How an Online Petition Exposed BBC Bias

“To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”

And with this statement, the BBC proved that it was a science denier. Why? Because as far as I am aware, no formal, coherent, man-made climate change theory has been proposed. Moreover, the climate change assumptions that have been proposed and packaged together have certainly not attained the level of an unassailable scientific law. What has been proposed has, to this point, only achieved the level of an opinion or conjecture. At best, all we have is a collection of hypotheses. Anyone can make a hypothesis. The problem is in substantiating the hypothesis with valid research. There is no positive or negative in research. Whether the research supports or undermines a hypothesis makes no difference since the ultimate goal of science is to discover the truth. Cherry picking research that only seems to support a pre-existing viewpoint undermines the fundamentals of scientific research, and this is what the BBC has been doing.

The word ‘theory’ is often misused. Let’s look at a two ‘theories’ to see the difference between a scientific theory and a conjecture. Creationist Theory, for example, is a conjecture. It is not a theory in the scientific sense because the basis for it is unfalsifiable. An unfalsifiable theory is one based on a premise that cannot be proved or disproved. You can’t disprove there is a creator but you can’t prove it in any scientific way either. For this reason, such theories are scientifically useless. The Theory of Evolution is a true scientific theory. It posits that living organisms change over time. Parts of the theory are based on factual observations (changes in the structure of an organism over time can be seen in the fossil record) while parts of it are based on interpretations of the mechanisms behind the changes. The mechanisms behind the changes can be tested and debated. We would not call those who presented research to debate these mechanisms ‘evolution deniers’. We would call them scientists.

When the BBC gave its blessing to man-made climate change, they attempted, by fiat, to move it from a scientific proposal or hypothesis to an undeniable fact. Branding those who do not accept their declaration as ‘deniers’ effectively closed the door on science and scientific debate. Even worse, the BBC advanced the perception that climate change proposals should be treated more like religious beliefs that are sacrosanct. Those who do not support their beliefs are then, by definition, heretics. Any alternative opinions or scientific inquiries, no matter how rigorously conducted, that threaten this core belief must, therefore, be disallowed. All opinions, studies, or research that endangers their core beliefs must be ignored, ridiculed, or demeaned.

By the same token, the BBC would be forced to support any study, no matter how spurious, that supported their core beliefs. This they have done repeatedly to the detriment of their reputation. In September, they quickly jumped on an article published in the science journal, Nature, which claimed the oceans were warming 60% faster than previously thought. Shortly after publication, the mathematics behind the study were found to be erroneous. Nature printed a sort of apology and later forced the authors to retract the article. The BBC, then, blamed the journal for their own promotion of the story. But there have been a number of retractions by the BBC for falsely attributing to climate change events that had no relation to climate change at all, such as their reports on the declining reindeer populations in Russia. However, this is what happens when you try to interpret events through a tinted filter. Conspiracy theorists do this all of the time. With all evidence to the contrary, they see only what they want to see.

All this is to say that any reports on climate change made by the BBC should be treated with healthy scientific skepticism. And that finally brings me to the main point of this post; a recent report claiming that 11,000 scientists have declared a “climate emergency”. It was, unsurprisingly, the lead story on the BBC and other high profile media outlets.

From a pure scientific perspective, this report should raise certain fundamental questions. Who were these scientists? What ‘science’ were they experts in? How was the information gathered? What data led them to declare an emergency?

First of all, the names of these scientists were gathered from their signing of an online petition. Their signing would show their agreement to certain principles and assertions delineated in an article published in BioScience, entitled, World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, written by members of the Alliance of World Scientists from Oregon State University (sadly, the same school from which I received my geology degree).

BioScience is a legitimate journal affiliated with the American Institute of Biological Sciences which is “a non-profit scientific association that is dedicated to advancing biological research and education”. At first glance, you may be confused as to what the article/petition has to do with the goals of the publication. However, BioScience has an opinion section called, Viewpoint, and this is where they published the article. Viewpoint articles are considered as non-technical articles and must be peer reviewed. Those reviews must be paid for on a per page basis. If an author wants the public to have free access to an article, they will have to pay an additional fee. This article has this status, meaning that the Alliance of World Scientists paid to have the article published.

The problem here is that the BBC and other mainstream media treated the article as a scientific document and not as an opinion piece. Scientists signing the petition showed agreement to the opinions of the authors and nothing more. Keep in mind that science is not democratic. Simply having a large number of people agree with an idea does not make it a scientific fact. If this were true, few scientists, in his day, would have agreed with Copernicus when he posited the counterintuitive idea that the Earth revolved around the sun. There is currently another petition signed by over 30,000 scientists who disagree with the idea of global warming. Does this mean they are correct because they have more signatures?

Valid signatures are an important element in determining the worthiness of a good petition. I wanted to review the names of the scientists who supported the view that the world was on the brink of a climate emergency so I clicked on the following link on the Alliance of World Scientists’ website.

signatories

Unfortunately, when I visited the page, this is what I found.

sigs unavailable

So what issue are they working on? Their website states that, “during our original signature screening process, we attempted to remove all signatures that appeared to be invalid. Although, a few invalid ones were missed. We are thoroughly reviewing the full list at the moment and will make further updates if required.”

The fact is that some scientists who signed the list appeared to have questionable credentials. This included one Micky (sic) Mouse from the Micky Mouse Institute of the Blind in Namibia. As one confused Twitter user remarked.

mouse

Do such oversights undermine the article? Not really, because it’s an opinion piece and some readers may not like the opinions expressed in the article. It would be unusual if they did not try to denigrate these opinions with bogus signatures. I think what is more telling is the fact that, of the scientists who signed the article, only around 100 had even a tangential connection to climate science. Sure, scientists can have opinions like everyone else, but to report the article as if it were a scientific document, as the BBC did, is simply poor journalism.

The idea behind most petitions is to use them as political cudgels. With enough signatures, those initiating a petition hope to influence law makers. This is, indeed, possible but only if that petition has a high level of validity: that is, it accurately represents the beliefs of the qualified individuals who signed it.

Petitions designed to be used as political tools are on the increase and will increase even more before major elections. Recently, I received an opportunity to sign such a petition. It came from a group named, DiEM25, which describes itself as “a pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats.” The petition they wanted me to sign was one that would stop Brexit. In the email they sent me, they wrote, “note that you can participate in DiEM25’s votes no matter your nationality and location”. So it appears that anyone on planet Earth can sign the petition. This seems more like an attempt to gather a large number of signatures, valid or not, than anything else. Apparently, their hope is that these signatures will not be scrutinized. The additional hope is that the media will notice the petition, undoubtedly at the designers’ bequest, and promote their viewpoint. There is power in numbers.

There are now websites that will guide you through making your own petition. Some will even show you how to get media support for your petition. Basically, there are petitions on everything, from allowing backyard chickens to telling Pope Francis to promote vegan diets. No, I’m not kidding.

The U.S. government even has a site where you can start a petition. Here you will find petitions to “Impeach Nancy Pelosi for Crimes of Treason” (281,000 signatures) to “Release Donald Trump’s Tax Returns” (1,100,000 signatures). If the petition reaches a certain threshold, it will be sent to the White House for review. Good luck on that.

A key factor that BBC never checked on was whether or not the petition was ‘bot proof’; that is, does it have in place elements to prevent a network of bots from adding fake names to the petition. You can no longer sign the petition, but I found I was able to get the sign in information from an associated site, Scientistswarning.org. The form, however, no longer works.

Form bots are designed to seek out and fill out forms. There are some basic ways websites can try to prevent this. They can, for example, use CAPTCHAs or reCAPTCHAs, even though good bots can circumvent these. However, the Scientists Warning site does not use these. Another way to stop form bots is to have a confirmation email sent to the email address used to register, but I could not complete the form to find out if Scientists Warning used this technique. However, no information is given on this by the organization, so I would doubt that they would use this technique. Older bots can be fooled by using javascript on the form. Some of the dropdown lists may be in javascript and may prevent older form bots from registering. However, bots can be designed to look for particular instances of javascript and complete such fields in a form. In short, the form seems susceptible to form bots. The bot designers would really only need a list of names and email addresses (both readily available on deep web sites) and program a bot to insert them and other registering information into the appropriate fields in the form. It does not appear that either BioScience or the BBC looked into this possibility.

No one who listens to the BBC will believe they are unbiased, and this does not only apply to their promotion of climate change rhetoric at every opportunity. If only they followed their own guidelines, they would not be in such a predicament with regard to the BioScience article. The guidelines state,

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities and think-tanks) are unbiased.”

 They should have added, “unless their bias agrees with our own”. Maybe this is simply the new journalism. Perhaps the days of impartiality have passed and media outlets have realized that they cannot survive without taking a side. It certainly seems that they have abandoned their basic guideline on maintaining viewer and listener trust as shown below.

“Our commitment to impartiality is at the heart of that relationship of trust. In all our output we will treat every subject with an impartiality that reflects the full range of views. We will consider all the relevant facts fairly and with an open mind.”

Sadly, those days are gone.

rip

 

 

 

 

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