The BBC is widely respected around the world, and is held up as a broadcasting standard to aspire to. Such respect places a heavy responsibility upon it to do everything within its power to ensure that this is deserved.
In matters political, the BBC has a duty and a desire to be rigorously balanced. There are strict rules in place and, despite occasional claims of left-wing bias by the right-wing press, and right-wing bias by the left, it makes a pretty good job of it. It’s a shame therefore that in matters scientific it does not feel the need to apply the same standards. Here are some programmes I have noticed down the years which promote the orthodox viewpoint, and which are therefore misleading because they ignore important relevant material:
In 2016, neuroscientist David Eagleman presented a series for BBC4 called The Brain (1). During the series he presented his unsubstantiated opinions as facts – he considered them to be facts because he was operating from a purely materialist preconception. (For details see my post The Folly of Modern Neuroscience.)
The Big Bang. This is of course the widely accepted orthodox view of the origin of the universe. It may be true, but it is based on some very dodgy science (a post will follow to explain this), and therefore should remain controversial. Despite this, in 2016 Jim al-Khalili presented two programmes in quick succession, telling the orthodox version of the story. The first was on 17/1/16 (2). If we didn’t get the message the first time, a new version a few weeks later went over exactly the same material (3). Since BBC4 is very keen on repeats, one wonders why they couldn’t have just repeated the first one, at no extra cost.
David Attenborough, admittedly a national treasure, loved for his excellent programmes about the natural world, is allowed free rein to express his uncritical enthusiasm for Darwin. The most obvious example is Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, first shown 1/2/2009 and subsequently repeated. In it he states that “two hundred years ago a man was born who was to explain this astonishing diversity of life. In doing so, he revolutionised the way in which we see the world and our place in it” (my italics). So we are led to believe that this is a fact, not something that, despite widespread acceptance by many, remains very controversial. A more accurate description, I believe, of his work is given by Francis Hitching, himself a producer of TV documentaries. Quoting Attenborough’s account of the evolution of fish in Life on Earth (a book based on a BBC series), Hitching says: “Such accounts are really not much more helpful than a line of plausible patter before a conjuror says abracadabra and produces a rabbit out of a hat” (4).
The case of Alfred Russel Wallace.
The orthodox story is that he came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection about the same time as Darwin, therefore deserving equal credit. He was not given recognition at the time, and has therefore been to some extent lost in the historical account. Two BBC programmes supporting this version of events were:
a) an edition of radio 4’s In Our Time, 21/3/2013.
b) A two-part TV series entitled Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero (21 and 28/4/2013), in which the comedian, a big fan of Wallace, embarks on a mission to rehabilitate his reputation, and give him the recognition he deserves. He achieves his ambition, the climax being a portrait of Wallace at the Natural History Museum alongside the statue of Darwin.
What is the true story? Whatever Wallace may have thought in the late 1850s, by the end of his life he was a firm believer in God and Intelligent Design, as is clearly shown by the title of his book The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. In it he states his view that the purpose of evolution is “the development of Man, the one crowning product of the whole cosmic process” (5). He was also a firm believer in spiritualism, as evidenced by his book Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. (Both are available as free online downloads.) Neither BBC programme found the time to mention any of this, even though the first was specifically meant to be an account of the life of Wallace. (For more details, see my post Alfred Russel Wallace.)
Radio 4 broadcast a series of five programmes called Our Dreams: Our Selves, written and presented by Lucy Powell (6). This was described as a general history of dreams, and yet there was not one mention (even if critical) of Carl Jung, who developed a whole therapeutic system based upon dream interpretation. There was, however, a whole programme devoted to Sigmund Freud. Apart from his one major insight that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”, just about everything else he said about dreams was, in my opinion, wrong or at least highly controversial. In the history of dream interpretation Jung is a far more significant figure than Freud (7).
First shown on BBC4 on 2/11/14 was a very sympathetic portrayal of James Randi entitled Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds. As you might guess from the title, the programme left the viewer with the impression that all psychics are frauds. There is no doubt that Randi is a highly talented magician, escapologist and, as the programme demonstrated, has done some excellent work in exposing some frauds. However, his general attitude towards ESP (psi) seriously lacks credibility. An obvious example of this is the subtitle to his book Flim-Flam: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions (8). He obviously does not have an open-minded, objective, “scientific” approach to the study of the reality of ESP, which has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt (9). It is interesting that over ten years before the publication of Randi’s book (1969) the (American) Parapsychological Association became affiliated with the American Society for the Advancement of Science, not exactly a radical or revolutionary organisation. This development gave such research an obvious stamp of credibility, but Randi did not take the hint and gave vent to his rage (10). [On this occasion, the BBC had provided some balance by showing an interesting documentary The Secret Life of Uri Geller (11).]
So these were several examples where the BBC has accepted without question scientific orthodoxy, even when this is highly debatable and controversial once one digs a little deeper. The presenters of all these programmes are very likeable; they are enthusiastic, speak with conviction, thus giving the impression that they can be trusted – after all they have been employed by the BBC! But, as I hope I have shown, they often provide incomplete and therefore misleading portrayals of the subject matter. Are they given a free rein? Do not editors and producers have a duty to do some checking and step in?
What should we do about all this? I’m not going to start a campaign myself, but would be happy if anyone reading this felt such an urge. In the meantime, be wary of what you watch and keep checking!
(For further related material, see my post Genius of the Modern World.)
1. BBC 4, six weekly programmes commencing 21/1/16 2. Horizon, BBC4, Lost Horizons: the Big Bang 3. Programme 1 of The Beginning and the End of the Universe, BBC4, 22/3/16 4. The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong, Pan 1982, p24 5. Preface, Pvii 6. 23-27 September, 2013 7. For a true account of Jung’s importance and the role of dreams, see Jung, the Wisdom of the Dream by Stephen Segaller and Merrill Berger, which accompanied their Channel 4 programme The Wisdom of the Dream. 8. Prometheus Books, 1982 9. See, for example, the books of Dean Radin, especially The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, HarperCollins, 1997. He actually says that both Randi and Geller are “irrelevant to the scientific evaluation of psi” and therefore “not a single experiment involving either person is included among the thousand studies reviewed in the meta-analyses” in his book (p267). 10. Flim-Flam, p230f 11. BBC2, 21/7/13