Monday, January 10, 2011

Science reporting

BBC’s Breakfast show has just guffawed it’s way through an interview with the comedian Ben Miller, who they repeatedly described as a physicist even though he never worked as a physicist or completed his PhD.  That’s a minor niggle, but irritating as it confuses and further mystifies the matter of what scientists are and do. 

Miller is presenting a Horizon show called What is One Degree? which sounds decent enough.  We’ve measured an average temperature increase of the Earth’s surface of one degree since we started measuring it in the 19th century and Miller’s show apparently describes what temperature is, how we measure it and what one degree means in real terms.  It should be worth watching, even though Miller did quite a bad job of selling it on Breakfast. 

Anyway, the Breakfast presenters did what they always do, which is to revel in their ignorance of science.  It’s perfectly OK to be ignorant about science, but I don’t think it’s OK to brag about it or to think it’s funny.  It’s a quite explicit suggestion that people who understand scientific matters belong to an entirely different class of person and that it’s not worth the effort of anyone else even trying to understand. 

This is further mystification of science and it’s hard to see how it’s a helpful way to communicate science or promote education.

The BBC should be ashamed of this attitude, but it doesn’t seem to be.


What happened to you, Horizon?  You used to be cool. What is One Degree was not very good.  It laboured superficial points beyond belief   and had no real substance.Miller repeatedly referred to himself as a physicist, which is simply not true.  A physicist is something you are and something you do.  Miller is neither if he’s never before been curious about temperature.  This approach seems to pander to a widespread view of science as a mystery, beyond the understanding of ‘ordinary people’.  Miller’s faux astonishment at and blowing out of proportion of superficial points that every schoolchild knows seemed to reinforce this impression.

Science is about hard work and discipline.  It’s also about a sense of wonder and wanting to know how the universe works, but I think this message is better coming from the professional scientists, rather than the dilettante pretending to be one.  This might sound harsh.  I’m not suggesting that laypeople shouldn’t get involved in the communication of science: far from it.  I’m suggesting that goggling at something unexpected is all very well, but understanding something in depth and still being amazed at and captivated by the marvellous complexity of the universe is a more powerful message.  And a more realistic one, if the goal is to educate the public in how science is done.  Perhaps that isn’t the goal.

The biggest problem, however, is one that’s typical for modern documentaries: the endless summarising of every single minor, superficial point and consequent lack of substance.  Why should it take half an hour to conclude that it’s possible to measure temperature?  It’s interesting to show that our senses register changes in relative temperature rather than absolute temperature, but does the point have to be laboured so much?  And after drawing out these points almost beyond belief, must the programme insist on summarising them?

My suggestion is this: trust your audience.  Those people aren’t stupid.  Suppose, for example, the show investigated the relationship between pressure and temperature (which is what I thought it was going to do).  A lot of interesting stuff could have been conveyed and the script would practically have written itself.  Some experiments measuring temperature at different pressures, an explanation of why this happens…. this would at the same time have provided insight into what temperature is and foster a sense of wonder at the connectedness of physical properties: a sense of what temperature means in a wider sense than how hot something is.

I’m glad there was a science documentary and I’m glad it showed that something most people take for granted is actually more complicated than they might expect.  But I don’t think there’s any need to underestimate the audience and to dumb down.  And if you’re going to use a comedian to present it, shouldn’t he at least be funny?

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