"Dumbing down" is an over-used expression, but I feel compelled to use it here to describe the current state of BBC science programming, or what passes for it these days.
I was reminded of this while half-heartedly watching Journeys From The Centre Of The Earth on BBC2 last night (while eating a prawn curry - see previous post); the presenter Iain Stewart (Dr. Iain Stewart, apparently) did a lot of running about and pointing at things (and shouting), and there were a couple of wacky animated sections, for no apparent reason, but very little in the way of solid science.
Ironically, the one time he did take some time to explain something in a fair amount of detail it was the theory about there having been a catastrophic flood about 8,000 years ago where the rising waters of the Mediterranean inundated the Black Sea area and raised the water levels to what they are today. It's one of those theories that sounds like it really ought to be true (not least because it provides an explanation for the Biblical flood story; you know, Noah, two by two, all that stuff) but it's by no means widely accepted as such in the scientific community. I don't want to get into the evolution argument again, but this is a useful contrast: here is something that really is a "theory" in the sense that the layman would understand it, in that there is active dispute about it between scientists and other scientists (as opposed to between scientists and nutters).
The programmes that originally got my goat, though, were in the BBC's flagship science programme Horizon. There was a time this was a really good proper science programme - not any more it would seem. Just to give you a couple of examples:
October 10th 2006: Chimps Are People Too. Flagship fact: chimps share 99.4% of their DNA with humans. Well, that's very interesting. And? Some detailed analysis of why the remaining 0.6% makes all the difference? An overview of our common ancestry and parallel development? Nope - Danny Wallace arsing around with some chimps. Brilliant. Amusing footnote - it appears the 99.4% figure may be an overestimate anyway, and the true figure may be more like 96% - see Doug's post on the subject the other day. Which might have invalidated some of what the programme was saying, had it actually been saying anything at all.
November 7th 2006: Pandemic. This one looked more promising on the surface in that it was actually about something proper - the H5N1 avian flu virus, and what might happen if there was a full-scale outbreak among humans. However.....it fudged making clear the central key fact, i.e. that the tipping point comes when the disease mutates to a form whereby it can be passed from human to human without any avian involvement. Until this happens you can lick as many infected chickens as you like and there'll never be an outbreak. The serious science that would have underpinned all this had evidently been ditched for a lengthy dramatisation of the imagined early stages of an outbreak, presumably because, as the review in The Independent said the next day (I paraphrase somewhat), the intended audience knew everything there was to know about viral DNA mutation, but would be surprised to hear that some imaginary American would be a bit upset if his son died of bird flu.