Dear BBC, unscientific research is fake news

Does your “research” conform to scientific principles? It’s a simple yes / no question.

The now infamous BBC report on “Fake News in India” has seen its share of ups and downs. I mean that quite literally; because the BBC keeps taking it down from their website and then putting it back up. With each new iteration come new amendments, regrets and clarifications.

And then the critics seize upon the new batch of sorry half-excuses, half-apologies and half-truths offered by the BBC. Clearly, they are having fun with it by now, led most prominently by Opindia’s Nupur Sharma. Then, the BBC goes back into its hole with its report, wondering how to patch it up.

The errors and outright lies in the BBC’s “report” are so damning and the excuses so juvenile that it seems they never even considered the possibility of public scrutiny when they put out their “research”. It appears they were relying on “argument from authority”. They assured themselves that the “natives” would not dare to question them and even if they did, their voices would not be heard. Initially, the BBC’s sepoys in India tried just that.

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This is a problem. Because a rising India is prone to asking questions about everything. Which includes both the factual basis and the underlying intent of the BBC’s ‘civilizing mission’.

So if the BBC translates “Diwaliya kanoon” (Bankruptcy Law) as “Diwali law” and goes on to say that a well-established story about the success of Modi’s Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code is “fake news”, they are going to get laughed at.

Let me show you how the BBC broke every single rule of ethical research.

The first rule of research is that sampling must be randomized. Even if you are not trying to do an opinion poll, you must take care to find a range of voices. But the BBC relied almost exclusively on sources like Altnews whose owners have repeatedly shown pathological hatred for the BJP.

When doing “research”, the most important thing is to try and break out of your comfort zone, go far outside the circle of people you know and obtain a diverse sample.

But instead of randomized sampling, the BBC relied on something that can only be called “privilege based sampling”: your voice is recorded only if you are my friend!

How did the English language media try to create a narrative of a wave of cow-related violence in the country after 2014? By unleashing a wave of reports of such incidents.

Then, the website Indiaspend did a headcount of these reports and used this to conclude that “97% of cow-related violence happened after 2014”, effectively recycling liberal outrage into data.

And now the BBC comes in and sources from websites like Indiaspend and Altnews to draw its conclusions!

So, the real primary source of the BBC “report” is not facts, but liberal outrage.

Then, there was the matter of BBC using a sample of just 40 people for their research on our country of 1.2 billion. Again Nupur Sharma worked hard to calculate what the recommended size should be based on mathematical laws governing statistics. In any case, it was immediately clear that a sample size of 40 is outright ridiculous.

But what happened next is the most shameful thing of all.

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This is pure, unadulterated garbage.

Either the research follows scientific principles or it does not.

If it does not follow scientific principles, it’s not research. There are a lot of words that can be used to describe it: gossip, rumour, hearsay, lies etc, but it is not “research”.

No way.

Unscientific research is not a new or different kind of research. It is garbage.

Just like “fake news” is not a kind of news.

If it’s fake, it’s not news. And if it is news, it can’t be fake. The expression “fake news” is just a catchphrase, an oxymoron.

Exactly like that, whatever you choose to call it, “qualitative research” or “ethnographic research” or whatever … merely putting an adjective in front of the word “research” won’t turn something into research.

In fact, the use of extra adjectives like “qualitative research” or “ethnographic research” to sugarcoat the situation is even more suspicious. Those adjectives mean nothing.

Does your “research” conform to scientific principles? It’s a simple yes / no question.

If the answer is ‘no’, calling it research is like saying that fake news is a kind of news. It’s not.

There’s no middle ground here between scientific and unscientific, no grey area.

Even the claims of ethnography research and qualitative research were shot down. BBC used even those methods of research wrongly to arrive at generalised, fantastical claims like “Nationalism is the driving force behind fake news” when in fact, in qualitative research one absolutely cannot do that.

In fact, it amazes and disappoints me how the BBC can even offer such a sorry excuse and hope to be taken seriously.

How many people would be willing to board an aeroplane if they were told that the plane had been “tested”, just not scientifically?

I’d love to see a BBC staffer go flying in a plane at 30,000 feet that has only been “ethnographically tested”.

So let us apply the same simple logic even when we are not going to be flying 30,000 feet above the ground. If it’s not scientific, it’s garbage. End of story.

Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.

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