Last Night's TV - Horizon: Science under Attack, BBC2; The Biggest Loser, ITV1; One Born Every Minute, Channel 4
Science lesson has the magic formula
Tuesday 25 January 2011
Is it something to do with the society of which I'm a part, or is it merely something to do with me, that while I'm fully aware of who Jade Goody was, and who Katie Price and Alex Reid and Olly Murs are, it wasn't until I watched last night's
Horizon: Science under Attack, that I'd even heard of Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, who 10 years ago, for his pioneering work in cell biology, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine?
There are still countries, thank heavens, in which a scientist who wins a Nobel prize becomes a household name. Back in Sir Alexander Fleming's day, Britain was one of them. Further back, men such as Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton staked an enduring claim to be ranked among the greatest Britons of all time. And Britain still produces at least as many leading scientists as it does, say, novelists or actors. But take a straw poll of people shopping on your nearest high street and see how many they can name, beyond Stephen Hawking and possibly Richard Dawkins. Moreover, even those two get plenty of negative press. This is all part of the thesis that Nurse aired so engagingly and persuasively in Horizon.
He used climate-change science to illustrate his wider theory that scientists, no matter what their level of experience or expertise, are no longer trusted by the public at large. Nearly half of all Americans and a third of the British believe that the extent and significance of global warming are being exaggerated. Certainly, no issue better exemplifies the truth that for every scientist arguing that black is black, you can find another arguing that, actually, it's white. Nurse sat down in a New York diner with one of the world's smarter climate-change sceptics, Professor Fred Singer, who sipped Earl Grey tea and briefly outlined his conviction that solar activity is principally responsible for global warming, not man-made carbon emissions. But by then I'd dismissed Professor Singer as a shameless contrarian: who orders Earl Grey in a New York diner?
At this point I should nail my own colours feebly to the mast. At school I was an E-grade student in all science subjects and I'm now one of those people who most unreasonably gets irritated if Jeremy Paxman asks more than two consecutive questions about prime numbers or chemical elements on University Challenge. But I was entirely won over by Nurse's eloquent argument that science and scientists should be accorded much more respect, although his very eloquence suggests where part of the problem lies: the great practitioners of science, unlike their counterparts in literature and the arts, aren't always very good with words.
On my own micro-level, for example, I can recall several chemistry, physics and maths teachers who were brilliant at calculating but rubbish at communicating. Science needs better advocates. As Nurse rightly said, it's "far too important to be left to polemicists and commentators in the media", yet it is they who wield disproportionate influence on public opinion. And inevitably, the problem, like just about all problems these days, is exacerbated by the internet, where crackpot conspiracy theories compete on equal terms with authoritative scientific findings.
Maybe the answer is to hand science over to reality television, a surefire way of winning popular respect, though I can imagine GPs and psychiatrists shuddering through The Biggest Loser, in which the efforts of a gang of obese people to lose weight are turned into primetime entertainment, with not just a grinning Davina McCall but also a £25,000 prize awaiting the one who sheds most blubber. It is one of those shows that make me wonder, on the basis that we get the telly that we deserve, how much lower we can sink. Or, like hungry fat people trying to find one last smear of jam, have ITV executives finally scraped the bottom of the barrel?
Each week on The Biggest Loser, one or two of the least successful contestants, deemed to have shed an inadequate amount of weight, are voted off by their peers. Presumably, they only joined the programme in the first place because their size had caused them low self-esteem, so goodness knows what psychological and emotional damage is inflicted by being declared, in the most public arena imaginable, a weight-loss failure. Even if you can live with the sight of them being put through their paces by a couple of trainers applauding their physical discomfort –"he's puking, wow!" – The Biggest Loser is a grotesque spectacle.
I watched One Born Every Minute, which I hadn't seen before, expecting to feel similarly uneasy, reasoning that some things ought to be kept a sacred distance from a TV crew and childbirth is very much one of them. Yet the latest instalment from the Princess Anne maternity hospital in Southampton was educational, informative and entertaining, not that Lord Reith, whose objective that was all those years ago, would necessarily have applauded an obstetrician's-eye view of a vaginal examination. Still, the old boy never knew about Channel 4.
Last night, we watched 31-year-old Julia, who was born with a major heart defect, understandably getting anxious before the birth of her first baby. Offering his own idiosyncratic – or if you prefer, witless – brand of support was her talkative partner, Dean. "I'd give you my last Rolo," he told her. "I'd shove it up your arse," she replied, with such feeling that you could imagine it having to be extracted with forceps.
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