The BBC Is Not as Good as the Newspapers – The BBC
Posted by apgaylard on October 30, 2007
This is a device that is sometimes described as breaking the first law of thermodynamics; at other times it’s just tapping into a new source of energy previously unknown to science. Either way, if true, it would be time to break out the Nobel Prizes and redraft the text books.
You’d think that was unlikely? Well, yes very; unless you are Ecowatts or the BBC.
In this post I provide a commentary on the salient points that I’ve sent to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU). The BBC’s reply to my initial complaint is shown in bold.
“… I understand that you feel Paul Calver, chief executive of Ecowatts, was insufficiently challenged over the merits of Thermal Energy Cell.
He was not challenged at all. This is even though for his device to work Ecowatts would have discovered a source of energy unknown to science.
The interviewer’s aim is always to put the questions likely to be in the minds of informed viewers and to look for answers but I recognise that you feel they did not do this on this occasion.
It is not a matter of my feelings one way or the other. The interviewer did not question the underlying miraculous nature of the “Thermal Energy Cell”. In fact at one point she remarked “… Even it you don’t get to why it works, the point is it does …”
… I assure you that the BBC does not seek to denigrate any view, nor to promote any view …
It’s not a matter of denigrating any particular view, rather it is maintaining objectivity. As a point of comparison there was an excellent item on BBC One’s Breakfast News this morning (30th October) on a new home testing kit for liver damage. The coverage explained what this new product was about and expressed some legitimate concerns. Both the promoter of this product and your in-house GP were interviewed together so that worries about ‘false negatives’ and their effect on people’s behaviour could be aired. In this case the BBC maintained objectivity and did not become an advocate for the product.
Contrast this with the handling of Mr Calver. Your journalist became an advocate for the product. The BBC may not seek to promote any view, but it’s clear in this case they did. I think that Mr Calver would probably agree as he’s put the item on this product’s website.
… but unlike newspapers, news programmes do not have the luxury of the inside pages or specialist sections that enable newspapers to carry a wide range of reports in a great deal of detail …
It’s not a matter of detail. It’s a matter of balance, objectivity and basic preparation.
Mr Calver was given every opportunity to make his case for his product. There was easily enough time available to have a real expert comment on the extremely low likelihood that Ecowatts had discovered a source of energy unknown to science; along with the very high probability that this device does not work at all.
At the very least couldn’t a BBC staff science journalist have been invited to provide some balance?
Objectivity is a state of mind. It’s about applying critical thinking skills to the matter at hand. It’s about not being drawn in to becoming an advocate for a particular view or product, as happened in this case.
Just a few minutes on the internet would have revealed coverage already provided in the newspapers. It would have shown that similar claims were being made in 2003; that the scientists who tested this device at that time were cautious about the claims. Most importantly that Professor Saffa Riffat, the most eminent expert quoted in the Daily Mail reportedly said “… it could be a major breakthrough, but more tests are required. We will be doing further checks.’ “ This little work would have enabled your journalists to test the claim that “… we have had this very carefully checked by a number of key universities to ensure that our measurements are right and our observations are correct…” and that it was “absolutely true” that this device works.
With a little more work the independent scientists who have been previously quoted in the press could have been contacted. I am sure that Professor Stephen Smith of Essex University (Quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 2003) would have told you what he told me (quoted with his permission):
“The problem with [the] claim that the cell produced net energy gain is that I do not believe [they] measured the input power adequately … I tried to question this … and establish precisely what his circuitry did measure, but [they] withdrew … cooperation from me …
Frankly, I did not think it worth taking the matter further as I was by that stage very certain of my conclusions … I don’t know whether they have made proper measurements of the input power. Were they to do so, I have no doubt they would find there is no energy gain in the system …”
”… I am amazed that a thing like this could be marketed as a heat source … the supposed corroboration by scientists at Bristol University, quoted on the web site and in the Telegraph article, is valueless as confirmation of their claims …”
I don’t think that it is unrealistic to expect some basic background checks to be made by the BBC before running a story such as this. If the BBC felt that it could not, with the resources at its disposal, cover this story properly, why do it at all?
Is the BBC contending that it is not in a position to cover science and technology stories objectively or with balance?
It is no good, after the fact, claiming that newspapers can do a better job with this type of story. Neither does it make a very good case for the license fee.
… I would like to assure you however that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC …
This is just not good enough. It is clear from the tone of the response that the BBC thinks it did all that it could in this case. It did not. It became an advocate for wild speculation and a dubious product. It clearly did a much worse job of this than it does with many other stories.
I would say that the least the BBC can do is to make sure that a balanced piece is put onto its website and that in the future, as a matter of policy, a neutral expert is interviewed along with an advocate for a new theory, technology or product.
It pains me to suggest that if this is the standard of journalism we can expect to see when science and technology stories are covered, it’s probably better that the BBC doesn’t do them at all. The audience will not be informed; but at least they won’t be misinformed. “
Well, it will at least be interesting to see what comes of the complaint. At the moment I’m beginning to wonder whether I should have named my blog “BBC Watch“.
As an interesting addendum I’ve been corresponding with the very amiable Professor Stephen Smith. Here is a more complete set of his comments, reproduced with his permission from three recent e-mails.
“… The Telegraph article fairly represented my views at the time. Shortly after the article was published, I established that the cell designed by Eccles was essentially a re-invention of gas discharge electrolysis (GDE), studied in the 1960s by, amongst others, Hickling. There is a review chapter in, I think, Modern Aspects of Electrochemistry, Vol. 1 or 2 (ed J O’M Bockris). Hickling describes the same phenomena that I saw when I visited Eccles at Gardner-Watts. The GDE produces hydrogen peroxide as well as the normal electrolysis products of gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.
The problem with Eccles’ claim that the cell produced net energy gain is that I do not believe he measured the input power adequately under the GDE conditions. I think his equipment only measured the DC current, which is quite inadequate when GDE takes place because there are very large rf oscillations. I tried to question this with Eccles and establish precisely what his circuitry did measure, but he withdrew his cooperation from me.
Frankly, I did not think it worth taking the matter further as I was by that stage very certain of my conclusions. I have had no further contact with Eccles, nor with Gardner-Watts. So I don’t know whether they have made proper measurements of the input power. Were they to do so, I have no doubt they would find there is no energy gain in the system.
Their work originally interested me because they (along with many others of a similar inclination) believe that energy is available from sub-ground state energy levels of the hydrogen atom. Clearly this idea is nonsense, but that did not necessarily imply that their experimental claims of anomalous energy production were also nonsense. Unfortunately it is now clear to me that both the theoretical and the experimental claims were fallacious.
Gardner-Watts had applied to Daresbury to look at high energy gamma ray emission from these supposed H energy levels; I don’t know whether the investigation ever took place.
That covers most of my knowledge of the topic. As I say, I have had no recent contact with Gardner-Watts, or indeed with anyone else in this field …”
“… I suppose I ought to have realised that this idea would not die a natural death, as it should have done! … I am amazed that a thing like this could be marketed as a heat source. … Incidentally, the supposed corroboration by scientists at Bristol University, quoted on the web site and in the Telegraph article, is valueless as confirmation of their claims …”
“… The gadget demonstrated by Paul Calver and described in the Daily Mail article is different from the one that was shown to me by Eccles, so I would not be sure that it still uses gas discharge electrolysis. On the face of it, it now appears to be more mainstream “energy-from-electrolysis” than Eccles’ original cell; at least, I remember coming across a lot of claims of energy from electrolysis very like this when I originally looked into the subject. It’s good news that the DTI have not funded this. I hope no-one else has …”
I would like thank Professor Smith for being open and informative. It is something of an open question as to whether confronting bad, or pseudo-, science is always a good thing. In this case it’s my view that the more accurate information there is generally available the better.
Misinformation as epitomised by both the BBC’s and Daily Mail coverage of this topic just fosters an environment where the unsuspecting can be given false hopes that will remain unfulfilled or, worse, end up funding them.
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