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Popular science on TV – call for a scientist’s cut

Apr 25, 2010 1 comment

Films are sometimes re-released as a director’s cut – a version that more closely reflects the director’s vision for the film, free from the commercial pressures of the studio.

Science programme makers could take a cue from filmmakers and produce two cuts: one for the general public and one for enthusiasts.

Take Wonders of the Solar System. This has all the makings of a great science programme: an enthusiastic and knowledgable presenter in Professor Brian Cox, great pictures of space and the earth, travel to interesting locations, interviews with scientific experts and fantastic computer simulations. Yet the programme is hard to watch – it’s like eating cabbage: I do it because I know I ought to, not because I want to. And it’s not just me. A friend of mine, who is also a science and technology enthusiast, said he fell asleep during the programme.

The main problem is that the programme is constrained to a 1-hour slot, and is edited to fit that slot. This means there is a lot of filler to sit through. Shots of Brian Cox walking up to a telescope, unnecessary shots of him driving in his car (and, of all forms of filler, presenters driving in their car is the most clichéd and overused), scenes that are portmanteaux of earlier scenes, and so on.

The second problem is that the programme, by necessity, targets a wide audience: since there are relatively few science programmes on television, such programmes have to target both the general public and those who have a deeper understanding of science. This means these programmes generally need to include explanations of the basics, and even when these explanations are good, they are not that interesting to people who already understand what is being explained. A good example is when Brian Cox explained the size of the solar system, by placing planets in their relative positions on a table, and then driving to the position of the Oort cloud. This was a dramatic illustration of the solar system’s size (and, incidentally, appropriate use of a shot of him driving), but not that interesting to someone who understands the vastness of space.

Both these problems could be solved by having two cuts of the programme – a standard version and a scientist’s cut. The scientist’s cut would differ from the standard cut in that it would not include the filler and the basic explanations. But it might include more detail in other areas.

Programme lengths no longer have to be totally dictated by the TV schedule. Perhaps the main showing needs to fit a one-hour slot, but repeats on BBC iPlayer certainly do not. There is no reason why two cuts of “Wonders of the Solar System” should not be available on iPlayer – the full version and the scientist’s cut. The programme is repeated on BBC1 and BBC4, often in the middle of the night – there is no reason why one of these repeats should not be a scientist’s cut. The programme is to be sold on DVD – there is no reason why there should not be a DVD scientist’s cut.

Despite the fact that it contains some wonderful material, I won’t be buying the DVD of Wonders of the Solar System. But if Professor Brian Cox was given full editorial control and was allowed to make a scientist’s cut of the programme, I would buy that.

Film enthusiasts get a special cut, science enthusiasts should get one too.

One in 10 UK children thinks Queen invented telephone – NOT

Mar 13, 2010 5 comments

According to an article on BBC News one in ten UK children thinks the Queen invented the telephone. One in twenty think that Luke Skywalker was the first man to set foot on the moon. And an amazing 60% of nine and ten year olds think that Sir Isaac Newton invented fire.

I think not.

What this survey shows is that children have a sense of humour. What it shows is that, when presented with a bunch of boring questions, the average 10 year old will have a laugh and choose the stupidest answer. I probably would too.

The real story here is the poor quality of the BBC reporting. Without even considering the plausibility of the results the reporter presented the results of an online survey as fact.

May I suggest an alternative story:

Gullible BBC reporter outsmarted by a bunch of 10 year olds

When presented with a survey showing that “60% of nine and ten year olds thought that Sir Isaac Newton invented fire” a gullible BBC reporter naively presented this story at face value. The reporter did not consider the plausibility of this factoid, nor did they seek a second source to verify the factoids.

Which is more likely: the ten year olds were having a laugh by giving stupid answers to a boring survey, or the ten year olds were genuinely ignorant? I think the children proved themselves smarter than at least on BBC reporter.

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The BBC Today programme – reporting the news before it happens

Nov 11, 2009 4 comments

Today is BBC Radio 4’s most popular programme, with 6.6 million listeners. It is generally considered to be the most influential news programme in Britain.

However it is succumbing to a bane that is increasingly affection all news media in Britain – the reporting of news before it actually happens. This preemptive reporting by Today is not just occasional – often the most significant headline stories are about events that have not yet occurred.

At the end of this post I set out the main headlines taken from Today’s website for the period Thursday, 5th November to Wednesday, 11th November. In three of those six programmes the main headline is about something that has not occurred. And in two of the remaining three days one of the other headline items has been about something that has not occurred.

Here are the main preemptive headlines.

Monday 9th, November: “The government is to announce measures that will see a new generation of nuclear power stations sped through the planning process.”

Tuesday 10th, November: “Conservative leader David Cameron is to reveal his proposals for tackling poverty and reforming the welfare system.”

Wednesday 11th, November:
“The Home Office is set to propose that DNA profiles of innocent people arrested in England and Wales should be kept for a maximum of six years.”

Most of these stories take the form “A politician will announce something today”. This kind of reporting is problematic in a number of ways:

It allows the politicians to set the agenda. If a politician says they will announce something, then presumably they want that reported. The announcement may even be designed to draw attention away from something unfavourable.

It changes the subject. Take, for example, Friday’s news item: “Gordon Brown will use a speech to try to bolster support for Britain’s military mission in Afghanistan”. The subject of the news becomes the fact that Gordon Brown is making a speech, not the contents of that speech and the reaction to that speech.

It prevents proper debate. Since nothing has actually been said, there is nothing to analyse, no facts to check, no opposing point of view and it’s impossible to hold the politician to account. Here’s a snippet from the Wednesday discussion on unemployment figures:

BBC: “How bad will the figures be?”
Mandelson: “Well I don’t know because I haven’t seen them”

It replaces reporting with speculation. Since the announcement has not yet been made, reporters can only speculate on what might be announced. Here’s a snippet from Thursday’s discussion on the Bank of England monetary policy:

Sarah Montague: “So Stefanie, what does that mean for what the bank is going to say today?”
Stefanie Flanders, economics editor: “We don’t know what it is going to say or what it is going to decide, but I think…”

It preempts the news. Once you’ve had a discussion about what a politician might say, the actual speech or announcement becomes less newsworthy. The analysis and discussion of what was actually said becomes a secondary news item.

Here are the Today’smain headlines and other preemptive headlines for the period 5th November 2009 – 11th November 2009

Today: Thursday 5th November

The United Nations is moving half of its international staff in Afghanistan out of its offices to “safer locations”. And a French government minister has described the Conservatives’ policy on Europe as ‘pathetic’.

0709
The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee is meeting to review the future of its quantitative easing policy, which has pumped £175 billion into the economy.

Sarah Montague: “So Stefanie, what does that mean for what the bank is going to say today?”
Stefanie Flanders, economics editor: “We don’t know what it is going to say or what it is going to decide, but I think…”

Today: Friday 6th November

A US army major is being held on suspicion of carrying out a mass shooting at America’s largest military base. And Gordon Brown will use a speech to try to bolster support for Britain’s military mission in Afghanistan, after another week of heavy casualties.

0752
Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to make a speech laying out why Britain must remain committed to Afghanistan.

Today: Saturday 7th November

Proposed reforms of MPs’ expenses are in doubt after the head of the body charged with rewriting the rules said he might not implement them all. And US President Barack Obama has said the “entire nation” is grieving after killed 13 people were shot dead at a Texas army base.

Today: Monday 9th November

The approval process for nuclear power stations is to be made faster. Celebrations are being held in Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the wall that once divided the city. And we report from Latvia on David Cameron’s new colleagues – the Fatherland and Freedom Party.

0730
The government is to announce measures that will see a new generation of nuclear power stations sped through the planning process. Shadow energy secretary Greg Clark discusses whether the Conservatives will support the proposals.
BBC: “Today the energy secretary will tell parliament…”

0830
Plans for fast-tracking a new generation of nuclear power stations are to be announced by the government. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband will unveil statements of policy including a list of sites judged suitable for nuclear developments. Mr Miliband discusses the announcement.

BBC: “I know you want to give the details to MPs first”
Miliband: “As I say, well as you say, we will give the details later on…”

Today: Tuesday 10th November

Conservative leader David Cameron is to reveal his proposals for tackling poverty and reforming the welfare system, and has been accused by Labour of planning a return to Thatcherite policies. And the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan has used a telephone conversation with Gordon Brown to complain about a lack of military equipment.

0714
Conservative leader David Cameron will deliver a speech setting out the Tories’ plans to abolish child poverty by the end of the decade. He will criticise the government’s welfare system, accusing Labour of “a moral failure”. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, examines the history of the party’s policy on poverty.

0810
David Cameron has long accused Labour, and what he describes as “big government”, of failing the poor. Today he will set out his party’s policies to combat poverty and reform the welfare system. Mr Cameron will say the government is guilty of a moral failure, creating a welfare system that tells young girls having children before finding work and a loving relationship means a home and cash. Shadow secretary for work and pension Theresa May, and Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper debate their party’s poverty policies. Political editor Nick Robinson comments on the changes to the Conservative’s welfare plans.

BBC: Nick, how distinct do you thing David Cameron will be…
Nick: Oh, I think he really will be distinct…

Today: Wednesday 11th November

The Home Office is set to propose that DNA profiles of innocent people arrested in England and Wales should be kept for a maximum of six years. And nine former Labour ministers have warned Gordon Brown he will lose key votes at the general election if he scraps childcare vouchers for parents.

0751
The number of unemployed youths could exceed one million, with thousands of unemployed graduates joining the growing number of 16 to 24 year-olds who are not in employment, education or training (Neets). The government will today set out its plans to tackle the problem in its white paper, Skills for Growth. Skills Secretary Lord Mandelson discusses the proposals.

BBC: “How bad will the figures be?”
Mandelson “Well I don’t know because I haven’t seen them”

0810
The DNA profiles of innocent people arrested in England and Wales will be kept for six years and not indefinitely under new government proposals. The changes will be put before the European Court of Human Rights, which had ruled the current policy unlawful. Police have defended the system, which it says has led to the solving of crimes, but human rights groups are unhappy with the compromise. Julie Bindel from the campaign group Justice for Women and the shadow home secretary Chris Grayling debate the DNA policy.

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