The Science of TV
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, on a heavy diet of carefully crafted and thoughtfully produced educational tv programmes that even Lord Reith would've been proud of; from The Ascent of Man through to Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World. Last year, I bumped into the tv presenter Johnny Ball (oh, how even his name evokes fond memories in seventies-kids like me) on a cruise ship, where he told me how he had liked my lectures. I gushed in response, that the educational programmes he made during my childhood where the reasons why and how I became an academic who enjoys a good lecture. How quickly then, that the conversation turned to the demise of good "educational science" on tv. As a result of the impressive nature of educational tv in my childhood, I grew up firmly believing that tv should always be made by people who are cleverer than me. There's a lot to be said for that - although some will no doubt debate what "cleverer" really means.
As a psychologist who makes a few appearances now and again in the broadcast media, I often become cynical about the process of making tv programmes or contributing to news programmes. When broadcasting about science in a fast-paced competitive media industry, depth and understanding are usually sacrificed in favour of brevity and simplification. While I understand that broadcasters often need to go-at-the-speed-of-the-slowest, it worries me that science on tv will continue to suffer from a lack of sensible coverage. At present the only substantive and regular tv outlets for science fans involve either forensic recreations of deaths and murders, gadget-fixated review comparison shows, lazy CGI disaster recreations, or "how it's made" shots of industrial processes and production. What is lacking in front of the camera is the method and the critique - science tv could be so much more than the non-critical point-and-click style that it often currently adopts. Perhaps I'm getting too old to appreciate tv for what it is, but Thursday nights without "Tomorrow's World" have never seemed the same to me; documentaries without James Burke have never had the gasp-factor that his had.
In a month when the British Psychological Society has encouraged the debate about the importance of the scientific method, rigour and replicability in behavioural sciences, it has struck me that the time-consuming and laborious technical procedures used in filming, producing, lighting and recording tv programmes (undertaken by teams of highly skilled and technically proficient craftsmen) are usually of a scientific standard that is often far higher than that of the topic they are focusing on.