Friday, November 24, 2006

never mind the science, look at the running about and shouting

"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. 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.


Anonymous said...

Don't get me started on dumbing down and bad science reporting...

And if one more nature programme calls an animal 'vegetarian' my foot is going through the telly!

Anonymous said...

From - Turn the Channel.

Completely agree with you. Even with the current deplorable standard of TV the "Journeys From The Centre Of The Earth" is another low!

Completely agree with you. Even with the current deplorable standard of TV the "Journeys From The Centre Of The Earth" is another low!

The presenter "Dr." Iain Stewart seems to be on a personal video blog totally unrelated to the alleged subject of the show.

It is a good thing that in the very near future, there will be a huge amount of armature TV shows will be on offer from all over the world, making the BBC and other lazy creators of shows irrelevant.

Turn the Channel.

Anonymous said...

Get over yourself son, and don't er... 'link' me out of context.

My post on 'the subject' was nothing of the sort. The chimp subtitle was just that, a subtitle.

I was merely stating that scientists had very possibly made an amazing, groundbreaking discovery regarding the human genome and I gave examples of it's implications.

That new discovery, if correct, could well help us to diagnose and treat allegedly incurable diseases and conditions, as well as start to understand our actual 'evolutionary history'.

Mate. There are people on this planet other than scientists and nutters. Now its YOUR turn to be pompous.

Anonymous said...

After sobering up, I feel another sheepish apology is in order, with regards to my somewhat acidic comment made at 4(ish) in the morning.


I do feel however,that science should be accessible to 'the masses' as well as to the 'intellectually superior', if only to spark a little interest in the subject in the future generation(s) for example.

If this means 'dumbing down' science then dumb it down I say.

When the basic points are grasped, the interested individual can then (if he or she wants), look into the subject further and develop their scientific knowledge 'properly'.

'Dumbing down' may (sadly?) be necessary? Otherwise scientists run the risk of becoming rather elitist and snobby about 'their' subject, perpetuating the myth that scientists are nerds and the subject is a 'members only' club for geeks.

This as WE all know couldn't be further from the truth in most cases, yet (and my science-teaching girlfriend can attest to this), this myth is manifesting itself in poorly-attended science classes in schools nationwide.

Sad but true.

It is very easy to sit on ones intellectual high horse and complain about 'dumbing down'. In this case though, I think one shouldn't.

Next generation science, new viewpoints and discoveries will all suffer if scientists choose this rather blinkered, holier than thou attitude.

Pompous enough?

electrichalibut said...

I understand the "accessibility" argument, and I've just read the link to the Sunday Times article from your blog - needless to say I'm a fair bit less enthused about it than you are.

If the "pop science" publishers generate some interest in the subject, great. There's a whole world of difference, though, between being interested and doing science as a career. And, regrettably (or maybe not), that is for the "intellectually superior". Particle physics is hard. Microbiology is hard. Anyone expecting to rock up for a degree course in these subjects and spend 4 years learning about why penguins' feet don't freeze is in for a very nasty shock.

And the link was intended just to save me rehashing your nicely summarised post on the subject. No suggestion that there was anything wrong with the post, or with the research it describes. Maybe I should have made that clearer.

Anonymous said...

Yes. I realised that the following morning, hence the apology.
And quite a coincidence that that piece appeared in the Sunday Times the day after!
I didn't expect you to agree with it.
We can't agree on ebberytang can we.