Giving it some chat on the Today Programme, Radio 4, about dumbing down and why scientists often don’t like media scientists

April 27th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, science comms | 71 Comments »

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).

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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These adverts were found by the ASA to breach their guidelines on substantiation and truthfulness and were subsequently withdrawn.image

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:

www.asa.org.uk/cap/news_events/news/2006/Functional+food+claims+in+the+spotlight+again.htm

www.dairyreporter.com/Products/Dairy-Crest-misused-omega-3-study-says-ASA

www.asa.org.uk/asa/adjudications/non_broadcast/Adjudication+Details.htm?Adjudication_id=41426

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.

Update 2pm:

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.


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71 Responses



  1. muscleman said,

    April 27, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    “This is presented by Martha Kearney, and repetitively restates the problem for the first 30 minutes”

    A common modern trope it seems. Were watching something on C4 at the weekend about poor Indian coal miners. Endless shots of ‘bad stuff’ ‘look at the bad stuff’ with no suggestions about how it could practically be better given the local constraints etc. It was banal disaster tourism dressed up as a documentary. i suppose they are cheap to write and make, no experts to pay for one thing. Attenborough’s stuff doesn’t come cheap I understand.

  2. mjrobbins said,

    April 27, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    “A common modern trope it seems.” <- Totally agree.

    I’ve Fisked the New Scientist piece here:
    layscience.net/node/535

  3. brachyury said,

    April 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    I gave up on the bee doc too. The single wothwhile science documentary series on TV ‘Horizon’ has become increasingly like this. They take half a bleeding hour to make a single point. I’ve stopped watching it.

    I think the truth is that the best science format is a short excerpt or discussion program — like ‘In Our Time’.

    As a suggestion… next time you discuss this instead of using snooker as an example — why not economics and business news. This seems to be an important topic that is discussed at a level for those who care about how our society works and have thus learned what GDP or equity mean.

    So why do we have to aim science broadcasts -surely equally important–for people who know nothing about it and are probably not interested in it anyway?

  4. chrisnicolson said,

    April 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Ben, you’re definitely getting better at making sure you get your say and aren’t just talked over by shouty opposition. Keep it up!

  5. Ithika said,

    April 27, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    If I may be so bold, that was an utterly pointless “segment” on that radio clip. Neither of you got to make any point worth making. I wasn’t familiar with any of those science shows mentioned, though I admit it has been a long time since I saw something challenging (I would instead describe most as “challenged”).

    Not quite the same, but Victorian Farm was a corker of a “reality” show…

  6. dbhb said,

    April 27, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    But let’s be honest: Attenborough’s “stuff” (which I love btw, and which was a major factor in my getting into biology) isn’t exactly brimming with science. And that’s OK. Kathy might be right in bigging up the handful of good ‘entry-level’ science progs out there, but Ben’s right in lamenting the lack of *anything* aimed at a higher level. TV might still get you interested in science, but once you’re already interested, you’re on your own, and that’s a shame.

  7. minime said,

    April 27, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    I’m not really qualified to comment about how scientists behave in the media as I’m not one of them. On the other hand, I am a TV Director and Producer though I trained as an engineer.

    The problem with the modern trend of science programming and indeed documetaries in general is that the programme makers aren’t interested in concentrating on the core subject. Their mantra is ‘to tell a story’. By story I mean something that follows a narrative that raises (or creates) a mystery, intruigue…whatever, to set up an amazing revelation of an answer at the end. It doesn’t matter how intrinsically interesting the subject matter is, they need it to tell a story and if there is no story, they will construct one. This accounts for your observations regarding bee documentary. There is no story – just the fact that bee populations have plummeted all aroung the world except for Australia. Ms Kearny struggled so hard to make a story out of this that, as you observed, she spent most of the programme repeating the problem and hinted the answer was profound. When the answer did come, it was wonderfully banaal:
    a) We don’t know but it might be something to do with pesticides (specifically about the US bee populations).
    b) It’s largley due to a known parasite and may be influenced by global warming (specifically in Europe).

    In arriving at these conclusions, it managed to confuse the issues wonderfully by giving the impression that the specific US and European problems are connected. Yet the symptoms and therefore, I think we can reasonable assume the causes, are entirely different though I can’t be sure about this for reasons set out below.

    To get to these momentous answers, we had a string of interviews with bankrupt bee keepers (which of course are relevant) but very little material with the science investigators who are trying to find out what the hell is going on.

    Of course, it turns out the scientists haven’t found out very much at all. But we were told nothing about their theories, their methodologies or any experimental trials or proposals to test their theories. We were told nothing about the availability (or lack of) resources that are need to make this happen. In short, we were told almost nothing about the actual science so we are unable to place what few assertions they seem to have in context.

    This is typical of modern science documentary making. It is why I have only watched one of episode of the recent Horizon series. Which brings me to the wider point. The problem with science documentaries is that it is not made by scientists and the core agenda of the producers is NOT to explain the science. It’s to fulfill the ‘tell a story’ mantra. If they don’t want to are can’t, then the TV Executives who commisission the programmes and follow the same mantra aren’t scientists either, so the programme won’t get made.

    Sadly, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

  8. Dr Jim said,

    April 27, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    @ dbhb

    I have to stick up for zoologists here when I take issue with your suggesting that David Attenborough documentaries are not brimming with science. I have spent hours out and about assisting with capturing, monitoring, tagging study animals, so we can learn about their feeding patterns, mating patterns, life cycles etc. (and this is just helping colleagues because I enjoy assisting – but they have the harder job of having to do a hundred times more than what I’m involved with). It is for this reason that we understand where animals will be, why, and appreciate their ecological interactions. Studies on symbioses in Ants for example requires significant studies, from ‘mere’ observational to full genetic analysis.

    It is the great success of Attenborough documentaries that you benefit from such long and tedious hours of painstaking data collection, without the long tedious hours of painstaking data collection.

  9. FairySmall said,

    April 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I think some of the programmes Kathy mentioned are above ‘entry-level’ (although what exactly ‘entry-level means is a whole other discussion). But these are often only 2-3 programmes in a series and are found once or twice a year on BBC4 – not exactly mainstream!

    I also have real problems with the idea of dumbing down. When I was doing my A-Levels (sadly a few years ago now) I used give lessons on quantum and particle physics to some 11-year olds on the bus home. It was just the stuff that I’d learnt that day in school but it didn’t need dumbing down and they still got it. I think we underestimate people’s intelligence…

  10. Delster said,

    April 27, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    In many way’s the presenter of a program is as important as the science that’s being presented.

    The best of them pass along the sense of wonder that they feel about their subject along with the science itself.

    People above have mentioned David Attenborough and, while i agree the science content isn’t huge, he engages his audience with the subject matter.

    Another more recent person is Dr Brian Cox. Have a look at his horizon program called “Do you know what time it is” as a good example.

    Both of them have a fairly low key, calm manner about them but you can feel the underlying love of the subject that they have. This engages the watcher with the subject and gets the material across well.

    Compare that to say Richard Hammond on Brainiac and you’ll see what i mean.

  11. John said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I used to love Horizon (and Equinox) but have become very deluded as some issues seemed not only dumbed down but have a rather strange PC element to them. That’s fine if but not at the expensive of the scientific evidence; I am thinking of issues in conservation and animal welfare that seem to fall foul in this area sometimes.

  12. fontwell said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    “the money I earned from the omega-3 episode was donated to Imperial College for research and to promote the public understanding of science.”

    If the entire fee was spent trying to correct the impression that his endorsement created then I doubt it would succeed.

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Natural history progs I consider outside of science programming really, although they are often great, and certainly do sometimes have some science in them.

    Brian Cox’s programme was pretty good, but we’re scrabbling around to find examples here really, aren’t we? as I said, it’s interesting that there are literally none on iPlayer at the moment whatsoever. oh one. on bee colony collapse. that mght have had some science if i could have bared to struggle past the 30th minute.

  14. SteveGJ said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    When I read that Kathy Sykes article in New Scientist I inwardly groaned. She defended some of the worst of the dumbed-down excuses of programmes that Horizon has put on over the past few years on the grounds that at least they brought in a new viewership that wouldn’t have watched more “hard core” programmes. Well I’m sorry Kathy, but the sort of misrepresentation job I see of the nature of science in many Horizon programmes in the last few years does nobody any favours. Firstly, it sacrifices a real understanding for gimmicks, and often presented the items as a sort of mystery game, rather in the form of a detective story with artificial twists and turns (I assume to “maintain interest”). Secondly, they often went for trivial “people-interest” type story-lines, sacrificing much in the way of any scientific understanding.

    What’s worse than people not being attracted to science? Well it’s the thought that is implanted in many people’s heads, in part by these programmes and some aspects of GCSE science, that an ability to talk superficially about the social impact of science somehow means you understand it. Well it doesn’t, and changing doing science to being able to talk about it is dangerous.

    It’s not just Horizon of course – who on Earth decided to commission that appalling program “Rocket Science”? Now there is an interesting programme to be made on exactly why science doesn’t inspire pupils. Is it the nature of the subject, how it is taught? Has government policy, which has sought to widen education of science in schools, been counter-productive in that it has worked against those really interested in the subject? Has the lack of specialist science teachers been a problem? Has the huge amount of negative publicity about science been the problem? (think of all the adverse health and environmental stories). However, what we got was a dumbed-down reality-TV style programme about a gimmicky approach to science teaching effectively bribing pupils to pay attention so they could make some pretty sparks. Very amusingly the programmes included some comments to say that it was important not to let the pupils know what the ingredients of gunpowder were for safety reasons. That sort of reasoning just about sums up what is wrong with that particular type of superficiality.

    There also seems to be something about media scientists that they start, somehow, to pander to the TV producers that have their mind solely fixed on attracting the maximum number of people to their programmes at the expense of the subject material. It needn’t be the case – Jacob Bronowski didn’t do it, but I’ve no time for Lord Winston’s programme making. Firstly I’m innately suspicious of mixing politics and science. Secondly, to my mind he has made some dubious media appearances. Not only is there the Omega 3 old stuff, but I think he has been treading some dangerous grounds in his approach to the relationship between science and religion (which seems to be a definite “hands off” to the former about the latter).

    Now it is possible to do science properly without it being a turn-off. As an example, see Aubrey Mannings excellent series “Earth Story”. Not only did that put together an interesting, coherent, story on geology and the history of the Earth, it told much of the story of scientific study in an equally informative manner. For instance, just why did the theory of continental drift take so long to be accepted.

    Then there was to my mind the best of the recent Darwin programmes, Professor Armand Marie Leroi’s “What Darwin Didn’t Know” with the first episode of Andrew Marr’s series dealing very well with the cultural implications.

  15. jamrifis said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Horizon spends so long prefacing the content of an episode I find myself frustratedly thinking “has this actually started yet?” when the programme has already been running for about ten minutes. It’s also fond of endlessly recapping, like documentaries on commercial channels do after the adverts, with what justification I can’t imagine. These days, even when the content is otherwise excellent, I find the show’s structure leaves it unwatchable.

  16. Ghoti said,

    April 27, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Marcus du Sautoy’s recent Horizon with Alan Davies was pretty good, the best I’d seen in a long while. Admittedly, it was still “entry-level”, but it did at least have some decent content.

  17. Andrew Clegg said,

    April 27, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    ‘Professor Lord Winston got in touch afterwards and would like to clarify that he did not personally profit financially from the money he was paid for appearing in the advertisement, on which I am extremely happy to help: “the money I earned from the omega-3 episode was donated to Imperial College for research and to promote the public understanding of science.”’

    If Carol Vorderman (sp?) had given the money from her personal loans ads to a debt counselling charity, it still wouldn’t have left her own image any less untarnished by it all…

  18. CDavis said,

    April 27, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    @SteveGJ, #14
    Oh, good grief! Are those people still living in a world where you could prevent kids finding the ingredients of gunpowder by not telling them in science programs?

  19. Synchronium said,

    April 27, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Ghoti: Agreed, that was an excellent episode. My favourite bit was Euclid’s proof that the set of primes is infinite.

    Looking forward to more of Brian Cox. Everyone knows he was in the band D:Ream, right? The same band that did Things Can Only Get Better. He should get the Prof for the public understanding of science chair after du Sautoy.

    Also, congrats on the article, Ben.

  20. Synchronium said,

    April 27, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    One more thing. Brian Cox did an interview with Chris Morris (Brass Eye, Jam, The Day Today, Nathan Barley, The IT Crowd) of all people for the Guardian.

    Here’s the link: www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/jun/30/cern.particle.physics2

  21. mikewhit said,

    April 27, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Yes, I think Coxy’s OK – though the programmes do seem /a little/ samey sometimes – prob because they were possibly all recorded on the same trip to the US !

    I liked his radio programme on Carl Sagan/”Cohsmohs”.

    That ‘Atom’ series was quite good but I thought it missed a few opportunities for explaining some interesting details.

    I have good memories of the Channel 4 series “The Planets” with Heather Couper, but don’t think they have made anything as good since – have they ?

    Also, the science progs nowadays seem much more “top-down” – the earlier generation felt as if you were more involved in the exploratory process.

    In fact I used to wish they would invite viewers for their questions or suggestions – I remember watching one (about sense of smell and molecules IIRC) in which I thought, “well they should try this other experiment then” and near the end, lo and behold, they tried the expt that I had thought of.
    And I don’t think it had been obvious from the first section – but I could have been led subconsciously to make the connection I suppose !

  22. mikewhit said,

    April 27, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Also Mr. Cox is another Oldham Hulme pupil, like Philip Schofield and Sarah Lancs ! but she was at the Girls of course …

  23. mikewhit said,

    April 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    While not strictly Science there was a series on a while back about rocket pioneers – mostly Russian ones IIRC – that wasn’t the “Rocket Science” you deride was it ?

  24. giagia said,

    April 27, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    The trouble with getting science on tv is that very often the commissioning editors are arts graduates who haven’t necessarily got a great passion for science. And getting ideas to a commissioning editor very often means, first, getting past their (arts graduate) assistants who vet everything first.

    Once you are ‘in’ at the BBC, it becomes considerably easier to get your ideas on tv… as long as you’re willing to settle for BBC4. On that channel, you may have a bit more control over your programme, but you reach a tiny audience.

    If you want to reach more people on BBC2 (Horizon) or BBC1 (like Robert Winston’s programmes), then you need to compromise quite a lot…

    If anyone here can get a science programme on BBC1 or 2 WITHOUT compromising at all, then you will have done CONSIDERABLY better than Winston, Cox, Sykes, du Sautoy etc… all of whom will definitely have compromised.

    If, however, you are interested only in placating your peers rather than ‘public understanding of science’, then stick to BBC4 and audience figures in the 100s of thousands rather than millions.

    Saying all of that, audience figures for some of the more ‘complicated’ Horizons have been very good and it has shown the BBC that people don’t want their science on telly dumbed down. This will hopefully mean that they will put more confidence in the scientists they hire to front their programmes to judge what the public can handle.

  25. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 27, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    “If, however, you are interested only in placating your peers rather than ‘public understanding of science’, then stick to BBC4 and audience figures in the 100s of thousands rather than millions.”

    it’s fascinating, this idea that improving the public understanding of science is only done by accessing the largest possible audience at any cost. and that nerdy content is only watched by ready-cooked nerds.

    a couple of hundred thousand people actually introduced to the notion that science is about evidence that backs up an idea, rather than a combination of dogmatic FACT and dramatised historical biography (which is the only way that science gets on telly these days) seems like an okay result to me.

    again: it’s not like anybody wants to stop the dumbed down stuff. that’s fine. go for your life. just to add in something on a par with snooker and politics tv coverage. if that existed, nobody would have a problem with the unbearably slow moving historical biographies.

  26. Arthur Embleton said,

    April 27, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    What is wrong with having science programming on BBC4? Science isn’t a mainstream topic unless it is dumbed down to Braniac levels, so it should go onto a more niche channel such as BBC4. As far as I can tell, BBC1 is a lowest common denominator channel, and BBC2 slightly less so. BBC3 specialises in comedy, and BBC4 is any niche whether that is arts, language or science.

    Are there really many people left who can’t receive BBC4? Soon you won’t have much choice, BBC4 will be as easy to receive as BBC1.

    Of course it would better just to scrap BBC1, and move the money to other parts of the beeb; but then I don’t get to make these decisions.

  27. danielrendall said,

    April 27, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Happily, there’s just been an item on C4 news (I missed the start of it) which involved ‘nuclear incidents’ in which a ‘radioactive liquid’ was discharged into a lake on two separate occasions by the MoD which illustrates the point I’d like to make rather nicely.

    Nowhere in the piece did it tell me how much liquid was discharged or which radioactive isotopes it contained (and in what concentrations). If it had, I could have looked up half-lives and decay charts and had a stab at deciding whether this was a serious issue or not. But these things never got a mention. There was an ‘expert’ on hand to be a little incredulous though.

    I feel that physics and maths seem to get a particularly raw deal from the media’s oversimplification of science. I want to see programmes which assume that their viewers are perfectly happy talking about differential equations, complex numbers, wavefunctions (ok, maybe they need a brief recap) and all the rest of it. I can only assume that lapsed physics graduates don’t constitute a large enough demographic.

    End of minor rant.

  28. InvertedWorld said,

    April 27, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Ben

    While people may argue about whether or not it is a science, natural history is the raw material of the science of ecology. Anyway, if natural history is not a science then neither is physiology or anatomy.

    Ghoti

    Was not impressed with that Horizon programme. The brain scanning segment was completely irrelevant, apart from demonstrating that famous mathematicians can be bad at arithmetic

  29. SteveGJ said,

    April 27, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Starting science programmes off on BBC 4 is no bad idea. After all, there are a number of comedy, documentary and other programmes which have made that journey to mainstream quite successfully.

    However, there is a big issue of budget. I suppose it is possible to make science programmes cheaply (I don’t suppose the Sky at Night costs much), but series like Earth Story, The Ascent of Man and the like are not cheap, especially where a lot of travel is required. Only the natural history programmes seem to get that sort of budget (it would be interesting to know how the BBC’s budgets for those programmes compare with the rest of science coverage put together – but then the costs of the former are probably heavily offset by international sales).

  30. FairySmall said,

    April 27, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    I’ve been mulling it over (I have a long train ride home) and I think that both Ben and Kathy are right – about different aspects and coming from very different angles. Kathy is right that scientists should encourage each other to communicate better – especially in, but not limited to, the media (one caveat: this does not include wrong or misleading science). And some of it will, by nature, be entry-level.

    And Ben (#25) is right that we need more science media that doesn’t just appeal to the lowest common denominator. Which means we need more science media in general. So, Ben – it’d be really good to know what counts as a good example (recent too if possible). Personally, I always preferred the carrot to the stick and maybe pointing out some really positive examples will encourage people. Or am I just hopelessly optimistic?

  31. giagia said,

    April 27, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Ben and Arthur Embleton,

    Personally, I think there’s a place for both small audience and big audience science on telly. The fact is that one is more likely to ‘catch’ people who perhaps weren’t already interested in the subject if it’s on BBC 1 or 2 than if it’s on BBC4… and then one can hope that a small percentage of those people think ‘Hey science isn’t boring/too difficult/all part of a conspiracy. I think I might find out a bit more.’ and start watching stuff on BBC4.

    THAT is what ‘public understanding of science’ is about. Marcus du Sautoy’s job as the Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford *isn’t* to impress his peers, it’s to spread science as far and wide throughout the public as possible. His Horizon with Alan Davis was a great sucess – even though it didn’t teach me anything – as I trawled the web immediately afterward and saw that huge numbers of people truly enjoyed it.

    If ‘we’ don’t want the general public to be scientifically illiterate, then the fact is that one needs to find ways of connecting with those people which breaks through their lack of knowledge, their fears, their prejudices and give them something, anything, to inspire them.

    I’m not a scientist, but an interested ‘outsider’. The thing that got me initially excited about science was reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was an 18-year-old drama student and learning that ‘we are all star stuff’. That’s hopelessly ‘dumbed down’, but it grabbed me and kept me interested and passionate about science for over 20 years…

    One never knows what is going to grab people and get them interested in science. Sometimes it may be the silliest little ‘dumbed down’ sentence that can change a person’s life.

  32. SteveGJ said,

    April 27, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    @giagia

    Cosmos wasn’t “dumbed down” in the sense that Ben is talking about. In fact scenes from the Cosmos series were used at the “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People” events that Ben spoke at. I suppose the series was lent towards the more majestic and philosophical (some might even, dare I say, what passed of spiritual) aspects of science. But dumbed it was not.

    Similarly, and more to my taste, Jacob Bronowski covered the historical and cultural impact of scientific learning and technology in the Ascent of Man. That has a huge impact on me – and not just on science as such, but the knowledge of limits, of rationalism.

    Now neither Cosmos or The Ascent of Man required any great depth of knowledge of science. But what they did was take a very profound view of the bigger picture of science, in one case of our relationship with the universe, and in the other case the role of technology, science and rationalism on the very nature of human society and development. Neither could be remotely be described as being “dumbed down” despite not dealing with much scientific detail.

    The Marcus du Sautoy Horizon programme with Alan Davis was ok in my view – not great, but not an embarrassment in the way that the infamous chimps are people too episode was. But at least Marcus tried to stick to the point – what a particular part of maths was about (even though he did manage to credit all the mathematicians with cosmological insight without much mention of astrophysicists).

    As far as “educating the public goes”, then we do have the BBC trying something with the “Professor Regan” series which has come up with some reasonably if rather plodding conclusions. It was interesting that they turned down the placebo affect of Homeopathy whilst keeping on the shelves the similar effects of big-named branded aspirin and the like over generics.

    I think I’d also make a case for Darren Brown. His program “The System” demonstrated more clearly some of the issues with probability, subjectiveness, personal experience and anecdotal evidence than anything else I’ve ever seen on the subject. All within the scope of an entertainment programme.

    However, I think that Ben’s other point, quite apart from the amount of dumbed down, trivialising and downright misleading stuff on TV, is that there is precious little to appeal to the hardened (or even, not so hardened) science follower. Quite simply they are neglecting a significant part of their audience. (I should add that engineers probably get an even worse deal).

    I see some of the same tendency in New Scientist where I see that sliding down a slippery slope of popularism at the expense of content. There is also a lot of what I might call the suppression of scepticism and uncertainty in favour of editorial lines. Also some extremely sloppy stuff – take the quote about Lagrangian points which were described as :-

    “They are the places that gravity forgot. Vast regions of space, millions of kilometres across, in which celestial forces conspire to cancel out gravity and so trap anything that falls into them.”

    Grand sounding stuff, but it is perfect twaddle – gravity works very well at those points, but in a way that traps an object in a fixed relationship to two other larger objects. Objects at Lagrangian points are very much under the control of gravity.

  33. giagia said,

    April 27, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    SteveGJ,

    Carl Sagan had a LOT of cricitism from his peers for trying to popularise science and yet Cosmos inspired huge numbers of people. It did so because, as you pointed out, it was much more philosophical and, yes, spiritual than ‘hard, dry science’… but again that’s exactly the kind of thing that grabs people.

    Cosmos was never about explaining anything new to people already knowledgeable about astronomy (etc)… nor was du Sautoy’s Horizon about explaining anything new to people already knowledgeable about maths…

    I agree with you that there is very little on tv for people who are already into science, but, again, it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to get things on tv that are even vaguely ‘difficult’.

    It’s changing though. There are a few brilliant execs at the BBC who are doing some good programmes… And hopefully their audience figures will be good enough so that Channels 4 and 5 follow their lead and finally stop thinking that freak shows are science and start trying to do something good…

  34. biggerpills said,

    April 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    #14 SteveGJ – I wouldn’t count Rocket Science as a science programme, but I personally thought it was great. It hinted that children are interested in big ideas and are ready for a more challenging science education, rather than the dumbed-down GCSE syllabus many are now offered…

    …so, having been inspired by a great teacher, what will these children have to watch when they grow up? I have to agree with Ben on the issue of the BBC’s programming: I often feel like watching a science documentary, then browse the “Factual > Science & Nature” category of BBC iPlayer only to find nothing. Why are these two categories lumped together anyway? Looking now the listings are typical: plenty of nature, some geology, a bit of farming, even some weather, but almost no science. Try it now: who wants to watch ‘Byd Amaeth’ when they’re looking for science programming? Not me (and I’m Welsh). I’m not even differentiating between “entry-level” and “advanced” programming here. It looks like the BBC offer almost nothing to satisfy either audience.

    What should they be offering then? I agree with Kathy Sykes’s comment from the article: “there’s space for a range of characters, approaches and styles of communication: such diversity can appeal to a wider range of people.” While I would like to see more programming for science graduates like myself (and Ben’s right, there are a lot of us out there) we could also neglect outsiders at our peril. Good quality “entry-level” science programming would be infinitely preferable to, say, letting Sarah Beeny and James Wong attempt to miseducate non-scientists.

    giagia put this better than I could have done with the Carl Sagan example. Ben, you use similarly simple explanations in your book, such as the “Play Your Cards Right” explanation of regression to the mean. Would it be fair to accuse you of dumbing down? No, because it was a very good explanation. “We are all star stuff” is a beautiful phrase and there certainly is a place for stuff like this alongside more hardcore science coverage.

    I also agree with Sykes’s comment about scientists bickering too much. If you can’t agree on a proactive approach to bringing science to the masses, who will the job be left to? TV execs? PR firms? Humanities graduates???

  35. dbhb said,

    April 28, 2009 at 6:35 am

    @Dr Jim

    Certainly didn’t mean to diminish the huge amount of science clearly going on *behind* the camera in Attenborough docs, yet alone the docs themselves, and I recognise that some of that is occasionally apparent in the 15 minute ‘making of’ segments they do these days. What filters through to the main body of the program most of the time might be beautiful, amazing and inspirational- it might be natural history- but is it really science? And more to the point, is it complicated? Is it challenging? Is it contentious?
    See I think it’s the unwillingness to do complicated, challenging and contentious on TV (in science at least, if not in sport, politics or literature) that Ben’s rightly complaining about.

  36. muscleman said,

    April 28, 2009 at 7:13 am

    @DanielRendall

    It wasn’t a lake, it was Loch Faslane, a sea loch off the Firth of Clyde not very far north of Glasgow. You know where the Trident armed nuclear subs are based. They didn’t tell you what was released or how much because part of the point of the story was that we don’t know because the MoD didn’t bother to find out, do any monitoring, keep proper records etc. And this is not the first such incident, there have been many, many more. Oh and SEPA have no legal power to force the MoD to clean up their act even though they have issued a compliance order to try and shame them into it.

    If the UK govt were serious about angering us Scots into declaring UDI then this is an ideal way to go about it. It doesn’t get reported Doon Sooth, but there are regular demos at Faslane, MSPs have been arrested on them etc. The SNP govt has investigated whether it has the power to ban the land transport of nuclear weapons in Scotland. The warheads get trucked to and from Aldermaston for maintenance so doing so might make the base non viable.

    We Are Not Amused.

  37. muscleman said,

    April 28, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Correction: the base and town are called Faslane the loch is the Gare Loch.

    More here:
    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/8019406.stm

  38. hamlets ghost said,

    April 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Could I request some statistical rigour about humanities graduate. I have an English degree, an art HNC, a maths A-level and several programming qualifications.

    And I’ve persuaded my reading group to do Bad Science (and am waiting for the explosions).

    What is your hypothesis about humanities graduates and understanding of science?

  39. biggerpills said,

    April 28, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    hamlets ghost 37- I wasn’t being entirely serious with that last suggestion of “humanities graduates”, just adding it to the list as it’s the one Ben usually cites as a cause of dumbing down.

    I too would like to see some stats confirming the humanities/science split in the media- there is a shortage of science graduates in PR, but I couldn’t comment on the situation in journalism and broadcast media.

    I’m not sure the criticism of humanities graduates is entirely fair: while I understand that generalists writing about science can do some damage, the humanities graduates I know don’t have a negative attitude towards scientists at all. Many of them seem regretful about not taking an interest in science earlier and then try to make up for it later in life.

    Oh, and at public lectures they also tend to ask better questions than science graduates! The lecture I went to last night was an interesting case: lots of inspired questions and not one person going off on a tangent to talk about their PhD work!

    Going back to my personal experience I would have to lay some of the blame with scientists. Not only do they bicker too much, many of them are unwilling to promote their own work and leave the job to people who dumb it down. Most of the scientists I worked with preferred to keep away from the press side, and a few would then complain when they weren’t happy with the work they’d refused to get involved with. Ben is unusual as he seems to be very good at PR, but he’s in a minority. The less proactive scientists should take Kathy Sykes’s advice and “spend less time ranting and get out there”.

  40. misterjohn said,

    April 28, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    My Null Hypothesis about Humanities graduates is that the level of understanding about Science of Humanities graduates is the same as that of members of the general population.
    I think that one’s alternative hypothesis might depend on a subjective Bayesian Prior…
    Are they better than the general population, or worse, or simply different?

  41. aggressivePerfector said,

    April 28, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    The thesis of the Kathy Sykes article in New Scientist seems to be that there is too much bickering between scientists.

    Does she really need to be reminded that this bickering is one of the most important elements that makes science the only systematic procedure for recognising truth?

    Whether behind closed doors, such as in the peer review process, or exposed to the public eye, the principle of scrutinizing ideas and establishing consensus is paramount.

    When a scientist goes public with ideas that are counter to established facts, they must be publicly corrected. When a scientist publicly puts forward their own ideas as the only scientifically valid thesis, it is the duty of those holding and developing antithetical ideas to point them out.

    We also need to consider the unintended consequences of dumbing down science. Are we to assume that anybody without a prior scientific background is too stupid to know when they are being spoken down to? When ideas are distorted in order to make them more appealing or more understandable, this distortion is bound to be recognised at some level. I strongly suspect that this leaves an uneasy feeling that propagates a distrust of science and perpetuates the notion that science is more about authority figures than sound ideas and carefully scrutinised facts.

    If, as a science writer or presenter, you are unable to explain a concept without corrupting it and destroying its validity, then you should try harder or leave the job to somebody with the appropriate skill.

    Furthermore, I can’t help feeling that the vacuous way that much popular science is presented must strongly give the impression that scientists haven’t got a clue what they are talking about.

  42. Em said,

    April 28, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I sometimes wonder if programmes such as Horizons appear dumbed down to me because I have been interested in science for decades now and so nothing on these programmes seems new to me. Even so, there is so little actual scientific content in Horizon these days it’s hardly worth bothering about. A favorite of mine when I was little was “Connections” by James Burke, but I’ve no idea what I would think of it now that I do science for a living.

    My friend who works in computing frequently has conniptions over badly explained, or just plain wrong, statements made by journalists or so-called experts when they try to cover his area of expertise. Perhaps *everything* is dumbed down, but only those in the know can spot it.

  43. jjbp said,

    April 28, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I can’t really accept that science is fundamentally expensive to film in an educating/interesting way… it doesnt all have to be awesome Attenborough epics. One immediate trade off- drop the costume drama reenactments and replace them with some talking heads *doing* expts.
    OR
    A magazine show full of short segments can’t be expensive to do … I mean segments like Nottingham University’s chemistry based periodic videos with the awesome Martyn Poliakoff
    [http://www.youtube.com/user/periodicvideos] aren’t costly at all but they are full of interest. I could see that format expanded to… questions of biotech, physics, maths and engineering quite simply. I see the Nottingham people have started doing physics segments already…

  44. giagia said,

    April 28, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I think Em hit the nail on the head. When one knows a lot about a particular subject it’s ALWAYS going to seem dumbed down or simplistic on tv (not necessarily in books or specialist publications, though). Again, I challenge anyone here to try and get ‘complicated’ science on BBC 1 or 2.

    I’m not a mathematician and even *I* thought du Sautoy’s Horizon was a bit ‘yea, whatever’. But then that’s because I have spent years learning about the ‘magic’ of numbers. eg I’m so flipping excited about Euler’s Identity that I spent an afternoon at my son’s school teaching 8-11 year olds about it. Several mums came up to me later that week to say that I’d made their kids- boys and girls- REALLY excited about maths – one girl apparently wouldn’t stop talking about the square root of negative 1. Again, I’m not a mathematician, just a mum who’s excited about these kinds of things.

    It would be unfair of me- and certainly of mathematicians- to criticise du Sautoy’s programme for the ‘simplistic’ content because to a huge percentage of the audience a lot of it will have been entirely new and extremely interesting.

    Whilst I agree with everyone here that scientists asked to present programmes on tv MUST stand their ground and NEVER say anything incorrect just because the director tells them it’s ‘easier to understand’, I don’t see why they should be chastised for trying to open up their area of interest to new people by making it easier to understand for the novice.

  45. SteveGJ said,

    April 28, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    There is one source of science-related programming which is no longer available on BBC – at least to the insomniac science buff, and that was the OU programmes. I know the film unit makes the odd programme for the BBC still but, as one point, the OU most have been responsible for the majority of science broadcasting on the Beeb.

  46. SteveGJ said,

    April 28, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    @muscleman

    Regarding Faslane and the redioactive discharges reported by the Guardian, then the information was gained from a normal FoI requests from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and scans (in PDF) format are available here:-

    www.sepa.org.uk/about_us/access_to_information/access_to_information_files/faslane_and_coulport.aspx

    This is the Register’s version of the story. I haven’t checked th reports, but the information is available

    www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/28/nuke_waste_spill_rob_edwards_strikes_again/page3.html

    According to the Register this story has been hyped out of all scale by the Guardian article. Now I’ve not checked their mathematics so I guess I ought to.

    As far as Faslane being used as a base for nuclear submarines at all – well that’s a different, moral question. But I rather think that there are places in England that would happily take the jobs. None of them have the same deep water to hand which allows a sub to submerge close to land, but I rather suspect somewhere with a naval tradition, like Plymouth would take it. However, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening in the near future.

  47. evidencebasedeating said,

    April 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    “Kathy Sykes (who I like, and regard with some hope as a bit of a mate by the way)”
    empathic hairstyles?
    or a meeting of science minds?

  48. RichardCocks said,

    April 28, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    The forefront of the public understanding of anything is youtube; It’s the arena to prove the audience is out there. It’s restrictive to 10/20 minute segments, but it avoids nicely the problem of the channel commissioners, and clips have the potential to become slow burners, potentially reaching the audience of a late-night bbc4 slot.

    There are also the individual charts that Youtube track, so while you may not make the top #10 viewed, you might just make #5 in the Science category.

    Or you would if you could convince youtube (As well as a lot of news sites!) to stop classifying Technology and Science as the same thing – you’ve got no chance of making rank #5000 when all the “top viewed” in the category are nerds messing around with their shiny new mobile phones!

    So I guess a first step is therefore to lobby youtube to create a separate Science category.

  49. lenny law said,

    April 28, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Ben regards Kathy Sykes as a “bit of a mate”? I thought he stuck the boot in a bit to her in Bad Science, particularly regarding her programme on accupuncture.

    I think Ben just fancies her.

    Mind you, you would.

  50. plentyofants said,

    April 29, 2009 at 8:16 am

    @48: “The forefront of the public understanding of anything is youtube”

    All except the people who write the comments on youtube videos. They show little sign of understanding anything at all…

  51. mrleeward said,

    April 29, 2009 at 8:59 am

    I’ve been finding the Rain, Wind and Snow weather shows on BBC4 quite good for the science – any show with a heavy-duty discussion of the coriolis effect must be doing something right?

    Also, if the majority of Attenborough’s output falls outside of science programming (for argument’s sake) then his recent show on the Darwin and the Tree of Life was exemplary (in fact the whole season did an admirable job)

    But I totally agree that some of the Horizon shows have been disgraceful, the mathematics one particularly. I counted three bits of maths: the Monty Hall problem and Euclid’s proof of Primes (both well explained) and some guff about a hyper-building in Paris.

  52. walks with tench said,

    April 29, 2009 at 9:25 am

    I have solved the problem of crap television; esp crap science television.
    I slung the tele in the skip and went fishing.
    Never been happier.

  53. morphoguy said,

    April 29, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I just attended Famelab, which was the peg for the Today item, in both London and Oxford, and was struck by the fact that the judges (in this competition for a three-minute scientific performance) almost invariably prioritised Charisma over the Content and Clarity (their other two declared criteria) in their judging decisions. The whole thing was more geared to science-themed theatre than actually conveying knowledge, or even appreciation of the power of science. I think the judges are so pleased to be “communicating” that they underestimate the intelligence of the audience. A pity.

  54. DS said,

    April 29, 2009 at 11:45 am

    In amongst all the shouting it seems that there is a point in there somewhere. Much of the bickering Kathy Sykes talks about is annoying, becasue it’s not actually about the science. If there was more actual argument about the science itself, that would be great.

    As for quality science programming, it’s hard to come by. I too watched Marcus du Sautoy’s Horiazon with Alan Davies and was incredibly frustrated at the lack of actual content. His BBC4 series the Story of Maths was, on the other hand, a joy. The Professor Regan stuff I actually found OK. I did find this little snippet @32 quite interesting:

    “As far as “educating the public goes”, then we do have the BBC trying something with the “Professor Regan” series which has come up with some reasonably if rather plodding conclusions. It was interesting that they turned down the placebo affect of Homeopathy whilst keeping on the shelves the similar effects of big-named branded aspirin and the like over generics.

    I think I’d also make a case for Darren Brown. His program “The System” demonstrated more clearly some of the issues with probability, subjectiveness, personal experience and anecdotal evidence than anything else I’ve ever seen on the subject. All within the scope of an entertainment programme.”

    As far as I saw in the Regan show, homepathy was binned because it performed no better than placebo, while the use of brand-name drugs did exhibit a better than placebo (and generic) performance. In fact, I just happened to be reading the same chapter in Ben’s book the night I watched it and thought the TV show did a reasonable job of explaining it, though Ben talked about the cultural part of placebo effect in more detail. It wasn’t that dumb though, by any measure.

    I’d agree with the Derren Brown thing too, almost like a TV version of John Allen Paulos. It was exemplary in explaining risk and probability and, unusually for C4 didn’t insist on endlessly summarisng before and after each nd every commercial break; this is something that vexes me so much I can hardly bear to watch C4 any longer most of the time.

    The great science programmes don’t have to be full of hard-core stuff. The oft quoted example of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is a perfect one. This is the programme that, at 9 years old solidified the interest in astrophysics and cosmlogy that led me to the degree I did and that lasts to this day. It aksed more questions than it answered and made me want to find out more. It also made me search out his writing. And for that reason I’m thankful because it meant I found The Demon-Haunted World, which is one of the best science books I have ever read (even including yours Ben – sorry!).

    The problem seems to coalesce around a few issues:

    i. there are very few scientists working in TV (as a trivial example, notice in the last series of University Challenge the Professionals: how many scientists took part in that? Answer: not not that many)

    ii ‘artists’ ( and accountants now :( ) make tv programmes

    iii in some places an ignorance of science is almost worn as a badge of honour. You hear people blithely admit that they “aren’t good with numbers”, who would be appalled if they heard someone admit that they “had atrouble with word”. What’s the difference?

    iv. in some places there is a contempt for the audience amongst programme makers (this is by no means universal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant)

    v. there is sometimes an attitude of: I don’t understand this. and if I can’t the audience won’t either, after all I m educated and they’re not (see iii).

    vi. a culture exists of “science is hard”. and if it’s hard it’s dull, right?

    and @44: I agree, Euler’s identity is a thing of beauty indeed. And so’s the Golden Ratio. Now there’s something good for 8 year-olds! I remember learning about it when I was 8 because of Johnny Ball and Think of A Number. See, even kids don’t get science programming as good as we did.

  55. DS said,

    April 29, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Oh. Why can’t I type properly?

  56. T said,

    April 29, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I get all my TV science from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ channel 4….its all one requires!

  57. DrJG said,

    April 29, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    @Em 42:
    “I sometimes wonder if programmes such as Horizons appear dumbed down to me because I have been interested in science for decades now and so nothing on these programmes seems new to me.”

    As a child I was an inveterate science programme watcher. The fact that I ended up in medicine owes quite a lot to Jonathan Miller’s “The Body In Question” series, but Horizon was required viewing whatever the topic (and I remember Connections fondly, too).

    On the day the LHC went “Live”, the BBC showed a programme showing how it had covered the Big Bang theory over the past fifty-odd years, and I remembered quite a lot of the clips from Horizon episodes of the 70s and 80s. Sometimes the science had moved on since, but they generally stood out as fantastic reporting of an evolving concept.

    This served to show how poor most modern Horizon episodes are – on the odd occasions I bother to look at them. Being a medic leaves little time for keeping up with other science – physics/ cosmology was once my other interest, and I was probably far more up with the latest ideas thirty years ago than I am now. Yet I can still tell that Horizon, and much other TV science shows are far less challenging than they once were.

    Certainly, a high proportion of newspaper reporting of the subject I Do know about, medicine, verges on the scientifically semi-literate. I tend to assume that its reporting of other subjects about which I know less, whether other science disciplines or non scientific, would demonstrate similar poor understanding of the issues to those in the know.

  58. BL said,

    April 29, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    (Please note that English isn’t my mother tongue and that I don’t write it fluently)

    I find it disturbing when I see scientists pat each other on the back blaming everybody – specially journalists, but also schools, government, corporations, PR departments, etc. – for the poor quality of science coverage in the media, except themselves!

    Some of the criticisms in this thread hit the mark. But many, as well as the solutions suggested, are naive or unrealistic. However, my point is that, as the primary source of scientific information, scientists can be part of the problem as much as journalists.

    I find that scientists are very often poor science communicators. They don’t prepare seriously before an interview (but they complain if the journalist is ill prepared). Some make no effort to be understood and become quickly impatient. Many have no idea of the scientific literacy of the public. Some speak as if everybody had a college degree in their discipline. The result is that scientists themselves can be responsible for misleading journalists. And let’s forget about confusing press releases issued by their own University/research center… and scientists who complain when in fact they just can’t recognise good scientific journalism.

    And there is always that paper/segment on biology that biologists criticize because it’s “dumbing down” the science while physicists find it very interesting.

    Scientists and journalists should join forces to confront the problem of poor science coverage. But this self-righteous indignation from scientists who thinks they’re so good that everybody else, except them, has to change and adapt doesn’t help at all.

    I’m a former scientist (PhD in molecular biology) turned into a science journalist.

  59. stever said,

    April 29, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Ive been gamely working with one of the Horizon producers to try and shake a bit a life back into the brand/format including directing them to some sciency discussions on the forum I started where various people had a good old moan about the shows faded glory and how it might be restored. I think they were listening and live in hope.

  60. stever said,

    April 29, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    oh, and I agree that the quality and quantity of science programming on TV right now is pretty dire. the BBC in particular have no excuses.

  61. cardassiascot said,

    April 29, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I think the best science program on TV at the moment is Mythbusters (on the Discovery channel). Yes, it doesn’t tackle the big science issues, yes it’s an entertainment programme, but they do teach the scientific method (if such a thing exists). About the need to test things against the real world, about controls in experiments and the reliability of results. Some stuff is just pure entertainment but there are some genuinely great examples of very good science done.

  62. gazza said,

    April 30, 2009 at 9:32 am

    I’d like to put in a good word for ‘Sky at Night’. For years it was condemned to the midnight (or later) slots. At least digital TV now allows a BBC3 broadcast at more civilised hours once a month.

    Nowadays a typical episode features a couple of scientists talking about their ‘in progress’ research (so not simply received wisdom) and amateur ‘nerds’ doing their own observational work. So a rare example of science in action, including at an amateur or lay person level. Astronomy is one rare area where amateurs still do science. Especially now that chemistry sets, for example, are so sanitised!

    And I agree with an above comment about Mythbusters – seeing science experiments actually done, where outcomes are unclear, even on relatively trivial topics, has got to have serious educational value.

  63. Em said,

    April 30, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    @giagia
    “I spent an afternoon at my son’s school teaching 8-11 year olds about it. ”
    Much kudos to you. We should never underestimate the inspiring influence of an enthused teacher on young people. When a concept tends to be hard to grasp or visualize (or is just plain counterintuitive) that’s when we need good teachers the most. It doesn’t mean that we should be scared of trying.
    One of the more important influences for me was “Think of a Number” – I have no idea if an equivalent programme for kids exists today.

  64. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 30, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I have an uneasy feeling that by putting my Doctor Who TARDIS-hat on and commenting “If you are hoping to mate with Kathy Sykes then I’m not sure this is going to do the trick”, I’ve fallen into a trap.

    Ooh, she likes “Rough Science”… and there’s another one. Not my lucky day. ;-)

  65. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 30, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Has anyone managed to see [Richard Hammond's Blast Lab]? CBBC I think and the title is promising if nothing else.

    Iidon’t know if it’s one of the general-interest Open University collaborations that have been on in recent years on BBC or if that effort is still going. I think indeed [Rough Science] was theirs. But I seem to remember seeing something about their getting out of the broadcast telly business, now that there’s broadband perhaps. They also did [The Mark Steel Lecture] for TV with an after-announcement saying more online, come and get it.

    In the old days they had course material broadcast in the small hours on BBC, making concessions to mature learners but not to casual viewers. In one of Clive James’s book collections of TV reviews from late 60s to early 80s, he observed you could get a free education that way (as well as otherwise of course), and was delighted that they had entire Greek tragedies on, done economically but professionally.

    There’s quite a lot of science coverage on BBC radio. A lot of features appear twice in different edited versions on Radio 4 and World Service. Some shows are podcast. [Case Notes] has just done a possibly briskly reserched half hour on swine flu.

    And the other day I looked at Stephen Fry’s Twitter and noticed he was having a medical examination for the insurers of a new series of [QI], or something on those lines, so there’s that to look forward to. I mean, assuming he’s fine.

  66. latsot said,

    May 4, 2009 at 6:30 am

    “repetitively restates the problem for the first 30 minutes”

    This kind of thing annoys me as much as dumbing down. In most recent science documentaries, there’s a completely unnecessary recap after every single advert break. I refuse to accept that our attention spans have become so short that we can’t remember the subject of the show we’ve been watching for the last half hour. It seems more like an excuse to get away with less, dumber and more poorly-researched content.

  67. ferguskane said,

    May 4, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    @lenny law.. agreed, I hope Ben does not treat all his ‘bit of a mate’s with such kindness as to ridicule their jobs in print. But we’re all hypocrites sometimes.

  68. CampFreddie said,

    May 5, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I agree with #66 and others. I can accept simplified, dumbed-down and overdramatised science (most of the time).

    I can’t accept watching 30 minutes of an hour-long programme and not learning anything that wasn’t stated in the first 5 minutes. I just get too frustrated about the constant restating of the premise to various bits of library science-y images, irrelevant CGI and climaxing orchestral music – “Just tell us what happened to the bloody bees already!”

    Most Horison episodes would be better if they were reduced to about 20 minutes. The Brian Cox ones tend to have a good level of pacing though, with an acceptable amount of repetition.

  69. anotherfakeid said,

    May 14, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Can I put in my vote for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

  70. Karl Smith said,

    May 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Hi Ben – I just re-listened to this, having heard it half asleep when it aired.

    I can’t help thinking that you went for the wrong target in Winston – the problem is not that his kind of programmes get made (and the ads thing was an unfortunate diversion), it’s what doesn’t get made. There should be dumbed-down science in the media, just as there should be dumbed-down art and history. But attacking it distracts from your more important point: the paucity of anything for a science-literate audience. Perhaps taking the line that “that’s all very well, but…” would serve you better.

    Most of the problem, as with a lot of the poor coverage, is simply that there are hardly any science-literate journalists. All too many times I’ve tried (and all too often failed) to impress on news desks the bad science behind a story they wanted to run, and they weren’t interested because they didn’t understand it, and they were happy to make a macho show of not understanding it. And I can’t see that attitude, that the cool kids don’t do science, shifting until it’s compulsory to study it to at least age 18.

    (By the way, did you watch that godawful out of Africa thing? Twenty minutes in, having learnt that she’d always wanted to go to Ethiopia, where there were guns, that evolution happened by people peeling their skin off, and that she looked OK in a tight white top, I gave up.)

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