Does the BBC have a science problem?

At his website The Lay Scientist, Martin Robbins sets out a case that the BBC gives short shrift to science, regularly omitting scientists from programs about matters like global warming that require sceintific expertise, allowing all views, even bizarre ones, about scientific questions in a misguided effort to afford “equal time,” and either downplaying science or, when showing it, dumbing it down in an condescending way.

Three of Robbins’s indictments:

  • Instead we live in a bizarre place where it seems almost every half-baked opinion – no matter how stupid or irresponsible – must be broadcast to the world as valid and equal. In this polluted environment, attitudes to things like ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘science’ range from indifference to open hostility, as Adam Rutherford discovered when he made the mistake of appearing on Today recently. . .

Rutherford’s experience with John Humphrys was little better (audio). Every question was designed to put the guests on the defensive or to create conflict, and even reasonable points were phrased in an aggressive manner. Hasn’t science lost its romance? Isn’t this all a waste of money? Don’t you wish you got some of the money that CERN gets? When his guests provided answers, such as Rutherford’s neat explanation of the economic benefits of investing in scientific research, they aroused an “mm” or were ignored. Worse, Humphrys seemed almost proud of his own ignorance of the subject; it’s hard to imagine a presenter treating economics or the arts in a similar manner.

  • The BBC Trust’s 2011 report on science found that only about an eighth of broadcast news items about research included the voice of an independent expert in the field, not involved with the research in question (see Alice Bell’s blog for some interesting coverage of that report).

And this is a depressing one:

  • When scientists are allowed to get clever, TV producers are forced to go to absurd lengths to compensate. Witness Cox’s recent ‘Night with the stars’, in which Cox was allowed to explain aspects of quantum theory on condition that various comedians and celebrities were brought on to act dumb and reassure the audience that nobody really understands this stuff. It was fun I admit, but if the BBC filmed a lecture about the life and works of Dostoevsky, do you really think they’d have a succession of celebrities coming on stage to look bewildered by the clever man’s long words?

I don’t watch the BBC, but perhaps some UK readers can weigh in about whether Robbins’s complaint is justified.

h/t: Tom C.

69 Comments

  1. Jim Jones
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    (Shrug). It’s many, many times worse in the USA. I swear I can actually see the collective IQ dropping. My working hypothesis is that 98% of the population cannot think logically, and the government offers me some support for this.

    -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
    Literacy levels among the educated must not continue recent decline

    A report, originally published on the Modbee.com

    After years of hand-wringing about literacy in the United States, Congress passed the National Literacy Act of 1991. The aim was to make improved literacy a priority.

    The federal government did a base-line assessment of national literacy in 1992. Now, the government has released the first follow-up. The results are a big disappointment.

    Overall, literacy has remained flat. In 1992, 83 percent of the population 16 and older were at basic literacy or above. That remained virtually the same in 2003 (84 percent).

    The bigger disappointment is that literacy is slipping at every level of education. Educated Americans remain literate, but their capability in processing complex information is declining.

    That presents a quandary. Should we put our efforts into bringing the 17 percent of illiterate or barely literate adults up to basic literacy? Or should we focus on improving the literacy of those who will graduate from high school, college or postgraduate institutions? In an ideal world, we would do both. But the more alarming dip is in the educated population. We can more easily reach those individuals.

    Part of the problem is that our culture is more oral and visual. With television, cell phones, video games, etc., people increasingly deal with flashes of information. Educational institutions must swim upstream to get students to interpret and analyze lengthy, difficult passages of words.

    To see the problem in stark form, look at what’s happened to college graduates in the past decade.

    They remain literate: 98 percent are at basic literacy or above (it was 99 percent in 1992). That looks like there’s no problem. “Basic” means a person can perform simple tasks such as interpreting instructions from an appliance warranty or writing a letter explaining an error made on a credit card bill.

    But then look at intermediate literacy or above: 84 percent are at that level, compared with 89 percent in 1992. That’s a five-point slip in skills such as explaining the difference between two types of employee benefits, using a bus schedule to determine an appropriate route or using a pamphlet to calculate the yearly amount a couple would receive for basic Supplemental Security Income.

    But the biggest slip is at the proficient level: Only 31 percent are at this highest level, compared with 40 percent in 1992. That’s a nine-point slip in mastery of complex activities such as critically evaluating information in legal documents, comparing viewpoints in two editorials or interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity.

    We cannot afford to have our most educated population drop in complex literacy levels. The task falls mostly to our schools, but they cannot do it alone. Others, from parents to libraries, must limit the video games and make reading fun again.

    Posted on 01/09/06

    http://www.modbee.com/opinion/story/11668996p-12397206c.html

  2. Posted January 28, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Science gets usurped for the sake of “good journalism.” Of course, reality-based journalism would never require false bifurcation.

    • ploubere
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      The notion that good reporting requires equal time to both sides regardless of merit is a popular myth but is not what is taught in journalism schools, nor practiced by good journalists. A real journalist would explain a baseless opposing point of view, for example intelligent design, in the context that some people believe it but that there is no evidence for it and courts have ruled against it.

  3. Griff
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    As suggested in Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, the problem we have is that the media is dominated by humanities graduates – people who last did anything really “sciencey” when they were about 14 (when UK children are generally forced to commit between humanities and science)

    These people just don’t understand science.

    • ploubere
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      That’s pretty condescending, Griff, and an attitude that contributes to negative impressions about scientists as elitists. I have an MFA and teach journalism, but I’m not ignorant about science, nor are my colleagues. The people who are ignorant about science generally are people with little education at all, and are equally ignorant about humanities.

      • Barney
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        But there may be something in it. I’ll give, as an example, Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent/Editor for The Times (the British one) for 11 years. His undergraduate degree (from which he went straight to The Times) was in Modern History; it’s most likely he didn’t study any science subject after 16 (when the English system, when he was a student, made you choose 3 subjects to study until 18, and you normally picked them to be relevant to the degree you hoped for). I noticed his lack of background when, on a TV quiz, he was unable to identify a neutron from a basic description of it.

        The BBC is probably better than most papers, though. BBC Newsnight’s Science Editor has a BSc in Physics; their newly appointed overall Science Editor has a BA in Geography, which is a bit better than History.

      • Griff
        Posted January 29, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

        Condescending. And probably true.

  4. Posted January 28, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I wrote a follow-up to Martin Robbins with a personal point of view.

    http://leilabattison.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/hear-hear-my-problem-with-bbc-science/

    I agree, but for different reasons.

  5. Posted January 28, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    ” … perhaps some UK readers can weigh in about whether Robbins’s complaint is justified.

    Yes, it’s fair. The underlying problems seem to be: a populist pitching at the lowest-common-denominator (with the idea that pitching at people with some knowledge of science would be “elitist”); plus the idea that BBC programmes are there primarily for entertainment, not information or education; plus the fact that BBC staff nearly all did arts/humanities degrees, and most of them simply don’t know about and are not comfortable with science.

    However, I suspect that Fox News is no better. ;-)

    • Chris Easterday
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Suspicions confirmed, Fox News is not better. I can’t comment on the BBC’s intent, but it is readily apparent that Fox is actively dumbing down its audience. Easier to sucker them in the future. Roger Ailes is P.T. Barnum.

  6. Egbert
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    The point of TV is to entertain not educate. Or in the case of the BBC, its point is social engineering.

    Entertainment of course means the opposite of work, and education is of course work, because you’re required to think and organize knowledge and then be tested on it.

    So lets not be so surprised that TV is dumber than a bucket of frogs.

    • Posted January 29, 2012 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      Lord Reith (the founder of the BBC) summarized the BBC’s purpose in three words: educate, inform, entertain. It is possibly significant that the Mission Statement of today’s BBC alters the ordering to: inform, educate and entertain.

      There are times when I think that the BBC should really fiddle with the order once more to reflect what appear to be its true priorities: entertain, inform and educate.

  7. Heinrich Kruger
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I don’t live in the UK, and don’t watch BBC, but I think it’s not so much a problem with the BBC as with television in general. Though to be fair, the BBC also produce wonderful programmes, such as “Planet Earth” and “Frozen Planet.”

  8. David
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I live in the UK and would agree with the comment that news presenters seem to have an arts/humanities background, combined with little knowledge of maths/statistics. They seem ill-equipped to challenge people making unsubstantiated claims or statistically dubious statements.

    That said, BBC Radio 4 provides programmes that run counter to the trend for dumbing down e.g. ‘Material World’,’The Infinite Monkey Cage’ and ‘More or Less’. Unfortunately relatively few people listen to these programmes and of those that do I suspect a large proportion have a science background or at least an interest in science/statistics.

    • I'm_not
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Material World is no more I’m afraid.

      the Beeb is very good at popular science, Attenbrough and Cox have both done splendid stuff recently but what used to more serious programmes, Horizon being at the forefront are far shallower and populist than they used to be.

      The Today programme and John Humphreys in particular are pretty much arsey towards everyone and everything.

      I think I’m right in saying The Sky at Night, a monthly astronomy show, is the longest running show in TV history and it’s still going strong with its original presenter, Sir Patrick Moore still in place. He’s a true British eccentric and pretty much a national treasure.

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        I think that Patrick Moore was the first person on British TV to pronounce the name of the 7th planet from the sun in a manner that didn’t sound like a reference to part of one’s anatomy. Also, he did not pronounce the name of the red giant in the constellation of Orion as “beetlejuice”.

        • Llwddythlw
          Posted January 28, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          In fact, the Uranus event can be dated by this:

        • Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          But that reflects a Classical education, not a scientific one. [Οὐρανός, Ouranos meaning "sky" or "heaven", was the primal Greek god personifying the sky. - W*k*p*d**] The “correct” pronunciation of Betelguese is up for grabs [...a corruption of the Arabic يد الجوزاء Yad al-Jauzā' meaning "the Hand of al-Jauzā', i.e., Orion - *b*d]

          An idle thought: could “beetle juice” really be “betel juice” the black juice of the betel nut, Areca catechu that stains teeth across the tropical Pacific?

          • Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

            (When I say ‘could “beetle juice” really be “betel juice” …?’ I mean, could the pronunciation have arisen, for example, after US forces exposure to the juice in WW2?)

            • Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

              (My father, who had no such exposure, called the star “BEEtle-geez”)

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 3, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

              My father, who learned the stars as part of celestial navigation as a merchant mariner (Kings Point), always said BAYtle-geese.

      • NyankoSensei
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        What Material world is being axed? When is the program going off the air? I find Quentin Cooper funny and great to listen to. I have the 1/26 podcast downloaded, will have to listen to it to find out when this will happen. Now I haz a sad.

        I agree with David, BBC radio 4 has some really good science programs. The number of science programs, though, has decreased over the last couple of years. I very much enjoyed listening to the Leading Edge and there was an environmentally based program that went off the air around the same time.

      • bric
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Material World is alive and well ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qyyb ); as last year it is currently running ‘So you want to be a scientist?’, a chance for listeners to do a science project with academic help and a national audience – last year’s winner was an investigation into the homing instincts (if any) of garden snails which co-opted many school children to help.

        • I'm_not
          Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          My mistake! It’s Material Planet that’s gone.

          • I'm_not
            Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

            Home Planet! I really picked a bad day to stop sniffing glue…

      • Jon Hendry
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        “The Today programme and John Humphreys in particular are pretty much arsey towards everyone and everything.”

        Yeah, pretty much. Most everyone gets that sort of “Why are you lying to me, you bastard” tone.

        Which as an American, I dearly wish we got more of in the US. Here we pretty much do fluffy interviews that just exist to allow the guest to say what they want to say to promote their thing.

  9. AnthonyK
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it is fair to criticize the BBC for its attitude to science; indeed I think that the BBC’s scientific output is frequently outstanding.
    Recent TV features (all of which have been rivettingly watchable, and presented by real scientists) have included fascinating documentary series on the cell, a history of medicine, a history of chemistry, Professor Jim Alkhalili’s The Atom, Horizon on many topics (including climate change), many programmes about Darwin and evoltion in 2010 and a whole slew of pieces on the Higgs Boson and Cern. You can also add to that Professor Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe” and, recently, “Stargazing Live” three nights of wonderful, interactive, awe-inspiring astronomy. And, yes, it did feature comedians; but then comedians in Britain are the philosophers de nos jours, and anyone who thinks that Dara O’Briain represents some kind of “dumbing down” of science (watch him on Youtube, please)is, simply, misinformed.
    If you also consider the frequent, often brilliant, Radio 4 output, and one name – David Attenborough – and you have, I think, a science output that is the best in the world, by a very long way.
    Martin Lewis’s lazy, ill-considered piece features an embedded video from Sesame Street; if this is his view of BBC scientists then I’m afraid that it is Mr Lewis who truly deserves to be called a muppet.

    • AnthonyK
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Sorry, that should be Martin Robbins

    • Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Agreed on the comedians—Dara Ó Briain has a university degree in theoretical physics and, though hardly a working scientist, is presumably rather above layman status; and British comedians in general seem to be encouraged to be intelligent and educated—in public, no less! The Oxford origins of the Pythons is well known; Rowan Atkinson had a master’s degree in engineering; Stephen Fry has a literature degree from Cambridge; David Mitchell a history degree…

      There seems to be a very different culture and tone when it comes to comedy; a lot of American entertainment seems to be afraid of being more intelligent than the average (or lowest denominator) viewer, whereas British comedians can make a career while appearing smart on TV. Watch a few episodes of QI—I often have quibbles, but still come away with the impression that the comedians on BBC are on average much smarter than the presenters. (And, of course, they’ve hosted guests like Ben Goldacre and Brian Cox.)

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Is there a UK equivalent of Larry the Cable Guy?

      • Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        Actually the Pythons were split between Oxford (Palin and Jones) and Cambridge (Cleese, Chapman and Idle). And you can’t mention Fry without Hugh Laurie (also Cambridge, archeology and social anthropology). And then there’s Armstrong and Miller (the later with a doctorate in physics, iirc).

        All of them atheists, too, I think…

        And ProfBrianCox is friends with mant of these folks, so it’s no so strange that they appeared on a program with him, when he’d appeared on their programs. Given the success of Cox’s two Wonders series and his popular (sex) appeal, he would’ve had a significant audience for his lecture anyway!

        But I think the first problem Robbins notes is not confined to the BBC. Cox himself highlighted the problem of false “balance” in an earlier lecture, citing a instance where a non-BBC (iirc) news presenter characterised Ben Goldacre’s report on the the scientific consensus re vaccination and autism as “a personal view”.

        /@

        • Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

          Here’s a link to that lecture, a Hugh Wheldon Memorial Lecture, “Science – A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy”.

          /@

    • luke.tunmer
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Anthony, I agree. The BBC is way, way down on the list of TV content creators that can be accused of dumbing-down. Of course they are not perfect all the time, but when it does put its mind to science programming, those programs are normally amongst the best in the English-speaking world.

    • BigBob
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I would echo AnthonyK’s views word for word. As regards BBC Radio 4, I am in the fortunate position of being able to listen to John Humphrys on The Today Programme in the mornings and Eddie Mair on ‘PM’ at 5 o’clock, (leaving me to take care of the driving). As far as news presentation on the radio is concerned I consider myself to be very well catered for. Yes, Humphrys’ style can be confrontational, sometimes even adversarial, but it is many years since Sir Robin Day threw the “yes minister, no minister, three bags full minister” era under a bus.

      One programme was sacrificed on the alter of ‘how low can you go’ and that was ‘Tomorrow’s World’, (with intro music by Johnny Dankworth). I used to watch it with my Dad in the days of presenters
      Raymond Baxter (Spitfire Pilot FGS), James Burke (who anchored BBC coverage of rocket launches) and Michael Rodd (bloke). It was dead by the mid 80’s (though it wouldn’t lie down for some considerable time).

      Un Forgivable.

  10. beanfeast
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I am a reasonably regular listener to The Today Programme and would like to point out that aggressive interviewing is common practice by some of the presenters towards many of the guests. It is a current affairs programme, discussing mainly issues of political or economic significance on the current news cycle and the largest single group of interviewees are probably politicians who have no interest in giving a straight answer. It’s main source of complaint for UK secularists is the presence of the 5 minute Thought For The Day Slot, which is only open to those of religious faith. It is not alone in employing interviewers known for their aggressive style – BBC2’s Newsnights’ Jeremy Paxman is probably the best known such interviewer.

    It is certainly the case that the BBC current affairs department appears to attempt to impose balance on much of its reporting. Whilst this might be standard journalistic practice when covering stories that have “liberal”/”conservative” aspects to them, they don’t seem to understand that the same standards should not necessarily be applied to fact based stories.

    There is much to praise the BBC for when it comes to science programming. Over the past couple of years, there have been some excellent science/maths programmes fronted by people such as Jim Al Kalili, Brian Cox and Marcus de Sautoy.

    “Night with the Stars” is an unworthy target for criticism. It was clearly intended to grab as wide an audience as possible whilst discussing quantum mechanics in a way would grasp the attention of people who would normally change channels the moment an equation appears. I thought it was a successful attempt at making esoteric concepts available to a wider audience.

    • bric
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Hear hear on ‘Night with the stars’ ( see it here http://youtu.be/QboBGoAuf8A )I thought Prof. Cox did an excellent job; there was some buffoonery, but in the interests of getting some fundamental ideas about quantum physics across why not? Ask yourself, could (or would) any U S network put out a programme like this at prime time, free to air?

  11. Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    The vast majority of humanity are as dumb as a sack full of door knobs. But they don’t want to contemplate the fact that they’re as dumb as a sack full of door knobs and will hate you for putting this back in the front of their minds. TV people know this. So do bankers, politicians, and anyone else with some sort of power or influence. Those people cultivate the dumb and the profit from it.

    It sucks, but what can you do but keep trying?

  12. Dermot C
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Robbins makes a good general point about the BBC’s way of interviewing; that if you assert the opposite point of view to your interviewee, then in some way you are being ‘balanced’. Another example of the slippery concept of balance – I am reminded of teaching ID, Stateside, ‘in the interests of balance’.

    John Humphrys himself, whom I listen to every morning, is the ur-practitioner of this style. In fairness to him, his show is a general news programme, and he is not qualified to question a scientist in depth on theory, and indeed JH approaches boffins with far more deference than the binary hectoring he adopts with politicians.

    As regards science in general on Radio 4, there is a newish Director of the channel who says she wants to increase the amount of science on the station; I think of Quentin Cooper’s ‘Material World’ in which he entertainingly, but rigorously, interviews scientist on breakthroughs across the range of sciences; and at least it feels like there is more science on the station. However, they have just dropped the ecology Q&A programme which has been running for 10 years.

    On telly, yes, the BBC does not put on several talking heads discussing new ideas in science; and yes they will do it for the humanities in the Review Show. I do think that even in the latter, there is a distinct lack of academic experts.

    The BBC likes to present big ideas as documentaries presented by one person; Richard Fortey is currently airing with an apparently very good survey of the process of evolution, ‘Survivors: Nature’s indestructible creatures'; Jonathan Meades has an opinionated and robust – and excellent – series on French culture at the moment. And the BBC is good at them.

    But we no longer see on the BBC the thrill of great minds analysing difficult problems, in the Arts or the Sciences. I’d say that there’s a lot in what Robbins says, particularly in relation to the broadcasting of experts discussing new, or even old, ideas.

    • David
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Although the BBC’s mission is still “to inform, to educate and to entertain” (according to its latest Royal Charter) I agree that it has moved away from talking heads despite the fact that it has far more air time to fill than in the past. I remember the days when the BBC TV used to show hour length programmes with well-known philosophers! I for one would be happy to see such programmes repeated if not updated but it seems that TV programmes have to be a triumph of style over content in too many instances. It seems odd that there are regular arts and politics discussion programmes but nothing equivalent to cover science and technology. That said BBC Radio 4 (again) did recently have a series where Jim Al Kalili (an academic physicist) had conversations with various scientists on their life as scientists – each programme was 30 mins long.

    • Jon Hendry
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Radio 4 also has In Our Time, which covers various topics and sometimes has a show on a science topic.

      This week’s was “The Scientific Method”.

      The show itself consists of the host discussing the topic with three academics around the table. No callers. Just a toff (Melvyn Bragg, a definite Humanities type, but also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society) trying to learn about the topic from three experts, generally following an outline so it’s not a free-form discussion, but instead tries to cover a decent amount of ground.

      • Dermot C
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        Yup,

        I forgot to mention that, and it’s good, often profound and enlightening. All the podcasts are available on the BBC website back about 15 years, I think.

        Melvyn Bragg, increasingly crotchety as he is, at least attempts to pulverise the wall of C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’.

      • Barney
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        Bragg a ‘toff’? far from it. He’s the tailor and a mechanic, from Carlisle.

        • bric
          Posted January 29, 2012 at 3:07 am | Permalink

          I suppose as he is now Lord Bragg of Wigton FRS FRSL FRTS we must allow him a little tofftom, and be glad he kept his Cumbrian accent.

  13. Steve Bowen
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    As a reasonably scientifically literate Brit I would say that the Beeb’s record on science documentaries is exemplary, but its science journalism is abysmal. Radio 4, its flagship cultural radio station can be guaranteed to trivialise almost any science story it covers and its presenters display typical arts educated predjudice when interviewing the token geek.

  14. Brujo Feo
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “…but if the BBC filmed a lecture about the life and works of Dostoevsky, do you really think they’d have a succession of celebrities coming on stage to look bewildered by the clever man’s long words?”

    Answer: yes.

    If you want to see how bad it’s gotten in the U.S., watch a segment of the Jay Leno show called “Jaywalking.”

  15. Alektorophile
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I live on the Continent, and have access to tv stations from several coutries, and they range from the abysmal (Italy) to the almost watchable (Switzerland). In the last couple of years all BBC channels have become available, too, and believe me, the difference is remarkable. The programming on BBC4 in particular surpasses anything I have seen on any other channel (as does Radio 4’s) Who else would air programs on statistics, cosmology, or botany? You Brits can be proud of your Beeb and its popular science output, which usually strikes a far better balance between educating and entertaining than any other network I know of.

    I should add that I also lived for ten years in the US, and as for dumbing down science (and the humanities), Discovery, NatGeo & friends know no equal.

    • Posted January 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      This is pretty much what I was going to chime in and say. All in all, BBC has excellent science TV programming compared to most of the world. The US is quite pathetic, and I don’t think the American public would have the patience (perhaps it used to in the time of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the heyday of NOVA and Cosmos) for the types of programming the UK produces. A great satire of the state of science programming can be found at The Onion: Science Channel Refuses to Dumb Down Science Any Further. http://www.theonion.com/articles/science-channel-refuses-to-dumb-down-science-any-f,2897/

  16. Rob Knell
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    For us Brits, the purpose of foreign travel is to make us appreciate the BBC more.

    That said, I agree with the comment above that while the BBC’s record on science documentaries is good, the problem with its reporting of science lies in the current affairs broadcasting. The need for “balance”, for example, which led to ever-more discredited anti-vaccine campaigners being trotted out to produce ever-more specious arguments whenever there was a news story about MMR, gave a completely false impression of where the consensus opinion actually lay.

    • Alektorophile
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      At least in the name of “balance” you also get to hear a sensible view, however inane the anti-science one is. I still shudder when I recall listening to the news on a major Swiss radio station in 2009 on the occasion of Darwin’s bicentennial, and the sole person interviewed was a Vatican-based catholic priest with random scientific credentials, who, as I remember, asserted that Darwinian evolution had been disproved, science was finding more and more evidence for design in the natural world, and that Darwin had been relegated to the dustbin of history… And all of it went totally unchallenged by the scientifically illiterate journalist. Believe me, things at the BBC could be much worse.

  17. Shelldigger
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    BBC is by far better than SyFy and Discovery.

    I swear I have a spasm every time I see a commercial for Ancient Aliens, or Ghost Hunters, or Monster Quest, or that new show about a bunch of morons with high tech gadgetry looking for bigfoot.

    Ill take the BBC any day.

    I keep telling my wife and kids, if you watch any of this stuff, listen for the key words… might be, could be, could have been, etc. etc.
    ..oh, and see what kind of evidence they have to support their claims. I call it speculation T.V.

    I do worry about our future as a species.

  18. Posted January 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Alan Davies “Is there a God, Stephen?”
    Stephen Fry “No, of course not”
    -QI

    “]Indoctrinating] children into religeon is child abuse”
    Richard Dawkins
    interview on Simon Mayo radio show (no pro religeon speaker on)

    No outburst in the press, no one calling for action against Fry. Would that have happened if it had been on mainstream US TV?

    The problem the Beeb have is the right-wing press. Murdoch papers go after it mercilessly, lying and distorting, because it is in the way of Sky TV. The rest of the right go after it for its alledged left wing bias. Their problem is, of course, what the Daily Mail prints, and what is true are often two seperate things.

    When the BBC exposed the Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’ the government went mental, forced a retraction and the sacking of the journo. Funnily enough when the BBC was prove right there was no apology by Blair.

    Because of its public funding the anti’s get to demand representation. This same funding that is hated by the right allows the BBC to make niche programmes. The occasional idiot ‘balance’ is the price to pay, unfortunately.

    • Nick Evans
      Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      One minor point of detail: the BBC’s claim against the Govt dossier (the dodgy dossier was actually an earlier one) wasn’t simply that there were no WMD and the Govt said they were. That had been a long-running argument for ages.

      The BBC’s allegation was that the Government deliberately added material to that dossier which they knew was false. They’ve not been proved right on that.

  19. Circe
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know of the BBC, but I remember that in the early 90s, Door Darshan (the Indian equivalent of the BBC) used to have a wonderful “no punches pulled” science education program called “Turning Point”. They weren’t even afraid of writing equations and formulae, as far as I can remember. And this was in the “dark” days of the Indian economy, when there were just 2 car brands to choose from, and 3 satellite channels.

    Now, in an India with a liberal fast growing economy, programs like Turning Point seem to have been jostled out by “daily soaps” and “reality shows” and even shows on astrology.

  20. Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    here’s the problem, effectively no one gives a hoot about science, medical care for themselves and loved ones, maybe, gadgets, yeah big time but real science? fuggitabtit…

    and the Brits are way better than Yanks but even they care more about old football players than any Nobel Prize winner dead or alive…

    lil stevie hawkings maybe but the whole cripple thing is mainly novelty, let’s be honest…
    scientists, predictably being human after all, are in deep denial about how bloody trivial their works is considered to be by the public…sorry

    truth is no one really cares abt science, most resent it as challenging their self serving ideologies and unless something like Tang comes from it find it a complete waste of time and money by pointy headed nerds…

    you can see it in the comments here, uninformed, uneducated and just dum ideas about topics well over everyone’s head…and pride in that ignorance w/ the occasional smattering of college philosophy ideas…sheesh…fuggitabtit!

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 29, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Please forgive the ignorance of a grumpy old git, but could you kindly define “fuggitabtit”, since Google, for once, can’t help me?

  21. Dawn Oz
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    In Australia we see lots of BBC science programs, however not their interviews. This surprises me as I thought the BBC was fine with science. However they have a number of channels and the toned down science maybe on their more popular one.

    A weekly radio program on our ABC has been running for decades and the journo Robin Wiliams is well respected.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted January 29, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

      On the above mentioned ‘Science Show’, this great rendition of ‘The Denial Tango’ from a local group doing a pub gig. Worth the 2 mins.

  22. Posted January 29, 2012 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    For me the interjection of comedians/humour into recent astronomy programs on the BBC is a necessary ‘evil’. It automatically increases the viewing numbers meaning that, despite the science taking possibly more of a back seat to the humour, more people are exposed to the science than otherwise would be. Look at the comedians as being the ‘sugar that helps the medicine go down’ as a famous nanny once said.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 29, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Particularly when the comedian is a science graduate and atheist such as Dara O’Briain.

  23. Persto
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    History Channel is dreadful in this regard. Don’t they have a successful show titled Ancient Aliens? Ridiculous and misleading, anyone?

  24. Dave
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    I’d echo Steve Bowen’s comment about the abysmal state of BBC News’s science coverage. Just about every link to a half-baked scientific idea that I see leads back to a BBC article. It’s not that the subjects are half-baked, many are interesting advances done by highly reputable scientists, but the idiotic BBC reporting reduces them to nonsense.

    This is different that documentary coverage. Documentaries, both in Britain and in the US, are for the most part independently produced. The station that airs them may have input into the content or how its presented, but they are produced by a myriad of production companies and the quality varies widely. Journalistic content, on the other hand, comes from a single shop and has a distinct brand, and for the BBC that means truly horrific science coverage.

  25. Griff
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Take it up with Ben Goldacre

  26. Kharamatha
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    As far as I’m aware, having family in the UK, comedians have done a lot for science literacy over there.

  27. Sili
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Yes.

  28. Posted January 29, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Since I was on iPlayer listening to Attenborough’s DID, I came across the first episode of a new series, Survivors Nature’s Indestructible Creatures (i.e., those that have survived extinction events) by Richard Fortey “of the Natural History Museum”.

    /@

  29. Jonathan Dore
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    The BBC’s such a large organization that its various strands of programming treat science quite differently. As Alektrophile notes above, BBC4 science programming has been excellent — Jim Al-Khalili’s series on the history of Chemistry and his various programmes on particle physics, for example, or Tim Walker’s on the history of Botany. That’s been a digital-only channel since it began ten years ago, but with the digital TV switchover due to complete by next year everyone in the country will soon be able to get it (sadly folk overseas can’t get TV programmes on the iPlayer — if they could I think it would revolutionize a lot of people’s perceptions of BBC output).

    BBC1 and 2, where Brian Cox’s programmes are usually scheduled, are more mainstream and thus suffer from the occasional dumbing-down mentioned above, but the science content is solid.

    But separate from both of those is science coverage on news programmes, which really is problematic and suffers from chronic lack of expertise. To give one example: on the BBC Breakfast show in 2009 a story about solar flares brought on “space scientist” Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who in the space of 2 minutes made three fundamental errors, viz: that the temperature of the surface of the sun is 5 million degrees (no, that’s the corona); that the distance to the sun is 9 million miles (out by a factor of ten); and that sunspots of the extent seen in 1859 happen “on a cycle of 500 years” (she meant their probability on that scale was a once-in-500-year event). It turns out that what the Breakfast programme calls a “space scientist” is, in this case, someone with a background in mechanical engineering.

    So documentaries are pretty good (though still with some annoying presentational mannerisms), but science in news coverage suffers from the over-riding — but in this case inappropriately applied — obsession with balance, on the one hand, and a failure to appreciate expertise on the other (and John Humphrys has his own personal problems, basically amounting to a whole carpenter’s workshop of chips on his shoulder, as the OP illustrates).

    • Nick Evans
      Posted January 30, 2012 at 4:59 am | Permalink

      This is the key point. BBC news programmes require “balance”, and so scientific issues often have idiotic views to balance out the sensible ones.

      But scientific programmes themselves can be fine. Particularly if on BBC4 or Radio 4, but even the more mainstream BBC1/BBC2 shows are OK, even if you do have to accept a bit of populism with your quantum physics.

      I also find the Dostoevsky example rather strange. The BBC recently had a series of programmes about Dickens to make his bicentennial, one of which was presented by comedian Armando Ianucci, Ianucci also presented a show on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Stephen Fry appears to be the official popular voice of literature on the Beeb. Comics are big business at the moment, and will be used to sex up anything.

  30. marvol19
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Dara O’Briain has still the best putdown of this:

    Also contains the immortal one-liner “Science KNOWS it doesn’t know everything – else it had STOPPED”.


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