Science TV is too nice

Well well well, another blog post, eh? So soon: it's only been... erm, two years. Oh. Well I never promised to be prolific. This one's come about because I grumbled briefly on Twitter about the nature of (British) pop-science TV and immediately hit the restrictions of that medium. Twitter is a wonderful way to share neat things that you find online, and to make pithy soundbites & jokes (and for describing what you're eating, the form of public transport that you happen to be on, listing film names with comic vegetable name substitutions...), but for exploring a non-trivial issue 140 characters is, to put it mildly, a limitation. I have difficulty fitting one of my normal sentences into 140 characters. So of course I came across as a whining idiot, prompting the reply "Yeah, we really should do more about how shit it all is. You don't see that tone ANYWHERE" from Dara O'Briain. Well, not remotely what I meant, but who can blame him? So here's an attempt at a more coherent and nuanced version that hopefully doesn't make me come across as an anti- science, axe-grinding git. But perhaps as a slightly grumpy science nerd, which is fair enough. There's been a welcome rise in the amount and profile of science programming on TV in recent years, a good whack of which is due to the influence of Brian Cox's three "Wonders" series', the LHC start-up & Higgs boson excitement, ... and who knows, maybe it's also due to The Big Bang Theory. Discounting the mostly-gawp-fest wildlife docs, there's been Dara's own Science Club, Astonomy Live, Bang Goes The Theory, at least a couple of series fronted by my old supervision partner Helen Czerski... and the long-running Horizon, of course. And that's just the stuff that I've noticed.

So it's great to see more science on telly -- and particularly that it's now portrayed as fascinating and maybe a bit cool (a nerdy cool, but socially acceptable nonetheless) rather than tedious or eggheaded. Bravo. But I can't bear to watch half of it: the happy-clappy presenting style and typical lack of depth drive me bananas. Am I just stuck so far up my ivory tower that I won't be happy until mainstream science TV resembles the OU educational modules that used to screen on BBC2 at 2am? (I taped those while I was at school... but sure, there's a reason they were shown at the witching hour.) I hope I'm not that much of a prat, and since I get as wound up by biology programmes as by physics ones I'm at least not just moaning that TV doesn't know (and say) as much as I do on my specialist subject.

The root problem for me is that so much science TV is, bizarrely, unscientific. By which I mean that the defining feature of doing science is missing: where's the challenge, confrontation, and critical approach? The "hard" questions? Presumably it makes someone happy to assemble a bunch of young researchers and science journalists and fly them round the globe to ask questions to which they already know the answers, for the benefit of the cameras... which is demeaning but sort-of ok: that's how TV works. But having sent informed people you'd expect them to also call their subjects on some of the more bullshitty spoutings. Maybe this does take place, and gets left on the virtual cutting room floor, but the broadcast output tends to be "wow, this science/tech is really big/small/pretty, this is all totally awesome, thanks so much for having us, bye."

It probably is wonderful -- like I said, I've no interest in a "science is really shit" show, and there is plenty of cool stuff to go and film -- but nothing's 100% perfect, and scientists have agendas, too. Not usually evil ones, often not commercial ones, but agendas nonetheless. If you interviewed me, it'd be in my interest to make exciting noises about the LHC, particle physics, and particularly the bits of it that I'm interested in, not because I directly get lots of cash but because it helps to generate a buzz and maybe that will feed down the line to a boost in future funding, either for me specifically or my field in general. Plus the ego boost that someone chose to point a camera at me. So, intoxicated by heady ambitions, I might unwisely say something that I can't defend... and the interviewer should jump on that. They can do it nicely -- the Humphreys-Paxman approach is probably not Plan A -- but don't let me get away with it. Being able to do that succinctly and entertainingly -- and to choose the questions the audience will like rather than the nit-picky ones that science conferences are full of (no bad thing, but not media-friendly) -- is surely the defining characteristic of a good scientist-journalist.

A while back I saw a short film on LIGO (I think as part of Dara's Science Club) which effectively missed the enormous fish-in-a-barrel question: "you haven't seen anything in the last two years; why is this upgrade different?". Not that I don't like LIGO, but you've gotta ask. And just yesterday I switched off a Horizon special because the presenter was too busy cooing to call the interviewee on some suspiciously soundbitey statements about graphene -- the event that led to this very article. I found this particularly irritating: first they showed an arselickhan film on Andre Gaim and the graphene discovery, then cut back to the studio where a photogenic member of Gaim's own research team was there to enthuse (the great man having presumably been unavailable). Graphene is cool, so no complaint about that as a subject, but it's also dangerously full of superlatives... so when people start talking about supporting the weight of a cat on a 1 m2 sheet of the stuff* then someone should probably point at the disconnect between the reality and the hype: "what you've shown so far is how to make microscopic flakes via Sellotape: what's this 1 m2 sheet stuff? How do you think it can really be put into mass production: lots of Sellotape?! How long until those graphene-microelectronics applications?" But, hypnotised by a molecular model and some funky graphics, we moved on. Sigh, and a belch of irritation on Twitter...

I suspect this is what winds up people like Simon Jenkins who periodically pen articles railing against the special position that science holds -- in attempting to make science cool and accessible, the argument and dissent has been excluded. Capitalised "Science" can appear as an unassailable religion of sorts, and a faintly cold, inhuman one at that: no wonder some liberal columnists get the wrong idea. Rational dissent is exactly what science is about: it is explicitly not meant to be put on a pedestal and made intolerant of criticism. The philosophy that anyone with good enough logic or data can overturn the opinion of a grandee is rather special, and I think is a large part of why the process of science holds my interest all day, every day, and then late into the night. It's about coming up with ideas, testing them, building a case, and then going out and giving conflicting ideas the same critical grilling as their originators will be inflicting on yours. Kids and "civilians" watching these programs may get the feeling that scientists are either renegade geniuses (the programmes' heroes) or smoothly revolving cogs in the glorious science machine. It's messier than that, and hence far more interesting and human. My feeling is that showing that process would probably make better TV, too.

In fact, I can prove it. Remember the Faster Than Light Neutrinos? For the record, pretty much everyone in particle physics, including the authors of the study, immediately said "it's some kind of measurement bug", and lo it came to pass. But in the meantime there was a great public display of how our scientific community approaches a very contentious result with open but sceptical minds. There were immediately umpteen questions: how was the timing done? what about the distance measurement? In the end it turned out to be a fibre-optic cable connection that was to blame, and relativity escaped unscathed. If you search online you might find a Horizon film on the topic, and the star piece for me was Jon Butterworth (a friend, but that's not why I mention it) in the UCL staff common room getting excited about what he regarded as a problematic aspect of how the neutrino pulse timing was measured. I think it's a great bit of footage because he starts scribbling pulse shapes on a paper napkin and getting excited. It's the sort of thing we do among ourselves every day over lunch/coffee/whatever: right there is all the excitement and enthusiasm you could ask for, along with the touch of conflict and scepticism that's central to how science is really done. And it was bloody good to watch, too. More of that please.

[*] One of those publicly accessible science numbers that has obviously been pre-prepared. A friend once produced a parody that compared the weight of ATLAS to the number of dogs on the Isle of Wight, which I think is the right response -- at least scientists should feel a bit hinky when one of these conveniently accessible figures pops up.

PS. For the record, Brian Cox gets a pass from me on much of this criticism for two reasons, despite perhaps being an obvious role model for relentless sci-enthusiasm: 1) when he takes a break from being a silhouette, he occasionally enters a live studio and denounces someone as "a twat" for saying something dumbly unscientific. Grumpiness and good TV? High five. 2) I've really enjoyed the last two Wonders programs in particular: explaining entropy to the nation on a Sunday night is not a topic entered upon lightly, and while missing some obvious questions I thought that the physicists take on biology that characterised Wonders of Life was novel. Gotta point out, though, that in Life #1 he tried to make a clever physics reference to energy as the time component of momentum and cocked it up: not that he doesn't know the right answer, of course. But then Neil Armstrong fluffed his big line, too, so I'll forgive you that, Brian.

PPS. Three books on discovery/invention immediately pop to mind in defence of my thesis that conflict maketh narrative without needing to get on a downer about science overall. First, The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer-winning account of how a renegade team in the 80s got a new personal computer to market against all the odds. Particle physicists will find much to empathise with. Second is Nobel Dreams, whose accuracy is disputed, but it's essentially a page-turning real-life thriller about the big characters in particle physics and the race to observe the W and Z bosons. And last, just because I read it recently in the 10 minute bedtime gaps before my son went to sleep, is Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers -- a compendium of the weird tales behind unsung bits of science and invention. All thoroughly recommended, and none about straightforward tales of scientific plain sailing. I'm sure you can recommend plenty of others to me as well, which is the sort of one-liner that is good for.


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