Wednesday 11 September 2013

Is the BBC anti-science?

It's a point that keeps coming up: Does the BBC have an anti-science bias? 

The question isn't usually meant in the sense of 'Does the BBC dislike science?'; no, it's more a question of whether the BBC has a preference for the humanities and whether it undervalues science. 

An earlier post tackled the question of why BBC One's Question Time features so few scientists (a mere two in over three years), but Professor Lisa Jardine has recently raised a more general point. She claims the BBC is, as the Telegraph puts it, "dumbing down science programmes because it is staffed with humanities graduates who are ignorant about the subject".

Her essential point is that BBC producers - most of whom are trained in the humanities - assume that we, the public, know as little about science as they do. Hence, science presenters are "told to avoid using any technical terms for fear of alienating people, while arts presenters can reference relatively obscure cultural figures without any further explanation".

She concedes that Radio 4 is now introducing more scientific content, but says that its science department is still dwarfed by the arts unit.

(I have to say that my impression is that Radio 4 has rather less scientific content now that it had during the four-year controllership (if there's such a word) of James Boyle in the late 1990s.)

This passage from the Telegraph article (quoting Lisa Jardine) rather tickled me - especially for the Telegraph's helpful parentheses, which seem to assume that its readers don't know much about anything!:
"Anyone who has done broadcasting on science for the BBC will know that whereas you are never asked to explain who (actor) John Carlisle is, if I say 'mitochondria' (energy-producing components of cells), they say, 'Can't you say it in ordinary language because people won't understand'.
"They always say, 'Because my mother won't understand'. Many mothers now have PhDs, so let's leave out the mothers. In the rising age groups, 45 per cent of that cohort went to University for goodness' sake."
(That said, though I knew about mitochondria, I will confess that I'd hadn't a clue who John Carlisle was.)

Now, though the Telegraph article quotes a BBC spokesman saying that's everything's fine and that BBC is getting it about right, I do think there's a lot going for what Lisa Jardine is saying. 

I've got my Radio Times for next week, and there's not much science on either BBC One or BBC Two - though there's more than there usually is. 

There's a new landmark history of British science starting next Wednesday, but guess who's presented it? With the inevitability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it just has to be Professor Brian Cox. 

Yes, he's an enthusiastic, knowledgeable man - and, wow!, coincidentally, used to be a pop singer and goes down well with the ladies because of his youthful good looks - but does the BBC have an ulterior motive for using him on so many of its high-profile science documentaries? Something to do with its ratings, perhaps?

Still, that other trusty and time-honoured ratings-grabber Sir David Attenborough also has a new series starting next week on the evolution of vertebrates, which sounds splendid. Typically, the blurb promises "stunning CGI". 

Both are on BBC Two rather than BBC One, as BBC One seems to have largely given up on Reithian values of education long ago. 

History seems more the BBC's thing, if this coming week's TV schedule is anything to go by (and it is, with four such documentaries), and Radio 4's schedule is stuffed to the gills with humanities-based material over the coming week, but offers very little science - though, ironically, Lisa Jardine's Seven Ages of Science is one of the exceptions.  

Curiously, if you think about it though, both Prof Jardine's Seven Ages of Science and Brian Cox's Science Britannica are history programmes too. They come under the category of 'The History of Science'.

Did that help them get commissioned? Did the humanities graduates at the BBC find something they could relate to - and assume their audiences could relate to - in that? Would they have so willingly commissioned a true 'hard science' series? 

While I'm on (and am I ever off at the moment, lord 'elp me?), another gripe of mine about the BBC and science arises from John Humphrys and his larky, 'ooh,-look-at-me,-I-don't-know-much-about-science-so-I'll-affect-an-ironic-tone-whenever-a-scientist-comes-onto-Today-and-everybody-will-love-me-for-it' attitude. Give it a rest please, John. 

The other Today presenters aren't as bad, but they usually sound as if they want to say 'Gee Whiz!' after every science story. 

So what do you make of the BBC's science coverage? Has Horizon got worse? 

I'm not sure about the last question because I stopped watching it some years ago. In the '90s, it was passing tolerable, though it went through a phase when most episodes seemed to climax in something apocalyptic (the end of humanity, the end of the universe) - so much so that I used to laugh when the inevitable 'We all doomed, doomed I tells yer!' passage came up [and it usually came up again and again in each episode] - but then it started getting silly and I gave up on it. Has it improved again? 

(I did watch one recently about cats, as I tend to watch things about cats. I enjoyed it - as it was about cats - but I saw lots of online comments slagging it off for dumbing down as well).

So what do you, our well-informed readership, make of this question? Is the BBC clueless about science?


  1. I worked for many years in the airline and light aircraft industry in various roles, including as a mechanic. I am a microlight pilot. Every time some TV program comes on with, shock horror, a flying machine in it, I wait for the inevitable crash. If catastrophe was averted it was by "a miracle", rarely if ever by the skill and professionalism of those involved. The Star Trek style technobabble which follows makes my teeth grind.
    A similar approach is used for any subject which can't be turned into a matter of opinion and "debated". Sometimes they seem to believe that physical reality is a matter of opinion. I remember a Radio 4 program where an guest stated that new-build nuclear would not give security of supply because "the UK has no plutonium mines". No doubt to be found somewhere near the scone and strawberry jam mines. No-one corrected her. And that was supposed to be a serious political program.

  2. That guest may have been reading the Greenpeace website.

    They've got a page called 'What is plutonium?'

    Under the title is a small picture of a miner (presumably one of the seven dwarves) with the caption "plutonium mining".

  3. Firstly, congratulations on an excellent website dedicated to exposing the more bizarre aspects of the BBC's much diminished broadcasting without the foam flecked ranting that makes most otherwise valid critiques all too easy to dismiss.

    There is very obviously an inherent "bias against understanding", as you say infuriatingly illustrated by the Today Programmes menagerie who cover the waterfront from awestruck wonder at the most banal "research" that fits in with their various agenda's; to Dr Stangelove suspicion of anything involving numbers or chemicals.

    Surely, however, the most obvious recent problem is the empire of "Personalities".

    Every BBC documentary has to be fronted by an "expert". These Experts are then incorporated into the blessed world of the BBC Elite and appear on everything from cookery shows to Question Time.

    They often start out being excellent (and I agree Jim Al-Kalili is the real deal) but inevitably egomania takes over: the backing music gets louder, the travel more lavish; and you end up with the spectacle of some minor academic being jetted around the world to get in the way of the material being shot in unbuttoned leisure-wear.

    Worse are the various (usually climate change) fanatics and monmaniacs who thinly disguise their specious diatribes in apocalyptic essays and absurd reconstructions and projections.

    One suspects the main probelm is that "programme makers" drive the Agenda - just who in the BBC hierarchy has real scientific knowledge, let alone qualifications?

    The contrast with say PBS Documentaries which are long modest and tend to let the material do the talking (and save the presenters for woodwork and cookery shows) is very instructive.

    1. Thank you.

      Do you, by any chance, have a certain Professor Iain Stewart in mind for that jet-setting minor academic?

      His documentaries certainly do feature a lot of shots of him dangling off some dangerous rock face, or perched on the edge of a live volcano, shouting over the top of a BBC orchestra.

      That's not the sort of thing Aubrey Manning would have done.

    2. I was also thinking of professorbriancox who encapsulates the whole evolutionary history of the sub-species from a gauche but compelling presenter of CERNs youtube movies; to the full-blown toxic butterfly we see now - with Nathan Barley on speed-dial. Though there is indeed plenty of competition.

      Aubrey Manning and Bronowski and even the often ridiculous Professor Beard are/were proper academics and their eccentricities neither cutesy nor self-serving masquerades.

      I think this week has been quite critical for the BBC. The exposure of those dismal creatures at the PAC beautifully displaying the underlying problem. Grasping self-righteous corporate hacks, who would never find employment in a real corporation; frankly nasty creeps who have slowly remade the institution in their own image. Until they and the horde of corruptly over-paid part-pris "world class journalists" and "national treasure" mediocrities in jobs for life are all gone it will continue its exponential decline in public esteem (just when did they last produce a decent drama?) whilst those responsible blink in the sunlight and blame the readers of the Daily Mail for failing to "get it".

    3. It's been shock after shock over the last year for the BBC, but this week has certainly been the biggest shock of all. The slating they got after the PAC seems to have been almost universal (the odd die-hard at the 'Guardian' excepted). The government is beginning to tackle its lack of financial transparency. That said, the BBC will fight back though (see my latest post).

      I did forget to mention in the post that there is one other golden beacon of science discussion on Radio 4 - Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time'.

      It's such a relief to be able to hear three bone fide scientists discussing, say, cystallography or the Ediacara Biota or the infant brain with a presenter who refuses to dumb down.


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