Leaping on crocodiles and wrestling pythons in his khaki shorts, he owes more to Indiana Jones than Charles Darwin. But when it comes to explaining the mysteries of nature, Australian Steve Irwin, TV's real-life Crocodile Dundee, is more effective than Sir David Attenborough, says a team of academics.
A new study by Nottingham University sociologists claims that light-hearted programmes about dangerous reptiles and big cats offer better explanations of the complexities of evolution than "educational" shows such as BBC1's Blue Planet.
Far from dumbing down the subtleties of their subjects, it argues, "cheap and cheerful" series use their adventure-style formats to explore the full randomness of nature.
In contrast, supposedly more highbrow, "blue chip" programmes such as Blue Planet and Wild Africa dictate simplified "factual" accounts that owe more to creationism than to serious science. By employing a "Voice of God" approach, the report says, they convey the view that modern scientists are united in an outdated belief that the wonders of nature have been "planned" by a higher authority.
It also argues that big budget series such as Blue Planet, which cost £7m and took five years to produce, are driven as much by a desire to make money as by a public service duty to educate and inform. By eschewing presenters in favour of voiceovers, their makers ensure they date less quickly and can easily be dubbed for sale overseas.
The authors of the study, to be published this week, analysed 181 wildlife programmes on radio and television over two months last year, paying particular attention to any mentions of evolution. They concluded: "It would be easy to assume that 'blue-chip' equates to sophisticated science. An initial sweep through the data suggests that this is specifically not the case."
Last night, the study was condemned by Sir David Attenborough and the BBC. Sir David denied the suggestion that "presenter-led" programmes were better at communicating complex ideas than classic series such as Wildlife on One.
"Steve Irwin is an adventurer and I think it is stupid to compare a programme such as Blue Planet with his show," said Sir David. "There are many different ways of making a natural history programme."
Dr Keith Scholey, head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, added: "We at the BBC and David are very careful about our scripting and terminology."
Mike Penman, one of a new breed of wildlife reporters on the Discovery Channel, also questioned the findings, saying: "Steve Irwin does not get enough information across. I'd never antagonise an animal by pulling its tail or opening its jaws like he does." He added: "Everyone once believed David Attenborough-type presenters were factual gods, but people now want a more close-up approach."
Professor Robert Dingwall, one of the report's authors, said: "On the specific issue of evolution, the lighter programmes convey the mainstream drift of scientific thought more accurately than the likes of Blue Planet.
"The star is the presenter, but they interrogate experts on-screen and different views about the subject are put across. Another problem with programmes such as Blue Planet is that production values are so high that the commentary is somewhat secondary. If you're watching an 'everyman-like' presenter who's quite entertaining and is asking questions, the viewer feels more connected."
The report did offer some consolation for the BBC. Praising the equally costly Walking with Beasts, it said: "Evolution and contingency are central to the programme structure, so the science tends to be explained with particular care."
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