Sunday, 19 September 2010

A letter to the BBC, about Science Reporting

For the background to this article, please see Prof. David Colquhoun's brilliant (and genuine) post regarding the BBC asking for comments regarding their science reporting.

What follows is my effort, which I emailed and which may ruin everything. I did say it wasn't meant to be taken literally, but still. Ah well...


Dear BBC

I was recently informed that you are, whether by choice or inadvertently, soliciting opinion regarding science reporting on the BBC. No doubt you have received several well informed and articulate observations from a variety of expert science bloggers, and I would wholeheartedly recommend you to take their advice on board.

Admittedly, if you don’t there is nothing significant I can do about it apart from withhold my license fee, in which case I’ll be severely fined or jailed, neither of which really seem like preferable options to ‘crap science coverage’, if I’m totally honest. You’ve got me over a barrel before I even start, so any threats would be completely empty. So I won’t bother.

Although technically I am regarded as a Science blogger, I’d describe myself as more of a science humour writer if I was forced to give a title to whatever it is I spend my time doing for the amusement of strangers. As such, my following recommendations will be posted on my blog which people still keep reading for no discernible reason and are FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY. Feel free to consider them by any means, but if you do and it turns out to be a bad idea, then I’m covered. I’m aware that this is a weasely trick, allowing me to make wild claims and influence your behaviour while removing all accountability on my part. I got the idea from watching the programmes featuring psychics.

Here are my concerns regarding Science reporting with the BBC.

BALANCE: The primary and most pressing concern regarding BBC science reporting is the obsession with ‘balance’, and no doubt others who have contacted you will say the same. Although it is understandable to present opposing viewpoints in a news story of concern, the extent to which this is done regarding science stories is completely baffling. Actual scientists train for years in order to earn the right to be described as such, they don’t have to have just printed a business card themselves after reading a book about how pretty rocks give you better Karmic enemas or the like. Two such individuals should not be given equal time to express their views on an important subject.

In an ideal world, the amount of time given to an individual arguing a specific viewpoint or opinion should be directly proportional to the evidence they can muster to support their claims. In this instance, two scientists arguing the pros and cons of a new experimental drug would have equal time to get their point across. However, in the case of contentious subjects like alternative medicine or climate change, the qualified scientist would be able to deliver a 5+ hour monologue on the subject and the basis for his views, whereas arguments from pseudoscientists or climate change deniers would be like that bit in Fight Club where Brad Pit’s character splices single frames of pornography into children’s films at the cinema; We’d get the occasional flash which is too brief to actually recognise, but causes a subconscious feeling of unease.

Failing this, if the dedication to ‘balance’ is to be maintained, then logically it should be applied to all areas of reporting. Every political debate should not be limited to the major parties with the possible addition of an extra one, but should include the input from every person involved with politics with a differing opinion. We have a chap in Cardiff who keeps running for political office under the name of ‘Captain Beany’. I would very much like to hear his position on the upcoming economic cuts or the stability of the housing market.

At the very least, every news report (including natural disasters or major terrorist incidents) should give equal time to someone pointlessly claiming that the events being discussed never happened, based on the argument that they weren’t there to observe them. You may think this is ridiculous, but you’re the ones who seem to think anecdotal evidence is just as valid as the actual kind.

PEOPLE’S ‘INPUT’: I have no problem with people, I am one. And as a broadcasting corporation, the approval of the people who fund you is obviously important to you. However, when it comes to science reporting, I don’t really care what people think, unless the science in question is based on theories about what people think. This reflects back to the balance issue discussed previously, but it is understandable that you want to represent the views and opinion of the licence paying public, but that isn’t how science works.

People may pay their license fees, but this does not mean their opinions carry equal weight on subjects outside of their areas of expertise/interest. Science and the NHS are also funded by the taxes people pay, but you don’t see Mary (Accountant, Stoke-on Trent) performing major heart surgery, or Brian (Plumber, Grantham) having a go on the advanced particle accelerators, purely because they help fund these things. Because that would be mad.

This goes for the supposed ‘balance’ when presenting pseudoscientific arguments; it’s obvious that many people believe in things like homeopathy and acupuncture, but why must they be catered for to such an extent? A lot more people are technically overweight, but I have yet to see a programme called ‘Being Fat is Fabulous (with James Corden)’, or something like that. Plenty of shows like Jamie’s school dinners where unhealthy eating is criticised and borderline mocked. If overweight people want respect and consideration, they should start banging on about the magical healing properties of water that’s been slapped around a bit? This is a bizarre system to operate under.

Involving the general public in science programmes that are nothing to do with them does not reflect science or it’s workings and could be viewed as a cynical attempt to avoid doing research and pandering to the wider audiences. The general public shouldn’t be involved with science on TV, unless it’s a programme about Sociology, although the jury’s still out on whether that is actually a science*

HAIR: As is the case with most fields, I notice that the BBC has several ‘big names’ when it comes to reporting science; Hawking, Dawkins and Attenborough, mainly.

(n.b. ‘Hawking, Dawkins and Attenborough sounds like an excellent title for a comedy/drama series where the three of them have to travel the country solving science-related crimes and getting into various scrapes, sort of like ‘Big Bang theory’ meets ‘The A-team’. If this ends up being made, I expect a percentage of the royalties)

As brilliant and inspiring as these people can be, I notice a disturbing trend in their promotion to leaders of science; they each embody the ‘elaborate white hair’ look of a stereotypical scientist (although given Hawking’s physical condition, I’ll assume he doesn’t have much say or choice in his style). Although there is nothing wrong with this hairstyle, when taken in conjunction with other big-name scientists such as Simon ‘Pineapple’ Singh, Ben ‘Curly’ Goldacre, Brian ‘looks a bit like a mullet’ Cox and Robert ‘Gene Shalit’ Winston**, it shows a worrying bias against a very common type of male scientist; bald ones! As someone who expects to be a bald scientist myself very soon, I find this follicle-based discrimination quite alarming.

FASHION: Although I see a number of stories related to my area of expertise Neuroscience, this is to be expected as it is by far the coolest of all sciences. But other sciences are equally as important (but not as cool), so it is perhaps not fair to feature programmes and articles related to only to what the general public would find the more interesting. A greater range of sciences should be given more public exposure. Here are some possible titles.

· Pile-on the Nylon: an in-depth look at synthetic molecules (with James Corden)

· How now, Brown Cow?: an investigation into the impacts of technological developments of the last 50 years on the process of intensive farming (with Vernon Kay).

· Winning Smiles: The ins-and-outs of standard dental procedures, featuring a contest where contestants answer questions based on what happens in the show in order to win the ability to jump to the head of an NHS dentist waiting list (with Jonathon Ross)

· Text-tiles: interactive programme where viewers can text/email questions to a panel of leading experts in the field of construction and durable materials (with Ulrika Jonsson)

· Bother Down Below: A celebrity develops serious haemorrhoids and then goes undercover to reveal what really goes on in a typical proctology clinic (with James Corden)

‘FILLER’ SCIENTISTS: Although all scientists have trained to earn their titles, some are less credible than others. These scientists shouldn’t be treated with the same respect as others, lest it give the impression that their views are highly valued in the scientific community when they are in fact figures of ridicule.

Over the past year alone, BBC Scotland’s prestigious ‘Fred McCauley Show’ has had a guest ‘scientist’ to discuss topical issues they knew nothing about, and the BBC Radio programme ‘Moments of Genius’ even had no-name scientific wannabes making contributions alongside individuals such as Attenborough, Fry, Winston and Goldacre. This is not a wise use of license-payer’s money ***

I hope you will consider my comments carefully before rejecting them completely, which you really should do eventually.

Yours Sincerely


Dr Dean Burnett

* = It is, I’m just kidding. Honest!

** = All these people are brilliant and their hair is well good and that, my comments are fuelled by the burning resentment harboured by all this with significantly receding hairlines.

*** = Yeah, it was me on each occasion.

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1 comment:

henstridgesj said...

Excellent! I can't see how the BBC will not take these ideas on board.

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