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BBC: SOD the scientific consensus! Look OUT! MEGA TSUNAMI is coming

Money talks and disasters sell, baby

By Andrew Orlowski, 17 Feb 2015

Special Report The BBC Trust has supported its programme makers in their use of old and debunked scientific conjectures to produce a "Hollywood style" environmental disaster film.

In a formal decision, the operationally independent governing body of the broadcaster rejected a complaint made about the BBC Two TV "documentary", Could We Survive A Mega Tsunami?.

The film dramatised the effects of a giant ocean wave ("starting at one kilometre high"), far greater than the tsunamis created by earthquakes, and illustrated by (in the BBC's own words) "Hollywood-style graphics". The film showed havoc being unleashed upon European and North American seaboards.

The complainant argued that far from being new, the Mega Tsunami theory's "science" is actually very old, having first been aired by the BBC 15 years ago. The conjecture has been dismissed by geophysicists as "nonsense" and "fiction", and has been repeatedly debunked in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

In broadcasting it as it did, complainant Mark Pinder argued the BBC was presenting a highly misleading picture.

The BBC's own guidelines on reconstructions state that they "should normally be based on a substantial and verifiable body of evidence," and it "is usually unacceptable to use production techniques that materially mislead the audience about the reality of the narrative or events".

"I felt that my intelligence was being insulted to the point where I thought that I’d possibly switched over to BBC3 by accident," Pinder argued. "The imagery and tone was so over the top, that I half expected Godzilla to make a guest appearance, or at very least Al Gore."

The BBC Trust's Editorial Standards unit interpreted the complaint in an unusual way. Pinder, the Trust decided, was not challenging the presentation of the weight of evidence, but challenging the authority of the people making the argument.

It thus rejected the complaint on credentialist grounds: the academic promoting the Mega Tsunami theory "is a recognised expert in the field". The film makers had included sufficient hedging material to pass a narrow reading of the accuracy tests, even though it had failed to reflect the geophysical academic consensus.

So confident of its Mega Tsunami film is the BBC, that it was broadcast it for a third time on 29 January. You can see it on iPlayer here.

The Hollywood Appeal of the Mega Tsunami

First touted in 1999, the Mega Tsunami hypothesis posits that an unusually large landslide would create an unusually large wave, creating far more destruction than a typical earthquake-generated tsunami.

To generate the energy required to create an exceptionally large and destructive wave, the landslide would not only need to be massive, it would need to be one single "event", rather than a succession of subsidences, which would of course create smaller waves.

Proponents identified one area as a candidate: the Canary Islands, specifically a volcanic ridge on Isla de La Palma called Cumbre Vieja. The problem is, scientists strongly dispute this.

"The level of support for this hypothesis is, shall we say, somewhat lacking within the scientific community," according to Professor Dave Petley, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of East Anglia, and the co-author of an undergrad textbook on environmental risks, now in its fifth edition, writing on the American Geophysical Union's blog.

"This scare should be consigned to the garbage can once and for all," he added.

The Tsunami Society issued a strongly worded statement on the hypothesis written by five scholars in 2003, and has updated the page ever since.

"We would like to halt the scaremongering from these unfounded reports. We wish to provide the media with factual information so that the public can be properly informed about actual hazards of tsunamis and their mitigation," the Society wrote.

"No such event, a mega tsunami, has occurred in either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans in recorded history. NONE," the Society explained. Volcanic collapses are so rare, they happen only every few million years. And the Cumbre Vieja volcano will not cause a massive and sudden rock displacement. Waves caused by eruptions simply don't travel like quake-generated waves for thousands of miles, their impact is intense and local.

Others have stepped forward to debunk the theory too.

The former Director of the UNESCO's International Tsunami Information Center George Pararas-Carayannis pointed out the theory was based on "the incorrect assumption that the underwater flanks of the Cumbre Vieja and Kilauea volcanoes are extremely unstable and that massive failures can occur in the near future".

However, the Mega Tsunamists can't account for a mechanism needed to prompt such a dramatic collapse. Pararas-Carayannis also dispelled the idea it could trigger a 30m wave reaching New York, or a 50m wave washing over Florida and the Carribean, which the BBC film makers were keen to illustrate.

“It will all begin with an event that last happened in 1949, and again in 1971 …”
- Narrator, Could We Survive a Mega Tsunami?
(BBC, 2013)

The theory has also been shot down by the University of Delft. Using a laboratory fluid mechanics experiment, Joana van Nieuwkoop found that:

"Only when the volcano becomes a kilometre taller than its current height (a situation that will not arise until some ten thousand years from now) will there be any risk of part of the cliff subsiding into the sea.

"And even then, it will not suddenly crash into the water as an enormous piece of rock, but in the form of layers of rock face that gradually slide into the sea."

In other words, it's the wrong kind of rock, and far too small.

Here in the UK, marine geologists at the University of Southampton confirmed that the mega tsunami hypothesis was improbable and overblown.

And in 2013, after the BBC's film debut, but before the two re-broadcasts, National Oceanography Centre researchers cast further doubt on the mega-tsunami catastrophists' claims.

With all this behind us, now let's turn to how the theory grew legs, and why the BBC chose to ignore the evidence contradicting it.

The Catastrophe Men

The original thesis, entirely based on computer modelling, emerged in a 1999 paper, Cumbre Vieja Volcano – Potential Collapse and Tsunami at La Palma, Canary Islands by Steven Ward of UC Santa Cruz, and Simon Day at University College London.

The paper postulated that Cumbre Vieja Volcano could create a slide block with devastating effects thousands of miles away.

"For a 500km3 slide block running westward 60km down the offshore slope at 100m/s, our computer models predict that tsunami waves 10-25m high will be felt at transoceanic distances spanning azimuths that target most of the Atlantic basin."

“The programme had the deliberate look and feel of a 'disaster movie'”

- Colin Treagar, Complaints Director, BBC

But the story really took on a life of its own when a third figure took an interest. Bill McGuire's personal website describes him as a "much called-upon TV and radio pundit" and a pop science writer.

McGuire was a Higher Education geology lecturer before getting his big break thanks to the insurance industry. He became the Professor of Geohazards and Director at the AON Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre. The insurance business is keen to understand risks better, while critics add that it has a vested interest in exaggerating threats.

McGuire's pop science writing reveals a singular interest. The titles are: A Guide to the End of the World – Everything You Never Wanted to Know (2003), Seven Years to Save the Planet: The Questions and Answers (2008) and Waking the Giant – How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes (2012). He presented The End of the World Reports for Channel 5, and the BBC Radio 4 series Disasters in Waiting, and the "Doomwatch" column for the BBC's own Focus magazine. He's also written for insurance trade titles and The Guardian, which warned that a tsunami could "swamp Britain".

McGuire had been studying volcanic landslides for over a decade, but only as his media career took off did he begin to promote the mega tsunami hypothesis.

The BBC had been drawn to the theory as soon as Ward and Day published their 1999 paper. In 2000, a Horizon devoted a film to the catastrophe hypothesis, featuring Day and McGuire.

"Most of the energy of the wave would head straight out across the Atlantic towards the United States, Bahamas and the Caribbean" predicted the programme.

The wave would be "almost inconceivably destructive, far bigger than anything ever witnessed in modern times. It will surge across the entire Atlantic in a matter of hours, engulfing the whole US east coast, sweeping away everything in its path up to 20km inland. Boston would be hit first, followed by New York, then all the way down the coast to Miami and the Caribbean".

A couple of years later, the US Discovery Channel followed up with an even more lurid "special". The BBC's 2013 film was a co-production with he Discovery Channel. It was largely a retread, albeit with a bigger special effects budget. Yet there were two significant differences. In 2013, the film-makers could now draw on a decade of literature debunking the theory. They didn't, a fact illustrated by the film's highly suggestive trailer:

"Now, using the very latest science, powerful computer models and the terrible evidence of all-too-recent events, this is the story of how some experts believe the greatest natural disaster in human history might one day unfold – the biggest wave ever seen – threatening cataclysmic destruction of some of the world’s greatest cities ..."

The producer hired for the Mega Tsunami job, Martin Pupp, had previously produced factual pieces for the Seconds from Disaster series and the Italian Cruise Ship Disaster. Do you see a pattern, here?

The Trust's Logic

Following the re-transmission of the film on BBC Four last year, photographer Mark Pinder lodged a complaint with the BBC. The film didn't use "the very latest science" at all, Pinder argued, and it selectively ignored 14 years of science which trashes the hypothesis.

He complained that it was irresponsible to present one scientist's views without providing the context and balance.

"I really hope Lord Reith wasn’t watching it from his celestial sofa," Pinder told the BBC in an email, "as I’m pretty sure he’d be doing around 3000rpm at the moment."

The film's executive producer was Tina Fletcher, now Tina Fletcher-Hill, a former Tomorrow's World executive producer and the go-to person at the BBC for science programmes.

She also sits on the board of the former engineering quango, EngineeringUK.

BBC Audience Services has conceded that there was no scientific consensus behind the hypothesis:

"You are quite right when you say there is no consensus on the likelihood or the detailed impact of a mega-tsunami effect from La Cumbre Vieja" wrote Paul Kettle, for the BBC.

However, he pleaded mitigation: the BBC wanted to present the subject to a disinterested audience, explaining that the film was "a ‘what-if ?’ scenario presented in a fashion that would allow the depiction of some quite difficult science ... to an audience that might be less interested in a more detailed, forensic examination or attempt to quantify the probability, scale event and resulting effects of La Cumbre Vieja collapsing".

He also cited a Mesolithic era event (the Storegga Slide) when the continental shelf collapsed, sending a wave crashing into Scotland, although Pinder wasn't impressed: the amount of material in contention in La Palma is at most one-seventh of the volume displaced by the Storegga Slide, Pinder told us.

Pinder had complained that the graphics - of waves crashing into, and toppling New York skyscrapers - were unwarranted.

"The imagery and tone was so over the top, that I half expected Godzilla to make a guest appearance”, Pinder had joked. The Trust's Complaints Director took this as a compliment.

"I imagine viewers would recognise the programme had the deliberate look and feel of a “disaster movie", Kettle replied.

After the ECU rejected the complaint, Pinder escalated the complaint to the Editorial Standards Committee at the BBC Trust. Initially he was rejected and he appealed. A final decision was made by the Trust's standards Committee in September, and published in December. (pdf).

The Trust rejected the complaint, which meant that the BBC Trustees didn't see it. The rejection was made on the advice of an unnamed "Senior Editorial Complaints Advisor" who nevertheless made some very interesting arguments ...

Is that you, Godzilla?

The Trust's standards Committee turned Pinder's complaint from one of the credibility of the argument, to one about the authority of the scientists making the argument.

"The Committee understood the complainant to feel that neither the scientists nor their views were credible enough to have formed the basis of a television programme," the Trust wrote.

"The Committee did not think that applied in this case as it is not outside the Editorial Guidelines to explore one view on a particular issue in a given programme, as long as it is signposted to the audience that other theories may exist, as happened in this case by phrases such as “some experts believe”.

Was this a fair reflection of the scientific consensus? No scientists reflecting the consensus madae an appearance. The Trust wrote:

"I am not qualified to say if Professor McGuire’s theory is correct but he and his colleagues do appear to have some standing within the relevant scientific community," the Committee decided. [Our emphasis].

The Trust felt that the programme had sufficiently hedged its bets, using the phrases: “Not everyone agrees.  But some experts think …", “Models differ on what the wave might do …” and “no-one knows exactly how great a mega tsunami’s impact would be". The Trust concluded: “The truth is … no one really knows … and hopefully, given that landslide events are fortunately rare, no one soon will get a chance to find out.”

The Trust also repeated the BBC ECU's earlier body swerve: the programme was not actually about the science behind a mega tsunami, but about the science of being hit by water. The Trust decided the film "was not setting out to investigate the likelihood of a mega-tsunami, but the likelihood of surviving such an event."

As to the complaint that the film was "based on the latest scientific research", that was completely ignored in the Trust's decision.

So what does the original complainant, Mark Pinder, think of the verdict.

"Essentially they're being quite slippery," he told us. "I'm a journalist myself -  a photographer and I'd defend to the death the BBC’s right to free speech and to make a program on anything they wish. If some scientist comes to them theorising that the moon is made of camembert, fine. But I would expect a rigorous evidenced based analysis of such claims in return from the programme maker."

Pinder is particularly disappointed in the logic displayed.

"The BBC claimed that they had to use disaster movie style graphics to engage a certain - presumably unsophisticated - audience to what they claim are complex scientific principles, whilst at the same time claiming such an audience is sophisticated enough to recognise the weak caveats and almost non existent qualifications they raise to the claims of the mega-tsunami theorists.

"They can’t have it both ways. This line in self justification is both patronising and insulting.

"Surely research paid for by the insurance industry, who have vested commercial interests in bigging up perceived threat, deserves more critical analysis than these programme makers gave it," says Pinder. "They could claim that they were unaware of the existence of the piles of contrary evidence questioning the mega-tsunami thesis, but this would bring into question the quality of the programme makers research and by extension the BBC’s claims to rigour and authority. It is disingenuous for the BBC to claim that they’ve presented the facts fairly and not planted the idea of a La Palma Mega-tsunami being only a matter of when not if, as the dominant narrative.

"And there's no way they could argue it was 'the latest science'. They ignored that completely."

Throughout his dealings with the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit, and the BBC Trust, Pinder sensed that the organisation struggled to find anyone prepared to stand up for the film. Perhaps not surprisingly - one reviewer found the juxtaposition of Hollywood CGI and real tsunami footage "gratuitous", describing it as a "hysterical piece of science fantasy".

"It became pretty apparent very early on that their modus operandi was to dissemble and misrepresent, so when their final judgement came through I was not surprised," Pinder concludes. "I think my main disappointment was that nobody at the Beeb was particularly prepared to stand up and honestly defend their programme." ®


Don't be too hard on the BBC Trust's Editorial Unit. It thoroughly investigated a complaint that an imaginary character in a radio comedy panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue was the victim of sexism.

In that complaint, the BBC emailed the complainer to assure them that "a number of senior figures share, at least in part, your concerns" and the head of BBC comedy had been hauled in to ensure that "changes will be made to the way Samantha is presented in the future."

Historically there's been a huge gulf in quality between factual programming on either side of the Atlantic. Turn on US TV for a history documentary, and it's likely you'll get Nazis … and more Nazis. Tune into an American science programme, and you'll probably be watching a sensational CGI-enhanced Hollywood-style disaster movie, based on the flimsiest scientific evidence - designed to alarm rather than educate. By defending Mega Tsunami in this way, the BBC Trust appears to defend the US approach. So long as a factual includes some credentialed "expert", anything now goes, it seems. ®

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