What links the horrifying scenes in Charlottesville, climate change and vaccine scares? Unfortunately, it’s Donald Trump.
“Let’s hear both sides of the story” is a phrase instinctively hated by children, knowing with a sick feeling that the playground bully is going to get away with it again.
As adults, we turn to the phrase because it sounds reasonable. As a journalist, I was trained to contact people being accused of anything, to hear their side. In UK broadcast journalism, there’s a statutory requirement to be fair and balanced, which can equate to giving equal airtime to spokespeople from both ‘sides’ of an argument.
Give everyone their say; let the readers make up their own minds. That’s the theory.
Where it breaks down is when one ‘side’ is patently wrong. ‘Balance’ in science in particular can lead to nonsensical positions.
Last week the BBC decided to ‘balance’ a story about climate change – an interview with Al Gore, former vice-president turned environmental campaigner – with an interview with Lord Lawson, the former chancellor of the exchequer and now chair of a think tank that says is it “open-minded” on the “science of global warming”.
On the face of it, the decision to follow the interview of one former politician with that of another of opposing views sounds reasonable. Except that they were talking facts, not opinions. Mr Gore’s facts, expressed in his interview, are supported by scientists the world over. Lord Lawson’s “facts” – that there has been no increase in global temperatures or in weather-related extreme events – are not.
Within hours of his interview, scientists were lining up to point out that the “official figures” he quoted showed the opposite. The world has warmed significantly and extreme weather-related events are more common.
The BBC defended its decision to interview Lord Lawson: “The BBC’s role is to hear different views so listeners are informed about all sides of debate and we are required to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality.”
But climate change is no longer a scientific “debate” – it’s a scientific fact. Climate change is only controversial among those with their heads buried in the sand, or an economic axe to grind.
We’ve been here before. The obsession with “balance” gave endless airtime in the early 2000s to Andrew Wakefield, the discredited researcher whose 1998 Lancet paper (since retracted) wrongly linked autism with the MMR vaccination. The result was a Europe-wide measles epidemic.
The vast majority of medical and scientific opinion was against Wakefield. His research was flimsy, unconvincing – and wrong. Epidemiological evidence firmly rejected the link between the vaccine and autism. Yet the publicity given to this crank theory has caused real, quantifiable harm.
If “balance” in science reporting can be tricky, sometimes the question of whether you should see both sides is simple.
The man who currently holds the office of President of the United States, on seeing neo-Nazis marching through the streets with swastikas, giving Nazi salutes and shouting “Heil Trump”, thinks we need to see things from their point of view. (No surprise that he also says climate change is a hoax, and has linked MMR to autism).
The violence that erupted in Charlottesville – and which left one anti-fascist protestor dead – came from “both sides” and so both sides must be condemned, he said.
The neo-Nazis were met with “acts of violence” when they marched into Charlottesville. Well, yes. So were the original Nazis, when they jackbooted across Europe. The entire second world war involved acts of violence on both sides. Most people still think that the Nazis were to blame.
When one side spouts fascist ideology and wears swastikas, that’s the side you don’t want to be on. When one side includes the world’s most respected scientists and the most reliable evidence, that’s the side you probably do want to be on. That shouldn’t be too hard to remember.
BBC News, Anger over ‘untrue’ climate change claims. 11 August 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40899188
NASA, Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming. Last updated August 2017. https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
American Meteorological Society, State of the Climate. August 2017. https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf
AJ Wakefield et al. RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 1998; 351, 9103: 637-641 http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(97)11096-0/abstract
The Editors of The Lancet, Retraction – Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 2010, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60175-4. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)60175-4/fulltext
The Atlantic, Donald Trump and the Triumph of Climate-Change Denial. December 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/donald-trump-climate-change-skeptic-denial/510359/
The Independent, Donald Trump raises concern about autism myth used by anti-vaccination campaigners. February 2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-autism-anti-vaccination-vaxxer-myth-injection-health-campaigners-a7580941.html
BBC News, Trump again blames Charlottesville violence on both sides. August 16 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-40943425