25 January 2011

Science under attack – updated with Youtube links to the video

Posted by Dave Petley

NB this is now available on Youtube – there is a link at the foot of the page.

The BBC broadcast a documentary last night with the above title as part of the Horizon series, presented by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize winner.  The programme, which was excellent, sought to examine a strange paradox.  Modern society is essentially built upon the fruits of scientific endeavour, and science is an essential part of our future if we are to continue to maintain an advanced lifestyle.  Despite this, public trust in scientists has been declining rapidly and is now at a low ebb.

Sir Paul sought to explore this problem primarily through a review of the science of climate change.  He first demonstrated the strength and diversity of the datasets upon which our understanding of the climate system is built, and the robustness of the interpretations and models that have resulted.  He then interviewed two leading proponents of the deniers’ position.  The first was a climate scientist (Professor Fred Singer), who claimed that climate change is caused by the sun through cosmic ray variation (one wonders how many more times this theory can be debunked).  The second was the Daily Telegraph’s online blogger James Delingpole, a key player in the storm in a teacup Climategate “scandal”, who popped up in the programme twice.  He was surprisingly (and frankly rather amusingly) floored by a simple explanation of consensus (take a look – it occurs about 28 minutes and 30 seconds into the programme), and then later in the programme (about 40 minutes 15 seconds into the piece) explained that in his view peer review is now “irredeemably corrupted”, replaced by “peer-to-peer review”.  This is of course an extraordinary position to take, and is far from the reality of the scientific world.  Delingpole described his role as being that of an “interpreter of interpretations” – i.e. that he writes about other peoples’ interpretations of the peer reviewed science.  Such a fragmented line of communication, especially when the initial interpreter may not actually be in a position to interpret the science properly, or may have a particular political perspective, inevitably leads to the problems that science now faces.  As an aside, I am surprised that Delingpole was so apparently willing to undermine his own role, but he I guess he will claim that he was misrepresented through clever editing.

The programme also briefly looked at similar issues around genetically modified crops and denial of HIV being responsible for AIDS, demonstrating that here sections of the public are willing to set aside the robust scientific evidence for theories based upon weak lines of argument and misunderstandings.

Sir Paul ended the programme by emphasising the importance of scientists engaging with the public in communicating their findings effectively.  I could not agree more, which of course is one of the reasons for blogging.

The programme is available for the next four weeks on the BBC iPlayer here:


UPDATE: The first part of the video can also be found on youtube here, and should be visible below: 


The remaining sections are here:

Hopefully it will be made permanently available.  It is well worth an hour of your time (and that of your students if you teach at a High School or University).