A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

A Bad Day at the Office

Posted by apgaylard on February 14, 2008

The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has upheld the main thrust of my complaint about the coverage of Ecowatts’ so-called Thermal Energy Cell by the Breakfast programme.   Just in case you have a life and have not been following this saga, here’s the story so far.

A small UK company called Ecowatts has been hawking around a magic water heater that they claim gives out more (heat) energy than it consumes (electricity). 

In the early naughties Ecowatts (then known as Gardner Watts) got some coverage in the UK’s Daily Telegraph where the magic heater was described as tapping into “[…] another, previously unrecognised source of energy […]”.  The scientists quoted in the article have subsequently pointed out that the reported apparent net energy gain came from the use of inappropriate measurement techniques. One of them recently cast doubt on the novelty of this device, describing it as “[…] essentially a re-invention of gas discharge electrolysis (GDE), studied in the 1960s […]”

It was planned that water heaters, based on the device, would be “[…] on the market within two years […]”.  That was in 2003; nothing had happened by 2005.

Undeterred, the same group returned with a new magic heater last year.  This time the UK’s Daily Mail had the device breaking “almost every known law of physics“.  This earth-shattering breakthrough had, allegedly, been validated by a Business Development Manger from the University of York.  Although formerly a scientist and engineer, a man who is a crop-circle-researching-UFO-chasingdowser does not exactly inspire confidence.  A real scientist was quoted, but he hadn’t actually done enough work to satisfy himself of the device’s magical properties.

The article alleged that the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had provided financial backing: it had not.

It was at this point that BBC Breakfast decided to broadcast a credulous puff-piece where Ecowatts CEO, Paul Calver, was given free rein to make his pitch.  According to him, the device would still deliver something for nothing but not at the expense of the laws of physics.  In essence: it works, but no one knows how.

The piece was so bad that some who have only seen it on the web have, understandably, thought that it was a hoax!

I complained; the BBC’s initial response was that they didn’t have the resources to deal properly with such a tricky technical issue.

Although conceding the substance of my complaint, even the BBC is still using this excuse.  Their response starts with an assessment of what parts of the Editorial Guidelines may have been broken.

You referred in your original complaint to bias in the programme’s treatment of the Ecowatts Thermal Energy Cell, but I think the guidelines on accuracy are more directly applicable than those on bias and impartiality (as the device isn’t available commercially, the guidelines for undue prominence for commercial products don’t apply).  I have in mind this passage:

            Our output must be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested…”

I’ve no particular problem with this interpretation of my complaint.  I’m not totally convinced that the undue prominence guideline doesn’t apply.  Afterall, Calver was asked about the likely cost of the product when it’s launched.

The ECU then concedes that the piece transgressed the accuracy guideline and offers an explanation as to how this happened (emphasis mine):

I hope that it will reassure you to know that the Breakfast team acknowledge that the item in question didn’t meet those standards, and that Ecowatts’ claims for its device should have been subjected to critical scrutiny.  As you have expressed concern about how (considering the resources available to the BBC) such a lapse could have come about, I should pass on the information from the programme-makers that the item was prepared on the day before the programme, which happened to be exceptionally busy, and when the normal team of three had been reduced to two because of illness.  Their written brief for the presenters didn’t include the critical elements it should have, and it was taken at face value by the incoming overnight team.  The presenters, in turn, had little opportunity to look beyond the brief because their attention the next morning was mainly focussed on the early stages of the Northern Rock crisis and a plane crash in which a number of Britons were thought to have died.  The programme-makers regret that no use was made of the expertise of the BBC’s specialist scientific correspondents in this instance.”

I’m glad that the ECU and the programme-makers see that a mistake was made.  I must say that I find the excuses very unconvincing.  The inference that when one person calls in sick and a couple of big stories break the rest can get such slip-shod treatment is hardly a good advertisement for the BBC’s flagship morning news programme; neither does it contribute positively to the argument for retaining public funding of the BBC through the license fee.

Nor do I understand why the programme-makers couldn’t have run the material by an in-house science correspondent.  One phone call would, if they are any good at all, have been enough to be cautioned on the extreme improbability of the claim.

A summary of my finding on your complaint, together with a note of the action taken as a result, will be posted on the complaints pages of bbc.co.uk in due course, I shall let you know when this has happened.  Meanwhile I hope you will accept my apologies on behalf of the BBC, and my thanks for giving us the opportunity of investigating the matter.”

Going by responses to previous complaints, this is a stock closing paragraph.  It brings me to my main remaining concern: what is the BBC going to do to correct the high-profile broadcast of such an inaccurate piece?

I suspect that I know the answer already, nontheless I’ve written to the ECU to ask, and have made a couple of suggestions:

“[…] Given that this unsound piece appeared on the BBC’s flagship morning news programme it is clear that a correction is required.  Ideally, it should have prominence equal to the original piece.  Therefore, it would be best if it were run on Breakfast news.  It could even be as part of a general piece on the way legitimate concerns over climate change can leave people vulnerable to ‘something for nothing’ claims of this type.

If this is not possible, a correction carried on the science/technology section of bbc.co.uk would be acceptable.

I hope that the BBC moves from acknowledging the fault to starting to put it right: the consequences of not doing so are illustrated by the fact that this dubious piece appears on the Ecowatts’ website, helping to foster the impression that this is a serious and credible technology […]”

It is one thing to acknowledge an error; however, true contrition is seen in the efforts made to put it right. 

As for Ecowatts, no doubt they’ll be back.  Already they are claiming that another institution has ‘validated’ their claims.  This ‘measure, boast and move on’ strategy is a sure indication of one thing: their device just does not deliver. 

This time they’re promising a “concept demonstrator” by the end of the year (2008), I won’t be holding my breath.

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