Parading ignorance in science is not OK and should spark stronger reactions

26th October 2012 at 01:00
The subject needs to be treated with respect and rigour on TV and beyond

I don't know if you caught it on the Scottish news the other night. I can't remember who the composer was, or even the soloist. The modern piece wasn't something I'd have thought of downloading, but the reporter explained its provenance and its place in the scheme of all things musical. What happened next was perturbing.

The reporter handed back to the main presenter, who was flanked in her studio by a sports reporter. He passed some comment about being more of an Arctic Monkeys man himself, and she made a whooshing-over-my-head gesture. Are you surprised that there were a number of complaints about this on the programme's website?

It never happened - not that I'm aware of anyway. But something very similar did.

Heriot-Watt University has received funding to carry out experiments on the interaction of light with matter. They will be studying quantum computing and using lasers to create the conditions found around a black hole. I can't pretend I understand it all. If I did, I'd be working at Heriot-Watt University, not SSERC. (No I wouldn't, I find school physics more fun, but that's down to me.) Reporting Scotland ran a feature on the university's research. I can't remember exactly what happened after the item was over, but it wasn't far from the music scenario above.

I wished I owned one of those TVs they have in the Samsung ad, where you can walk through the screen. Viewers would have been treated to a fiftysomething bald guy saying: "Hoy! Hang on a minute!"

It does matter. Frankie Boyle on Mock the Week saying "I don't give a fuck" about the work at CERN is fair game on a satire programme that probably takes apart unmade beds in art exhibitions as regularly as it revels in (or more probably feigns) ignorance about matters scientific.

At worst, it isn't that funny. But the laser story was on a news programme. The reaction in the studio was a value judgement on that story. Not only that, it was disrespectful to the reporter, Ken Macdonald, who had done a sterling job of making something tricky very accessible.

Ken is one of my media heroes. When he is on Radio Scotland's Newsdrive, I know that any matters scientific will be treated with respect and rigour, but also enthusiasm. When he reports, you know that science is something any cultured, rounded person should be interested in and that parading ignorance in science is no more acceptable than in art. I've even taken to quoting him. Space science is important to Scots, he claims, because: "No matter where you are in Scotland, you're always nearer space than Liverpool." Music to my ears.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, wants you to stick an empty CD case to your LCD computer monitor, then look at it through polarised sunglasses.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today