The Telegraph heralded a ‘glorious dawn’ of science programming by Auntie in 2010, largely based on Professor Brian Cox’ Stargazing Live, which was brilliant, despite a recent revelation by the pop sensation that the BBC had a little more creative control than he would have liked.
However Martin Robbins, a Guardian Science commentator was much more critical of science coverage at the start of the year. His dismissive assessment of the UEA climate research scandal, but still marking it as the turning point in the Beebs science coverage is deeply ironic, and itself symptomatic of the problem.
In case you were living under a rock in November 2009, don’t worry. I was living in a caravan in the woods, so I missed a chunk to. This is what happened:
Robbins goes on to say that debate programs like question time didn’t get real scientists on them, because the BBC never let them out of their “glossy 1080p” cage on documentaries, derisively citing the BBC science policy. Confusingly Robbins then embedded a link to the Guardian Science Policy Page. A better source might have been this one. Obviously biased, but still more informative IMHO.
The BBC have, and will continue, in my opinion both as a degree educated scientist and a highly selective TV viewer, an excellent history and current practice in science coverage. News and debate programs maybe not so much, but that is almost the point. Robbins seems to view scientific progress as a dramatic butting of heads, filled with factual testosterone, the winner posturing over his bloodied, less well informed opponent. While this might be more desirable to keep the attention of the masses, it is a scientific disservice. Hard science, i.e. how stuff works, tends to progress through constructive, cumulative reasoning. “Standing on the shoulders of giants” is not a biblical quote referring to David vs. Goliath.
Should scientists be encouraged to pause from building the firm human pyramid of facts and figures, in order to enter the treacherous waters of developing public understanding through argument with diametrically opposed viewpoints (in most cases read ‘Religious right/conspiracy theorists’)? It may solve some problems, but as the BBC report insinuates, if you air Scientific Consensus vs. Unscientific Rhetoric, you give added credence to the counter argument by elevating the source of the material.
Obviously in Climategate, failing to elevate Scientific Consensus to the level already achieved by Unscientific Rhetoric was a huge failing by most broadcasters, but generally speaking I think manufacturing heated debate would do little to promote the cause. Regardless Robbins seems to have presented an awkward paradox:
a) Climategate was an open and shut case to scientists that was blown out of proportion by media outlets which thrive on conflict
b) Science coverage needs to have more “conflict and debate” in order to accurately portray the foundations of science to the public
Stay tuned for Part 2 on what could be done to address this, plus recommendations on the top 4 science shows of the year, which were all last month!