Saturday, 9 February 2013

Science on the Telly

Hurrah for Sir David Attenborough.  In a benighted world, he still calmly presents the facts of life in his wonderfully honest and sincere voice (easily the nicest voice in the world, after perhaps Ian McKellen’s Gandalf).  This is good, as the rest of the telly-world seems bent on providing mis-information, dogma and foolishness.  ‘Science’ is the abstract noun that gets the most punishment.  For whatever reason, the realm of science is treated as just that by the media – a fairytale kingdom, unknowable to the masses, and only really comprehended by a lucky few who possess the magical properties required, like jumping into an enchanted lake or breaking the back off a wardrobe.  ‘Science’ is a mystery, a bizarre concoction that seems to consist of huge, blinking machines, intimidating men and women wearing goggles and looking stern, huge explosions and Brian Cox.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in a recent episode of The Year of Making Love – a deeply misguided TV ‘experiment’ that attempts to prove that ‘science’ can match people up and make them fall in love.  Now, at first glance I thought this meant they would take people’s initials, plonk them on the periodic table and set them up that way (‘So, Annette Goon – you’re paired up with Alec Umbrella, and what a beautiful sight they are together!’).  But no.  The ‘science’ that is so mystically invoked by the utterly unlikeable Cherry Healy is, in fact, a few questionnaires, compiled by a couple of boffins who calculate what people’s hobbies are, and match them up that way.  If this is science, then so is putting forks in the correct section of your cutlery drawer.  There was nothing remotely scientific about the approach taken in the programme.  There was no concern at all about the incredible number of variables at work in this experiment, or the terribly subjective nature of the ‘scientists’, who shrieked happily whenever a couple were first introduced: “Ooh look, they’re smiling! They’re going to get on just fine; oh, these don’t look happy – look, he’s not impressed by her webbed fingers at all – this won’t end well”.  Hardly an unbiased observation.  The impact of having a camera crew slavishly follow these poor singletons on their dreadful dates  wasn’t considered at all.  I always thought science was about minimising the intrusion of the observer; having a camera lens right in your face when trying to enjoy crème brulee in a gastropub with someone you’ve just met doesn’t really suggest CERN levels of scientific rigour when testing their likelihood of getting all sexy.

But I could put up with all of this foolishness if the programme didn’t keep insisting it was all deeply ‘scientific’.  It got so deluded that it put me in mind of a crazed drunkard sobbing that he is really sober, whilst miserably urinating all over his duvet and staring, teary- and bleary-eyed at a photo of his dead dog.  ‘Remember’, Healy says, ‘that science has put these two together’.  Even the pudding-faced contestants kept insisting that their romantic successes and failures were all down to ‘science’, as if this was simply the name of the lead researcher.  Perhaps it is.

Hearing it so often ends up having a powerful effect.  There will be people who believe that it has now been proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that science can hook people up. To most, this will suggest that potions, or weird blinking machines can act as cupid.  They will take this misapprehension to the grave.  Yes indeed, it’s fine when it’s about something as ephemeral and pointless as this TV programme, but when the same thing occurs with science that matters, such as inoculation or nutrition  (read anything by Ben Goldacre to find out just what kind of egregious misinformation is out there) then we surely have to blow the whistle and demand that science is taken more seriously.  Surely?

People could argue that Brian Cox is the perfect saviour of this grim situation, but I would have to disagree.  His new series, Wonders of Life, is an exploration of biology by a physicist - odd and not altogether helpful, but then what do I know?  Maybe cross-discipline stuff is all the rage now.  Maybe I should start designing skyscrapers or performing brain surgery for a giggle.   But my real problem with this show is the man himself.  He's being hailed as the natural successor to both Attenborough and Patrick Moore.  How dare these faceless folk suggest such a thing?  If Brian Cox ends up 'replacing' Attenborough once he's gone (after what I hope would be the most wonderfully extravagant and beautiful state funeral humanity has ever seen) then I will set fire to my television and sit in a corner, grumpy, for the rest of my life.  He's just too there.  Here's a zebra, look at it's pretty stripes and happy face.  But wait, Brian Cox is standing right in front of it, gurning and bubbling like a moron about how awesome it all is.  Too much effervescence, too little information and far too much of Brian Cox's face.  Attenborough only rarely pops up to speak to us face-to-face, and that's the right way to be.  Cox just can't get enough of his own teeth on TV, and that's to our detriment.

We need proper, informative, classy science shows on the TV; all else is just fluff. 

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