Too much “fairness” reflects a limited understanding of science

“The Boston Globe today featured a lead article and several columns in response to a commission’s finding that CBS News misrepresents science by over-indulging the views of fringe or crackpot ‘experts’ in the network’s extensive coverage of major science issues.”

Right. Like that would ever happen. Extensive science coverage? An independent evaluation of the accuracy of science coverage by a major news outlet? Come on. Not in the good ol’ US of A.

But the equivalent has happened in England, where the Guardian has devoted both a lead story and several columns to similar findings in a commission’s investigation of science coverage on the BBC. To yank Robert Browning rather roughly out of context, “Oh to be in England now.”

Not only did other English media cover the story, the BBC has announced that it will revise its science coverage on TV, radio, and the Internet in response to the criticisms. Imagine. “Yes, we see what you’re saying. We’ll change the way we do things. Thank you for pointing out the problem. We appreciate being held to account for the way we report the news.” Despite a sneaking suspicion that the alacrity of the BBC’s willingness to embrace its critics could have something to do with the feeding frenzy over the reporting tactics of MurdochCorp, you have to give a thumbs up to the BBC. The old girl still has a sense of public responsibility.

And the main thrust of the criticism has nothing to do with the BBC taking an overtly biased position on the news it reports. Quite the contrary. The BBC’s primary fault is bending over too far backward to appear to be “fair and balanced,” as the saying goes. It seems that whenever the BBC reports a new scientific finding on certain “controversial” issues, the network goes out of its way to “balance” its coverage by giving equal prominence to an “expert” representing “the other side” of the “controversy.”

It doesn’t matter if there isn’t any scientific controversy. In those cases — which include most of the science relevant to the issues listed in the previous paragraph — any old fringe viewpoint will do. The Guardian reports:

Commissioned last year to assess impartiality and accuracy in BBC science coverage across television, radio and the internet, the review said the network was at times so determined to be impartial that it put fringe views on a par with well-established fact: a strategy that made some scientific debates appear more controversial than they were.

The criticism was particularly relevant to stories on issues such as global warming, GM and the MMR vaccine, where minority views were sometimes given equal weighting to broad scientific consensus, creating what the report describes as “false balance”.

The artificial construction of “false balance” is a key part of the general public’s misunderstanding of both how science works and what its findings represent. If I say that 2×3=6 and you say that it equals 8, that’s not evidence that both positions are equally valid, or equally wrong — or that the right answer is somewhere around 7. “False compromise” is a well-known informal fallacy, but few of the casual consumers of popular media are clear about it.

Worse, by “balancing” every empirically supported scientific consensus with an opposite viewpoint that may have limited or no scientific support, media reinforce several serious misperceptions.

First, the simple act of giving “fair” coverage to an opposing opinion of little scientific value lends credibility to that position, no matter how extreme. “He must be saying something sensible — I saw him on the BBC.”

Related to this is the concurrent debasing of the entire concept of “weight of evidence.” If the scientists say X, and the Scientologists say Y, are their opinions really “equally valid interpretations” if X is determined by years of peer-reviewed research, while Y is an inspired interpretation of a science fiction novel?

The “equally valid interpretations” notion has been used to considerable negative effect, perhaps most notably by the ID crowd, who were delighted when then-President Bush II answered a question about the place of the study of evolution in high school science classes with the movement’s mantra, “Teach the controversy.” Never mind that there isn’t a controversy, just a solid scientific theory naysaid by true believers uninterested in such trivia as scientific evidence.

This last tactic of the anti-science fanatics is dramatically recounted in a Guardian  companion column by noted psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt.

Nutt recalls a regional radio program in which he appeared to address a Tory government initiative to scale back funding for proven heroin treatments like methadone. For “balance,” he was paired with an advocate of “Just Say No,” who favours abstinence as a way to end addiction. Nutt writes:

She was not interested in scientific studies showing that substitution or maintenance treatment worked, continuing to pursue the claim that abstinence was a proven alternative.

When I asked for scientific evidence to back up [her] claims, she made the remarkable statement that her “personal” evidence of efficacy for recovery programs was as valid as the scientific studies I was quoting. I was almost speechless, more because of the complete lack of any sense of insight into the absurdity of her statement than in the substance of her claims. When evidence becomes what is – in the words of the Red Queen, “what I say it is” – then we are really in trouble.

On another occasion, Nutt found himself faced off against Peter Hitchens, who disagreed with a study claiming that alcohol, not cannabis, was the most dangerous drug in England. Nutt recalls the event this way:

The interview was remarkable for several reasons and led to a high number of complaints from listeners about his behaviour. First he asserted that the study was of very poor scientific quality, for no reason other than that we came to a conclusion he didn’t like – that cannabis was not as harmful as alcohol. He continued to harangue and talk over me when I tried to explain our scientific method and interpret the findings.

It could have been worse, of course; at least he didn’t pursue a claim previously made in the Daily Mail, that I was a “ninny-brained menace to the nation’s youth”. 

Hitchens responded to the criticism, arguing that Nutt’s position on alcohol vs. cannabis, which Nutt favours legalizing, is a social and political stance, not science, and is therefore no better than anyone else’s opinion. Hitchens’s response does not address the fact that Nutt’s opinion is based on specific evidence of relative harm, while his own is backed by no  research at all. In this way of looking at things, it seems, all opinions are equal, no matter how they have been derived. Again, science is degraded.

There is more than a tinge of “What makes him better’n me?” in all of this. If I hold an opinion, I don’t want to be told that it’s worthless just because I have no reason for holding it beyond the fact that I do, in fact, hold it. That’s pretty goldarn anti-egalitarian, isn’t it?

Well, yes, I guess it is. And in this case, which has nothing to do with your vote counting as much as mine, or with your money being as good as mine, that’s just the way it is.

In my opinion.