Auntie’s science bloomers

Pending a change of climate, take BBC science with a pinch of salt

This was originally published here on Matters Scientific, the Cherwell science ’blog.

My new hobby seems to be complaining. I’ve twice been appalled by science articles on the BBC News website in the last few weeks, to the point where I’ve been compelled to get off my apathetic arse and e-mail them suggesting a correction.

The first and worst was on a video report about climate change. The reporter suggested that elevated emissions of greenhouse gases could be catastrophic, especially if they led to ‘negative feedback’ processes.

However, as any good GCSE biology student knows, negative feedback processes are those like thermostats, which maintain a system’s delicate balance if it wobbles—if the climate were full of these, we’d be laughing! Positive feedbacks (like warming which melts polar ice, which in turn makes the surface of the Earth less white and reflective and thus leads to amplified warming) are the kinds of things which lead to catastrophic, irreversible, runaway climate change.

You can understand how this transposition could occur—I mean, these feedbacks are bad, right? Some might even say ‘negative’? But it demonstrates that the journalist, as well as any producers, editors and researchers involved have all missed an utterly crucial lynchpin of the argument—a lynchpin that a sixteen year-old might well be able to explain.

The offending vid seems to have been removed; though, having received no correspondence, I am unable to ascertain whether this was as a result of my complaint. A text version, which makes no mention of feedbacks, seems to have remained.

The second article was one last week about the possible antidepressant effects of salt. ‘The body needs sodium,’ the article explained, ‘the chemical which along with chloride makes up salt.’ There is, of course, no such chemical as ‘chloride’. If you asked a chemist for a bucket of chloride, they would ask you which one—perhaps sodium chloride (table salt, obviously), or hydrogen chloride (just add water for a pleasant bath of hydrochloric acid), or whatever. You might jump to the Beeb’s defence, citing the other common use of ‘chloride’, referring to the chloride anion, Cl—but again, you would not describe this as a chemical, but a constituent thereof.

This one is admittedly more of a minor quibble, but the point is exactly the same—sodium chloride, with its ionic crystal structure is a stalwart of GCSE chemistry, and below. Dissolve NaCl in water, pop in some electrodes, and watch the chlorine bubbles pile up on the positive one. I said chlorine, there, did you notice?

To the Beeb’s credit, they did alter this fairly rapidly, though not to my satisfaction—they rephrased it in a slightly awkward way, and refused to make any further changes, citing a page from the Food Standards Agency which said ‘the chemical reactions inside our bodies need sodium—one of the two elements that make up salt (with chloride).’ I’d be grateful if the FSA or BBC could point me to a periodic table with ‘chloride’ anywhere on it.

This worried me on two levels—firstly, that the BBC engages in ‘churnalism’ (the mindless rehashing of press releases), but secondly, that the presumably-reputable FSA were in fact the source of this, er, elementary error.

What concerns me isn’t the details of the mistakes themselves—neither is likely to significantly detract from the understanding of the articles they’re from—but the culture of science reporting they betray. Both are perhaps pedantic points but, crucially, they are mistakes that no trained scientist would ever make. The implication is that every member of the BBC science chain, from press-release scraper to editor, doesn’t have the scientific proof-reading skills to outwit a competent GCSE student.

I realise that sounds harsh and more than a little bitchy, but that is because I am truly appalled. How can we trust the media’s appraisal of the important scientific results which these reports went on to deal with if their creators could not proof-read a GCSE exam?

Despite reading rather too much of the BBC News website, I refuse to believe that this is an exhaustive audit of their errors. Conversely, I am sure that the BBC is not the worst offender—but this is no excuse, especially from such a high-profile, widely-read and widely-regarded news source. If we can’t trust the public service broadcaster in this turbulent world of ours, where can we turn? I would, of course, be willing to be swayed by an exhaustive audit if it turned out that I was unfairly tarring Auntie over typos when most of the content was factually sound. I suppose this is the difference between me and a journalist—I think facts are more important than press releases.

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