Science Media Requires Debate. @ProfBrianCox @DrAliceRoberts @jonmbutterworth #sciencemediadebate

Watched Alice Roberts & Brian Cox (with Brian Blessed in tow) in Space, Time and Videotape last night after also watching Episode 5 of Cox’s Human Universe. All in the interests of research you understand, basically I’m not convinced this kind of “science” programming actually advances, or even has much to do with, real science. Interestingly in the Videotape program, the topic of good media-based science communication and education actually comes up as a topic, so it’s possible to use one as a case study of other other.

The 5th episode of Human Universe is about the future, and scientific knowledge we can use to predict it. Leaving aside personal issues of style for now, like previous editions, the mix of words per volume of dramatic visuals and sound-track is extremely low. It feels like maybe 2 sides of A4 actual content in the 40 minutes. Consequently we hear Brian stating the wonderful truths he holds, never explicitly admitting which are opinion (implicitly it’s all his opinion) or offering what science any are based on. No real explanation based on these and never doubting or suggesting even the existence of any serious alternative debate or conjecture, let alone airing any. The only evidence offered is typically technological (archetypically space-travel) and/or lavish graphical simulations (eg of Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way). Together these are simple to present and attention-grabbing, but not science. I already consider this very misleading. But note also, in spite of several references to scientific knowledge allowing us to predict the future, and to plan our human escape from the inevitable demise of our earth, there is no hint of limits to this predictability. Determinism is implied and the choice is simply ours. (Contrast this with Sagan in the later program, illustrating the chaotic nature of multi-body gravitation. Compare also with Burke “explaining” orbital mechanics of earth-moon space-flight – a “dab on the brake-pedal”. This stuff can be done well for the video-media generation.)

When it comes to the Videotape program, it’s interesting despite the fact that some real, scientific heroes are lined-up for the evening ahead, Cox refers to Alice and Brian as his heroes, somewhat devaluing any real scientific heroism I’d say, but anyway, some thoughts on the content of Videotape first:

Early on there is a classic example of conflating technology with science. There is a healthy focus on worlds out there, and the relative position of earth-bound humans in the whole scheme of things (so much more could be said here) but typically, as I say, they choose to show space-flight. A brainless meme. The spaceflight example shown is Apollo 13 – a wonderful story of the risks and heroism of human-geo-spatial exploration – (such a gripping human drama, they even made a feature film of it) – but not one mention of any science. (In fact the film is heroic for engineering more than science I’d say, but then I’m probably biased.) Later when we see James Burke kicking over the remains of the Apollo program (*), we hear him opine that the public thirst for novelty meant that public funding had to move on from supporting more of the same space travel, and that there were really no visible scientific explanations for the technology-assisted exploration programme anyway. So true.

It was excellent to see true examples of science media heroes: Bronowski, Feynman, Sagan, Moore and Burke all feature.

One highly spurious discussion arose. After showing a montage of three Bruno clips – including the impassioned Auschwitz moment, purely for its Cromwellian point on the contingency of believed knowledge – it is noted that he expresses opinion when referring to contentious debate between Gauss and Hayek.  The spurious discussion arising is a (typically tittering) mention of creationism vs evolution. That is not a scientific debate. There are plenty of scientific opinions and debates to be had about evolution, but creationism isn’t one of them. The Dawkins / Wilson differences – on the existence of group and/or multi-level evolutionary mechanisms above solely genes – simply denied as “woolly” by Dawkins – were highly topical, just this weekend. There is real scientific debate, even if Dawkins chooses dogmatic denial.

We see Bruno describing Newton on gravitation, and pointing out that whilst Newton did the elegant simplifying maths, he really did not offer any scientific explanation or hypothesis for gravity itself (nor even for mass). To this day, gravity remains unexplained and full of conjecture at all levels from the sub-quantum to the cosmic. Even with Higgs explaining mass differences in the electro-weak model, mass and gravity are largely unknowns – just look at CMBR patterns in echoes of the big-bang, dark matter & energy explanations of inflation, gravity waves research, and more. Genuinely exciting areas of scientific hypothesis and research.

Brian does admit to an explicit “marketing” agenda – banging the table in search of funding for science and for science media content – mixed in with the desire to educate they share. For me this conflation of science and marketing, in collusion with media’s own “viewing figures” agenda is pretty fundamental to what is currently wrong with the portrayal of science. There are a couple of points where Brian mentions the editorial policies of science programming, and whether he and Alice and fellow modern day science celebrity broadcasters are restricted from exposing differences of scientific opinion. Brian states several times that he sees debate on scientific disagreement as valuable.

For me this is the biggest chink of hope here – that this debate exists.

Earlier, a clip of Burke being interviewed by some (student intellectual?) audience is shown. The point suggested that Burke’s science programs were all hook (gimmicks) and no content (science or scientific explanation) – which incidentally Burke handles very well. This is a large part of my own agenda, though I see the mechanisms as more memetic, than either ignorance (incompetence) or conspiracy (intentional media marketing & science funding collusion) – to be better understood rather than simply criticised. Alice does pick-up again that the effort needed to create science media content and the practical and editorial constraints are considerable, possibly underestimated by their critics. Sadly when this topic arises Alice dismisses it (with more tittering) pointing out that the Burke’s intellectual inquisitor was wearing a cravat, so who was he to accuse of gimmicks. Oh how we laughed. That is not even close to a scientific argument – pure ad-hominem.

It’s ironic that the extremes of physics and the complexities of evolutionary mechanisms are where maximum speculation, contention and debate exists, and therefore where the maximum excitement for ongoing science resides, and yet our top media scientists operate under some editorial or self-imposed taboo (lest those of dogmatic faith spot a weakness) against exposing real science. Let’s ramp-up this debate. Hooks are good, but let’s up the real scientific content.

[Links will be added if debate is taken up.]

[Aside (*) – Earlier in the Burke montage we also see a slo-mo sequence of an Apollo blast-off. Always awe-inspiring, but enhanced by the overlay of two emotive passages from Carmina Burana. It was only 3 weeks ago I made a reference to this Carmina Burana meme, specifically as used by James Burke – in a eulogy / reading at my father’s funeral. A piece of music devalued by over-exposure out of context in popular media. The significance to my father – whose passion was historical maps and exploration on earth – was the human content and language of the piece. which resulted in the piece being very familiar in our household long before it became an overused media meme.]

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