Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Disgruntled from Southampton

As solid and enjoyable as the Today programme is, it frequently drops the ball on science. Today's failings were annoying enough for me to complain to them for the first time. Grrrr ...
One of the aspects of science presentation in the media that I find most annoying is the inconsistency in the reporting.

A short while ago, I heard Justin Webb questioning David King on the veracity of climate science, and again muddying the waters of a settled area of science ("settled", obviously, in the scientific community).

But earlier in the programme I heard the Today panel cooing over some clearly erroneous "science" about dancing in humans. Thankfully, I'm no expert in "dance science", but even an oceanographer can spot a number of serious flaws in the reported work, flaws that the Today team were either oblivious to, or quite happy to ignore for the sake of a story.

For starters, the data originate from a self-selected sample so are not representative, and are (I believe) UK specific so may not translate between cultures. Which, needless to say, didn't stop the interviewee from extrapolating wildly to the whole of humanity. This dubious data was then used in an evolutionary flight-of-fantasy in which the interviewee first confidently tacked on some faintly plausible relationship with fertility, but then went off at the deep end by positing an explanation for older male dancing that drew on discredited group selection theory.

To wit, any older male "stepping aside" for younger males would be at a strong evolutionary disadvantage since they would likely leave less descendants than less accommodating rival males. To be fair, it's conceivable that some variant of kin selection could play a role here, but the Today interviewee blithely played the super-confident expert while peddling his science-lite story.

Such a double standard in reporting is infuriating to scientists. Work that's firmly grounded in vast quantities of data and deep theoretical understanding is pilloried, while work that, to put it charitably, needs more data and better hypothesis-testing gets as much airtime and polite approval from the Today team.

I understand the realities of reporting that place science as just one other story, but Today does its listening public a disservice by failing to properly contextualise the science that it does report. We expect Today to focus on important stories when it comes to the political and economic arenas, why can't it do the same for science?

No comments: