Hear Hear – My problem with BBC science

After reading Martin Robbin’s collateral rage on twitter while he was writing his Guardian blog on the state of science on the BBC, I have to admit I was a little nervous to read the post itself, and have only just steeled myself and done so.  I would recommend reading it before continuing with this, so the ensuing rant seems less….ranty.

Why should I be so concerned?  Surely it’s just his opinion and I will either agree with it or not.  But in a sense it meant much more to me.  I love the BBC, I really do.  I am to the BBC what Sam is to Frodo, what Tristan is to Isolde.  I will vehemently defend it to the last as a fundamental crutch on which our nation depends, and as a responsible custodian of our trust.  And yet there has been a secret seed of dissatisfaction gnawing away at me for some time.   Swallowing my denial, I sat down this morning and read.

And I agree.  I agree with what the good Mr Robbins says, but was also surprised to find that his kernels of irritation were different to mine, albeit with the same result.  I am coming out now and saying that I cannot watch most BBC science programming, and I am ashamed when I hear it on the radio.

Perhaps my point of view is one that is a little more personal.  As an aspiring journalist and science communicator, I last year spent three months working (for free) with the BBC, with Horizon, online newsgathering, and radio production.  I’ve already spoken at length about what an enriching experience it was for an amateur, but it was the chance to see the inner workings of these long revered institutions that really fundamentally changed my viewpoint.

With regard to television, Martin Robbins said:

The BBC’s drive to avoid bias is admirable, but – whether through laziness or fear – journalists have fallen into the trap of believing that avoiding bias means avoiding any kind of judgement.

From my time at Horizon, I can attest to that.  Working in Development, I was charged with the thankless task of coming up with new programme ideas that excited the non-scientist editor.  If he deemed them not exiting enough, or not balanced enough at first glance, you could go and work them up for a week, and present them again.  But by then, the story was old, and the editor had lost interest.  Almost without fail, the only ideas that made it through were related to health, happiness, and any other branch of social science that could be bulked out with the inevitable conscious-twanging shot of unhappy children.

Now, I don’t have a problem with social sciences, but should they be the exclusive content of Horizon?  As a child and a teenager, I watched Horizon with wonder, never hoping to understand the details, and accepting that maybe even the scientists didn’t.  But it sparked in me a curiosity and a passion that has brought me to where I am today.  I realised then that I actively avoid BBC science documentaries – I didn’t even watch Adam Rutherford’s Cell, despite having consulted and provided fossils for it.

Why?  Because it is hollow.  It is dull.  As Martin Robbins says, it stays:

 …in the safe world of recreating GCSE-level text books in glorious 1080p…

And that is now all it is good for.  Wide panoramas of dramatic Argentine mountaintops (with the ubiquitous Cox-akimbo), or comical captures of thieving penguins, but NO SCIENCE. Where is the passion? The glistening eyes and wistful expression of Sagan? Where are the strong personal stories of Gorillas in the Mist? They are gone to be replaced by sllooow explanations of why you get fat when you eat too much, by a presenter who has excellent diction, but has never even done an alcohol immersion test.

Therein lies the rub.  At Horizon, the non-scientists outnumber the scientists.  I know the point is to make programmes that are accessible, but contrary to popular belief, not all scientists speak only in latin, and you only have to turn to the immense online community of professional and aspiring science communicators to find fascinating new takes on old ideas.  Think what they could do with a BBC budget and connections?  In my honest opinion, Horizon have fallen off the wagon in favour of fluffy school science and the frontiers of science communication have left them far behind.

BBC testcard.  More interesting than science programming

Martin Robbins also touched on another half buried rage ball of mine.  John Humphry’s. How does that man sleep at night? You really have to congratulate the Today programme on finding the most brashly opinionated and unabashedly ignorant man in Britain and persevering in letting him loose daily on some of the best minds in the country.  In this I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Robbins, and can only repeat what he so eloquently put (presumably because he wasn’t fighting the urge to punch something Welsh):

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…

I now use the Today programme as an alarm clock.  I think I average about 5 seconds from deep sleep to hurling the radio across the room.  It has never failed.

This is all turning into a bit of a rant, so let me say something positive.  BBC Science does get some things right, and that is its news.  Whether written online, presented on the 6 O’Clock, or prerecorded for a weekly roundup, the newsgatherers hit the spot.  Outwardly, they seem to regularly strike the perfect balance between quirky, serious, and engaging.  .  They  are not all scientists, but they have something the feature programmers drastically lack – passion.  They invest emotion and interest in scientists’ findings, and their curiosity is infectious whether reading, listening, or watching them, or working with them.  Give them a prime time airing and much of the BBC’s ills could be cured.  The two months I spent with them were two of the best of my life.

What is it about newsgathering that is so much more alive than feature programming?  Perhaps the endless onslaught of new information selects for those who are flexible and can think on their toes.  Perhaps seeing a feature documentary through is a soulless task, unavoidably stripping out any enthusiasm that may have once been there.  All I can say with confidence is that somewhere along the way, the BBC have got the equation wrong, and it risks losing the unquestioning belief of the public, as well as my (almost) unconditional love.

So I can only thank Martin Robbins for exposing my guilty secret, the embarrassing truth, that I would sooner watch the cringing comedy Twenty Twelve, than any science on the BBC.



3 thoughts on “Hear Hear – My problem with BBC science

  1. Hi Leila. Sounds like you have fully immersed yourself in the world of Science Communication since we first met at the NERC course. Well done! Did you I hear you mentioned on the Discovery credits recently?

    As a Today listener, I nearly fell off my chair whilst listening to Humphery’s basking in his scientific ignorance, but I think it was in more of a doddery grandad moment. I think we can allow him that.

    Credit should be given to the BBC for “In Our Time” though. It is an excellent medium for covering fundamental topics, including science and really gives enough time to pick apart the subject with experts. True, it only tends to deal with established “text-book” subjects, but these give a good start to the lay person for understanding current news.

    I was interested to hear your experiences of topic selection for Horizon. I think the tendency to lean toward the safe option of “health & happiness” related topics (as most news stories do) is a reflection of the obsession with “self” in our society. It is also ironic that non-scientists cannot see the potential of science programming as escapism. Surely that is what entertainment is all about and yet so often science programming continually draws the viewer back to themselves rather than taking them on a journey away from themselves as any good drama or story does. That is why people love with the big Natural History unit productions.

    • Hi Nick, Thanks a lot! I don’t think I did anything with Discovery, so can’t reasonably claim the credit for that…

      I’m sure a lot of people like Humphry’s – something must explain all those awards and his continuing presence in my ears every morning. Perhaps that one episode was doddering, but I still side with Martin in horror at how he revels in ignorance and makes no attempt to even respect superior knowledge.

      I absolutely agree about ‘In Our Time’. Amongst many very excellent radio programmes not necessarily tailored to science, it gives due consideration and respect to the sciences on a level platform with arts and humanities. My problem comes when creating something purely scientific, like the cringeworthy ‘Life Scientific’ (an excellent idea, but amounting to little more than condescending to quite important scientists), purposely assesses what they think the public want, and then give it them with a sparkler on top.

      The circular reasoning at Horizon did shock me. They think they are giving people what they want, but how will people know what they want if they aren’t given a chance to see the boundaries and what’s outside them. Everything is so safe and so comfy, there is no room for curiosity any more. It’s like my mediocre state school all over again. I don’t deny that the Natural History programmes are feats of production, but is it science? I learnt more about the Antarctic by watching ‘Happy Feet’ than I did by watching Frozen Planet.

  2. If I may ask – what’s up with the apostrophe in Humphrys? Auto-correct? I know I really want to insert an e, and had done originally.

    Have you watched any U.S. science programs? Even when they cover some actual science which is newer and interesting, the programs have all manner of odd (and meaningless) graphics inserted, along with confusing bits of narrative. Meanwhile, a lot of real-scientist time is used up explaining the most basic concepts. And these are the better shows. Never mind the programs which give time to outright pseudoscientific crankery.

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