Science and Television: friend or foe?

I’m a big fan of both science and television and have blogged previously about their inter-relationship (e.g. Science on the telly and A new model for interaction of scientific research and TV?).  I was therefore very interest to hear Physicist and former pop star Prof Brian Cox delivering the 2010 Huw Wheldon lecture on the topic Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy (available on BBC iPlayer until December 8th).

As the presenter of the excellent Wonders of the Solar System, Cox is ideally positioned to examine the tensions between science and television which, he notes, is “the primary medium for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the non-specialist public” (01:25).

Brian Cox

Brian Cox is Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester

There are, Cox notes, incompatibilities between the goals of science and television; though he is keen to emphasise that these are “occasional” and that he does not subscribe to the model that there are serious deficiencies in TV’s coverage of science. For example, a practising scientist must never have an eye on the audience, which would de facto compromise the impartiality of the process (08:10). In contrast, television must have their viewers (and reviewers) in mind.

Via inclusion of clips of the good (such as Stephen Hawking’s Universe, Inside Nature’s Giants and CBBC’s Space Hoppers, and his favourite ever series Carl Sagan’s Cosmos) and the bad (e.g. London Tonight’s repeated emphasis that Ben Goldacre’s criticism regarding the media’s obsession with neutrality and balance in reporting fears about the safety of the MMR vaccine was only his “personal view”), Cox observed that science and TV mean different things when they talk about something being “controversial”. He believes that it is better to assume the audience has more intelligence than they do and run the risk of leaving them stretched, rather than to repeatedly feeding them a diet of watered-down material.  Presentation of ideas must be central to good quality (science) TV, regardless of the format employed.

The following are Cox’s concluding remarks (33 minutes in):

Firstly, scientific peer review is all important. It’s not possible for a broadcaster to run a parallel peer review structure, but it is possible for the broadcaster to seek out the consensus view of the scientific community. This is the best that can be done, and appropriate weight should be given to it in news reporting.

Documentary is different, because polemic is a valid and necessary part of film-making, but having said that, the audience needs to know whether they are watching opinion or a presentation of the scientific consensus. Whilst I acknowledge that this is extremely difficult to achieve in practice it is something that film-makers and broadcasters must strive to do.

But ultimately, it is my view, the best way to use television to build a scientific community is to make TV programmes that celebrate science, that present the facts accurately, to be sure, but also place up front the beauty, the emotional power and the profound implications of the scientific worldview. Because science is, at its core, a deeply human pursuit. It stems from that most human desire to explore and explain the world around us. It has generated the most amazing facts and figures along with our technological civilisation. Which I see, in some ways, as a spin-off from the scientific project; aircraft, GPS, satellites, the internet, modern medicine, television. These are all applications of the knowledge that we acquired accidentally on our travels through domain of intellectual territory. But for me, the most visceral is achieved when a programme or presenter moves beyond presentation of the facts and figures and places the scientific discoveries in their magnificent context.” (34:50)

A memorial lecture is held each year in the name of Huw Wheldon, former President of the Royal Television Society

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