BBC’s Today program honors 60 years of science reporting

Reader Dom called my attention to two BBC pieces on science that were broadcast yesterday, the 60th anniversary of The Today “programme”. The two bits have been concatenated into one 19-minute broadcast, which you can access by clicking on the screenshot below and then clicking the right arrow when you get to the BBC site:

The participants and a brief summary:

Steve Jones (beginning to 10:15), my old mate and emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, reports on how BBC science reporting has changed since he was a young lad listening to the broadcast. In short, he says, it’s become less worshipful and more critical—a change that Jones doesn’t see as entirely salutary. He briefly reviews several big science stories over the last few decades, including the “mad cow” beef scare, Andrew Wakefield’s phony claims about vaccines and autism (Jones sees this as a “The Big Car Crash” of science reporting, which taught the press a lesson in cynicism), and reporting on climate change, which, according to Steve, emphasizes the media’s structural difficulty of dwelling “controversy” when it should be dealing more with what science really produces: consensus. Steve is, usual, eloquent.

Richard Dawkins and David Willetts (former science minister; both 10:15-end). Willetts talks about the difficulty of making political policy about science, but then states baldly that politicians must adjudicate the science itself. That gets Richard’s dander up, as he properly wants scientists and not politicians to judge scientific truth. I like Richard’s two statements on the source of truth, the second of which is this: “When it comes down to it, science is the only way, finally, to know what’s really true.” The moderator says, “There’s that word ‘true’ again, isn’t it?” Richard says, “Yes; I don’t apologize for that,” and the moderator adds a dubious “Mmmmh.” Willetts once again notes that political policy is not solely concerned with scientific truth, but with people’s valuations of truth as well as their personal interests.

Right enough, but so what? Willetts and Dawkins appear to be talking at cross-purposes, but there’s a lesson here, and of course I dwell on it because it’s m own view:  truths about the world can be established only by science, or by what I call “science broadly construed”—the toolkit  of doubt, experimentation, observation, testing, falsifiability, and consensus  that characterizes the work of not only professional scientists, but also those like historians, archaeologists, and plumbers who are trying to find out what’s true about our Universe—including where our pipes are leaking.

 

25 Comments

  1. Posted September 13, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Not sure I approve of the image they use from the Monkees – the idea of the ‘mad boffin’ has probably done a huge amount of harm to the public view of scientists. It also makes it look a male only preserve – when it should not be.

    Meanwhile, the UK government just announced the parliamentary committee for science – essentially white males with no science background-
    https://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2017/sep/13/with-its-lack-of-diversity-the-science-and-technology-committee-scores-an-own-goal

    • Posted September 13, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Slight quibble, the committee is not a *government* committee and is not announced by the government, it’s a Parliamentary committee appointed by the political parties.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 13, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      In the US politics gets in the way of science on a routine basis – with the current band of cabinet clowns in place. The latest administrative wonder is Trump’s nomination of a political hack with no science background to head NASA. He likes manned space projects but he’s a climate denier from Oklahoma, so – watch what happens to NASA’s climate research.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 13, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      Is that who the ‘young scientists’ in the picture are.

      It had not escaped my attention that the first three are holding chemical glassware containing who-knows-what but the fourth is holding a tall glass of what could be beer. I thoroughly approve.

      cr

  2. Posted September 13, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I’d agree that science is about finding the truth, and politics is something else. It’s about what we choose to do; it really is about values. Politics that denies science or interferes with science is sure to produce bad policy.

  3. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    In his “empty chair” sketch at the Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood said he didn’t like the idea lawyers running the country (evidently unaware that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had graduated from Harvard Law School).

    Regardless, I certainly don’t like the idea of lawyers or politicians adjudicating scientific truth, the disastrous effects of which are surely found in the writings of both Andrew Schlafly and Philip Johnson. Their being lawyers is not the ONLY problem, but it can be argued that they argue against relativity [Schlafly only] and evolution [both of them] using lawyer/courtroom style arguments as if appealing to a jury in an adversarial mode of discussion.

    There are likely truths not discoverable by scientific method (mathematicians since Gödel have acknowledged this), but one’s declared level of certainty about such beliefs must then be less than beliefs that can be established by natural observation.

    (Gödel’s incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure … can prove all truths about the arithmetic of the natural numbers. For any such formal system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.

    It was followed up by Tarski’s theorem that arithmetical truth cannot be defined within arithmetic.)

    =-=-=

    Michael Shermer believes we now live in a “golden age” of science reporting.

  4. Randy schenck
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    There is not much useful purpose in combining science with politics or political decision. It would be nice if it could be but generally is not. The climate change issue is a perfect example but there is far more to it in reality. Just use the recent hurricanes in the U.S. and then find some example of political action that did anything in Florida or South Texas to help the issue. Exactly the opposite and science was not asked for any input before development in these regions. Politics has helped us to disaster in these cases regardless of any science.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Just use the recent hurricanes in the U.S. and then find some example of political action that did anything in Florida or South Texas to help the issue.

      I noted reporting that of the approximately 60 tower cranes building high-rise buildings in Miami, only 2 came down in this hurricane. But that’s not because of political policy, but because of government regulation, inspection and enforcement. Which might not be a story that the current crop of politicians like to propagate.
      Having known more than a few crane operators, crane erectors, and crane inspectors over the years, I’m quite sensitive to the proposition that 2/60 cranes coming down in a hurricane is not a particularly pride-worthy achievement. It’s not as if these things are unpredictable. Though of course, disabling space-based weather forecasting data acquisition will make them unpredictable again. Or the USA will start having to buy it’s hurricane forecasting data from abroad.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 14, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        I wonder how Houston’s cranes made out during Harvey. The regulatory atmosphere there is notoriously lax.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted September 14, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

          Lax regulation and enforcement makes for dead workers. And occasionally, dead passers-by.
          As I understand it, Houston is a way inland (isn’t the port at Galveston?), which would probably reduce wind speed appreciably.
          Googling – no reported collapses since the 4-fatality one in 2008. But, as you say, a disturbingly lax implementation system, “Through a formal settlement agreement, three of the four citations were deleted and the monetary penalty reduced to $0.00. Remarkably, the solo remaining citation from the 2007 fatality was exactly the same as the one issued in the 2008 deaths,”
          Yeuch. I’m not surprised, given that, that Mike the Crane Op nearly got himself killed a couple of years ago, opening hatches as I was told.

          • rickflick
            Posted September 14, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            Yes, landfall was 150 miles south west of Houston. Probably winds downtown never topped 90 mph. Must have been the extra prayers saved ’em.

  5. loren russell
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I was listening to a BBC World broadcast last week on the expected storm surge in from Irma. The govt. scientist from the US Hurricane Center did a good job of explaining it til he added that even in fair weather there was increased flooding in Florida due in part to rising sea level [with coastal subsidence]. He obviously hit his agency’s trip wire phrase when he said “additionally, there’s a rise in sea level due to [awkward pause] due to sea level rise.”

    • Posted September 14, 2017 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      !

    • Posted September 15, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      I feel for these people – like I did with my subject-matter colleagues under the Harper government here in Canada – but sometimes I wonder if someone will just eventually create a “martyr” case. (Someone close to retirement, or the like?)

  6. dabertini
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    “I dwell on it because it’s m own view: truths about the world can be established only by science, or by what I call “science broadly construed”—the toolkit of doubt, experimentation, observation, testing, falsifiability, and consensus that characterizes the work of not only professional scientists, but also those like historians, archaeologists, and plumbers who are trying to find out what’s true about our Universe—including where our pipes are leaking.”

    And this is why I LOVE PCC(E)!

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted September 13, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I like PCC(e)for his comments on knowledge (and free speech, music, science explanations, food, cats etc) but have you noticed, contrary to the picture of the distinguished scientists at the head of this post, he has wrongly omitted white lab coats as a necessary prerequisite of truth? The index of FvF includes White, Andrew Dickson and Whitehead, Alfred North, but no White, lab coats.

  7. Paul Dymnicki
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I agree with JC, I think we are all scientists to some extent.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    “truths about the world can be established only by science”

    And we can ask, what would truth claims produced by scientific illiteracy look like? It would look like the truth claims of every religion.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 13, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      “It would look like the truth claims of every religion”….and the present US administration.

  9. Posted September 13, 2017 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Here is a thing, politicians argue, debate, character assassinate each other and try to add value to ideals and policy and in so doing polarise and shift unions about, this is excepted practice.
    But when it comes to science this is not allowable because of the truth statement. It is not exceptable or excusable to have shifting truths for whatever reason… does that smell like something familiar.
    As these truths become ‘fixed’ and the classic, e.g. earth revolves around the sun… and the delay in expectance, in this case, hundreds of years adds to the ‘is it a truth’ confused perception of truth in science.
    Of course in the above case we know who had a lot to lose and filled that vacuum with a perpetuating lie.
    In the modern world the same is happening but from multiple quarters for every crazy reason you can think of including, legitimate concerns from science about science and that is as it should be.
    I am constantly repeating, you would not have a cell phone without science, “they” seem to think it just happens, shove little hard bits together and wallah! i can see my cousin 12 thousand kms away.
    In short and i may not have explained myself like some but, science has a PR problem it needs to get out more.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 13, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Had a thought about government and politics today – lemmee try it out :

    Government and politicians are like traffic – it is easily forgotten that each of us, individually, are part of the traffic.

    • Mark R.
      Posted September 13, 2017 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      The first time I noticed being stuck in traffic (I think I noticed because my parents were groaning about it) I asked: “where is the beginning of traffic?” I pictured one or two cars way in the distance that were crawling along. My father’s answer: “there is no beginning.” That was a bit of a mind-f**k for a 5ish year old. But dammit, I think he was right. And your thought I think coincides.

  11. Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


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