Last Night's TV: Blinded by science but none the wiser
Horizon, BBC2; The Girl With Two Faces: A Bodyshock Special, Channel 4
Wednesday 17 September 2008
You don't need to be scientifically literate to become the President of the United States, or, for that matter, culturally or philosophically literate. Literacy itself is probably useful, because of the bigger words on the autocue, but the thing you really need is a fluency in defiant illiterateness, that engrained suspicion of the complicated thought or unresolved mystery. Asked by a journalist when life began, John McCain demonstrated his command of this crucial vocabulary by snapping back "Conception". No frills, no hesitation, no compromise. Barack Obama, more clumsily, ummed and ahhed and eventually said that the question was above his paygrade. He sounded as if he didn't know how to answer, which was, frankly, nothing more than the truth, but it turns out he's in pretty good company. When the same question was put to Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, he also took the Obama line: "There isn't really an answer to that question," he said.
Which left me thinking that "The President's Guide to Science", a Horizon primer on policy-critical science issues, might have missed the point rather. If you were President, you couldn't really do better than call in Sir Paul Nurse to advise you on crucial issues to do with stem-cell research and embryology, but the answers he gave you would go down very badly with quite a lot of the people you might need to secure your re-election. The kind of people, in fact, who have led to the Alice-in-Wonderland situation in Sir Paul's lab, where two identical sets of equipment are in place to ensure that not a cent of federal money is morally contaminated by contact with the stem-cell research that he's permitted to carry out privately. Even the freezers are plugged into separate electricity meters. Sir Paul has a touching belief that if he could just get those who object to stem-cell research to look down his microscope, he could persuade them that he is not engaged in an activity tantamount to murder. I fear he has reckoned without the proud imperviousness to reason of the Christian Right.
Horizon's documentary turned out to be a bit of a muddle, spending a surprising length of time on nuclear weapons (does the President really need to know the physics of nuclear fission to be able to press the big red button?) and meandering inconclusively through a section about whether we could know with any reliability whether the Iranians were making weapons-grade plutonium or not. Robert Baer, seen recently in Channel 4's history of the car bomb, turned up to do a bit of cloak-and-dagger stuff in a 4x4, as if auditioning for an unusually pensive segment of 24, and violins skittered on the soundtrack to build up the atmosphere further. He's the go-to-guy, I think, if the future President wants advice on spy-type machismo, but he didn't really clarify the issues when it came to an Iranian bomb. What's more, other sections of the programme appeared to offer an implicit argument against letting scientists anywhere near the Oval Office at all, which I don't think was the message they had in mind at the beginning. When the American government followed the advice of eugenics experts in the Twenties and Thirties and introduced compulsory sterilisation of mental patients in some states, it hardly offered a shining example of science's ability to judiciously guide our legislators. And while one scientist insisted that nuclear-power stations were the only practical solution to global warming, another countered that commissioning new ones would be to leap from the frying pan into the fire. I hope the next President shows a little less contempt for scientific knowledge than George W Bush, who only appointed a scientific adviser a year and a half into his first term. But I hope they don't start their scientific education with this programme.
The Girl with Two Faces: a BodyShock Special looked like standard gawper television, a freak show lightly glazed with clinical detail and MRI scans so that we could get it down without feeling too ashamed of ourselves. But it turned out to be a little better than that, the account of a virtually unprecedented birth adapting itself into an account of the realities of rural life in India. Because Lali had two faces, a lot of people, including many members of her family, assumed that she was an incarnation of a Hindu god, though nobody could seem to agree on which one. Lali eventually died, the victim not only of her multiple birth defects but the poverty and ignorance of the family she was born into. At which point, she was buried just outside the family compound, where a small brick temple was built to house the white marble sculpture that has become the centrepiece of her shrine. Quite how a poor family were able to pay for any of this – or what distortions and tensions were introduced to the village by the money the pilgrims brought with them – were tactfully passed over in silence.
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