BBC Science Broadcasters — Bubble, BS, or Cabal?

by | May 31, 2014

The previous post here generated a bit of Twitter twitchiness from one of the contributors to Horizon’s 50th anniversary celebration — Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and TV presenter, Alice Roberts. A somewhat partial account of the exchanges was compiled on Storify by a Twitter troll, and can be seen here. Roberts was upset that my post had accused the Royal Society and the producers of Horizon of a conspiracy, and having an ‘agenda’.

This kind of passive-aggressive argumentation is another of the frustrating things, which is not unique to the climate debate, but finds particular expression in it. I criticised two public institutions, but the criticism is taken personally by one of their members. Twitter is not a nuanced medium, so the discussion — such as it was — descended into the wrongs of accusing people of having an ‘agenda’. I did not quite realise that Roberts had such a problem with the word ‘agenda’, which she had introduced, until too late. I tried to explain that it isn’t a helpful word, that it was her word, and that it doesn’t really explain what I was saying in the article. So here is another attempt, for Roberts’ benefit.

In fact, I hadn’t really criticised Roberts. She had pointed out that, ‘It’s fascinating to look at Horizon over its five decades, and to see how the tone of the series changed, reflecting shifting attitudes towards science and technology’. I agreed, ‘Roberts makes an interesting point, and one that is made here. The optimism and technological progress of the sixties gave way to a deep pessimism about the future. And it was between these two decades that environmentalism was born.’ But I didn’t think it was interesting enough just to note that the tone of Horizon has changed, reflecting shifting attitudes as though they were just a spontaneous transformation of no more than consumer (i.e. viewer) tastes. There is much more reflected in this transformation that Roberts seems willing to admit, and there are a great deal of ‘whys’ that should help to explain it.

For instance, one of my favourite historical moments with which I like to compare contemporary thinking on science and its role in society is Kennedy’s ‘Moon Landing’ speeches. Today’s ‘moon landing’ is said to be the issue of climate change…

The science of climate change is the moon landing of our day. This is idealism in a technical language. The scientists and the idealists will, once again, be the same people. The discoveries in the laboratory will be matters of life and death. Nothing could be more vital, nothing could be more exciting. Tony Blair, November, 2006.

That to me is the starkest demonstration of the change in society’s relationship with science: from the technological optimism of the post war era, through the pessimism of the 1970s, and on to the narcissism of the early 21st century. It says something that the moon landing is the bench mark — the thing that world leaders struggling for a legacy strive for, rather than exceed. So Blair (though he was not alone) is forced to create a pastiche of Kennedy. “Look, this is my Moon-Landing speech”, he tells us. He can reinvent the moment, unite the nation, Be the One.

This is not to put Kennedy on a pedestal. There is no doubting that, as much as Kennedy emphasised scientific and technological progress, the moon mission was, from its inception, deeply political, if for no other reason than the fact that it was rooted in perhaps the deepest geopolitical and ideological divide in history. Had Blair been a politician in 1960s USA, rather than in late 1990s UK, he would not have had to try so hard (and fail) to reinvent the circumstances that Kennedy faced — climate change as moon landing and the War on Terror as the Cold War. And we can only guess at what Kennedy might have done if he only had men in caves and foreign strains of influenza to deal with — it would naive to believe that the project to put a man on the moon was, As Kennedy claimed, channelling George Mallory, ‘because it was there’. The end in sight was not just human footprints on the moon for the sake of it, but variously concerned with global and domestic political and strategic matters, not least of which was a grand projet for the sake of an administration. But it was a giant leap, nonetheless. Blair continued setting out his far more modest leaps:

The Government’s Foresight programme which sets an agenda for future action on science is working out new strategies in flood and coastal defence, exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum; in cyber-trust and crime prevention, in addiction and drugs, the detection and identification of infectious disease, tackling obesity, sustainable management of energy and mental well-being.

The way in which politicians pitch and hitch themselves to science reveals much about the politics and ‘ideology’ of the era. (NB, I do not use ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’ interchangeably.) Kennedy’s aim for the moon and Blair’s emphasis in microbes, addicts, fat people, happiness and sustainability can’t be taken at face value. No doubt those priorities became those leaders’ policies, which is to say became items on their ‘agenda’. But there is a deeper meaning of the word ‘ideology’, which isn’t captured by either ‘politics’ or ‘agenda’. Why was Blair concerned with overweight and unhappy people, germs and sustainability where Kenendy was concerned with the lunar landing? It isn’t as simple as simply detecting that people are getting fatter and sadder, or that some virus or other is on the march, and it’s not enough to say that politicians respond to matters arising from without, alerted by researchers.

For example, the putative rise in obesity, in eras where poverty and its diseases were far more prevalent, would have been seen as a Good Thing. Food, glorious food… Even if we take it at face value that “rates of obesity are rising”, as it is often claimed, it is not axiomatically something that ought to concern the government of the day, but might be the responsibility of the owners of the mouths that food is being shoved into. What business of the state’s is our ‘mental well being’, really? In order to make our internal lives, and relative abundance — rather than scarcity — an issue for government, a broader shift in the relationship between the state and individuals needs to occur. Ditto other problems of affluent industrial society that seem to present challenges to government — mass transit and infectious diseases, climate change, and cyber-crime — seem to make the political establishment as hostile to development and economic growth as it is to the distinction between the public and private.

There was no ‘agenda’ as such that intends to alter the balance of responsibilities between individuals and government. But that was in the thinking of the UK government and the direction of its policies nonetheless. And it is not enough to say simply that scientists, with no particular attachment to ‘the agenda’ merely observe and report things like an increase in obesity, or potential threats like infectious disease and climate change. Scientists are not simply highlighting new outbreaks of flu, climate change, expanding waistlines and unhappiness, and the rest, because ‘they are there’. They have likely always been there. And more importantly, there is an extent to which things are found when they are sought. If not sad, fat, potential victims of bird flu, then some other issue would be there, playing the same role.

The ground on which the discussion with Roberts stands is not a landscape with a clearly delineated ‘science’ at one end and ‘politics and ideology’ at the other, as Paul Nurse desired. There are no straight lines here.

Kennedy’s ambition stands in contrast to Blair’s much lower horizons. Giving the former speech the benefit of the doubt, it aimed to expand the possibilities of humanity — a ‘giant leap for mankind’. Blair’s speech promised to protect us from ourselves — even including our emotional selves. This reflects Blair’s communitarian politics and ‘ideology’. There was no ideological battle for him, in which ideas about humanity were contested publicly and globally; those battles were over, and now people merely needed to be managed — saved from themselves, and from things that ordinary people cannot see. This is the transformation that is, with sufficient perspective, visible in politics and its relationship with science, but which is invisible to scientists, generally. That ideological shift is one in which ‘risk’ has become a central concept, where there were once contests about which principles society should organise itself around. That is not to hark back to some golden age of democracy, but to point out that a change has occurred, right or wrong, and to suggest that it should be interrogated.

This is not some fanciful, climate-denier-politico-waffle. Take it straight from the horse’s mouth:

Policy-making is usually about risk management.Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making.

In Uncertainty in science and its role in climate policy, Lenny Smith and the Blair Government’s climate economist, Nicholas Stern attempt to give this form of politics some justification in the face of questions about ‘uncertainty’. The precautionary principle allows risks — which could be zero or merely theoretical risks — to dominate political decision-making. Say Stern and Smith:

Scientific speculation, which is often deprecated within science, can be of value to the policy-maker as long as it is clearly labelled as speculation. Given that we cannot deduce a clear scientific view of what a 5◦C warmer world would look like, for example, speculation on what such a world might look like is of value if only because the policy-maker may erroneously conclude that adapting to the impacts of 5◦C would be straightforward. Science can be certain that the impacts would be huge even when it cannot quantify those impacts. Communicating this fact by describing what those impacts might be can be of value to the policy-maker. Thus, for the scientist supporting policy-making, the immediate aim may not be to reduce uncertainty, but first to better quantify, classify and communicate both the uncertainty and the potential outcomes in the context of policy-making. The immediate decision for policy-makers is whether the risks suggest a strong advantage in immediate action given what is known now.

Notice also, that the business of politics, is now called ‘policy-making’, and is “informed” by scientists, speculating. We all know the truth of what Stern and Smith say. When scientists speculate — and they often speculate wildly — it does not come ‘clearly labelled’ as speculation. It gets presented as fact. Notice, furthermore, that Smith and Stern do not chose, say, a 1 or 2 degree rise in temperature, but a whopping 5 degrees. Worst still is that after speculating that 5 degrees is plausible, scientists are invited to speculate about the effects of 5 degrees. And then on the effects of the effects of 5 degrees. A cascade of speculation emerges — an unleashing of the environmental imagination — in which the ‘ideology’ of environmentalism is unleashed: neither an ‘agenda’ as such, nor as coherent programme of ideas, but all of the unstated presuppositions, prejudices and mythology of green thought, made flesh in a science fiction story.

One does not have to look far for evidence of this in effect. In the latest Horizon episode, discussed in the previous post, the premise of malthusianism was evident through three of the stories presented in the episode: there are too many of us, we fly too much, we are running out of space to grow food, we are running out of water. They were presented as facts. But they were speculation, from a seemingly empirical basis, perhaps, but through green ideology. There may well be a growing population, but it is only a problem on the view in which is informed by environmentalism’s presuppositions. The idea that more people might be better at feeding themselves is anathema to population environmentalism, but yet there is good evidence that they are, and good arguments that they will continue to be, but which is evidence that it flatly ignored or sidelined by certain proponents of the environmental ‘message’. That message says that people are, in themselves, net risks.

The risk of things like avian flu, and fast food — as well as, now, running out of water, food and fuel and people in themselves — are the basis on which political power is now legitimised. Politicians now seek to identify risks where they once sought a mandate. And scientists are recruited into that project, just as NASA’s scientists were tasked with understanding how to send men into space.

In other words, science, as much as it is a technical means to a human ends in our hands, is equally a means to an ends in politicians hands. And that being the case, we can see in stories about how science has changed, broader social, political and ideological shifts.

Back to Roberts’s complaint, then, that I had unfairly accused the BBC and the Royal Society of having an ‘agenda’:

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos You write as though you think that the Royal Soc, the BBC & Horizon producers have a secret agenda. They don’t.

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos At least, I think I would have discovered it by now if they did (unless I’m really thick)

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
.@clim8resistance @omnologos It’s not an agenda- this is the principle at work here. Question everything. Look for evidence. Share knowledge

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Oh yes! It’s a conspiracy. All of us academics who freelance for the BBC are in on it. (NOT)

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Amazing! Who’s setting this agenda? Aliens?

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@clim8resistance @omnologos Fantastic. We’re hoodwinking the ‘public’, somehow, and don’t know we’re doing it. Who’s being patronising?

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance then suggesting they’re too stupid to realise that they have an agenda… that’s a conspiracy too far.

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance None of my interactions with the RS and Horizon producers have made me think there’s any agenda beyond that…

Prof Alice Roberts @DrAliceRoberts
@omnologos @clim8resistance (I hate doing this) of setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public.

I think it has been shown here that taking science — especially where it has, on Nurse’s view ‘implications for policy’ — at face value is a terrible mistake. The epitome of the error is in the Malthusianism of Paul Ehrlich, which Horizon first gave a favourable treatment of in the 1970s, and has not done anything (as far as I can tell) in the meanwhile to do anything to rebut, in spite of its total failure (or at the least, the controversy that surrounds it), and its undoubted influence over global and domestic political institutions. And the same thinking is reproduced in the latest episode of Horizon. The Royal Society and its presidents, who Roberts claim have no agenda, made him a fellow. And, seeking the political power that his dire predictions seem to generate, launched a study that proceeded from his work on population. Here is Sir John Sulston FRS, Chair of the Institute for Science, Ethics & Innovation, University of Manchester, discussing the Royal Society’s findings.

Roberts wants to claim that the Royal Society has no agenda. But Sulston has just presented a political manifesto, in which he instructs the world that it must abandon the principles on which productive life is organised — trade, on his view. It is as radical and far-reaching as any capitalist or communist manifesto. But rather than privileging institutions like private property or an economic class such as the proletariat, this manifesto puts scientific bureaucracies at the top table.

Politics is, on one definition, ‘Who gets what, when, and how” (Harold Lasswell). And Sulston has just pronounced on the rights and wrongs of who gets what, when and how. He has made prescriptive statements about how society ought to be organised, and who should be entitled to what, based on claims about how he (and the RS) thinks the world is. For the sense he makes, he might just as well have announced that it is flat.

It is obvious, then, that the Royal Society does have an agenda of some kind. It isn’t just looking at things under microscopes; it wants to effect political change in the world, and it wants to be an influential agent in that change. Unfortunately, however, the Royal Society — and I assume, Roberts — does not recognise that this is a political agenda. It thinks it is science.

But not all things that proceed from an empirical basis are science. As discussed above, how we move through and synthesise statistics about society’s relationship with the planet is sensitive to prejudices and presuppositions — ideology. And the problem with ideology is, unlike ‘agendas’ and ‘politics’, that it is often invisible. To the likes of Roberts and the FRSs, it may seem that Sulston’s manifesto is as self-evident as 2+2… But to me at least, he is manifestly not speaking about things that can be understood as material phenomena — objects of science. He presupposes things about people as individuals and in numbers, and their interactions with the natural world, to overstate our dependence on it. He eschews the insight that can be found in political thinking from Smith, through Marx, and onwards, contra Malthus, that it is people who depend on themselves, in spite of nature and her whims. The loaf of bread at my supermarket owes no more to natural processes than does the computer on my desktop. As Matt Ridley observes in The Rational Optimist, it is people, cooperating, which makes this life possible, not Nature’s Providence.

So let us clear a few things up for Roberts.

The ‘agenda’ is not secret, but it is not explicit. The Royal Society and its members do not recognise that their own positions are ideological, or political. That is not to call them ‘stupid’, but to say that science is not always sufficient to recognise its researchers’ presuppositions as political, in order to exclude them.

It is not a ‘conspiracy’. The ‘agenda’ is not to manoeuvre itself into political power subversively ot covertly. But this doesn’t exclude the possibility that the Royal Society and its kin are seeking greater power for themselves, either in good faith, as a commitment to the idea that institutional science should play a bigger role in society, or in bad faith — I don’t care to speculate.

This can be explained simply: a bad idea can be advanced in good faith. Ditto, seemingly good ideas can be advanced in bad faith.

Roberts asks us to believe that the ‘agenda’ is no more than “Question everything. Look for evidence. Share knowledge.” and “setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public”. She is naive. And I count such self-deception as bad faith: Roberts didn’t like being questioned, didn’t like the evidence being interrogated, and she didn’t like the knowledge she didn’t like being shared. And she certainly didn’t like the dialogue with the public she was, for a moment at least, engaged with. Paul Nurse, similarly, didn’t like science being questioned, so he made a TV show about it. Science is not for questioning. It is for our humble respect. Just as TV broadcasting has become mere collection of awesome visual phenomena, so we are told to defer to science as though it had just produced some miracle, the awe demanding our obedience.

Which brings us to the BBC and Horizon.

I don’t see a great gulf between the Royal Society and the BBC. That is to say, I don’t see much of a difference between the broadcasting establishment and the scientific establishment, much less at their nexus. Certainly, the BBC do not seem to have gone out of their way to challenge the authority of the Royal Society, much less its claims — highly contestable claims in many cases. Yet any institution that so many journalists call their home should have been able to find something to say about it. Even George Monbiot managed to call them ‘idiot savants’ for their backing of GM crop production. But this should not surprise us. There is no culture at the BBC of challenging authority in any meaningful way. Its job, from its creation, was to extol the virtues of the British Establishment, and to transmit them across the planet.

The BBC is a bubble. Its broadcasting departments are bubbles. The scientific establishment is a bubble. Perspectives from without the bubble are met with ire much like Roberts’s and Nurses: challenges to the authority and the claims of the establishment are met with derision, the critics belittled as “anti-science”. Like the phenomenon of environmental journalism, the BBC’s science output is scripted and filmed inside the bubble. To the extent that there is ‘communication’ with the world outside the bubble, science is prescriptive of how the world should be, rather than a description of how the material world is.

So the word ‘agenda’ didn’t begin to describe the problem. Everybody, including scientists, has some kind of “agenda”. Agendas are human, as Bronowsky observed. The problem comes in not admitting it, and cementing those agendas into public institutions, away from criticism like some kind of church. It is the bubble which prevents the Royal Society from seeing Ehrlich’s work for what it is, and for asking itself — or being asked — what it is trying to do. And it is the bubble which causes the BBC’s science output to have dumbed down so considerably over the years. As that bubble puts more distance between those within and without, institutional science takes an ever more didactic role, turning its microscope at the disobedient public… “Why won’t you just do what we tell you”.


  1. Mooloo

    You have to admit that there is something amusing about a person going on Twitter to rail about how dispassionate she and her friends are.

    And she still sees nothing wrong with “setting up a dialogue between scientists and the wider public”, as if the purpose of science was to convey a message to the public, rather than discover facts about the world.

    Keep up the fight Ben. I would despair much quicker than you — not because the likes of Roberts don’t agree, because agreement is too much to ask for, but when supposedly clever people like that don’t even try to understand your critique.

  2. artwest

    As a small example of the bubblethink – I recently saw on a BBC News programme a representative of some charidee/lobby group complaining about a website which consisted of photographs of women eating on the Tube. The interviewer’s first reaction was to lob up the expected “what can be done to stop this?”.
    No doubt the site is juvenile, unpleasant etc, etc, but there was no suggestion that it wasn’t perfectly legal and what exactly did the interviewer want to be done to stop it? Perhaps the State to be able to take down a legal website or to ban cameras on the underground? No slippery slopes there.

    My point is that the interviewer, I am sure, needed no conspiratorial instructions to take this attitude and no instructions not to ask non-bubblespeak questions like “Have you really nothing more serious to bring to public attention?” or “Are you seriously suggesting a draconian response to such a minor unpleasantness and, if so, wouldn’t that be an appalling erosion of civil liberties?

    The interviewer was no doubt partly employed because she would never ask such awkward questions of one of the “good guys” and/or was thought malleable enough to slot into place in BBC culture.
    I have no doubt that she too would vigorously object if it was suggested that she was less than objective.

    It’s often the questions which aren’t asked – indeed would be “unthinkable” – which are the most significant. Alice Roberts should think about the questions she would never ask – then have a long, hard think about why not.

  3. hunter

    In what sense of the word “Academic” is this complainant acting like an “Academic”?
    Certainly in no positive sense of the word.

  4. hunter

    By the way, check out Alice Roberts job title again:
    ” Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and TV presenter, Alice Roberts.”
    That is a communications teaching position… at best. And indoctrination most likely. Certainly from her twittering it is clear Prof. Robert’s is not experienced in critical thinking. To fall back on the annoying, derivative and ignorant trick of conflating institutional agendas and group think with wicked conspiracies should be embarrassing for an intellectual. I’ll bet on indoctrination dressed up with sciencey words and phrases.

  5. Craig Loehle

    An example of how insulated from their own ideology people can be, at the London Olympics there was a big show featuring the British National health system, with children dancing on beds. To anyone outside Britain, this was the silliest example of smug propaganda we had ever seen. NHS an unabashed good? Everyone loves it? Really? Has Britain become like the Stepford Wives? And yet it did not seem that the organizers had even a hint of how this would look to outsiders. It was as much propaganda as the show the Russians put on at Sochi. At least at the Beijing games, they were simply showing off great artistry–much more honest. But my point here is not about propaganda, but that to the propagandist (or advocate) their own viewpoint seems NOT to be a viewpoint but to be reality.
    A problem for politicians has been that in the old days there were real enemies to defend people from and real problems to solve. In the USA there was not only the cold war and real wars, but an interstate highway system to build, universities to build, diseases to fight. But the mode of protecting the people from risk has now gone down to protecting us from ourselves. The government is mandating what can be in school lunches–though the children are going on strike since it is inedible. New York mayors are banning big softdrinks, as if this will save the world. The biggest sin seems to be not stealing but getting fat. If pleasure is the highest good (as it is for many), then why not get fat? Who cares?

  6. Paul Matthews

    Today Alice Roberts announces that she is a ‘Patron’ (whatever that means) of The Conversation, the publication of the middle class academic left in which only one side of the conversation is ever presented – bubblethink, as artwest puts it. How appropriate.

  7. mike fowle

    An elegant and measured response to Alice Roberts’ rather shrill outpourings. What it is to be a professor of public engagement. John Sulston’s group of 22 from different disciplines and different countries seem to have wasted the last 21 months. What is the Royal Society for?


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