BBC Journalists Told to Stop Giving Airtime to Crackpots. Finally.

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 7 2014 7:30 AM

Stop Giving Airtime to Crackpots

teach the controversy
Denier math.

Photo by Teach the Controversy T-shirts, which are fantastic.

Oh, I do so love this. It’s precisely the right thing to do, sorely needed and sorely overdue. In this specific case, back in 2012 the BBC was criticized for news shows inviting on people with fringe views, especially when the science being discussed was solidly understood.

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Obviously, the topic most abused in this way was the reality of global warming. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying any attention at all.

But more broadly, most TV news shows do this, especially when they are done with a talk show format. It’s all too easy for a news program or other venue with a biased ideological objective (cough cough Fox News cough Wall Street Journal cough) to bring on people who sound authoritative, but who are in fact simply cranks or contrarians with outlandish claims. This sort of bias sows doubt, which is far easier to do than to debunk it.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

In other subjects, it’s possible for honest people with different values to come down on different sides of a debate. But when it comes to science, especially firmly established and consensually agreed-upon science, putting on some crackpot who disagrees is not “fair and balanced.”

News shows don’t put on a flat-earther whenever they show a map. They don’t get an opposing opinion from a young-Earth creationist when a new dinosaur fossil is found. They don’t interview an astrologer when a new exoplanet is discovered. So why put on a climate change denier when we’re talking about our planet heating up?

I’ll note that giving cranks the boot is only Step 1. What’s Step 2? Stop electing them to office. I can name a dozen reality-denying national politicians without breaking a sweat, as I’ve done many times on the blog. But I’d like to shine a light specifically on Kentucky state Sen. Brandon Smith (R-Hazard), who actually and really and truly let these words fall from his mouth:

As you (Energy & Environment Cabinet official) sit there in your chair with your data, we sit up here in ours with our data and our constituents and stuff behind us. I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.

If your brain survived that onslaught, then I’ll dispute that. The average temperature on Earth is very roughly 14° C (57°F). The average temperature of Mars is -55°C (-67° F). Not really “exactly the same”.

Ironically, if Mars ever did have the same temperature as Earth, it would be due to global warming from the greenhouse effect. The atmosphere of the Red Planet is less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s, but it’s mostly carbon dioxide. That gas raises the planet’s temperature a few degrees. On Earth, given our distance from the Sun and other factors, the average temperature should hover around freezing. Thanks to greenhouse gases like CO2, it’s far more clement … but since we’re adding huge amounts of carbon dioxide to our air, it won’t stay that way for much longer.

People would actually be a whole lot better off if those coal mines were on Mars.

Just as we’d be a whole lot better off if all our politicians acknowledged the reality of reality and our media kicked folks who think otherwise to the curb. I applaud the BBC for its stance (as well as the L. A. Times and other venues), and hope to see a lot, lot more of this in the near future.

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