“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.
The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places
no one has ever seen before.”
BBC Panorama, on 'The Zika Baby Crisis'
- a travesty of scientific reporting.
When the BBC Trust aims to ensure reliable reporting in science programmes, screening a programme that fails to meet even the basic requirement for open-minded analysis challenges the concept of caution in the face of uncertainty
10th March 2016
I LISTENED to an interesting ethics discussion last night on Radio 4. In ' The Moral Maze', Michael Burke interviewed a number of witnesses on the topic of morality in science. One witness was Belinda Phipps, CEO of the Science Council.
I have had several long discussions with her about this issue recently in the context of the increasingly insistant attempts to regulate science practitioners, to bring all us mavericks into the official comfortable bureaucratic fold.
This relies on complex (and quite costly) mechanisms such as registration for Chartered Scientist status, under the cosy umbrella of a reputable Professional Society. In fact this impressive pseudo-qualification is one that I recently decided was really rather silly and pointless, and so returned as 'not needed on voyage!'
Ms. Phipps' and her Council's approach is that ALL scientists should be formally registered as such, like medical Doctors and nurses.
In such a draconian move, anyone not so registered would not be allowed to – well, being forbidden to actually practice science might be going a bit too far (at least at present), but at least it seems that they should not be permitted to refer to themselves as 'scientists'.
(Would offenders be struck off, I wondered, and henceforth be forced to live out their sad existence in chaotic ignorance and arbitrary decison-making?)
The Science Council charges for professional registration and the annual exercise of Continued Professional Development (CPD) is an activity that is ridiculously easy to circumvent. But the Council is actively trying to expand its grip on the registration of candidates.
So it might be thought that the Council has a vested interest in establishing such a universal registration system, so her failure to disclose this interest seems to have been a little unfortunate.
The BBC and its fear of 'science cranks'.
The BBC itself hit the headlines back in 2011, after the Trust received the Jones Report. Famous snail biologist Prof. Steve Jones expressed serious concern that much of the science relied on by the media actually originates in press reports (true), and that reliance on scientifically unqualified opinion to provide balance in science debates rendered the BBC open to criticism (less so - depends on what you consider 'qualified' to mean)
The direction that the BBC should follow was clear – the criterion for judging the acceptability of opinions would, from then on, be the presumption that a consensus on any subject must first exist. By extension, then, holders of any differing views on the validity of the prevailing consensus would be regarded, potentially at least, as unreliable – cranky, even – and so could be automatically excluded from those debates.
Precisely how this might operate in the case of scientists who have been 'properly' registered by Learned Societies and the Science Council remains an unanswered question.
Staying with 'The In Crowd' - conforming to the prevailing consensus.
Shortly afterwards, following Prof, Jones' recommendations, the Trust announced that it would be sending its science correspondents and producers on new training courses.
The objective? To teach programme producers how to identify science cranks, so that they could exclude them from debates and avoid 'false balance'!
That science is heavily dependent on dissident views, adequately explored, to generate new science, seems to have escaped the Trust and, indeed, one of its principal advisers.
Albert Einstein was a humble patent clerk when he devised his revolutionary theory of relativity, and would certainly now be excluded from debate by the BBC had his breakthrough, by an 'unofficial' scientist, been rejected as inconsistent with prevailing theories of reality.
Zika freak-out – how the BBC went off the rails.
So how closely does the BBC now follow its apparently laudable objective? As evidence for my concern I recommend a very recent example, from just the past week
On Monday the BBC broadcast its Panorama programme, 'The Zika Baby Crisis' and released a printed article, 'Having a baby in the Zika capital' in its magazine to back it up.
From the very start, as the title itself reveals, despite very clear absence of proof (or even moderately reliable evidence) the producers seem to have assumed that the cause of the rising incidence of microcephaly in North Eastern Brazil was, without question, the arrival of the Zika virus.
The entire programme was, in my view, a travesty of scientific reporting. Presenter Jane Corbin dashed from one family to another, lifting lids off rain-water tanks and peering at the sinister mosquito larvae wriggling inside, in a lugubrious attempt to prove that this light-weight hypothesis was correct.
Yet a number of utterly crucial questions went completely unconsidered. Not least was the severe problem that no other country (including neighbouring Venezuela and Colombia, where Zika is well-established) has reported any similar rise in microcephaly.
None of the local medical staff and experts interviewed appeared to think that there might be an alternative explanation for the outbreak, and Ms. Corbin was not notably inquisitive about a possible different cause for the tragedy.
But at the end of 2013 the Brazilian health authorities introduced a highly questionable compulsory TDAP vaccination programme for all women of child-bearing age. Undoubtedly, some would be unaware that they were in early pregnancy when vaccinated with this product.
The new programme started only seven months before the microcephaly outbreak was first noticed, at precisely the time at which this malformation is most likely to affect the growing fetus.
Certainly, the possible link is purely speculative at present, and does not establish causation.
But as Thalidomide demonstrated, such accidental use of untested vaccines is not unprecedented.
The vaccine used in this case – Boostrix – has never been tested on women in early pregnancy.
Significantly, experience in Brazil itself has revealed that, even during controlled vaccination programmes, a small proportion of unknowingly pregnant women may be accidentally vaccinated.
Who decides what is the prevailing scientific consensus?
As the media now invariably check out new stories with Sense About Science's propaganda outfit, the Science Media Centre, I went to the SMC's web site to see what they offer as source material for this story.
The main set of SMC's 'Expert Reactions' to the specific issue of microcephaly and Zika, published on February 4th, provides only one adequately cautionary warning.
This comes from Dr Clare Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology and General Secretary for the Society for Applied Microbiology at Edinburgh Napier University.,
Her comment, close to the very bottom of the set of mainly Professorial citations, warns of the absence of an equivalent rise in microcephaly in Zika-affected countries, but - at least on the SMC page - does not take this inconvenient fact further..
This should immediately ring alarm bells amongst epidemiologists - but apparently it has escaped their attention.
So as far as the SMC is concerned, the consensual opinion is that the cause of these 'Zika Babies' is that they are caused by infection of their mothers by the Zika virus. Some even had a rash, to prove it!
The 'Panorama' team appears to have relied on seriously inadequate sources (possibly including the SMC, although we shall never know for certain) in order to outline the programme, and then diligently sought confirmatory evidence to prove that this must be the case.
Unfortunately for them, that evidence remains notably absent.
Misinformation can kill
The programme's approach was superficial in the extreme, and no attempt was made to provide that essential 'balance' that the Trust claims to be so anxious to ensure in its science programmes.
Relying on a 'consensus' about an issue that has only just emerged, and on which the data are woefully inadequate, can dangerously misdirect the investigation of the cause of the tragedy that is unfolding in that remote corner of Brazil.
And this is where the whole lofty objective of the Trust begins to crumble. Ms Corbin's main field of expertise as a reporter appears to be in the politics of the Middle East, and her degree is in English, so she would definitely not be permitted to call herself a scientist under the BBC's own rules.
Nor would she qualify as such, within the framework being established by the Science Council either.
But the ramifications of that misdirection extend far more widely around the world.
Women who find themselves pregnant after being exposed to the Zika virus during a visit to a Zika-infested area are liable to decide to have an abortion, when this may be entirely unwarranted.
If Zika is NOT the cause of the microcephalic infants in Brazil, as I suspect may be the case, then these abortions will be entirely unjustifiable.
In this unfortunate case, infants may indeed be killed unnecessarily, if the responsibility to provide reliable information to the public has been neglected.
The role of the Science Media Centre in influencing what the media publish.
The role of the Science Media Centre as a source of 'objective information' for the media, and the proliferation of similar Centres around the world, is increasingly causing concern amongst scientists themselves. In an article in May 2014 by Mico Tatalovic.(' UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science') he warned that “a body of academic research is emerging that challenges the self-professed independence and objectivity of the information provided by the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, United Kingdom, which is said to have inspired the set-up of others.”
He reports that Connie St Louis, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and a Senior Lecturer at City University, London, carried out a small study on the SMC's impact on UK science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012. She found that more than half the SMC’s expert reactions were covered in the press and in 23 per cent of the stories that included these sources the only quotes were those that came from the Centre.
In the same article David Miller, a professor of sociology from the University of Bath, United Kingdom, presented a more scathing analysis of the SMC. He found that 20 of the 100 most quoted experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society. Instead they were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups. “Given that its mission is to get scientists’ views across, that really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation.” he said.
So who really is a scientist?
Prof. Miller's comment provides a revealing slant on what is going on in science itself, and takes us back to my opening comments regarding the increasing pressure to register scientists as members of an exclusive profession. There are many scientists out in the real world who do not hold a PhD, or who are not employed in research institutions or by top learned societies.
The investigative work of Scientific Consultants' working in engineering projects in the field, for example is (mostly) of an extremely high standard. Their Reports are subjected to far more ferocious scrutiny than are many peer-reviewed papers - indeed,peer-review most certainly 'ain't what it used to be', as fraudulent papers tumble into Journal Editors' email boxes in increasing numbers, even from apparently reputable sources.
So, are we really to accept that a three year supervised course of post-graduate learning at the start of the career of a young entrant to sciences is really superior to lessons learned during an entire working life in scientific work outside such institutions? I suggest that it is not.
But unfortunately, Prof.Miller's definition of who can be regarded as a scientist does reflect the prevailing lofty delusion of the exclusively of 'real scientists' that governs so much of public science today, all too often closely regulated purely by the vested interests of politics and commerce.
I believe that the Science Council's apparently impartial approach to regulation has lost sight of the real issue. Even lowly 'citizen scientists', such as Einstein, Mendel, Darwin, and many others, may on occasions come up with ideas that shake the very foundations of our understanding of the world.