TV science: a call for enigmatic ambiguities

Many years ago I stayed with friends in Germany. Early one evening my daughter called through to the kitchen from the living-room, “Dad, the news is on.” My daughter was about four at the time and has never understood a word of German.

Even without the necessary spoken or written language she was still able to understand the audio-visual language of TV news. I might even add that as a child she had had very little exposure to TV of any kind and yet here she was able to identify TV news in a foreign language in a foreign country.

I was reminded of this today when I wondered how this would also be true  for science on TV – and, more than that, how unimaginative and limiting this is for science on TV. My thoughts were prompted by a blog post, a short Twitter discussion and a drive in my car.

The post came from Stephen McGann’s blog Theatre of Reason and relates to a BBC series “Rise of the Continents” presented by Iain Stewart. In the first programme Stewart explained how a massive “mantle plume” would eventually tear Africa apart. It was only later that McGann discovered that scientists are still debating whether such mantle plumes actually exist. This is isn’t just about getting the “facts” wrong but more to do with acknowledging how uncertainty and debate is part of the very fabric of science. As McGann explains:

A confident, coherent narrative in communication can be far more compelling than an equivocal exposition of different opinions. As a species, we are seduced by stories of progress and heroic certainty. Yet there is a crucial  tension between the power of science narrated as certainty, and the truth of science exposed as messy, disputed and debated.

Of course this has important consequences for anyone concerned with the relationship between science and the public:

Scientists are the first people to remind the public that uncertainty is a central feature of scientific practice. It is an ongoing process. ….. Yet the boundary between ‘settled knowledge’ and ‘hot debate’ is not always an easy one to draw. Things aren’t helped, I feel, when science practitioners on TV are complicit in editorial decisions that obscure key uncertainties – while debate on these issues continues in private. ….. It’s a bit rich, in my view, to blame the public for not understanding uncertainties in science, if scientists themselves play a part in concealing such uncertainty when communicating science to publics.

There then followed a Twitter discussion about the desire for narrative closure and about how this is true for other subject areas (like history) as well.

Earlier I had been driving in my car listening to the radio. A gentle, wistful and slightly sad song was playing. As I often do I imagined the song to be the soundtrack to a film. It’s a scene we are all familiar with: someone on a long journey, shots of the road ahead, blurred shots of hedges and buildings as they flash by, snatched glimpses of road signs, roadside vignettes, day, night and all the time a musical soundtrack setting the mood, carrying our emotional baggage in the trunk, our hopes and trepidation as the headlights pick out the drive as we arrive….

So much packed into a few minutes (even a few seconds) of film. So familiar yet not something we associate with TV science. Even a four year old with no knowledge of the language would be able to call out from the living room, “Dad, the science is on TV”.

Is this a lack of imagination or just a lack of nerve?

In the twitter discussion I raised the possibility of “enigmatic ambiguities” in presenting science, storytelling without narrative closure (just as science is storytelling without narrative closure). However, what I had in mind was more than simply science communication that accepts the uncertainty inherent in science . I would like a form of presenting science that can also embrace the uncertainties in how things get presented.

It’s no good having scientists on TV telling us how humble they feel when faced by nature, if what we see on screen tells us how humble we should feel when faced with the scientist.

I have had these conversations before. My brother is a neuropsychologist. He has academic and clinical experience as well as writing what might be called popular science. I say “might be called” because one of the things he finds annoying (boring might be more accurate) is the way that popular science usually presents itself with so much certainty. Instead what he has aimed for is something that not only acknowledges uncertainty but actively works with it (see this piece by Simon Hattenstone).

In his book Into the Silent Land he weaves together neuropsychology with autobiography with fiction to bring out the elusive qualities of the “self” which the book seeks to explore. Significantly, the book has no index.  An index would suggest the book contains answers that you can look up and “it’s not that kind of a book”.

Can we bring those same elusive, enigmatic qualities to TV science? I’m confident that the public is cinematically literate enough to cope. I’m not so sure about the scientists.

And I’m not sure if I have explained clearly enough what I have in mind nor, indeed, whether it would be possible. After all, I have to work with my own uncertainties.

PS. For a blistering attack on the walk-about arm-waving formula for factual TV (not just science) see this wonderfully entertaining interview with Brian Sewell explaining how “the BBC’s factual television is an insult to the nation“.


4 thoughts on “TV science: a call for enigmatic ambiguities

  1. Peter,

    So interesting that you mention your brother’s book. It was bought for me as a present from my own brother, who had found the content, and the style, life-changing. We both loved it. My brother is also an actor – and I think what I find so fascinating about your post is that, like Paul’s book, it drips with the kind of ambiguity familiar to people exploring character and meaning through drama. Although a drama has meta-forms that resolve according to narrative norms, the characters depicted within it should never be truly ‘closed’ personalities, because all human characters carry their own uncertainty and potential for contrary outcome. The journey defines us, rather than any predicted nature, result or destination. A quantum superposition, rather than discrete data 😉
    To turn science programming from didactic displays of assurance, or expert displays of licensed wonder, into a true depiction of enquiry and uncertainty would, I think, challenge the communicative assumptions of centuries. The public possesses the cultural codes with which to embrace such an enigmatic turn. Yet, as you suggest, perhaps the public isn’t the problem…

    1. Thanks Steve, and I love the phrase “displays of licensed wonder” (good title for a book). Not sure about the quantum reference but I do agree that through drama the public are very good at handling complexities, potentials and ambiguities. Indeed, without uncertainty any drama would be extremely dull. Unfortunately, I think that uncertainty in science programmes tends to be one of those “didactic displays” you refer to (ie like a lecture on risk) rather than using uncertainty not only to shape the narrative structure of a programme but also it’s tone. If the content is supposed to be risky/uncertain it should have the visceral feel of a thriller.

  2. This made me think that, had your daughter encountered Quarks and Co (a German science programme) on TV she would probably have been able to shout “Dad there is science on TV”! News programmes have a signature that makes them unmistakably news programmes. Science programmes (and history and ….) have not got quite that same uniformity but there are certainly certain forms and formats that are reproduced perhaps too regularly. This might make it difficult to introduce enigma and uncertainty, especially unresolved uncertainty.

    1. Thanks Brigitte, that Quarks and Co programme certainly shouts “science” at the viewer. I think you’re right to suggest that there is a greater diversity to science programmes than news and certainly agree that there forms and formats that are commonly used. Where I think I might disagree is in the possibility of breaking free from them. Difficult? Yes, but we should try. If we don’t then we will be stuck with the “didactic displays” that Steve mentions above or the “eduspectaculars” I mentioned in a previous post. In either case the relationship between science and public is, eventually, likely to be problematic

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