Scientists on Question Time? Boring!


November 18, 2013 by Adam Smith

BBC QT at Grimsby

“Will someone please find us a scientist?” Credit: dweller88 on Flickr.

The thousands of people who’ve signed a petition asking BBC producers to use more scientists on Question Time are barking up the wrong tree.

I don’t doubt for a second that the petitioners have good intentions. I don’t doubt they believe that political debate can be improved if relevant scientists and researchers are present—I believe that too. But the campaign, led by the incisive blogger Martin Robbins, is missing the point if it thinks that QT would be improved by the presence of a scientist. Even to argue for “proper representation” of scientists on QT is a bit wacky.

The main reason for wanting a scientist to appear on a programme like QT is for when issues like climate change arise. When an ignorant politician misreads the IPCC report as meaning that fewer people will die of colds in winter, it’d be nice to have a publicly funded climate change researcher from one of our fine universities enlighten him on telly. I’d like to watch that as much as the next nerd. But I doubt that the scientist would say much else for the rest of the QT episode. While QT pulls together five or six of the major issues of the day, scientists specialise in a teeny tiny area of expertise. They are almost always reticent on other matters. So in a single episode of QT, they’ll shine on the question that is the reason for their invitation to appear in the first place, but my guess is they’d shut up for the rest. That’s pretty boring. It’s not good sport.

And there’s no doubt about it: QT is a sport. The reason why politicians and columnists and comedians appear on it is because they like the ride—it’s fast and it’s furious and it’s their job. Scientists are different. Their professional views are considered, crafted and packaged. They recoil when prodded for a view. They abhor soundbites. That’s because their research conclusions are careful. Their work is always provisional, based only on the best knowledge at the present time (remember Cern issuing gently-gently messages over eight months to announce the discovery of the Higgs boson?). Big issues might be largely settled, but the details are always evolving. A scientist is very careful to present her views in this way—not to strike definitive poses while at the same time presenting the consensus views from her field. How can she walk this tightrope when David Dimbleby is glaring over his half-moons at her, Melanie Phillips is twitching to interrupt and the audience just wants a quick blurb to applaud or boo?

There’s one final reason why this petition is daft—it’s strange to ask for “proper representation” of scientists on QT. They’re not a minority or disadvantaged group. In fact, they have enormous privileges: billions of public pounds plus access to Whitehall and to government (and so they should!). If they’re not on QT, it’s because they know that it’s not where they’ll get their scientific or even their political message across. I note that I haven’t seen any high-profile scientist demand to be invited on to QT.

I want scientists and researchers to be more open about their work and its intersection with politics. And I also want the handling of science in a political context to be better handled by the BBC, the rest of the media, politicians and everyone else (that’s what the Rational Parliament is all about). But the QT circus isn’t the right place for scientists.

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage on hearing about the Rational Parliament. Credit: norbet1 on Flickr

So here’s a different idea with the same intention as the petitioners. Let’s stick with QT as it is. Let’s keep cheering or jeering at the Galloways, the Farages, the Phillipses and the Brands as they shout their way through another QT. But let’s also set up a Brain Booth in a different studio and fill it with a team of researchers, scientists and psychologists who commentate on the main debate. The Beeb could broadcast it on BBC Two straight after the main episode (or OK, go on then, BBC Four).

In the Brain Booth, the climate scientist can explain when one panellist just said something silly about the weather, the education researcher can use published evidence to analyse the latest policy from Michael Gove, the economist can explain whether Ed Balls’ plans would work, and the linguist can point out how they’re all able to win points with a couple of well-timed rhetorical devices.

Brain Booth: the antidote to Question Time anger and exasperation.

Your clerk,



5 thoughts on “Scientists on Question Time? Boring!

  1. M says:

    I agree with the sentiment, though I’ll be boring (and QT-like??) and pick up on the name.

    I’d rather we avoided going down routes of “we’ve got more clevers than you”.

    The Brights tried it with atheism and it was a dick move, and I think science advocates should avoid it as well.

    Politicians aren’t unthinking, they just think in different ways – that’s partly why so few scientists ever get into politics, I’d say. Science is a philosophy and way of life and method of inquiry that focuses on uncovering truth. Politics is about selecting truths, bending them, framing them, as part of a wider agenda. That agenda can be “good” or “bad” – science has no say on morality by itself, we layer that on top with ethics etc.

    Politics is unattractive to a lot of scientists for that reason. Peer review might be irritating, but it’s hardly the jeering playground-like House of Commons. As you say, QT is a certain type of arena, one that is not most science types’ idea of fun.

    Comedians certainly aren’t unthinking, and given the amount of science/comedy cross-over, I’d say it’s wise not to alienate the comedy circuit.

    Journalists might irritate us with sub-par science coverage but again they’re certainly not stupid. Writing under pressure for a living isn’t something to scoff at – and it’s something scientists will generally have in common with them. Many journalists want to do better, and it’s just their profession that pushes them into churning out stuff that’s easily criticised.

    QT picks the worst of the bunches, often, because it’s a sport, as you said.

    But if we opt for something that says “hey you guys over there are being stupid so we’ll just go here and be sensible” just sounds quite patronising/rude and unappealing as entertainment goes, in my opinion.

    I know the point is to make it less entertainment and more fruitful discussion/education, but if it’s going on TV, it needs to be a bit entertaining as well, surely.

    I’ve done a ramble, but I’d just advocate a bit more discussion around the name – maybe it’s the first thing that came to mind, so I’m not going to wag my finger at you, these are just my thoughts on why I’d rather avoid all of that.

    If that makes any sense.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Thanks for the comment Marianne.

      I agree that it’s silly and wrong to argue that the scientists are cleverer. I don’t believe they are. There are stupid politicians and stupid scientists (and smart ones in both groups). My point isn’t that people on QT are just performers without substance and that the scientists should be in a different room because they’re more sensible. It’s that I just don’t see ‘scientists’ fitting in with what QT is about. It’s about short, snappy answers to invoke boos or claps. Anything else is classed as ‘boring’ on QT. I dislike this approach to political debate. I’d scrap QT altogether and create a political debate show with an entirely different format that includes scientists alongside politics types and everyone else – basically, a TV version of the Rational Parliament.

      But until we have that, and as long as QT stays a circus, I don’t see why scientist would want to go there. They’d be murdered. And I don’t think they’d be able to present the kind of complex research-based picture that the petitioners would want them to.

      • M says:

        Indeed, I don’t think the QT format is suitable for nuanced debate – much like Twitter in many cases. It’s a ridiculous slanging match, and I don’t really see how throwing scientists into the mix would help much. If people are using it as a serious barometer for how people feel about these various issues, then that’s a problem right there with your starting point!

        It’s just a good excuse to get angry at people on TV, much like Sunday Morning Live/The Big Questions. And lots of people I like and respect end up on TBQ to try to bring a voice of reason – with varying success, and when it fails it is generally not their fault.

        I think there is a market for more serious debate type shows, though. Build it and they will come, sort of thing – but perhaps the TV commissioners are just convinced that unless it’s Celebrities Do Things, some sort of reality programme or people shouting angrily at each other, it won’t draw viewers? I don’t know how true that is.

  2. M says:

    This is probably relevant

    Although I find the language in it fairly impenetrable at times, perhaps somewhat ironically.

    Would be good to see some of the Twitter chat end up on here! I think Prateek B is Storifying.

  3. Bons says:

    “QT is a sport” — Well your view is wrong completely. It should be a Tool of Democracy. Not a publicized outcry that results in no conclusion 99% of the time.

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