The sorry state of science reporting

2007-04-02

Like many independent thinkers, I’ve come to realise that reporting is rubbish. Science reporting in particular. Probably all reporting, but I like to think that I know a tiny bit about science, so I can spot the poor reporting more easily. Take this BBC article:

EU biofuel push ‘to ruin forests’

The headline is “EU biofuel push ‘to ruin forests’”. Then we read “Oil firms have warned that European Union plans on biofuels could wreck the world’s rainforests.”

So the news article is really an “anti bio-fuel” piece written by Big Oil. Big Oil is down on bio-fuel because you can grow it instead of drilling for it. Big Oil likes LPG and hydrogen because you can make those from crude. Imagine if cars ran on straight vegetable oil, you could grow it in your back yard! You can see why Big Oil might be a bit scared by that. Of course I don’t mean to say that Big Oil literally wrote the piece, but I mean that Big Oil hired a Respectable PR Company to write a Press Release which they put on the BBC editor’s desk and then passed to a sub who changed a couple of adjectives, rang a Rent-a-Quote and slapped it on the website. That seems to be how news is done these days.

Is this was a proper news article then I would expect to see a few sources. Who are these “oil firms”, as in “oil firms have warned …”? We just don’t know. You see how this is used to lend an air of credibility to the piece without actually having information that can be independently verified? Later on “one government official told the BBC: ‘The policy is running ahead of the science … ‘”. A government official? With a name? From what department? In what capacity did he tell the BBC this? Pure flak. Again, no verifiable information.

You can always tell where a sub has been. Consider this paragraph: “Experts agree it makes sense to maximise wood waste and to grow energy crops on land that is marginally productive for food.” The nameless experts of course provide filler without leaving a verifiable trail. But what does “maximise wood waste” mean? Perhaps before the sub came along it said “maximise biofuel production from wood waste” or something that actually made sense. Who knows. (Aside: wouldn’t it be better to sequester the carbon in wood waste and simply bury it?)

Again faceless experts are called in: “Many biologists warn there is simply not enough land on the planet … “.

Next up is an explanation that we’re supposed to take as given: “Already President Bush’s highly-subsidised drive to get fuel from the Prairies has triggered food riots in Mexico because it has pushed up the price of corn.” There’s no reference to any research or paper (or even a rent-a-quote) that claims that the riots were caused by the farming subsidies. No critical eye has been applied, just a bland “reprint whatever the press release says” approach. Are there any other possible causes? Is it possible that the riots were caused by trade agreements between Mexico and the USA? Or that the Mexican people are using this issue to protest at their government? There’s simply no investigation of alternative explanations. Big Oil says bio-fuel is bad because it causes riots, so that’s what goes to press.

Towards the end of the article we get to some quantitative blindfolding: We see that the UK government wants to produce 20% of electricity from renewable resources, but that the EU wants 20% of all energy to come from renewables. The article points out that since electricity accounts for about a quarter of all energy then that’s four times as much energy from renewables (than the UK government had in mind). Close, but no banana. What about approaches that involve producing less energy overall? If we produce less energy overall then that’s less renewable energy also. A sound article would at least mention this possibility including strategies of more energy efficient housing, more energy efficient cars, mass transport policies, aviation tax, and so on. In this BBC article? Simply not on the agenda. Of course the proportion of renewable energy is still four times higher (in the EU position versus the UK position), but the total need not be. (Aside: it’s totally bogus to set a target as a proportion, but this article isn’t about that debate)

The BBC are not a bad organisation. These days they’re just doing what everyone else is doing. Repeating without thinking. This article again is not a particularly bad article, I’ve certainly seen worse; it just happened to be the one that tipped me over into writing a blog post about bad science reporting. There are lots of example to choose from.

When you see a news article about something that you know about, how often is the article on the mark? Do you suppose that news articles about other things, things you don’t know so much about, are more accurate than those about which you know something?

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5 Responses to “The sorry state of science reporting”

  1. glorkspangle Says:

    Do you read Bad Science? http://www.badscience.net/

  2. glorkspangle Says:

    Also, what the heck does this mean:

    The oil giants have promised they would obtain their palm oil from sustainable sources; but they define this as taking oil from plantations where forests were felled more than five years ago.

    Some oil industry experts are now admitting that this makes no sense, because it simply increases overall demand for palm oil.

    How does a policy of obtaining palm oil from “sustainable” sources increase “overall demand for palm oil”? It’s just nonsense. Some oil industry experts are now admitting that this makes no sense, because flibber flobber bingle bangle boo.

  3. drj11 Says:

    I didn’t read Bad Science, but I do now. Thanks.

  4. pozorvlak Says:

    Have you read Paul Graham’s essay The Submarine?

  5. drj11 Says:

    I had read that Paul Graham essay; it was probably in the back of my mind when I wrote “Respectable PR Company”. I’d forgotten about it until you mentioned it again. Thanks.

    Hmm, it’s all too easy to get sucked into an afternoon of reading Graham’s essays even when I’ve read most of them before. I awake with a jolt… “It’s just one guy, even if he did write a really cool Lisp book”.


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