Home > Science, TV Reviews > Bang Goes the Science Education

Bang Goes the Science Education

Recently, I was deeply impressed by the BBC’s Dr Regan’s… series, in which the only moderately scary Professor Lesley Regan, with help (via narration) from Malcolm ‘Lubricated Horse Cock’ Tucker himself, explained the basics of evidence-based medicine, cosmetics, baby products, and more. They showed how to look for evidence that the products you buy actually work, and talked through concepts like experimental control groups and peer review. It was all done in a stylish, non-patronising manner, and I only wished the series was longer than four hour-long episodes.

With this and other excellent programmes being shown on the BBC recently, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to the first episode of their new flagship science programme, Bang Goes the Theory, which aired on BBC One on Monday evening. You can watch it here. Would it talk about the latest exciting findings in science? Would it explain how theories are built up and amended as new knowledge is uncovered (you’d reckon so, from the title)? Would it show why the scientific method is so powerful and useful?

Well, er, none of the above. Below the fold, I’ll go through each segment of the show and the daft misconceptions of science it promoted.

1) CCTV Technology:  Science is used by the government to spy on you. In this segment, 2 of the team of 4 wide-eyed investigators were wowed by a machine which can recognise anyone from their gait. Pretty impressive, definitely, but hold on a second. Is this the best way to start a programme which is supposed to engage the public in science? In a society where there are substantial problems with the use of CCTV cameras and whether or not they actually work (hint: they don’t), is an item like this on a science show a good idea? They may as well have said: ‘worried about your civil liberties? You should be. Science, and in particular this tweed-wearing owner of a magic technicolour corridor, is working to remove them as we speak!’

2) The Vortex Cannon: Science is good for doing fancy but useless tricks. In a Blue Peter-style section, another of the beaming, over-enthusiastic team played at knocking over bottles by blowing air out of a tube. Whoever thought this would be interesting or engaging was blowing air out of somewhere else.

3) Craig Venter is on a boat: Science is about rich men with the answer to all the world’s problems. To be fair to the programme, this was by far the best section. A shame, then, that it skimmed over every single issue. Want to know how the micro-organisms Venter is creating will remove CO2 from the air? Want to know how he’s artificially building a genome? Nah, the programme decided that wouldn’t be interesting, and instead the presenter repeatedly asked Venter inane questions like ‘won’t some people be a bit fwightened of what you’re doing’? Christ. I’d have had her walk the plank after about ten minutes. ‘That was such an interesting film’, says one of the other presenters, breathlessly, after it’s done. Who is he trying to kid?

4) Cooking an egg with paper: Science is for doing quirky things in your livingroom! Yan Wong, evolutionary biologist and co-author of Richard Dawkins’ magnificent Ancestor’s Tale, is reduced to standing in the street, showing people how to cook an egg. I’m not kidding (yolking?). A pathetic waste of talent which reinforces the notion that science is fun but fairly useless.

It seems, then, that you can’t judge a programme by its title. A weekly explanation of a major scientific theory, along with the arguments pro and con, would not only be wonderfully educational about the topic at hand, but would allow people an insight into how science actually works. Alas, Bang Goes the Theory was more focused on emphasizing the quirky/showy aspects of science, and not bothered with anything more edifying. The BBC clearly mean well – I’ve seen loads of publicity for the series, and there is an accompanying website and roadshow that are obviously trying very hard to get people interested – but I’d suggest that in the long run, for the above reasons, this kind of thing is doing science education very few favours.

Of course, a caveat to all this is that the show might have simply been off to a bad start. Let’s see what happens next week. Get it right, BBC!

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  1. AlexMagd
    July 29, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    It basically looked like Brainiac but on the BBC. I’m fed up with attempts to make science cool and attractive to the 18 – 25 male demographic; it’s awesome on it’s own! Remember when Panorama and Tomorrow’s World were actually good and sciencey? Ahh

  2. The Sad Professor
    July 29, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    If I’m honest, I didn’t mind the show that much, but I can see where you are coming from. I think the thing you have to remember is that, in todays often “dumbed down” media world, “Bang Goes The Theory” is about as good a science programme as you are going to get on a primetime BBC one slot that will keep the majority of the audience interested. A science show with more serious, but potentially more interesting, content may struggle to do this. On the flip side though, perhaps such a show isn’t a bad thing? Such pieces as the “cool” Vortex Cannon will not only fascinate younger viewers, but potentially act as a catalyst for some to develop a more serious interest in science as they grow up.

  3. Stuart Ritchie
    July 30, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Thanks for the comments!

    Sad Professor, I take your point about it being the best we’re going to get, but that doesn’t mean we have to love it! It could have included at least SOME serious discussion of science.

    And if kids go into science because of the vortex cannon, they’re going to be helluva disappointed when they see what science is actually like…

  1. May 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm
  2. May 20, 2010 at 12:02 am

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