I was just on the Today Programme on Radio 4 talking about dumbing down science in response to this piece in New Scientist by Kathy Sykes (who I like, and regard with some hope as a bit of a mate by the way).
I won’t talk about it too much here since I’m hopefully going to write something on the subject for either New Scientist (if Graham Lawton gets back to me: hello Graham!) or elsewhere writing a piece on the same subject which will hopefully come out in the 9th May edition of New Scientist.
One thing though: asked why people in academia can sometimes be critical of their colleagues who work with the media, I used the examples of best practise offered by Kathy Sykes, of which Robert Winston, professor of the public understanding of science at Imperial, was one. He is indeed a good example since, as an illustration of the very issue being discussed, many scientists were disappointed by his appearance in the adverts for an omega-3 product where some felt it was unfortunate that with his medical reputation, and TV appearances, he was now promoting a commercial product. These adverts were found by the ASA to breach their guidelines on substantiation and truthfulness and were subsequently withdrawn.
I’m afraid I think many scientists quite rightly regard media scientists engaging in commercial endorsements with considerable concern, whether it is Lord Winston (who since 2008 has had a new role of professor of the public understanding of science in Imperial) or Susan Greenfield’s personally endorsed range of computer games to improve your brain (£88 and trashed by Which magazine), or any of the others. I think it is problematic when the people who we hold up to promote the public’s understanding of evidence, of how we know if something works or not, endorse commercial products in this fashion, and inevitably some other academics will think less of them for it. This is the head of the Royal Institution, and a man who holds a professorship in the public understanding of science at Imperial, after all.
(Lord Winston has asked me to clarify that he did not personally profit financially from the money he was paid for appearing in the advertisement. I am very happy to do so, although that issue is not my main concern.”The money I earned from the omega-3 episode was donated to Imperial College for research and to promote the public understanding of science”.)
You can read more about the milk and the evidence supporting these adverts here:
This is certainly not my only concern about dumbing down and the work of some media scientists. This is me struggling to contain my massive logorrhoea so I can write about the issue properly later.
Oh but I will say, finally, as the programme ended, I pointed out (into a dead microphone) that the programmes which Kathy Sykes flagged up as good examples of science broadcasting were some time ago, and not on telly now. In fact looking at iPlayer right now there are 14 episodes of snooker, each 2 hours long, and just one science documentary, about bee colony collapse.
This is presented by Martha Kearney, and repetitively restates the problem for the first 30 minutes, at which point I gave up and went to read a science blog instead.
Graham Lawton of New Scientist has kindly taken a 550 word piece off me on this topic so I can’t say what I think about all this at length until 9th May. Annoying, eh? Yes, he is the man behind the “Darwin was wrong” episode. I quite like him as a bloke.