The Science Of Broadcasting Science



Via Bishop Hill.


This article examines the changes that have been wrought on the BBC’s science broadcasting….essentially the dumbing down and the belief that the audience can’t understand the science and therefore should just ‘obey’ the diktats of scientists and their TV promoters:

The excellent 1996 Horizon episode on Fermat’s Last Theorem was directed by Simon Singh. Whereas Singh in the 1990s had high expectations of his audience, his more recent comments suggest that his view of his fellow humans has diminished:

I suspect that climate numpties (numpty (noun): a reckless, absent-minded or unwise person) are far more common than we might think, and they can be found in the most surprising of places.

This became apparent to me when I was having lunch one day with five physics undergraduates from a London college. They were clearly bright, devoted to physics and fully paid-up fans of the scientific method. However, not one of them was committed to the notions that climate change was happening, that it was largely caused by human activity (eg the burning of fossil fuels) and that there would be trouble ahead unless something changed.

I was baffled – why would little versions of me (for I was a physics undergraduate over two decades ago) not accept manmade climate change when it was backed by overwhelming evidence and endorsed by the vast majority of climate experts, Nobel Laureates and even David Attenborough?

A climate sceptic can either be intelligent or honourable, said Singh, but not both at the same time.

This gesture, like so many other comments made by science commentators/communicators reveals much about how they see the public. Singh’s injunction to the 5 delinquent physicists was not to find out for themselves what the state of the science is — i.e. ‘trust no one’ — but to obey the edicts issued by David King and David Attenborough


 From informing to performing

Put simply, science as it is conceived of by the BBC’s commissioning editors is not a way of understanding material phenomena. It has become instead something to gawp at in slack-jawed wonderment. It has become a spectacle. The transformation here is in the broadcasters’ expectations of the public. Over the course of 14 years, the BBC’s estimation of its audience diminished.


As well as reflecting the broadcasters’ diminished estimation of the viewing public, the transformation of British science broadcasting reflects the transformation of British science. It is remarkable that the descent of Horizon occurs over the era in which the cultural authority of science increased, while institutions like the BBC and Royal Society increasingly seem to express contempt for the public. Whereas Britain’s public institutions once sought to elevate the public, they now condescend, hector and belittle them.



The article finishes off with the thought that climate change has become something that institutions like the BBC have made so essential to their credibility and identity that it just has to be true regardless of whether it is or not:

There are many lessons in Ehrlich’s failures, which reveal the ‘politics and ideology’ at work in the ideas that are still promoted by the BBC and Royal Society. They have not been thrown away by Horizon. Indeed, just as climate change rescued Ehrlich’s ideas, climate change and neomalthusianism ideas seem to have rescued the institutions that identify themselves with them. That’s not to say that ‘climate change is not happening’, but that if it wasn’t, The Royal Society, The BBC, the institutions that fund public science, and so many tired old broadcasters might have to invent it.




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5 Responses to The Science Of Broadcasting Science

  1. JimS says:

    I believe we are in for a new Ice Age.
    The BBC and Nigel Calder told me and I’ve been too scared to watch a BBC ‘science’ programme since.
    (Got the book but not the T-shirt)


    • Stewart says:

      Oh yes the Weather Machine I remember watching it

      Allmost forgotten now


  2. Philip says:

    Well, well BBC, not just the uneducated plebs then. ‘May edition of the (2014) Mensa magazine shed light at what seems to be an unprecedented attack from Mensa members upon the BBC as regards its censorship of science…’


    • Richard Pinder says:

      I read that article, it was in the Space Special Interest group Newsletter, I think it was submitted to the Committee inquiry on the future of the BBC, further news is due, but there are rumours that the committee has already decided to abolish the licence fee.


  3. Richard Pinder says:

    When the morons say “overwhelming evidence” I think they are talking about the overwhelming evidence that climate changes, not evidence that man or even carbon-dioxide is responsible for any effect that can be detected, due to the effect being far too small to be detected in the Earths Atmosphere, as can be worked out using the CO2 Atmosphere of Venus as a proxy.

    Its good that Physics Graduates still think for themselves, its hard for the universities to censor scientific papers, and anyway, all the answers for the causes of climate change are coming from Astronomy, not from the politically perverted climate science community.

    So the answer to the cause of climate change starts with the Svensmark theory and continues from there.