A Modest Proposal for the Media: The Science Haze

I love the BBC. Almost every day I browse the BBC News web site to catch up on current affairs. I especially love the BBC’s high quality TV and radio documentary output, and I confess that I am an avid Radio 4 listener.

Alas, my love for the BBC has not blinded me to one particularly jarring asymmetry in the Corporation’s (otherwise delightful) visage . It is manifested in a disconnect between its approach to programming on matters of science, and that on matters of ethics, or “Religion and Ethics” as the BBC officially categorizes the latter (in an undifferentiated glob) on iPlayer.

In the hope that some BBC types (preferably at the senior commissioning level) are also readers of Practical Ethics, I present to you a programme proposal that, if taken up, would go some way toward healing this deformity. In fact, if virtually all the BBC’s current science programming were scrapped and replaced with programming of the sort I am about to propose, the woeful gap between the BBC’s science programming and its ethics programming would all but disappear. I hereby present my modest proposal:

Proposal for “The Science Haze”

In recognition of the fact that nobody is much interested in thinking about the settled topics in science, but would rather consider the controversial topics at the margins, the Science Haze is a programme provocatively designed to get a really good discussion going.

Each episode of The Science Haze will consider one controversial topic. Preferably, the topics chosen for the programme would be rather complex, but they would appear superficially quite simple, so that ordinary people can easily understand the question at hand and may, indeed, already hold opinions on it.

Three further characteristics of the programme will also increase the temperature of the discussion (thereby increasing the effectiveness and educational value of the series!):

First, the programme will feature a panel of regular discussants, appearing each week. The panellists will need no particular expertise in the issue in question, nor indeed, in science in general, but it is essential that they have a “controversial” style, in order to keep things interesting. That is to say, they must have pre-formed opinions on nearly every topic (the more extreme, the better), and an argumentative sort of personality. They must also be very resistant to changing their minds in the face of evidence, or even of refutation. (Note: Claire Fox and Melanie Phillips would be perfect for this!)

Second, the programme will be conducted in a sort of trial format. On each episode, the regular panel will be tasked with “cross-examining” a series of “expert witnesses”. The witnesses might, of course, be actual scientists – but they need not be – we are talking about “expertise” in an extremely broad and attenuated sense here. Men and women of the cloth or politicians will also feature regularly as witnesses, their main qualification being that they hold strong opinions.

Third, the programme will feature a host whose main role will be to act rather like the referee of a boxing match without a brief for scoring: intervening as and when necessary to ensure that a good fight continues, but remaining neutral as to the outcome.

Some topics for the first few episodes:

1. Has the current dry spell in the UK been caused by anthropogenic global warming? (Note: Be sure to invite mad Monckton as a witness – no training but v. strong opinions and a big public figure!)

2. Will the NHS reform bill increase life expectancy in the UK?

3. What will the rate of inflation be in 2015?

4. Is the number of stars in the universe odd or even? (Note: Is there an official Catholic church view on this? If so, get a bishop or two in.)

Each episode of The Science Haze will aim to “teach the controversy”, at the same time as entertaining the listener. The cumulative educational effect of the programmes will be to instill in the audience the sense that science is (1) interesting, (2) important, (3) difficult, and (4) a subject in which everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Finally, a note for any BBC commissioning editors: I request no royalties for this concept – I was, after all, inspired more than a little by existing BBC programmes.

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5 Responses to A Modest Proposal for the Media: The Science Haze

  • Charles Jencks says:

    Excellent, my sentiments exactly, this programming concept could and in fact has extrapolated itself into nearly every nook and cranny of American and British culture.

    Thank you,

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Great idea, Simon. But I’d suggest that the objective should be to instill in the audience the sense that science is (1) boring, (2) unimportant, (3) an easy option, and (4) a subject in which everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Ie, radically different from philosophy…..

  • Neil Levy says:

    The Beeb’s coverage of science is awful . Daily Mail awful. Let’s not take it as a model of how to do anything.

  • Michelle says:

    Great post!

  • Dave Frame says:

    There are some big differences between the sciences and the social sciences, and the BBC’s science coverage has quite a social science lens in the way they approach it, presumably because of the humanities/social science backgrounds of many of the people in the Beeb. Lots of scientists think the BBC’s science coverage already resembles your proposal, because it treats science as though it works the same way the social sciences do, socially. One of the big differences I see is that most of modern science is conducted by teams (often big ones), rather than individuals. Yet TV coverage of science tends to emphasise individuals, especially with a familar narrative overlay (the Great Man*, the eccentric**, the tortured genius, the charismatic preacher***, the voice of the establishment****…)

    I had it said to me recently (albeit in a pub, after a goodly number of pints) by an economist who was briefly up for tenure at Princeton, that the top maybe 2% of economists set the agenda for the rest. Maybe the top 5% matter a lot for broad sub-disciplines. But he felt that economics had quite a feudal structure to it, with a very strong pecking order. This fits with my experience of other economists, and other social scientists more generally. As you can see by looking at the number of authors on papers in high quality science journals, teams play a much bigger role in science. But common perception and media portrayal of science don’t get this.

    Nor do they (media) get the standing on the shoulders of others thing. Scientific inference relies enormously on the fit between one’s own enquiries and the theories and data of others. Even radical stuff (Michelson Morley, cosmic background radiation) is heavily constrained by existing theory (regarding how scientific apparatus perform, for instance). The reliance on others is there in social science (obviously) but it seems to me that there are far fewer universal constraints in the social sciences than there are in the physical sciences. That meshing together of the old and the new is part of the fun, and beauty, of science, yet popular portrayals always emphasise the novel, rather than the fact the progress is largely about the remarakble adaptability of science to blend existing insight with new challenge. [Hence the celebration of “new paradigms” and the derision of “normal science” in popular imagining of the Kuhnian model.]

    Those two features – the lionisation of the individual and the fetishisation of the novel – form core parts of how tv people (incl the BBC) portray science. So it becomes about the heroic individual’s quest for radically new (preferably controversial) knowledge, rather than a team effort to advance frontiers of human understanding. Another way of putting it – and I can’t remember who said it but I think it might have been Rorty – is that proper names play the same role in the humanities and social sciences that propositions play in science. I think that captures it quite well, and the failure to make this distinction is what leaves many scientists dissatisfied with tv science – media portrayals are constantly trying to put individuals at the core of modern science, when most of the real action is about the objects we are learning about, rather than the quests of the people doing the learning.

    *Robert Winston
    **Colin Pillinger
    ***Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan
    ****Paul Nurse

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