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Topic: The Medium
TOPIC SECTION:
The Medium
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TV astronomer Patrick Moore has inspired generations of star-gazers since 1957, now augmented by a comprehensive website hosted by the BBC.
Credit: Patrick Moore

 

Do you feel dumb? According to a variety of experts you should. Accusations of dumbing down science have been flying thick and fast for centuries. Mathematician Charles Babbage published The Decline of British Science in 1830, acc

Genuine consultation is essential if science is to be celebrated by the public

using the scientific establishment of elitism. The same establishment points accusatory fingers of falling standards today, mainly at the state of science on TV.

Much of the creative side of television is in the hands of bright young things for whom the word ‘mouse’ has only distant zoological connotations. They wield sophisticated computer technology, allowing full scope for their imagination. The flesh and colour of dinosaurs is extrapolated from musty fossil skeletons, the Big Bang is simulated in a visual spectacle, and molecules are invested with personalities. All this makes for highly gawpable TV.

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Charles Babbage, mathematician and pioneer of machine computing, c 1860s.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Critics level accusations of shameless sentimentality and science-as-soap-opera, but these programmes garner previously unimagined audience figures for science-based programmes. If you’ve enjoyed Walking with Dinosaurs, you’re more likely to take a waltz through a museum, or wrangle with a book on the subject. More information on science is available than ever before, and the public verdict is ‘Bring it on!’.

A less obvious technological revolution is taking place at the interface between mass media and its previously passive audience. Suddenly TV is no longer a one-way form of communication. Almost every science programme comes with a website as standard, and you’re encouraged to join in. Choose your level of engagement: take part in a poll on an issue; se
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The first recorded television picture taken from a TV screen, 1926.
Credit: NMPFT
nd a comment to programme makers; or engage in discussions ranging from parallel universes to designer babies.

The trend towards creating a space for voices to be heard, a type of democratisation, is a crucial one for science. It is only relatively recently that policy-makers have realised that garnering support for science is not a case of shouting more loudly, it’s about listening more carefully. Genuine consultation is essential if science is to be celebrated by the public rather than condemned as arrogant and authoritarian. By taking the first step, providing a non-threatening forum for public engagement with science, television is doing science a great service.

 
 
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Topic: The Message
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Although scientific breakthroughs are thrilling and scientists often lead interesting lives, they publish their results in a deliberately jargon-filled and often turgid style. Newspapers want hype and drama, but scientists feel ill-equipped to met this demand. Is ‘dumbing down’ the only solution?  > more

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Topic: The Motive
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Why do scientists need to bother with the popularisation of science? Because modern science cannot ignore the general public. Science needs political support for research funds and liberal laws. It has to become more appealing or lose that support.  > more
 
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