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Contentions

BBC Journalists’ Reeducation

“The BBC issues a call to reason,” proclaims Politico’s Dylan Byers, referencing a Telegraph story published over the holiday weekend. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated. The story is about a new BBC policy of sending its journalists to reeducation seminars to learn how to cut balance out of the Beeb’s broadcasts. It’s notable that the trustees at the BBC found any balance to cut. But more important is how general the policy is.

Byers’s headline is “Ignore the climate change deniers,” which is how this story has generally been interpreted: as a call to stop featuring those who depart from the consensus on climate science. Byers isn’t wrong to pick up on that, as global warming does seem to be the driving force behind this new policy. But it isn’t limited to that, and whatever one thinks about that particular issue, are journalists really going to cheer a broad new policy to strike dissenting voices from news broadcasts? Here’s the Telegraph:

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

“The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.

The one fair point the BBC report makes is, as quoted by the Telegraph: “Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.” But the policy is obviously about more than whether the Earth is round. And it’s easy to see how this can go awry.

First of all, it’s important to embrace the principle that a scientific consensus should still be open to challenge because new information and discoveries are made constantly. As Michael Crichton–no stranger to the science or politics of the issue–said in his famous speech on global warming:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

Crichton was considered sufficiently threatening to the global warming consensus that he earned a denunciation in congressional testimony from climate fraud Al Gore, who, though a former vice president of the United States, was punching well above his weight on this topic. (I also remember being warned against Crichton’s anti-global warming novel State of Fear–by the bookstore employee ringing up my sale. “It’s right-wing propaganda,” said the cashier, whose opinion I didn’t ask and whose job was supposedly to sell the books in his store.)

But again, the point is not just about global warming. The BBC’s reeducation events are aimed at more than this subject, and it’s pretty easy to see where this general policy is going. The BBC report talks about issues that are supposedly, in the phrasing of the Telegraph story, “non-contentious” and views that are “widely dismissed.” The phrase the BBC report itself uses is “marginal opinion.”

The media personalities of the Western left are notoriously susceptible to epistemic closure. Telling reporters already loath to feature dissenting voices that they should ignore “marginal opinion” and that which is often dismissed by others is a recipe for disaster for news reporting. It’s not so much the directive to tone down opposition voices on one story such as global warming–though that in itself is troublesome–but the broader culture of ignorance that can so easily sprout from employees sent to conferences to learn how to dismiss those with whom they are inclined to disagree.


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