BBC 2’s Horizon -Science under attack- recently covered the issue of science in the media and why so much of the public simply gets the facts wrong. Presented by 2001’s Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse, it examines the ways in which research by scientists gets skewed on its way to the public via media. The pertinent example if fore lays is ‘Climategate’, yet another term coined from the infamous ‘gate’ of the 1970s. James Delingpole, an online correspondent for The Telegraph, wrote an article condemning the idea of climate change as an exaggerated twist of scientific knowledge. He exposed supposed fraudulent emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia back in 2009. Delingpole understood the emails to be scandalous, revealing a “manipulation” of scientific evidence.
Sir Paul Nurse visited Professor Phil Jones at CRU to unearth the truth about one particular email that was being used to prove the misleading truth of climate change. In it, the email contained the phrase “Mike’s nature trick… to hide the decline”, which apparently backed up claims that scientists had something to conceal. What Sir Nurse goes on to uncover is that this phrase relates to the simplification of data for presentation. Trees up to 1000s of years old are used to extract information regarding climate change in a form of dendrochronology. Prof Jones has been using this method to chart climate change over the centuries. However, from the 60s onwards the tree-ring evidence stopped matching up with thermometers. The cause of this is unknown. When asked to present a graph of his findings, he needed to find a way round this problem. He used the tree rings’ readings alongside the thermometers’, splicing the evidence.
Freedom to information?
It was this perceived dupe that led an international gasp at science. Without knowing, or understanding, the reason for “Mike’s nature trick”, the media the world over began citing it as proof that science was as corrupt as any other institution. Prof Jones said in his Horizon interview that a number of the climate change skeptics just wanted to use these emails for their own purposes to cast doubt on science. The show also deals with the issue that Prof Jones was reluctant to release data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). Prof Jones told Horizon that over a weekend in July 2009, CRU received 60 requests for the data. Deciding this was a form of harassment, Prof Jones refused. Similar requests made in 2007 had been granted. Sir Nurse pointed out, “Scientists do have to be open with their data.”
The obligation of science
Sir Nurse was forgiving of the media and concluded that it was science’s responsibility to be upfront about their findings. Conducting his own opinion poll, Sir Nurse discovered that one main reason for people’s distrust of genetically modified food was down to it containing genes, which of course all food does. It wasn’t an ignorance test; Sir Nurse was merely pointing out the need for scientists not to assume we know what they’re talking about. The episode deals with other controversies surrounding science, but the conclusive message is that science needs to be candid with the media, but what about the reverse?
Where responsibility lies
What the show failed to express is the media’s obligation to obtain all the facts, or at least as many as possible. It seems that in relation to ‘Climategate’ reporters hurdled onto a theory without enough people picking up a phone to learn the explanation. More and more nowadays, the public is not only distrusting of science, and politics, but media. Each of these systems is supposed to be in place to support and develop society, with media at the forefront of coalescing institutions in the public’s mind. So while science needs to speak up, the media needs to listen.