Arctic Sea Ice Horrifically Wrong

    Paul Homewood notes… it’s also the earliest minimum since 1997, indicating that the Arctic is currently experiencing a very cold spell.

    Have I got news for you James, Paul and Ristvan? Oh no it [expletive deleted] isn’t!

  43. The Dellingpole would be a good candidate for the unit of misinformation, but I suspect it has already been assigned ;o)

  44. dikran,
    The problem with the Delingpole as a unit, is that – apart from Delingpole himself – most others are operating at pico-Delingpoles.

  45. Jim Hunt says:

    Surely watt you’re both thinking of are a plethora of picoWatts?

  46. I think that one might already be in use for something else.

  47. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Please remove the first version of my prior post. It contains typos that I corrected in the second posting.

  48. John Hartz says:

    Re my prior post, it was meant to be ‘tongue-in-check” humor that you Brits are supposedly famous for. 🙂

  49. JH,
    I don’t know which post you mean, and I’m not really a Brit 😉

  50. John Hartz says:

    izen: Due to the volume of quality articles about climate change posted by Chris Mooney and his colleagues, I have a electronic subscription to the Washington Post.

  51. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Sep 21 @ 2:13 pm.

  52. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Is that why you do not exhibit a wry sense of humor very often? 🙂

  53. Has anyone written to the BBC regarding this latest in a long list of ‘false balance’ cases (in this one with Ridley not sitting at the end of a mic, but might as well have been). I might just when I return from vacation. The BBC and GWPF I think mutually agreed that Lord Lawson was doing more harm than good as their default ‘go to’ pseudo scientist commentator on climate change, so now Lord Ridley fulfils that role, for some reason only the BBC can explain. I understand that in the US there is now a ‘rapid response’ service for journalists, to help them understand the weight and relevance of something like this, or a paper, or whatever (it is cited at the end of the letter from the 374 scientists sponsored by the AAAS). My the Royal Society could inaugurate and organise a similar ‘rapid response’ service for the UK?!

  54. Jim Hunt says:

    Err, yes Richard. If you scroll up a bit you will see the following:

    Should anyone else wish to join me in registering an official complaint with the BBC about yesterday’s Today programme a link to the requisite online form and my own humble effort can be seen at:

    I’m not at all sure that the Royal Society will be much help. See for example:

    Are you aware that Lord Lawson is apparently now a “lukewarmist”?

    Shock News! The Worms Have Turned!!

    There’s video to prove it!

  55. Thanks Jim. I am almost off grid, so excuse me if i missed that! Maybe the BAAS can fill a hole left by …

  56. Jim Hunt says:

    The BBC has taken somewhat less than 2 weeks to reply to “Disgusted of Dunchideock”:

    They may as well not have bothered:

    All complaints are sent to senior management and programme makers every morning and we included your points in this overnight report. These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the BBC and ensures that your complaint has been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future output.

    Thank you once again for getting in touch.

    NB This is sent from an outgoing account only which is not monitored.

  57. Jim Hunt says:

    The BBC invited me to “take part in a short survey”

    I took them up on their most generous offer. In actual fact it proved to be quite a long survey:

    I’d like to ask two questions:

    1) What is the point of all the “intrusive” questions I’ve just been asked?

    2) Why hasn’t the BBC provided a substantive answer to the final question in my original complaint?

  58. Pingback: A brief roundup: the BBC and OMICS | …and Then There's Physics

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