One definition of the ability to know if something is true or not is if it is in accordance with measurable reality. Attempting to apply this yardstick in the age of Twitter and the Internet brings us all face to face with the phenomenon of fake news. In a world where objective observation has become an increasingly rare commodity those in pursuit of that ‘measurable reality’ tend to fall back on the tried and proven sources. Thus, traditional media, such as newspapers and magazines, as well as terrestrial broadcasters for all their failings enjoy a greater degree of credibility than other sources. And in this country at least standing atop the pinnacle of comparative reliability is the BBC, which for all the claims of bias made against it (justifiably so when it comes to fieldsports), remains the nation’s go to outlet for factual reportage. Those claims of bias may never be resolved, but until now there have always been certain programmes which by their very nature and reputation have appeared to treat their content objectively and subject them to close editorial scrutiny. One such is the Radio 4 programme, Inside Science. Although this long running show has not been allowed to escape unscathed the modernisers’ fiddling (trendy presenters, preachy tone etc), it has until now mostly presented its subject matter intelligently and accurately.
Which brings us to Professor Rosie Woodroffe. Appearing on the programme last month, Professor Woodroffe was there to talk about the current science behind the badger cull. And more precisely, it seems, to spell out why she feels that the cull is not an effective tool for preventing bovine tuberculosis in cattle. Now it is perfectly reasonable that a vociferous opponent of the cull such as the Prof. and especially one as well qualified as she, should have a platform from which to make her views known. And whilst the BBC did itself no favours on the bias front by permitting this green activist full voice, and not balancing it with a contrary viewpoint, what was unforgivable and very worrying was that the Prof. whom The Guardian newspaper once described as “Britain’s leading expert on badgers” did not know that the animals suffer horribly at the hands of this disease.
Just how did this happen? How did a recognised authority on this subject and one who has devoted most of her waking hours to the cause of protecting badgers make such a fundamental error? And wasn’t it just her own and the listeners’ bad luck that in the studio alongside her was a presenter, gel haired Guardian (of course) writer Adam Rutherford, whose failure to correct Woodroffe suggested that he was the only other person in the scientific community to not know that badgers suffer horrendously and die a slow and agonising death from the disease. Woodroffe was clearly on an error strewn roll and Rutherford it seems joined her for the ride when failing to further correct his guest when she misled the listeners into thinking that vaccines against the disease were a more effective preventative than culling (for which there is no scientific evidence) or indeed when she claimed that in the areas where the cull has taken place, there has been no impact on the transmission of the disease (for which there is lots of evidence to the contrary).
A number of scientists have been in touch with the BBC to query those statements and to express their disappointment that a programme centred on the calm discussion of scientific matters has so far not seen fit to set the record straight. Neither, incidentally, has Woodroffe who, despite being a prolific tweeter, remains mysteriously quiet on the topic.