Auntie – your slip is showing

Time for the Beeb to rethink its appearance on at least one aspect of science reporting.

I was gobsmacked by Tuesday’s news predicting a sunspot cycle shutdown.  I mean, yes I have been following the science, theories  and speculation about the quiet sun on Watts up with That and Tallbloke’s Talkshop, but it was a big shock to hear the announcement.  It’s been well covered in the MSM – The Telegraph: New Little Ice Age in store? – The Daily Mail: Earth facing a mini-Ice Age ‘within ten years’ due to rare drop in sunspot activity (commendably discussing much of the science in detail) – The Guardian: Solar cycle may go into ‘hibernation’, scientists say.

I did catch a 20 second report on the Thursday morning 8am news on BBC Radio 4:

“Scientists in the United States say the sun appears to be entering a period of hibernation, with far fewer sunspots than have been expected. A previous quiet episode in the middle of the 17thC is said by some experts to have led to cooler temperatures on Earth.”

No more than an understated sound bite. No experts trotted out to discuss it, nothing.

Here we have possibly one of the biggest stories in years about our nearest star, on which we depend for our very existence. It might be based on preliminary, as yet unverified and unpublished data, but it was big enough and important enough to merit a press release and teleconference by the American Astronomical Society Solar Physics Division. Even without considering climate – just as a science story – this is important. Mainstream science expected to see a normal solar cycle and can’t explain the cause of a sun this quiet. Surely this aspect alone merited a mention by a BBC Science Correspondent on the BBC website – no?

In the past week the BBC News Science & Environment website has had the following astronomical articles: Skywatchers enjoy lunar eclipse (of course), and Massive black hole devours star (understandable), but Stunning green ring nebula imaged, and Messenger spies Mercury in detail too.  Nothing about the sunspot story; why not? We’ve all seen the BBC speculate on less.

The BBC’s top web ‘sunspot’ story,  dates from 2004 – Sunspots reaching 1,000-year high. This also covered a paper presented at an astronomy meeting – on a reconstruction of beryllium in ice cores.  Written by Dr David Whitehouse (BBC News Online science editor) it too is about climate.

… the reconstruction shows the Maunder Minimum and the other minima that are known in the past thousand years.

[...]

Over the past 20 years, however, the number of sunspots has remained roughly constant, yet the average temperature of the Earth has continued to increase.

This is put down to a human-produced greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Back to this week’s big story… it is mentioned on the BBC website – Solar predictions bring heat and light by the BBC’s Environment Correspondent Richard Black.

Huh?

Black commits hardly any more words to the science than the Radio 4 news but instead  focuses on one thing – playing down the speculation of the possible effect on climate, diminishing any possible significance or effects that might be attributed to it. He sneers the at the response of The Register “the science story of the century” and James Delingpole for “treating it as fact” in a tongue-in-cheek 10 reasons to be cheerful about the coming new Ice Age.

Instead he offers three reasons why it should be ignored.

Firstly, the research itself has been presented at one rather small and rather select science meeting – not, as yet, formally published and peer reviewed.

OK – but ‘select’ does not mean biased – this is not a meeting of climate scientists ;-)  Yes of course it needs to be dissected and go through peer review, but as above, it would hardly be the first time the BBC has reported on conference science.

Soundings taken by dot.earth’s Andy Revkin suggest that not everyone in the solar physics community likes what they’ve seen – so publication could yet prove a hurdle.

I say again, this is not climate science – let’s hope solar physics can still hold up its head  and function properly as a science without a cabal looking to stifle new theories. This is based on evidence – you know – measurements compared with what we have seen in the past, not just models and projections. Of course evidence can be misread as to what it means, but the evidence in this case  – three separate lines of observation no less each showing the lack of a normal cycle progression – is news even without the prediction.

Secondly, the predictions made about the next solar cycle would have to turn into reality – which might not happen, however sound the science.

Now let’s turn that one back on climate science – catastrophic global warming might not happen, however sound the science ;-)

Thirdly, even if all that happens, the Sun’s activity would have to diminish enough to overwhelm the man-made contribution to the greenhouse effect.

Black’s article then rolls out a tidal wave of ‘there is so much published material supporting global warming’ and ‘latest studies suggest warming will overwhelm cooling’.  He ends with:

The battle for public opinion on climate change is largely fought with memes; and solar changes leading to a cooling planet is one of them.

On this battleground, where the bigger picture can be conveniently forgotten, it has proven remarkably persistent.

Part of its appeal is that it has some scientific grounding; but it melts away in the light of the bigger research picture, and that’s why it has little credence in mainstream scientific circles as a major factor in modern-day temperature fluctuations.

Time will tell – we’ll just have to wait and see. Overall it is an exercise in ‘move along nothing to see here’ and does him and the BBC no credit.

The comments below the article are delicious too. If you list them by ranking the high ranked ones are sceptical while the low ranked ones are overtly warmist* pro-AGW; this pattern is repeated over and over on newspaper coverage of the story.  No wonder Richard’s post smacks of desperation.

With a government adviser last week saying “Climate change should be removed from the national curriculum” – that the school syllabus needs to “get back to the science in science”, it is time for the BBC to recognise the need for change too. Heck, even the populist Daily Mail has it beaten on this one.

*Altered 02Oct2011 in line with new policy: http://diggingintheclay.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/cleaning-house/ VJ.

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10 Responses to Auntie – your slip is showing

  1. John F. Hultquist says:

    I have been following the science, theories and speculation . . .”

    I agree there is science being done.
    Same with speculation.
    Theories — there is the problem.

    Our level of understanding is at about the classical level of air, earth, fire, and water. Okay, some exaggeration there. I hope to live long enough to see them make some sense of what the Sun is doing and how that impacts Earth. I don’t think Earth’s changing climate will come clear until the oceans are better understood. They receive a big input from the Sun so …?

    I have to accept your surprise at the BBC as valid because of my lack of knowledge regarding what they do. It could be that no one there knows what to make of this development. We are told by many that this is going to be really bad. The “how” is still speculation. Best to watch and wait.

    • Verity Jones says:

      This is just another example and it is not just the bias on climate but its whole science reporting these days. A ‘independent review’ is apparently underway – but will it be another ‘pal review’? We seem to expect those these days ;-) BBC to launch review into allegations of bias in its science coverage (6th Jan 2010)

      The BBC has been criticised for its reporting of science stories in recent months and it has been accused of failing to cover the climate change debate objectively.

      (This was essentially over the climategate emails, which the BBC said it knew about long before it reported on them.)

      Peter Sissons, the veteran newsreader, claimed last year that it was now “effectively BBC policy” to stifle critics of the consensus view on global warming.

      Sisson’s memoirs described how it was heresy at the BBC to question claims about climate change http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1350206/BBC-propaganda-machine-climate-change-says-Peter-Sissons.html

      From the beginning I was unhappy at how one-sided the BBC’s coverage of the issue was, and how much more complicated the climate system was than the over-simplified two-minute reports that were the stock-in-trade of the BBC’s environment correspondents.

      Environmental pressure groups could be guaranteed that their press releases, usually beginning with the words ‘scientists say…’ would get on air unchallenged.

      Adding a few blog comment qhotes:
      “Many thanks to MOT and the contributors for such a comprehensive, lucid and scientific presentation. It should be shown here in Britain. Once upon a time the BBC Horizon science programme might have provided such a service, but not now in the current ‘dumb-down’ and pro-AGW phase of our ‘leading’ TV broadcaster.” comment at WUWT

      “The stuff of “The Hockey Stick Illusion” is one of the great scandals of our time. Once upon a time, the BBC Horizon, or the ABC “4 corners” would have made an hour long program investigating and reporting something like this. Instead they are still disgracefully complicit by saying nothing.” comment at WUWT

      Nevermind climate, the dumbing down of science in general on the BBC (although they are not alone on this) is something about which I get quite hot under the collar, and I’m not the only one. Most annoying is the constant recapping in factual programmes, and it is not just the ‘for viewers who might just have switched over’ type, nor just after Ad breaks (on non BBC progammes). It seems that programme makers don’t think of their audience as able to follow an argument or hold a thought for more than five minutes.

  2. Verity Jones says:

    Calling the BBC ‘Auntie’ is rather outdated, but from the reasons why it got such a nickname – here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-23572,00.html – I think we should take it up again.

    “…demonstrated daily that they knew what was best for listeners and later on the viewers.This was derided by critics as the “Auntie knows best” syndrome.”

    “It was originally a put down, inferring that the BBC did not listen to critism, advice or requests from people other than themselves. “Auntie knows best, Dear!”.”

  3. Pascvaks says:

    Off with her head! That be where the problem be. Though she does have a might of a problem in the overhang (or hangover) arena when she mounts a barstool too. (the talent is hidden under the fat methinks)

    • Verity Jones says:

      Indeed. The BBC could do with going under the knife – but not just for cosmetic reasons. They have mistaken quantity for quality in many areas. More BBC staff were at both the Summer and Winter Olympics than British athletes – and the BBC did not even film at the winter games.

      They seem more keen on presenting analysis and speculation about the news – but only of the stories they decide are important – than the actual news itself. It is no wonder more and more people are turning to the internet.

  4. John F. Hultquist says:

    I’m being reminded of Walter Cronkite being voted the most trusted man in America. Here is a summary from someone else, Russ Vaughn, that apparently wasn’t asked about him

    http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/05/the_most_trusted_man_in_americ.html

  5. E.M.Smith says:

    Over on this side of the Pond, the “BBC America” edition has turned the Beeb into a set of old US reruns.

    Long gone is the place where I could get my “UK Fix” and a bit of brush-up on the culture of “the old country”. Now they run Star Trek TNG and Battlestar Galactica… Yeah, that’s British Culture for you…

    My guess is that they have succumbed to “market share” driven design.

    The marketing thesis that has gained favor (at least over here) is that (even for things like hardware stores) you ought to rank your products each year. Kill off the 10% that are least profitable, and add more of the 10% that are most profitable. The idea is that over time you maximize profit.

    The Problem…

    Clothes (especially made in China) have very high profit margins. Bolts and Epsom Salts have very low margins.

    So slowly, over the years, the local hardware store has had fewer nuts, bolts, screws, and light bulbs and ever more clothes. The drug store has now added some cothes. It’s only a matter of time, now, until every store will be a clothing store…

    So the BBC has, IMHO, done a ‘survey’ that found the SciFy channel out sold it. Now I’m up to my eyeballs in US Science Fiction on “BBC America”… So the GHG thesis fits right in ;-)

    At any rate, my guess is that they have seen the “solar cooling” writing on the wall and are trying to get in front of it and assert that any failure of the GHG thesis is not really a failure, just a “pause”, and it will come roaring back even worse once the sun wakes up, so this is Our LAST CHANCE!!!! and we need to jump on the bandwagon now (as we’ve been given a brief reprieve from our sins…)

    I used to watch BBC rather a lot. Now, it’s just another American TV Channel. No interest to me, but probably markets better to Joe Sixpack in Detroit…

    • Verity Jones says:

      My guess is they’ve realised they make more by NOT showing the decent stuff. Relatives in the US regularly buy BBC DVDs, especially the ‘classic humour’ and period dramas. That’s one side of the BBC that is quite happy to be driven by market forces and ideology be damned. Top Gear for example apparently makes so much money for the BBC that presenter Jeremy Clarkson can get away with being deliciously un-PC and mocking climate change.

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