Academics get some time to think over the summer, and I have been busy thinking about a topic that forms part of a course that I taught for the first time this spring, and which I felt I had not got to the bottom of. I think it might make a good student research project but I won’t be sure until I have done enough of it to be sure that it will work.

I was distracted from this by a colleague’s facebook post which ranted about a programme on BBC radio: one of a series, presented by a Daily Mail journalist, Quentin Letts, which asks what the point is of various British institutions. This episode asked “What is the point of the Met Office?” Having downloaded the program and listened to it on the way home I decided that my colleague was right; the programme was indeed very annoying. This is partly because the purpose of the series is to provoke discussion and annoy entrenched interests. But (for me, at least) another part of the annoyingness was because it is an example of a repeated failure in science journalism: the need the BBC feels to provide “balance” in a situation where it makes no sense.

Now, you do, of course, need balance in political reporting. How the country should be run is a matter of opinion, not one of scientific fact. So if the BBC is going to ask the opinion of a rabid free-marketeer and privatiser it is entirely correct that it should balance that with the opinion of a foaming leftist re-nationaliser and maybe a boringly centrist pragmatist as well. It does not follow from this that if you are going to get a physics professor to explain the first and second laws of thermodynamics that you need to balance that with the opinion of a man who thinks he can build a perpetual motion machine. It is not a matter of opinion whether the world is governed by the laws of thermodynamics — it just is. The man who thinks otherwise does not hold a valid alternative opinion, he is Just Plain Wrong. (You might want to augment your physics professor’s explanation with musical backup, of course. But that is not the same as balancing science with nonsense.)

There are other areas of science which are not so certainly known as the laws of thermodynamics; when discussing those areas, it is fine to have some opposing opinions. And when it comes to how we apply science to decide policy, then we are clearly in an situation where there may be many opinions and balanced reporting is vital.

The “What is the point of..” programme attempts to achieve balance on the business of weather forecasting by including views from a Met Office spokesperson, but also from Mark Vogan and from Piers Corbyn of Weather Action.  I felt that Mr. Vogan’s comments about forecasting at the Met Office were rather ill-informed — he implied that the Met Office takes the output from its computers at face value, with little human interpretation. Some of our recent graduates who work as forecasters at the Met Office have described their work to me and it clearly involves a great deal of expert interpretation.  Piers Corbyn is regarded with suspicion by many mainstream atmospheric scientists. His company claims to be able to make better medium-range forecasts than the Met Office but because he has never revealed his methods it is hard to think of them as scientific. I also think that Mr. Corbyn was wrong to state that the Met Office have reached the limit of forecast quality that is achievable by increasing the computing power available. Including the views of Messrs Corbyn and Vogan in this programme appears to me to be dangerously close to my hypothetical example of providing the perpetual motion believer as “balance” for the thermodynamics professor.

The programme as a whole is reasonably complementary regarding the Met Office’s forecasting of the weather but questions very strongly whether it should be involved in climate science. In the process it hardly takes an unbiased position on climate change itself, as highlighted in this Guardian article.  A point which seems to be missing from the programme or the Guardian article is that computer models and computers to run them on are required both for weather forecasting and for climate science. Because the Met Office requires these things in order to do weather forecasting it is efficient and sensible for it to use them for climate science as well.

Whether the climate is warming and whether mankind is responsible for this are questions too big for this blog post. But they are also questions which require the best and most careful attention from science journalists and from other journalists straying into the area. On that particular subject the programme “What is the point of the Met Office?” appeared to me to come worryingly close to one-sided polemic disguised as reporting.

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