November 18, 2013 by Adam Smith
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.
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.