Thursday, 28 October 2010

The state of science coverage

I am not a scientist. Indeed, I am nowhere near a scientist. I am as likely to pen a scientific paper as my mother is to write a computer program to generate a website. (*)

However, I have a fair idea of what science is, and have always enjoyed reading about the latest advances. Indeed, when I was nine or ten I was designing simple PWR nuclear reactors. Yes, I was that sad.

Unfortunately, there is a great problem with science, and that is the scientific media. I used to read Scientific American avidly (especially for the bimonthly 'mathematical recreations' section), but that has gone really downhill. New Scientist always seemed like a joke to me, and it has just got worse.

The specialist literature is far better, but also much harder to get into.

Scientific American and New Scientist are faced with a problem: they are the public face of science. If you want to know what is going on, then they will tell you. Or that used to be the case. Nowadays (**), sadly, they are going for the populist vote, and covering stories from a headline-making angle. They depend on circulation, and they therefore want people to read them. To reach as broad a base of readers as possible, they dumb down and create sensationalist headlines. Sometimes they even forget basic science.

Perversely, the best general scientific coverage tends to be in, of all things, the Economist, especially in their technology quarterlys. It is good science written in clear, concise terms that is accessible to the layman.

The problem has also worked its way into broadcast media. Tomorrow's World was once a great program, making a good attempt at explaining science (and sometimes failing) was converted into a load of populist tosh before it was finally put out of its misery. Its eventual replacement, 'Bang goes the Theory', is risible and almost unwatchable if you know anything about the topics it is covering. It has been dumbed down to the point of insensibility.

Then there was the excellent QED, which they renamed 'Living Proof' (allegedly as no-one understood what QED meant). The quality of the programs fell at the same time. Channel 4's Equinox series seems to have died a death.

However, there is hope. Earlier this week there was a program on BBC Four called 'Atom', where Professsor Jim Al-Khalili talked about the history of the atom . It was great, thrilling watching. Even better, it was followed by the lovely Victoria Coren and 'Only Connect'; the only truly intelligent quiz show on the TV. So good scientific programming can still be done, but it has to be broadcast in quiet backwaters.

(*) I should stress that my mother is hardly unintelligent. It is just that her skills lie elsewhere; like managing three unruly children.

(**) I really hope that I do not sound like an old codger.

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