Robert Hanks on Radio

Click to follow
On God in a White Coat (Radio 4, Thurs), Geoff Watts was trying to find out why spiritual healing has been gaining popularity in recent years, and whether there's anything to it. On the one hand, we had healers and their supporters (including the odd GP) talking about connecting to a higher - or possibly a deeper - aspect of ourselves, and channelling a universal love energy. On the other, we had conventional medicine asserting that any improved affective state could be explained in terms of what we know from psychoneuroimmunology about the endocrinal system... Stop right there: I think we have an answer.

Whatever else you may think about spiritual healers, you have to admit that they've got the customer relations side of things all sewn up, with all this comforting talk of love and higher selves. Look how shrewdly they've co-opted the word "healing", with the slight but inescapable implication that healing is what doctors fail to do. Most of all, they've got simplicity on their side - it all seems so transparent.

The fact is, healing is about as transparent as fog. Some of what Watts was told here was superficially logical gibberish - like the man who claimed that conventional medicine hasn't learnt the lessons of modern physics concerning the interconvertibility of matter and energy: the body can be addressed as energy, just as it can be addressed as matter (well, horseshit can be converted into food, but that doesn't mean you can eat it). More of it didn't even pretend to be rational - indeed, it flaunted its irrationality, knowing that this is attractive to many people. It's very hard for the scientific mind to grapple with woolliness; as a result, several of the voices here ended up snarling impotently about returning to the Middle Ages.

Contrast this with Bodies of Evidence (Radio 4, Weds), in which Tony Robinson asks scientists what millennia-old preserved bodies can tell us. This week it was all about plants and animals - what we can learn from the lumps of moss found among the clothing of Otzi, the 5,000-year- old Austrian iceman, and from the mistletoe pollen in the stomach of the 2,000-year-old Lindow Man (aka Pete Marsh). The conclusions in both cases were tentative: Otzi may have taken the moss either for insulation or to wipe his bottom; the presence of mistletoe may indicate either ritual slaughter or severe mental difficulties (since it was apparently a popular way of treating fits).

But the joy of this series isn't so much what you find out as the lucidity and enthusiasm with which it is explained to you. Part of the credit must go to Robinson, who abandons some of his more irritating mannerisms to show that he has a knack for reducing complicated matters to simple terms; much of it, you suspect, is a matter of culture. For doctors, technical language can be a way of establishing their authority, both to lay people and to colleagues. For palaeobotanists, who probably don't count many fellow palaeobotanists in their immediate social circle, the ability to explain what they do is a vital social tool.

By the way, the producer of Bodies of Evidence, Andrew Johnston, is one of nine radio features producers who have recently been made redundant in Bristol - in his case, apparently, because the received wisdom at the BBC is that there is no longer a market for the sort of programme he makes. Meanwhile, over at Radio 1, Andy Kershaw has been shifted from his slot on Sunday nights between 10 o'clock and midnight, to make way for a new programme called The Album Show - mmm, that sounds like a tasty recipe for fresh sounds and musical styles. Kershaw will have a new slot running from midnight until two o'clock on a Monday morning; those listeners who stay up will be able to hear the melancholy sound of him rattling together all those awards he's won in his years at Radio 1. You will notice they make a somewhat hollow sound.

In both cases, what you're seeing is the progressive blanding out of the BBC as it worries more and more about appealing to the widest possible audience. The Corporation is retreating from eccentricity, from programmes that tickle the intelligence or offer a little shock of novelty, and falling back on reliable crowd-pleasers. It has lost confidence in the intelligence of the general public and in its own standards. You know what would make it better? A little more faith.