Auntie Misses The Point

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 8:01 | Filed in Media, Science

The BBC were doing some vox pops this morning to try and understand how well ‘the man in the street’ knows about science. I presume this somehow related to the news that the government are trying to stop people perceiving science as something ‘elitist’..

Unfortunately, they rather missed the boat on two points, the most significant of which was that they somehow confused “science” with “celebrity”.

What they did was they had a big blow up poster showing four images of scientists — Darwin, Einstein, Marie Curie and Gallileo — and asked members of the public if they could name them. What?

Yes, name them. Obviously the BBC seem to thing that being able to identify that a bloke with a big beard is Charles Darwin demonstrates a better knowledge of science than actually being able to understand what Darwin did — his voyage on the Beagle, natural selection, the eventual defeat of Lamarckism and so on.

Or at least, the BBC seem to think that this is the best way to present science in a news magazine programme. Which would rather suggest to me that BBC Breakfast is part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Of course, I might just be in a huff because I only knew two of the images for sure, although I managed to guess Marie Curie. But I do happen to think that what I know about Galileo is more important to his scientific legacy than being able to recognise him from a picture, things like:

  • supporting the Copernican, helio-centric view of our solar system
  • contributed significantly to the development of the telescope
  • allegedly tested that falling times were irrespective of weights by dropping stuff off the leaning tower of Pisa
  • was forced to recant his heliocentricity under pressure from the Catholic church, although is frequently said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” (yet it moves) in relation to the Earth at the point of this recantation

But I guess, because I couldn’t recognise him from a picture, I know nothing about him or his legacy.

The whole point of science is to increase our sum of knowledge about how the world/universe works. If you can understand what a scientist has discovered, if you can get your head around how the world ticks, if you can understand how General Relativity predicts curvature of space-time by gravity (using the standard ‘ball bearings on a rubber sheet’ analogy) then surely you’ve obtained the information that the scientist would want you to obtain. Whether or not you can name the theory, or pick the scientist out of a line-up is not the point.

And the second point? Well, it rather appeared that most members of the public could manage to identify at least both Einstein and Darwin. I wonder, before next presenting such a facile and inappropriate challenge masquerading as scientific knowledge, would the BBC breakfast team be prepared to take up my challenge — I name four scientific theories and ask a different person (producer, presenter, cameraman etc) in turn to explain them?

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4 Comments to Auntie Misses The Point

  1. mark fairlamb says:

    January 28th, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    i rather think you might be missing the point my relatively learned friend.
    you won’t get todays media-obsessed youth into science by putting pythagoras’ theory in front of them.
    but if you ask them if they’ve seen someone on the telly before you might just get their interest for a moment.

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