TV science, the “Cox effect” and the eduspectacular

It looks like a row waiting to happen so I am a little anxious that writing about it will kick the whole thing off.  However, the mix of science, media, history and the public coincides so closely with my own interests that I feel almost obliged to comment.

On Sunday May 5 the Observer Magazine published a short piece by the paper’s policy editor Daniel Boffey with the headline “Brian Cox: TV shows inspire a new generation of children to study science”. It appears to be based on an interview with Cox using his new show about the history of science as a news peg.

After the Twitterspat of a few months ago it seems (in all innocence) to be asking for trouble. Maybe if I rehearse all the arguments it will save everyone else the bother.

OK, let’s see if I can get all the bases covered.

First, we should expect a great deal of debate about Cox and his style of presenting (this can already be seen in the comments below the article). Shaw once said of Darwin that he had the good fortune to please everyone with an axe to grind. I suspect that the same might be true for Brian Cox. It probably comes down to whether you think his grin is impish or inane. This may just be a matter of taste, but Cox and his presenting style are all too often then taken as an invitation to launch into a diatribe on the state of science programmes or TV more generally. Variations of this argument will see Cox as emblematic, symptomatic or metonymic.

Personally I quite like Cox’s programmes and watch them as a form of spectacle. If I wanted to revise for an exam I would read a book. In this respect (for me) they are not dissimilar to natural history programmes and it is revealing that Cox is now being referred to as the next Attenborough (not least because of Attenborough’s own statement about “passing on the torch”).

The extent to which Cox can take on the Attenborough mantle is probably something I should leave for another post but I think the comparison is based on a category error. We need to make a distinction between Attenborough (who we all love and trust) and what is presented on screen (usually the product of astonishing camerawork). Cox’s programmes present a similar high-quality spectacle but as a presenter he clearly divides opinion even though his passion and enthusiasm come through the screen. Still, it took decades of work for Attenborough to attain his current status and t’lad’s just staaarted.

I think it is unfortunate that “edutainment” and “infotainment” tend to be used as disparaging terms. We may need to reclaim them or create a new taxonomy because there is clearly a type of non-fiction programme that falls between the entertainment of reality/talent shows and programmes that are designed to be educational (eg Open University). Perhaps we need to think about a new category of the eduspectacular.

This brings me more specifically to the piece in the Observer Magazine and the second area for possible arguments.

What claims are being made about TV science and education?

At the outset it should be noted that the quotes attributed to Cox refer to children being inspired by TV science in general. It is only Boffey who reports that Cox “has laid claim to a new achievement: inspiring a generation of children to take up biology, chemistry and physics in school”. This fine distinction between what was said and how that gets reported will probably not stop some people still seeing Cox as an arrogant bastard for claiming to inspire children single-handedly.

But what’s the evidence for the claim? I have written elsewhere about the irony in the previous Twitterspat with the lack of evidence in the claims for evidence-based policy. Is the evidence here for these claims (whatever they may be and whoever made them)?

Unfortunately it does not look good. The problem was picked up in the comments section below the article and has been examined further by Jon Copley. The figures reported by Boffey (not attributed to Cox) are that “In 2012, there was a 36.1% increase in the number of students doing GCSE science exams, compared with the previous year”. Closer analysis paints a different picture. As Copley explained in his post:

the impressive “36.1% increase” refers to raw numbers taking single science at GCSE. Science in some form is compulsory at GCSE, so that figure actually represents an increase in numbers taking the “least science” option at GCSE. In any case, the GCSE waters were muddied for 2012 because a change allowed some schools to put classes through single science at age 15, creating a one-off spike in numbers.

There could, of course, have been an increase in all subject areas so what would be significant is the change in the proportion of science subjects. Again the figures are not so impressive. As Copley reports, the proportional increases in science for GCSE entries, A-level entries and UCAS applications were all less than 1%.

Even with amended figures we would still need to consider the relationship between TV science and popularity of science subjects in the education system. After all, in other circumstances the mantra is correlation is not the same as causation.

This raises the third area for discussion – media effects.

Boffey reports that Cox believes “there can be little doubt that science on television has been a factor in an upward trend in the number of children taking up the subjects at GCSE and A-level.” And to quote Cox directly:

It’s kind of obvious when you think about it. A public service broadcaster in my view is part of the education system, as it does change behaviour.

I think the year of science did that. There has been an upswing in the number of students applying to university to do scientific subjects. It’s difficult to say why, as there are many factors. It’s important to say that. But one of the factors is the popularity of science on television. I don’t think anyone disputes that. You can dispute the percentages, but someone should do a thesis on it at some point.

And this is the problem with “media effects”. It looks “kind of obvious” but “there are many factors” and it needs someone to do a thesis on it. Newspapers have previously reported on the “Cox effect” but it would be misleading to think of increased take up of science as an “effect” (eg. see The Telegraph and The Guardian, and also see this post by Alice Bell).

The “effects model” has long been criticised within media studies (you can get a good summary of its flaws in this article by David Gauntlett). However, as I have written elsewhere, there is also a tension in media studies. On the one hand we accept the idea of an “active audience” creating its own meanings; but on the other hand we may find certain parts of the media objectionable (eg representations of women) because of the power that they have. As Gauntlett points out, we still need to talk about influences and perceptions even if we do not have a model for effects on behaviour.

This would be not so much media effects as media affects. We might find it difficult to show that TV programmes caused an increase in science applications but we might still be able to talk about perceptions being affected by the eduspectacular science that students see on TV.

And this brings me to my final area for discussion – who is it that can talk about science on TV?

In the previous Twitterspat there was a clear professional dimension to the arguments. In some cases this presented itself as a row between “those who create” and “those who criticise”. In other cases it was a row over expertise and the lack of value that is placed on science and technology studies. As I said at the time, if I want to know about physics I’ll ask a physicist and if I want to know about history I’ll ask a historian.

Not surprisingly, the article in the Observer Magazine set alarm bells ringing when I read that Cox is “currently filming a new show about man’s growing understanding of the universe”. I have no problems at all with Cox presenting such a show but I do hope he draws on the relevant expertise to help him and I am genuinely interested to know who the historical consultants are.

I think that’s covered the more important areas for potential rows, though I suspect I haven’t fully done justice to each one. I don’t know if it does save anyone the bother about getting in a lather or whether it helps to avert another Twitterspat.

However, this does raise an intriguing question: if I publish this and nothing happens, can that count as “impact”?

PS: In the post I was very careful to distinguish between what Boffey wrote in the article and what Cox was reported as saying. This is an important distinction and I was right to be careful as you will see from this clip of the original interview.

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2 thoughts on “TV science, the “Cox effect” and the eduspectacular

  1. It is interesting that Cox should be able to trade on being an expert and yet present shows – astronomy, biology, history – outside his field. Perhaps that happens to all who get taken up as talented presenters, since they obviously want to use the individual’s skills but can’t keep offering the same topics.

    I don’t know who the historical advisors for the new show are, although I know a few historians of science who spoke to researchers. I had a conversation about the longitude story as an example of how science has been funded, which I didn’t feel went quite where I would have liked it to. I await the episode with interest…

  2. He’s clearly a very talented presenter so I don’t blame anyone trying to make the most use of his skills. The question of expertise though does make the comparison with Attenborough more curious. I don’t recall Attenborough straying too far from his own area of expertise. It also depends on how the idea of expertise is presented. I liked the Bill Bailey programmes on Wallace even though you might not want to call Bailey a Wallace “expert”.

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