Bishop Hill has taken a thoughtful look at Professor Brian Cox’s Wheldon Lecture on ‘Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy’ here, and Josh’s accompanying cartoon is a joy.

The Wheldon Lectures take place under the auspices of the Royal Television Society, but this one was broadcast by the BBC rather in the manner of a Reith Lecture. I wonder why Cox chose to devote half his time to the way in which climate change should be represented by TV, at a time when the BBC Trust has ordered a review of the Corporation’s science reporting, and why the BBC chose to broadcast it?

39 Responses to “Is this a foretaste of the BBC’s science coverage review?”

  1. Just to say I’m working on transcribing the first part of the lecture and hope to finish it later on this evening.

  2. Jack Hughes,

    Here you are with your acute knowledge of science but you are limited a relatively small audience. Its only us who can read your unpaid words of wisdom

    “Consensus has no role to play in science.”

    On the other hand Brian Cox is young, clever, well educated, at very good looking. Not only have Manchester University made him a Professor, the BBC actually pay him, out of your licence fee, to get it all wrong when he tells us how important the idea of consensus is to scientific progress.

    And he probably gets mobbed by young women whenever he sets foot into a nightclub.

    Life’s just so unfair isn’t it?

  3. Durkin fights back

  4. PeterM #27 Everywhere I go I get mobbed by tempterrain. Who could ask for more?

  5. Here’s a transcript of the lecture from the beginning right until Geoff’s #6. I haven’t transcribed any of the clips, but Prof. Cox’s statement in the third clip that stirred up controversy among the astrologers was when he stated that astrology was “a load of rubbish” and that Jupiter’s influence on our lives is basically the effect of gravity.

    Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility. It was largely protected in the recent Government Spending Review, which speaks not only to its economic value but also to its increasing public profile. And there are many reasons for this. The UK has always been world-leading in science and engineering. And I think the Government now accepts that investment in science is vital to future economic growth. There’s also widespread realisation that the grand challenges of our age, such as climate change and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population for clean water and energy requires scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones.

    So our reliance on science, and crucially the scientific way of thinking has therefore, I would argue, never been greater. Now this places a great responsibility on broadcasters, because television is the primary medium for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the non-specialist public. In a MORI poll conducted in 2004 of adults in the UK aged 16 and above, it was found that 84% received the majority of their information on science from television news, documentaries and other programming.

    So since the continuing health of our science base depends on both public, and therefore Government, support, and a steady flow of excited young people who want to become scientists and engineers, television clearly has a big responsibility to get its science programming right. There are, however, occasional incompatibilities between science and television. And in this lecture, I want to explore how these incompatibilities arise and how they might be avoided, given the importance of television to science. And notice that I use the word “occasional” there, because I don’t want in any way to imply that there have been serious deficiencies in the history of science broadcasting. I simply don’t think that.

    See, for me, television played a key role in making me a scientist. And that’s partly down to the quality of science programming when I was growing up. Now for me, the greatest of them all was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, thirteen hours of lyrically, emotionally engaging, accurate and polemical broadcasting. Now I want to explore each of those adjectives in this lecture, but first let’s take a look at the beginning of Episode One of Cosmos, which for me defines the gold standard to which I personally aspire.

    [Clip from that programme.]

    Who wouldn’t want to be a scientist, if they saw that when they were 12 years old? So, I think the best way to illustrate these “occasional incompatibilities” is to first define what science is. Now this is not easy, in a historical context, because, to put it bluntly, vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of post-modernist philosophers and journalists. But I’m going to ignore all this. Because I concur absolutely with the quote attributed to the prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. He said: “The philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. Now as long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is a statement of the obvious. You see, everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging is down to somebody being curious about the universe, and using the scientific method to investigate it.

    The great English biologist Thomas Huxley summarised it beautifully: “Science is simply common sense at its best – that is, rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic.” Now there is no better practitioner of clarity of thought and explanation than Richard Feynman, who as well as being dismissive of philosophy, when it wandered into the scientific arena, was simultaneously and perhaps uniquely one of the greatest scientists and the greatest communicators of the second half of the 20th century. Here is his description of the simple power of the scientific method, taken from his Messenger Lectures, recorded by the BBC in 1964.

    [Clip from that programme.]

    “If it disagrees with the experiment, it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it”. Here is our first point of potential friction in science programme-making and reporting. Feynman alluded to it by saying: “It doesn’t matter what his name is” – authority. For that matter, the number of people who believe something to be true count for nothing. There are simply statements that are in accord with our observation of nature, and statements that are not. Now how should this rather absolutist-sounding position be reflected in television? Because, you see, television doesn’t have the same aims as science. Science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. Its findings respect no social or political norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it comes to the practice of science, the scientist must never have an eye on the audience, for that would be to fatally compromise the process.

    Now contrast that with television. There are customers, viewers, reviewers, consumers. So television must reflect, to an extent, the majority and minority views of the population. But what if the majority of the population doesn’t share the scientific view? What if the findings of science run contrary to deeply-held beliefs? What if the accepted scientific position might offend some viewers?

    Let me give two examples, one of which is trivial and doesn’t matter at all, and one that matters a great deal. The first comes from my own series Wonders of the Solar System, in which an off-hand but factually correct comment about astrology triggered a bit of a spat between myself and some of our more mystical viewers and the BBC.

    [Clip from that programme.]

    Now that, not surprisingly, triggered various outbursts all over the web and directly to the BBC complaints department, including this particular whinge on an astrology Facebook group that decided to fly the flag for the irrational community and spearhead the fight against reason. It said: “His careless assertion was unresearched, unsubstantiated and unscientific. Has he done any empirical studies? Has he explored his birth chart? I have certainly never seen him at an astrology conference…” (fortunately for me) “… or read anything written by him about astrology. This bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational scientific programme funded by BBC licence payers. BBC guidelines state that astrology must be presented in a balanced way.” That isn’t, by the way, correct. The BBC’s editorial guidelines, fortunately, say no such thing. But how to deal with this? Well, the BBC asked me for a statement and mine was: “I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this New Age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.” It wasn’t issued by the BBC complaints department. Instead they said that the professor’s comments were his own, not those of the BBC, and were based on his belief that there is insufficient evidence to support astrology.

    Now that’s a perfectly reasonable response on the surface. In fact, you could argue that it’s correct because the broadcaster shouldn’t have a view about a faith issue, which is essentially what astrology is. The presenter can have a view and I was allowed to have a view. What I did was present the scientific consensus. I think, however, that the potential problems with broadcasters assuming a totally neutral position here in matters such as this, not particularly in trivial cases like my spat with the astrologers, where it’s clear that perhaps discretion is the better part of valour, but in areas of real import. This illustrates a real point of friction between the scientific view and the imperative for the broadcaster to remain impartial, whilst allowing the presenter or programme-maker to offer a view.

    Now let’s look at a far more important example, the treatment of science in news and current affairs, where accuracy is arguably much more important. The example concerns childhood vaccination, specifically MMR. Now for some reason that utterly mystifies me, the practice of vaccination against disease has itself become controversial. Yet the control and eradication of certain diseases through vaccination is arguably the greatest of all human achievements. The classic example is smallpox, which was eradicated by the mid 1970s through a vaccination programme. Until that point, it had killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone. In this next clip, which we have had to cut down for time reasons, journalist and medical doctor Ben Goldacre responded to an LBC radio phone-in, which he felt led listeners to believe that there may be a problem with the MMR vaccination, despite the fact that there isn’t, and they’d been told that by every scientist they’d ever spoken to.

    [Clip from that programme.]

    Listen to the caveats issued by the presenters there. Here is Dr Goldacre with his personal view about how the media could be putting our children’s lives at risk. The broadcaster is essentially saying that these are only the views of a medical doctor on vaccination, and you are free to ignore them if they offend you or contradict your world view. But the US news anchor Keith Olbermann recently referred to this obsessive preoccupation with perceived balance or impartiality as “worshipping before the false god of utter objectivity”. His point was that by aspiring to be utterly neutral it is easy to obscure the truth. And the BBC’s editorial guidelines state that impartiality is at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audience. I’m sure that very few broadcasters would disagree with that.

  6. PeterM

    Of course, Jack Hughes is absolutely correct when he writes

    “Consensus has no role to play in science.”

    Galileo has been cited in this regard, but I believe that the best recent example (prior to the “dangerous AGW” hysteria) is the case of Alfred Wegener, who was ridiculed by the scientific “consensus” for his “continental drift” hypothesis, which has since led to our understanding of plate tectonics.

    Max

  7. Not spell-checked and unchecked against delivery. It didn’t seem to me that the whole thing had been copied above. I did this last night in a bit of a hurry.

    Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility. It was largely protected in the recent government spending review, which speaks not only to its

    economic value, but also to its increasing public profile.

    Now there are many reasons for this. The UK has always been a world leading in science and engineering. And I think the government now accepts that investment in science is

    vital to future economic growth.

    There’s also widespread realisation that the grand challenges of our age such as climate change, and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population

    for clean water and energy require scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones. *

    So our reliance on science and crucially, the scientific way of thinking has therefore, I would argue, never been greater.

    Now this places an enourmous responsibility on broadcasters. Because television is the primary medium for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the non-specialist

    public.

    In a MORI poll conducted in 2004 of adults in the UK aged 16 and above, it was found that 85% receieved a majority of their information on science from television news,

    documentaries, and other programming.

    So since the continuing health of our science programming depends on the public and therefore government support, and the steady flow of excited young people who want to become

    scientists and engineers, television clearly has a big responsibility to get its science programming right.

    There are, however, occasional incompatibilities between science and television. And in this lecture, I want to explore how these incompatibilities arise, and how they might be

    avoided, given the importance of television to science.

    Notice that I use the word ‘occasional’ there. BEcause I don’t want in any way to imply that there have been serious deficiencies in history of science broadcasting. I simply

    don’t think that.

    See for me, television played a key role in making me a scientist. And that’s partly down to the quality of science programming when I was growing up.

    Now for me, the greatest of them all was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Thirteen hours of lyrically and emotionally engaging and accurate and polemical broadcasting.

    Now I want to explore each of those adjectives in this lecture.

    But first, let’s take a look at the begining of episode one of Cosmos, which for me defines the gold standard to which I personally aspire.

    SAGAN: The cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, that catch in the voice, a faint

    sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. The size and the age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary

    human understanding, lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the earth. For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet

    and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But our species is young and curious and brave. It shows much promise. In the last few millenia, we have made the most

    astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I beleive our future depends powerfully on how well we understand the cosmos in which we float

    like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

    Cox: So who wouldn’t want to be a scientist if they saw that when they were twelve years old?

    I think the best way to illustrate these occasional incompatibilities is to first define what science is.

    Now this is not easy in a historical context, because to put it bluntly, vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of postmodernist philosophers and

    journalists.

    But I’m going to ignore all this, because I concur absolutely with the quote attributed to the Nobel-prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman. He said the philosophy of science

    is about as useful to scientists as ornothology is to birds. To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe.

    Now as long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is a statement of the obvious. See everything we take for granted in the modern world, from

    atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to

    investigate it.

    The great English biologist, Thomas Huxley summarised it beautifully. Science is simply common sense at its best. That is rigedly accurate in obervation, and merciless to

    fallacy in logic. Now there is no better practicioner of clarity of thought and explanation than Richard Feynman, who as well as being dismissive of philosophy when it wandered

    into the scientific arena, was simultaneously and perhaps uniquely one of the greatest scientists and the greatest communicators of the second half of the twentieth century.

    Here is his description of the simple power of the scientific method. Taken from his Messenger lectures recorded by the BBC in 1964.

    Feynman: Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then… Now don’t laugh, it’s

    realy true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what, if this is right, to see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results to nature. Or

    we say compare to experiment, or experiment or experience. Compare it directly with observation to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple

    statement, is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It doens’t make any difference how smart you are. Who made the guess, or what his

    name is, if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

    If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. I shouldn’t do impressions. But that’s all there is to it. Here is our first potential point of friction in science programme

    making and reporting. And Feynman alluded to it by saying it doesn’t matter what his name is. Authority, or for that matter, the number of people who beleive something to be

    true, counts for nothing. There are simply statements that are in accord with our observation of nature, or there are statements that are not.

    Now how should this rather absolutist-sounding position be reflected in television? Now you see, television doesn’t have the same aims as science. Science is simply the process

    by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. It’s findings reflect no social or political norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it comes to the

    practice of science, the scientists must never have an eye on the audience. For that would be to fatally compromise the process.

    Now contrast that with television. There are customers, viewers, reviewers, consumers… So television must reflect, to an extent, the majority and minority views of the

    population. But what if the majority of the population doesn’t share the scientific view? What if the findings of science run contrary to deeply-held beleifs? What if the

    accepted scientific position might offend some viewers?

    Let me give two examples, one of which is trivial, and doesn’t matter at all, and one that matters a great deal.

    The first comes from my own series, Wonders of the Solar System, in which an off-hand but factually correct comment about astrology triggered a bit of a spat between myself,

    some of our more mystical viewers, and the BBC.

    COX: Now astrologists have said said for years that Jupiter influences our lives. But we now have scientific evidence that this mighty planet does have a significant connection

    with our own small world. Jupiter is so different to our planet, you know, a big ball of gas, half a billion kilometers away. It’s difficult to see how it could have anything

    to do with us at all. But dispite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can in fact, have a profound influence on our planet. And it’s through a force that

    surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. Gravuty.

    Now that, unsurprisingly triggered outbursts all over the web, and directly to the BBC complaints department, including this particular whinge on an astrology facebook group

    that decided to fly the flag for the irrational community and spearhead the fight against reason. It said,

    FACEBOOK GROUP: His careless asserion was unresearched, unsubstantiated and unscientific. Has he done any empirical studies? Has he explored his birth chart? … I have

    certainly never seen him at an astrology conference or read anything written by him about astrology… This bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational

    scientific programme funded by BBC licence payers. BBC guidelines state that astrology must be presented in a balanced way.

    That isn’t, by the way, correct. The BBC’s editorial guidelines fortuneately say no such thing. But how to deal with this?

    Well the BBC asked me for a statement, and mine was, ‘I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is

    undermining the very fabric of our civilisation’. IT wasn’t issued by the BBC’s complaints department. Instead, they said that ‘the professor’s comments were his own, not those

    of the BBC and were based on his belief that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support astrology’.

    Now, that’s a perfectly reasonable response on the surface. In fact, you could argue that it’s correct. Because a broadcaster shouldn’t have a view about a faith issue which is

    essentially what astrology is. The presenter can have a view, and I was allowed to have a view. What I did was present the scientific consensus.

    I think, however, that there are potential problems with broadcasters assuming a totally neutral position in matters such as this. Not particularly in trivial cases, like my

    spat with the astrologers where it’s clear that perhaps discretion was the better part of valour. But in areas of real import.

    This illustrates a real point of friction between the scientific view and the imperative for the broadcaster to remain impatial whilst allowing the presenter or programme-maker

    to offer a view.

    Now let’s look at a far more important example. The treatment of science in news and current affairs where accuracy is much more important. The example concerns childhood

    vaccination. Specifically MMR. Now for some reason that utterly mystifies me, the practice of vaccination against disease has itself become controversial. Yet the control and

    eradication of certain diseases through vaccination is arguably the greatest of all human acheivements. The classic example is smallpox, which was eradicated by the mid 1970s

    through a vaccination programme. Until that point it had killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

    In this next clip, which we have had to cut down for time reasons, journalist and medical doctor, Ben Goldacre responded to and LBC Radio phone-in, which he felt led listeners

    to beleive there may be a problem with the MMR vaccination despite the fact that there isn’t and they’ve been told that by every scientist they’d ever spoken to.

    FEMALE NEWS ANCHOR: Since a possible link between autism and MMR was first reported ten years ago, immunisation rates in London have plummeted and outbreaks of measles and

    mumps have been on the rise.

    MALE NEWS ANCHOR: So, here is Dr Goldacre with his personal view of how the media could be putting our children at risk.

    BEN GOLDACRE: Now debate’s good. But this was conspiracy theory and ignorance. The pharmaceutical industry have certainly been guilty of cover-ups. But MMR just isn’t one of

    them. And it’s not as if scientists have ignored the question. Researchers in Denmark looked at half a million children. 400,000 had MMR. 100,000 didn’t. And yet the rates of

    autism was the same in both groups. You’ve not heard about research like this, because the media chose not to cover the evidence that goes against their scare story. I can’t

    blame parents for being terrified. Evidence-based medicine — the science of how we know if something’s good for us, or bad for us — is fascinating. It’s easy to understand.

    And I think the public deserve thge chance to hear about these ideas.

    MALE NEWS ANCHOR: The personal view there, of Dr Ben Goldacre, who has some pretty strong feelings about the media’s take on medical stories including some that we ourselves

    have reported on and it is a message for all of us in our profession to be mindful of, and we are happy so to be.

    See, listen to the caveats issued by the presenters there. Here is Dr Goldacre with his personal view about how the media could be putting our childrens’ lives at risk. The

    broadcaster is essentially saying that these are the views of a medical doctor on vaccination, and you’re free to ignore them if the offend you or contradict your world view.

    The US news anchor, Keith Olbermann recently referred to this obsessive preoccupation with perceived balance or impartiality as worshipping before the false god of utter

    objectivity. His point that was by aspiring to be utterly neutral, it is easy to obscure the truth. And the BBC’s editorial guidelines state that impartiality is at the heart

    of public service and is at the core of its commitment to its audience.

    I’m sure that very few broadcasters would disagree with that.

    Now it’s of course recognised that you can’t give airtime to every contrarian on the planet. But there are areas which, for television are clearly controversial. Areas in which

    there is a high level of public debate, for example, such as genetically-modified organisms. In such cases, presenting the opposite point of view would seem to be an

    overrriding imperative. And here is a real clash between broadcasting and science. Because ‘controversial’ means different things to a scientist and to a broadcaster.

    In science, we have a well-definted process for deciding what is mainstream and what is controversial. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with how many people beleive

    something to be true or not. It’s called peer-review. And peer-review is a very simple and quite often brutal process by which any claim that is submitted for publication in a

    scientific journal is scrutinised by independent experts whose job it is to find the flaws. Only when they are convinced that there are no errors in the experimental procedure,

    or the theoretical reasoning can this paper be published. The paper then becomes part of what is known as the scientific literature. The job of other scientists is then to read

    the paper, and in general try to falsify it or to agree with it by repeating the same experiment, or proposing a new test to challenge or verify the conclusions. This is how

    science procedes, And it works. This is the method that has delivered the modern world. It’s good. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the current scientific consensus is of

    course correct. But it does in general mean that the consensus in the scientific literature is the best that can be done given the available data.

    Therefore, I contend that ‘controversial’ in science broadcasting should be defined in the same way that it is in science. That is, a controversial view is not one that runs

    counter to public opinion, but one that runs counter to the current scientific peer-reviewed consensus.

    This means that the most objective and impatial presentation of the so-called contentious story, such as MMR, climate change, astrology, or even the so-called evolution debate

    iis to give significantly more weight to the scientifically peer-reviewed position. BEcause this will leave the audience with the more truthful view of the current thinking.

    Now you may see there that I’m redefining what impartiality means. But the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impatial. To leave the audience with this particular kind of

    impartial view is desperately important. We’re dealing with the issues of the life and death of our children and the future of our climate. And the way to deal with this is not

    ot be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase from a famous news outlet, but to report and explain the peer-reviewed scientific consensus accurately.

    So for me the challenge for the science reporter in scientific news is easily met. Report the peer-reviewed consensus and avoid the maverick, eccentric at all costs.

    So the challenge for the documentary film maker is different and more complex. Because documentaries serve a wider range of purposes. There are documentaries that deal with

    politically-contensious issues, much like news. And there are films like my own Wonders of the solar system, that on the face of it is far less controversial because they deal

    with less politicised subjects. There are in other words, many kinds of documentary film. And of course it’s entirely legitimate for them to be polemical. Indeed, one of the

    reasons broadcasters often invite professional scientists ratehr than professional presenters to front documentaries is that they have opinions and present them in a forceful

    way.

    So how does this fit with the demands of impartiality as I have defined or re-defined them for news? PErhaps the most contentious issue of the moment is climate change. This is

    where the point of friction is made most vivid.

    [TGGWS INTRO]

    The beggining of MArtin Durkin’s highly controversial documentary, the Great Global Warming Swindle, broadcast on Channel 4.

    Now what is there to say about this film, which is in my opinion, factually total bollocks, of course? OFCOM had plenty to say. That there was a ruling upholding a complaint

    about the misrepresentation of a contributor; and that the final third had broken rules of due impartiality on matters of major political and industrial controversy and major

    matters relating to public policy. But I’m not entirely sure what due impartiality means. As I argued at the start of this lecture, impartiality can be misleading. If this film

    is a polemic, along the lines of Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, or the work of Michael Moore, then I would argue that this is not only fine, but valuable. In fact, in

    these terms, I quite enjoyed it. It raised interesting questions about insitutional power and the politicisation of science. And even though I don’t agree with the point of

    view expressed in the film, I would defend the right of the film maker absolutely to express an opinion. This is the life-blood of democracy. As John Stuart Mill wrote, ‘We can

    never be sure that the opinion that we’re endevouring to stifle is a false opinion, and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still’.

    But it is clear to the audience that the Great Global warming swindle is polemic? The continuity announcement on channel 4 before the film was broadcast did describe it as a

    though-provoking and controversial documentary from the film-maker Martin Durkin. but nowhere in the film is it implied that it’s an authored piece. Nor is there a presenter

    which might go some way to flagging its polemical nature to the audience. Although some presenters, maybe Sir David Attenborough or David Dimbleby are so trusted that there may

    be issues there too. When I watched it, I immediately knew that it was making no claims to be a balanced scientific documentary. You know immediately from the off what you’re

    going to get. ‘Don’t be scared’ it says. ‘It’s not true’, just 20 seconds in.

    But if you know very little about climate science, how are you to make up your mind?

    Well, let me knowingly over-simplify a complex area and try to summarise the issue in a simple question. What is the difference between a polemic and a documentary?

    To answer this question is to make a very significant value-judgement on the content of the programme of course. One person’s balanced and impartial piece of television is

    another’s polemical cack. This is, I would contend, the same issue we met earlier, when we were considering news reporting. My solution therefore has to be the same. The only

    possible way to tell the difference between a polemic and a documentary is to appeal to scientific peer-review.

    Now I’m aware that this sounds far more controversial than for the case of news reporting, but to me it is where the logic of my argument leads.

    So I’ve drawn a distinction between a scientific documentary and a polemic based on peer-review. The programme that deviates significantly from the scientific consensus should

    flag this somehow. Perhaps it must say ‘a personal view’, or ‘a film made by…’ at the start. And this is of course what ITN did to Ben Goldacre, and I don’t think it was okay

    then. But only because he was reflecting the peer-reviewed scientific consensus.

    Now I confess to having reservations about this conclusion, because although it makes sense, it does sound rather authoritarian. As George ORwell wrote in 1984, ‘day by day and

    almost minute by minute, the past was brought up to date. In this way, every prediction made by the party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct. Nor was

    any item of news, or any expression of opinion which conflicted with the needs of the moment ever allowed to remain on record.

    Have I been led to an ORwellian conclusion? I don’t know? But what I can do is offer an example where I think the film maker has got the balance right by flagging the

    difference very clearly between the scientific consensus and the opinion of the presenter.

    IAIN STEWART: It would have been lovely to have made a programme about how science had got it all wrong. That actually we’ve got nothing to worry about. But unfortunately it’s

    the opposite. Most of the climate scientists I talked to are actually genuinely scared by the future. They’re worried that it’s in the nature of the climate to chaneg far

    faster than we once thought possible. And my feeling is, if they’re scared, so should we be. Because whatever the uncertainties surrounding climate prediction, the fundamental

    science is pretty clear. We may not know exactly what global warming will bring, but we sure as hell know it’s happening. There’s just no hiding place from that simple fact.

    And of course what it means for us an our families, well, that’s a different matter. But if I’ve learned one thing in this series, it’s that the stakes are so high, doing

    nothing simply isn’t an option.

    See in that clip, Iain Stewart delivered a message, and I think he walked a fine line with great skill. See my view of the so-called controversy about climate change isn’t

    really about the scientific data no matter what the climate sceptics think. As Iain Stewart says, the consensus is clear. The real controversy is political, and centers on the

    question “what is to be done”. Should we increase tax on oil? Should we not build a third runway at heathrow? Should we build more nuclear power stations? Or wind turbines?

    Should we risk damaging our economy in the short term by reducing CO2 emmissions quickly? Or should we continue to persue economic growth at all costs, and seek a more market-

    oriented solution to climate change? These are complex questions, the answers to which often divide down political lines. But I think Iain Stewart navigates these trecherous

    waters well, because he remains true to the science, and true to television. And he does this by drawing a clear distinction in the viewers mind, between the peer-reviewed

    science and his opinion. This for me is best practice. And it’s probably the best we can hope for if we’re to avoid the Orwellian nightmare of winning the victory over

    ourselves and loving big brother.

    I began this lecture by stating my view about the importance of science. And I’ve discuss two areas where, I think there can be tension between television and science. In this

    final part, I’d like to highlight the fact that, despite what I’ve termed occasional difficulties, the agenda of scientists such as myself, who is interested in communicating

    science to a wide audience, overlaps very significantly with the agenda of the broadcaster.

    See the key question for me is — and let’s not be modest about this — given that I beleive the future of the UK economy and indeed the future of our civilisation depends on

    the widespread acceptance of science and its methods, how do I attract as large an audience as possible whilst remaining absolutely true to the science? These objectives are

    entirely compaitble. Because it’s my view that the true beauty, and therefire the attractiveness of science is only available when its presented accurately. how can it help the

    audience to understand an appreciate something if you skip over necessary information in the misguided cause of simplification? Science is compelling, but only if you have the

    facts in front of you. The trick of course is finding the most effective contemporary means to deliver this message, and this is not, as a physicist would say, time-invarient.

    In other words, the techniques of television: the use of music, the speed of cuts, the use of graphics, change with the years, perhaps following audience expectations, perhaps

    leading them. It’s always tempting to gaze backwards to an imagined golden age — probably the television you watched when you were ten or twelve years old — and bemoan the

    inevitable evolution in presentation and editorial style.

    Here are three contemporary approaches that have been succesful. High end graphics from channel 4’s steven hawking’s universe. A vicersally real demonstration of the natural

    world in the BAFTA-winning Inside Nature’s Giants and a fact-filled and funny description of the planet saturn in CBBC’s Space Hoppers.

    [CLIPS]

    These clips demonstrate that quality shines brightly through technique, whether landmark or childrens’ TV. The presentation of ideas must sit at the heart of great TV. And that

    can work in a variety of styles. My personal view, particularly when communicating complex ideas, is that simplicity of explanation is probably best. In my programmes I feel

    that I can bring the audience with me on a complex scientific poitn, if I sit down and explain the science as best I can. I also belive that the practice of trying to say

    aboslutely nothing that the audience may find remotely difficult is simply wrong. You see for me, it’s far better to leave the audience with a few questions, rather than have

    them led gently by the hand gently through a concept and then repeat that concept again in a slow deep voice in voice over, and then repeat it again in vision just to make

    sure. If in doubt, my view is it’s better to credit the audience with too much intelligence rather than too little. Challenge your audience a bit, and they will respond. This

    is certainly true in teaching an lecturing so why shouldn’t it be true in TV as well?

    This next clip from Wonders of the Solar System is an example of how I did my best to describe a difficult concept in vision without any infographics at all. And we thought

    long and hard about how to explain the strange looping motion of mars as viewed from earth — a notorious phenomena to understand. And the graphic you see in the clip is an

    animation of actual photographs of Mars taken on several nights throughout the year.

    [CLIP]

    So what are my conclusions about the challenges of presenting science on television?

    Well, 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 form of film making. But having said that, the audience needs to know whether they’re watching opinion, or a

    presentation of the scientific consensus. And whilst I acknowledge that this is extremely difficult to acheive in practice, it is something that broadcasters and film makers

    must strive to do.

    But ultimately, it is my view that the best way to use television to build a more scientific world is to make TV programmes that celebrate science. That present the facts

    accurately, to be sure, but also plays up front the beauty, emotional power, and profound implications of the scientific world view.

    BEcause science is at its core a deeply human persuit. IT stems from that most human desire: to explain and explore 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. You know, aircraft, GPS sattellites, the internet,

    modern medicine, television. These are all applications of the knowledge we aquired accidently on our travels through an ever-expanding domain of intellectual territory.

    But for me, the most visceral connection with the audience is acheived when a prorgamme or presenter moves beyond a presentation of the facts and fogures and places the

    scientific discoversies in their magnificent context. Nobody did this better than Carl Sagan, And so I make no apology for returning to Cosmos — the greatest scientific

    television series ever made — to end this lecture.

    We’re about to see the final scene from the final episode of Cosmos, in which Sagan describes what our discoeries about the universe, our place within it, and our origins out

    there amongst the stars actually mean for us, a young civilisation confined for now on a tiny world, a mote of dust as Sagan would say, orbiting one of hundreds of billions of

    stars, inside one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. Now Carl Sagan has just told the story of human evolution. Not from the begining of life on Earth, but from the first few

    minutes in the life of the universe, when the Cosmos only consisted of hydrogen and helium, the two simplest chemical elements. Every step along the road from hydrogen to

    humans is fascinating in itself. But Sagan goes further by contextualising the science and crucially for me, using the scientific story to draw profound conclusions about our

    responsibility to ourselves, our planet, and ultimately the cosmos itself.

    This is not only science television at its best, it is television at its best: relevent, educational, powerful, and profoundly moving.

  8. I think between us all, Tony has definitely got the entire thing now – just needs assembling and tidying up!

    There’s a response by Martin Durkin to Brian Cox here on James Delingpole’s blog (h/t Bishop Hill.)

  9. Many thanks Alex and Ben. I’ve plugged our work at BishopHill, as has Jack Hughes. I also mentioned it at the Delingpole / Durkin article, but my comment got lost in the flame wars, so if anyone else would like to bring it to the attention of Dellers…
    This tendency to argue from video clips is disturbing, especially if it’s fronted by media stars. It started to my knowledge last June with Monbiot in the Guardian praising one John Abraham for his demolition of a talk by Monckton. Abraham’s “brilliant” demolition existed in the form of an 83 minute audio clip. I started transcribing it on the comments to the Monbiot article, but no-one seemed interested, so I gave up, ad soon after got banned from commenting.
    Abraham’s demolition was rubbish, but he got the publicity he needed, and turned up as co-author of an article in “Nature”, and is now the spearhead of the “rapid reaction team” which Tony mentioned in comment #39 on the Monbiot thread. Monbiot has had three articles praising his incisive arguments which exist only in the form of an hour-and-a-half ramble. This appears to be a new version of the argument from authority – “Argumentum ad Youtube”, knowing, or hoping, that no-one will have the patience to unravel the argument.
    I hope our effort was worth it. It was only a few hours’ work, after all. Luther had to translate the whole Bible into German to make any waves.

  10. Alex, Geoff and Ben:

    Later today I’ll try to stitch together a complete transcription of Cox’s lecture from the available versions as a .pdf or Word .doc for download.

  11. Thanks to Alex Cull, Geoff Chambers and Ben Pile for vast amount of work that they have put into transcribing Professor Brian Cox’s Wheldon lecture. The two versions can be found here if you want to download them, but bear in mind that I have not yet checked them in any way.

    Geoff and Alex

    Ben Pile

    Tomorrow I’ll check the transcripts against the sound-track and may then put up a third version.

    This is valuable work and if it seems that the issues raised by the lecture are not being taken any further at the moment don’t be misled. This story is by no means over yet.

  12. Meanwhile…

    TomChivers by AdamRutherford
    A piece about science on television, in which I disgracefully brown-nose @adamrutherford and @profbriancox http://bit.ly/eHguOc

  13. The two recent BBC programmes about climate scepticism (“Science Under Attack” a Horizon programme fronted by Sir Paul Nurse, and Rupert Murray’s “Meet the Climate Sceptics” – both of which have been widely discussed at Climate Resistance, Bishop Hill and elsewhere) raise interesting questions with respect to the BBC’s forthcoming Science Review, which is due out this spring. Both programmes took terrible liberties with normal journalistic treatment of science; and both interviewed the arch sceptic blogger James Delingpole, thus indirectly acknowledging the importance of blogs in the media treatment of climate change.
    It will therefore be interesting to see the importance accorded to blogs in the science review, and in particular the attention paid to the submissions of TonyN and Andrew Montford.

  14. A long post about the Nurse programme will be going up tomorrow morning. I’v taken time to do this as I think that ‘Science Under Attack’ may turn out to be an important marker in the climate debate.

    Geoff:

    So far as our submission to the science review is concerned, I suspect that it will only make an appearance if the BBC can find a bit that they can quote out of context so that it makes us sound like nutters, and the blogs will either be written off as irrelevant or ignored.

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