Monday, 10 August 2015

Yours, Seething in Southampton ...

While I've come to expect misrepresentation of science from the likes of Channel 4, the BBC is typically the sanest of media commentators. So it was something of a surprise when one of their long-running (but, hitherto, unlistened to by me) programmes took unwarranted pot shots at that bastion of UK climate science, the Met Office. The programme, "What is the point of ...?", ostensibly takes to task long-standing and seemingly venerable institutions, with the aim of cutting to the core of whether they're out of touch or even a nuisance. While there are many reasons to ponder how the Met Office fits into the modern world, what the programme served up did nothing to address this. Cue a "Seething from Southampton" shot across the BBC's bows ...

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to complain about the Radio 4 broadcast “What is the Point of the Met Office?” (5th August 2015).

As a long-standing part of the British establishment, one whose work features in both our daily lives (the weather) and the longer-term fate of the Earth (climate change), the Met Office is ripe for an evaluation of both its role and its performance in this role, and I tuned in to the programme hoping for such an appraisal. However, rather than investigating how well the Met Office actually performs in its role (e.g. how accurate it is, whether this accuracy has improved with time, is this level of accuracy cost-effective), the programme makers instead chose the lazy journalism route of setting “climate sceptic” cranks onto meek and mild Met Office spokespeople.

We first had an amateur meteorologist who, while noting the complexity of climate science, seemed inexplicably interested in replacing computers with humans in matters of weather prediction. Next up was Piers Corbyn, brother of the currently newsworthy Jeremy, a fellow of the not-showing-my-working school of weather prediction, and a long-term opponent of non-sunspot-related climate change. This was all topped off by the Rt. Hon. Peter Lilley, spouting as fact the ridiculous claim that climate change stopped in 2004 – something that would come as a surprise to all of the jobbing scientists far outside the Met Office who make it their job to measure and analyse the Earth’s climate.

There are plenty of reasons to wonder whether a large, centralised and bureaucratic “weather service” still has a place in the modern world, but these simply weren’t touched on in this programme. When privatisation was raised, it was less in the context of whether it could actually work, and more in the service of a threat to rein in the Met Office’s climate projection work. But rather than investigate whether said projections were outlandish as claimed, the programme boiled down to the usual climate sceptic bluster which any fact-checker could easily have punctured. Did it not, for instance, even occur to the programme makers to check whether the Met Office’s climate projections lie outside the range of those of their international peer organisations? (They don’t – as recent IPCC reports show.)

By way of summary, “What is the Point of ‘What is the Point of …?’” was my final thought about this programme. This edition was my first time with this programme, and will doubtless be my last. A listener hitherto unaware of what the Met Office did, or how well it did it, would most likely exit the programme with the view that it (a) blows money on seemingly expensive computers, and (b) produces extreme “doomsday” predictions to justify its continued existence. As such, it left me thinking that, if one can’t trust the programme on institutions which deal with scientific matters that can easily be fact-checked, how can one possibly trust it on those where the arguments for and against are more qualitative and open to interpretation.

Yours faithfully ...

Please note: For full disclosure, while I do not work at or for the Met Office, my work as a professional oceanographer does involve periodic collaboration with fellow researchers there, including with climate projection.

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