Efforts by the science editor of the climate denying think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) to promote individuals’ freedom to make “factually inaccurate” statements on important scientific issues in the media were ignored by MPs in a new report out today.
The House of Commons’ Science and Technology committee today concluded its inquiry into science communication, including reasons for public mistrust in scientific reporting. In written evidence to the inquiry, the GWPF‘s David Whitehouse said, “Some argue that free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements. But it does”.
But despite Whitehouse’s best attempts — including not declaring his role with the GWPF in his submission — the committee’s report takes a strong stance in support of accurate science journalism and recommends that the government ensure “a robust redress mechanism is provided for when science is misreported”.
Anti-Peer Review, Pro Inaccuracies
Whitehouse made a lot of statements that jarred with the committee’s findings. The report does not quote Whitehouse’s evidence at any point, instead including advice from respected mainstream scientific institutions such as the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, and Science Media Centre.
In his submission to the inquiry, Whitehouse said reporters currently give “too much authority to papers published in peer-reviewed journals”.
Peer-review is seen as a hallmark of quality, as it means it has been signed off by the academic community as scientifically robust.
The GWPF’s reports are reviewed by ‘internal and external experts’, it has previously claimed. This involves sending the reports out to members of the organisation’s ‘advisory panel’ for comment, including a host of well-known climate science deniers.
Whitehouse also said that it was the responsibility of reporters to ensure viewers understood when fringe opinions were being presented. He disagreed that the concept of ‘false balance’ — where opposing views are presented even when there is scientific consensus — was a problem.
The government’s chief scientific advisor, Mark Walport, told the committee this was a particular issue when it came to climate change — “the climate debate is an example of where people have claimed to be experts who are not”.
In 2014, the committee criticised the BBC for presenting the views of climate scientists alongside climate science deniers. It said this represented false balance, potentially leading viewers to think each perspective should be given equal weight despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on major aspects of human-caused climate change.
Whitehouse goes on to suggest it was down to “the craft of the reporter to place the interviewees into a proper context”.
The Academy of Medical Sciences disagreed. In a recent report on communicating evidence to the media, which was considered by the committee, it said that:
“all parties involved in the generation and communication of evidence, including scientists, press officers and journalists, have a shared responsibility to ensure that the public receives information that is accessible but also accurate and balanced”.
The committee said there should be space for public scientific debate, but criticised some media outlets “which often have an agenda which allows inadequate place for opposing evidence” potentially leading the public to be misled.
But Whitehouse went further than suggesting journalists should carefully consider all views. He concluded that people should be free to spread inaccurate information in the media:
“If the price of science journalism is for some to tolerate the presence on air or in print of those they think are wrong then that is a price worth paying.”
He continued: “the freedom of speech principle does not mean that you have to be factually accurate. It is freedom, not accuracy or responsibility that is mandated”.
Whitehouse did not respond to DeSmog UK’s request for comment.
Updated 30/03/2017: The quote in the second line was altered.
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