The BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon, is half a century old this year. To celebrate, the Beeb has put seventeen Horizon episodes from the archive online (though these may not be viewable outside the UK). The episodes have been chosen by Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. Introducing the series, Roberts explains,
It’s fascinating to look at Horizon over its five decades, and to see how the tone of the series changed, reflecting shifting attitudes towards science and technology. The programmes from the 1960s presented a self-assured and optimistic vision of the contribution of scientists and science to society. By the 1970s, the tone had changed, reflecting a growing concern for the environment, and scepticism about science as the answer to all humanity’s problems. In fact, there’s a real sense that technology might even have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. In Now The Chips Are Down (1978), the invention of the silicon microchip was seen as a threat to jobs: people were about to be replaced by machines.
Roberts makes an interesting point, and one that is made here. The optimism and technological progress of the sixties gave way to a deep pessimism about the future. And it was between these two decades that environmentalism was born. In 1971, an episode of Horizon called ‘Due to Lack of Interest, Tomorrow has been Cancelled’ was broadcast. The film is not available online, though the BBC’s interactive e-book available for Android devices, Kindle Fire, iPad, (Be warned – the ebook is huge, and will eat up a lot of data space and allowance) has a clip from the episode, and a short comment from Professor Iain Stewart, who readers will remember from the awful ‘Earth: Climate Wars’ series back in 2008. However, all we need to know about that episode is this blurb from the BFI.
Looks at the predictions of ecological disaster made by certain scientists, such as Prof. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, and examines the extent of the problem and the amount that can and is being done to combat it
Stewart makes the claim that in the 1970s, this was ground-breaking stuff, new to the mainstream. However, the following film made for the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment demonstrates that the environmental movement (such as it was) had mustered political momentum amongst the global political class, not even a year later. The film shows that the environmentalists’ script has not changed in four decades, though fashion and video technology have.
The persistence of that unchanging narrative is one of the most frustrating things about debates about the environment. That’s not to say that Environmental problems do not exist, but that just as there is a difference between a problem such as stubbing your toe, and a problem like being run over by a bus, environmental problems are matters of degree. The environmental narrative is never presented as simply a problem that might cause a problem for some people in some circumstances at some point in the future. It is presented as a total, encompassing, terminal problem facing ‘all of humanity’, requiring immediate and comprehensive adjustments to our way of life, to economies, and political organisation.
Four decades separated the wild claims of Ehrlich from Stewart’s Climate Wars series, with no reflection from Stewart, or the BBC about the failure of the former’s thinking. Yet it would surely have made for a very interesting episode of Horizon. In early 1975, an episode called ‘A Time to be Born‘ raised serious questions about the increased use of medical interventions during childbirth, such as induction of labour, reflecting, as Roberts pointed out, a shift towards a more sceptical view of scientific developments and the role of technology in society. A 1978 film, ‘Now the Chips are Down‘ was concerned with the displacement of actual labour with machines and IT. Even brain surgeons might lose their jobs, warned the Horizon film. If it is right to question the claims made about the medicalisation of childbirth and the automation of the workplace, it is surely right to question science’s ability to formulate the most appropriate (or ‘sustainable’) form of political and economic organisation of society. But British public institutions are even to this day more inclined to celebrate Ehrlich than to raise questions about his failed prognostications.
(One exception here is Adam Curtis’s series, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, especially part two, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts’ [watch it here]. The film takes issue with the myth of balance in nature, and the attempt to model society on a false understanding of ecosystems. But although Curtis expertly handles scientific ideas in their contemporary social and political contexts, his films are not part of the BBC’s science output, and his perspective and depth of analysis is not shared by the rest of BBC’s science output.)
Back to Horizon, and Roberts’s introduction. Roberts, notes only that,
Looking back at the films, with the benefit of hindsight, we might feel that some programmes lacked objectivity or balance. But these programmes were reflecting real concerns – concerns expressed by scientists themselves about the potentially negative impacts of emerging technology on human populations, other species, and the planet as a whole. In subsequent series, alongside the presentation of more straightforward subjects such as new discoveries, Horizon continued to deal with areas of concern and controversy. The series accepted that, while science and technology could provide solutions, they could also become a source of problems. This, I believe, is one of the real strengths of this long-running series, and the reason that it is still such a trusted platform. Horizon has brought us astonishing science, and celebrated this important part of our culture, but it’s certainly not just a PR exercise for science. It hasn’t shied away from dealing with difficult scientific questions and public concern about certain aspects of science. It has been investigative and critical, but also thoughtful and non-sensationalist in its approach. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but the producers of Horizon have, over the decades, managed to tackle the subject in a way which has both earned the trust of the public and the respect of scientists.
Roberts is too kind to Horizon’s producers. The BBC, famously, has shied away from difficult questions, and has sought to provoke rather than investigate or illuminate ‘public concern’. I have more questions about the ‘objectivity and balance’ of the more recent episodes than about those from the 1970s.
“This is a film that demands action”, says the voice over of the 2006 Horizon episode on “Global Dimming”. “It reveals that we may have grossly underestimated the speed at which our climate is changing”.
Eight years later, the hiatus in warming is mainstream science, which has no explanation for it. Horizon’s mawkish treatment of the idea of global dimming did nothing to inform the public; its intention was to provoke sensation — not understanding — at the hight of climate change alarmism.
This hints at a transformation of the character of science broadcasting over the years, which the Horizon archive allows us to see more clearly.
In 1996, an episode of Horizon looked at the solution to Fermat’s last theorem. Watch it at the BBC site here or below.
Although I think the film gets slightly more bogged down in the emotional aspect of the discovery than it needs to — especially when considered alongside previous episodes in which scientific developments were considered quite coolly — it nonetheless gets into the process of discovery, and has expectations of the audience — the viewer’s intellectual capacities, as well as his ability to hold his interest even if he doesn’t completely follow the mathematical concepts in question.
A later (2010) episode of Horizon — ‘To Infinity and Beyond’ (watch it at the BBC site here or below) — made a far more feeble attempt to explore a mathematical idea.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”, says a sinister Steven Berkoff — an actor, seemingly playing the role of either some kind of researcher escaped from another dimension (in which the script from Bladerunner does not exist to be plagiarised by pretentious documentary makers) or infinity personified. “…Things that would change how you see this world. Enough to drive men to madness. … Your intuition is no use here. Faith alone can’t save you. … Is the Earth just one of uncountable copies tumbling through an unending void? … These are the deepest mysteries of the Universe.”
It is bullshit. And it is very silly bullshit. Unlike its earlier counterpart, Infinity and Beyond fails to explore the concept of infinity beyond the prosaic: attempts to formulate a concrete definition of unendingness produces mathematical or logical paradoxes. This could have been the subject for a useful hour long film, but in the hands of the director, it became instead an hour of filler, save for about two or three minutes of insight. It doesn’t explore the development of the concept of infinity and its problems. It put artistic expression — the director’s vanity and self-indulgence — before exposition. It mystified and anthropomorphised the concept of infinity. It failed to explore the debates that exist to any depth. And it made banal, groundless statements with faux gravitas, such as, “If infinity is real, it has implications far beyond the world of science; it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be you”. It doesn’t, you are you, whether or not ‘infinity is real’, whatever that means.
The difference between the two films shows us the triumph of style over substance. The first film required little more than a blackboard to convey complex ideas. The second film uses effects, CGI, a hammy actor, and expensive photography to give an infantile account of infinity. The Fermat film, conversely, gave a clear sense of the development of the discovery in which the personal stories of the participants did not dominate. And and the Fermat film made no extravagant claims about its consequences, in spite of the film-maker’s and participant’s enthusiasm.
Put simply, science as it is conceived of by the BBC’s commissioning editors is not a way of understanding material phenomena. It has become instead something to gawp at in slack-jawed wonderment. It has become a spectacle. The transformation here is in the broadcasters’ expectations of the public. Over the course of 14 years, the BBC’s estimation of its audience diminished.
So what. We’re talking about popular science, after all. Who cares if science broadcasting got a bit naff after the 1990s? This isn’t the point. The point is that the broadcasters’ attitude to the viewer has changed, which may only be disappointing to those of us who expect more out of public service broadcasting. And this attitude persists in films that are more significant to public debates.
And it gets worse.
Another film chosen by Alice Roberts to be in the Horizon collection was Paul Nurse’s attempt to explain what he saw as ‘Science Under Attack’. (Watch it here).
There is not much to add to what I pointed out at the time:
The [climate] debate is multi-dimensional, and controversy exists throughout. But for Nurse, identifying the points of disagreement and offering up an analysis isn’t the point. Instead, he takes for granted that ‘the science is in’, and wonders why trust in scientific authority seems to have been eroded. One reason for this loss of trust just might be that controversies and other inconveniences are swept aside by the polarisation of the debate, leaving a perception that authoritarian impulses are hiding behind scientific consensus. But to point this out would not fill an episode of Horizon. Instead, after a rather feeble retelling of the consensus position — mostly filmed before a NASA video wall depicting the robustness of consensus position — Nurse goes after the deniers, who he suspects are responsible for undermining public trust in science.
But there is no attack on science. Even climate change deniers will still take the advice of oncologists, and will still express criticism of climate change policies in scientific terms. What Nurse fails to recognise is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution. The reputation of the former is intact; but, as I’ve argued before here on Spiked, the scientific institution undermines its own credibility, regardless of any effort by ‘deniers’. The members of those institutions embarrass themselves, and then step to the BBC to create documentaries in which they scratch their heads about why nobody trusts them anymore.
If you discovered that the food you had bought had been pre-chewed, you would take such slop back to the supermarket. Yet the episode of Horizon presented by Paul Nurse sold the TV equivalent. We weren’t asked to understand the debate about climate science, only that we should accept a cartoonish account of it. Anyone who claimed that the story is more complicated than the axiom, ‘climate change is happening’ was ‘attacking science’. Nurse did not even let the sceptics speak for themselves, much less allow the audience to understand their argument.
As well as reflecting the broadcasters’ diminished estimation of the viewing public, the transformation of British science broadcasting reflects the transformation of British science. It is remarkable that the descent of Horizon occurs over the era in which the cultural authority of science increased, while institutions like the BBC and Royal Society increasingly seem to express contempt for the public. Whereas Britain’s public institutions once sought to elevate the public, they now condescend, hector and belittle them.
Here is the concluding part to one of the BBC’s finest attempts to talk about science in society — Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’, made in 1973.
Let us compare it with Paul Nurse’s effort, nearly forty years later.
This is what Bronowski said,
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’. I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leó Szilárd, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
I’m here in the Royal Society. Three hundred and fifty years of an endeavour which is built on respect for observation, respect for data, respect for experiment: trust no one; trust only what the experiments and the data tell you. We have to continue to use that approach if we are to solve problems such as climate change.
It’s become clear to me that if we hold to these ideals of trust in evidence then we have a responsibility to publicly argue our case. Because in this conflicted and volatile debate, scientists are not the only voices that are listened to.
When a scientific issue has important outcomes for society, then the politics becomes increasingly more important. So if we look at this issue of climate change, that is particularly significant. Because that has effects on how we manage our economy, and manage our politics. And so this is become a crucially political matter. And we can see that by the way the forces are being lined up on both sides. What really is required here is a focus on the science, keeping the politics and keeping the ideologies out of the way.
Earning trust requires more than focussing on the science. We have to communicate it effectively, too. Scientists have got to get out there. They have to be open about everything that they do. They do have to talk to the media, even if it does sometimes put their reputation at doubt. Because if we do not do that, it will be filled by others who don’t understand the science, and who may be driven by politics or ideology. This is far too important to be left to the polemicists and commentators in the media. Scientists have to be there too.
Aside from the fact that Nurse is not even able to commit the Royal Society to his own principle of debate, Nurse’s injunction is that we eschew ‘politics and ideology’ to ‘focus on the science’. Bronowski, I believe, would have called this dogma. He recognised that ‘Science is a very human form of knowledge’ and that ‘Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal’. What you can be sure of is that anyone who claims that he has been successful in eliminating ‘politics and ideology’ is either a liar or has fooled himself. Moreover, the desire to eliminate ‘politics and ideology’ from what Nurse himself admits are political and economic matters is surely as ‘political’ and ‘ideological’ as the very stuff Nurse wants to eliminate. Facts, evidence, observation and data are all mediated by ‘politics and ideology’. The only way science can proceed in messy debates such as the one Nurse wanted to find a clear way out of is by admitting it, and being aware of ideology and politics, including one’s own, and accepting of others’. In other words, in order to understand what science says (in the form of experiment, observation, data), you have to be aware of what you have told it.
But Nurse’s injunction forbids us from being aware of ‘politics and ideology’, and of accepting other perspectives in good faith: “trust no one; trust only what the experiments and the data tell you”, as though no one produced the experiments and data. Curiously, though he goes on to speak about ‘earning trust’. Scientists, it seems are not ‘driven by politics and ideology’. The pond in which Bronowsky stood tells us a very different story.
Nurse’s contempt for ‘politics and ideology’ and ‘polemicists and commentators’ is simple contempt for the viewer. Nurse asks for his trust, but does not reciprocate — the viewer is too easily misled, not being sufficiently equipped, too vulnerable to ‘others who don’t understand the science’. Science is just too complicated for the public. The values of the contemporary Royal Society are now identical to the values of the producers of Horizon: the public is a dangerous, contemptible moron.
The latest edition of Horizon (watch it here) marks an even lower low.
The £10 Million Challenge
To celebrate its 50th birthday, Horizon invites the public to play a role in tackling the greatest challenges facing science today.
This special episode of Horizon launches the £10 million Longitude Prize 2014 – a prize developed by Nesta, with Technology Strategy Board as funding partner, to find solutions to a new scientific challenge.
The Longitude Prize… ‘is a challenge with a £10 million prize fund to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time. It is being run and developed by Nesta, with the Technology Strategy Board as launch funding partner.’ But rather than offering a prize to come up with a solution to a specific problem — how to keep time at sea — the British public are being asked which they prefer of the following challenges:
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
Three of these challenges have a clear environmental angle. The section on food, for instance, claims that “With a growing population and limited resources, providing everybody with nutritious, sustainable food is one of the biggest global problems ever faced” and that “The planet simply cannot support the increased demand generated by the spread of western habits. We’re running out of room, we’re running out of resources and we’re running out of time. We need a new, big food innovation.” In Horizon’s treatment of this challenge, Michael Mosley considers the possibility of growing insects for food, and GM. But it’s GM were supposed to be squeamish about, and is the issue that’s presented as controversial. But never mind these as solutions, let’s reconsider the problem: it’s not really food that’s the issue, but the feckless, fecund, uncontrolled masses.
Ditto the challenge of flight: “If aircraft carbon emissions continue to rise they could contribute up to 15 per cent of global warming from human activities within 50 years.” And ditto water: “As demand increases due to our growing population, we also face restricted water supplies due to the impact of altered weather patterns. The implications go beyond drinking: when drought hits agricultural regions, food prices rise”. The challenge is presented as one of a crisis that needs a remedy “before we really run dry”, says Iain Stewart. (Yes, him again).
But why is a growing population still, a la Ehrlich et al circa 1971 conceived of as inherently problematic, rather than as the solution to its own problems? Notice that these ‘challenges’ are presented as being driven by population growth, and are problems for some kind of authority, as well as for science to solve? So much is implied here that needs unpacking. In fact, the world is better at feeding itself than it was when the global population was half of what it now is. And in fact, most of these problems are solved without the involvement of global authority. But it was, however, scientific and technological advance which made that population growth possible. Someone made the observation that ‘Population growth did not explode because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits’, but because ‘they stopped dropping like flies’. The notion that we face ‘growing’ and deepening challenges from a growing population is the opposite of reality. More people, in better health and with more wealth have, and can build more water infrastructure to deal with the problem of ‘water stress’ and food shortages. That may well include technologies such as desalination, as Iain Stewart proposes, or with GM as Michael Mosley suggests (he can keep his insect burgers to himself). But those technologies should be seen as Good Things in their own right, for us, not as solutions to the problem of us.
But the case for positive development cannot be made by science (i.e. public institutions) without the prospect of crisis. And this shows us the reality of the new Longitude Prize and its partnership with Horizon. Nobody would say that finding cheaper ways of desalinating water, producing food, and producing new fuels or more efficient aircraft, (or for that matter, solving the problems faced by people with dementia, of resistance to antibiotics, or expanding the possibilities for people with paralysed bodies) are bad things. But what we should be aware of before being impressed by this public prize, is that £10 million ($16.8m) is peanuts. It probably isn’t much more than the cost of a few seasons of Horizon. If it were true that you could simply chuck £10m at a problem like low cost desalination and, Lo and Behold, the solution to it will be found in just the same way as the original Longitude Prize produced the chronometer, then why not just spend £60 million on them all? Surely even investment capitalists would see the money-making potential in such things as finding the means to provide the entire world with food and water, making the most efficient aviation fuel, curing paralysis and dementia and ending resistance to anti-biotics. They would make more than their money back in a day — perhaps even in an hour.
Is the audience being asked to believe that their vote will make a difference, or are they being patronised? It seems to me that science programming has met with that strangest of phenomena: reality TV and the talent show. All the challenges have given their auditions, and now the viewing public has been asked to judge which they believe to be most worthy. Which solution has the ‘X-Factor’?
Broadcasters used to have the monopoly on film-making. But as technology expanded possibilities and democratised film production, TV networks have had to compete with each other and the internet for eyes. Today, anyone can produce a film with an outlay of just a few thousand £ or $ for equipment (not including talent). The reality TV show and its close relative, the talent show, reflect broadcasters’ need to reinvent themselves, not as producers of TV shows, but of events that can pull an entire nation together. Whereas in the previous century, a TV documentary might have been watched by millions and changed public attitudes, today’s broadcasters need to generate epic levels of hype to acheive the same reach, just for the sake of it. The UK’s Channel 4, for instance, self consciously searches for ways to challenge public mores, loudly… To be more than a TV station, in other words, with a campaigning brief, to end the way the seas are fished, children are fed at school, or the way we perceive our naked bodies. The commissioning editors thus do not ask ‘which films should we make’, but ‘which social change should we try to effect’. Producing illuminating films is not a sufficient public service, it seems.
BBC’s partnership with the Longitude Prize reflect’s the science research funding bodies’ own anxieties about their public roles. A confident academic institution would not need to lower itself to the cultural level of science’s X-Factor. We see in the latest episode the culmination of Roberts’s concern about ‘relevance’ and Nurse’s hand-wringing about ‘communication’, and institutional science and the broadcasters’ lowered estimation of the public.
There is a final twist to this story of change, from great science documentaries to naff attempts to ‘engage’ a disinterested audience. Jacob Bronowski’s series, The Ascent of Man was commissioned by David Attenborough. Attenborough, of course, made some of the most spectacular natural history programmes. But as has been pointed out here, Attenborough’s shows have gone from documenting the natural world, to constructing a highly idealised view of it, aided by CGI and incredibly expensive photographic and post-production techniques. This idealism underpins Attenborough’s latter conversion to Malthusianism — a forty year journey from humanist to anti-humanist. Said Attenborough,
We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now. […] We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.
Attenborough was wrong. The BBC does not broadcast any programmes about ‘famine in Ethiopia’, but has a huge part of the schedule given over to nature — not even ‘science’ — programming. And he is wrong that things are getting worse and worse. 10,000 fewer infants in the developing world die, per day, today, than was the case in 1990. The world is living longer, richer, and healthier human lives, in spite of the damage that Attenborough imagines is being done to the ‘planet’.
Similarly, the excellent 1996 Horizon episode on Fermat’s Last Theorem was directed by Simon Singh. Whereas Singh in the 1990s had high expectations of his audience, his more recent comments suggest that his view of his fellow humans has diminished:
I suspect that climate numpties (numpty (noun): a reckless, absent-minded or unwise person) are far more common than we might think, and they can be found in the most surprising of places.
This became apparent to me when I was having lunch one day with five physics undergraduates from a London college. They were clearly bright, devoted to physics and fully paid-up fans of the scientific method. However, not one of them was committed to the notions that climate change was happening, that it was largely caused by human activity (eg the burning of fossil fuels) and that there would be trouble ahead unless something changed.
I was baffled – why would little versions of me (for I was a physics undergraduate over two decades ago) not accept manmade climate change when it was backed by overwhelming evidence and endorsed by the vast majority of climate experts, Nobel Laureates and even David Attenborough?
A climate sceptic can either be intelligent or honourable, said Singh, but not both at the same time.
This gesture, like so many other comments made by science commentators/communicators reveals much about how they see the public. Singh’s injunction to the 5 delinquent physicists was not to find out for themselves what the state of the science is — i.e. ‘trust no one’ — but to obey the edicts issued by David King and David Attenborough… And that they should watch this video:
If that is what Singh believes will persuade physics undergrads, what must he think of the wider public?
In summary, the descent of science broadcasting is owed to broadcasters’ diminished expectations of the public, public institutions’ anxieties about their public role, and individual broadcasters’ rank misanthropy and contempt for other people. It is no surprise that when the giants of science broadcasting think that people are a plague, but that we are impressed by £10m stunts, and when one-time producers of excellent science TV believe that silly men in silly hats can convince us to change our minds, the attitude is reflected in the broadcasting schedule, and the public lose interest in “science” and the messages that are being smuggled within it.
It’s worth reflecting again here, on the failure of institutional science and public service broadcasting to put the neomalthusian ideas of the late sixties and early seventies under their microscopes and cameras. If science has implications for policy as Nurse says, then there are many lessons in Ehrlich’s failures, which reveal the ‘politics and ideology’ at work in the ideas that are still promoted by the BBC and Royal Society. They have not been thrown away by Horizon. Indeed, just as climate change rescued Ehrlich’s ideas, climate change and neomalthusianism ideas seem to have rescued the institutions that identify themselves with them. That’s not to say that ‘climate change is not happening’, but that if it wasn’t, The Royal Society, The BBC, the institutions that fund public science, and so many tired old broadcasters might have to invent it.