_So, when US viewers watch the sublime Frozen Planet on the Discovery Channel, they won’t see the episode about the dangers of climate change. It's a terrible shame - a missed opportunity. But if you want to blame anyone, don’t blame the BBC. Blame the scientific establishment for being too patrician.
Here’s a shocking statement:
"the words 'science' and 'scientists' are now actively avoided at the Discovery Channel because 'they are perceived as elitist.'"
Discovery Channel will have taken on that attitude after focus-grouping their viewers. And if the viewers of the science-friendly Discovery Channel think science is elitist, something has gone badly wrong.
The above quote comes from a fascinating discussion that’s ongoing at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. If you are interested in how people view and interact with science, I recommend you read it.
For my money, a large part of the “elitist” problem comes from scientists focusing on trying to convince the world that they have a better way of gathering useful knowledge than any other. I happen to think they are right, but I also think it’s a message that is difficult to receive gracefully.
Here’s what Royal Society bigwigs were saying to the BBC about science coverage in the post-war period: “Can we sometimes forget war and atomic weapons, industrial advance or productivity ... and say something more of the history and growth of science, of the great solution wrought by the introduction of the experimental method?’ (That's taken from Timothy Boon’s book Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television, a treasure trove of material on science’s relationship with broadcasters).
Science saw itself as the “great solution”. The Royal Society was able to exert some influence in getting this message across by controlling the supply of scientists for the cameras. During the 50s and 60s, the public image of scientists, on the BBC at least, was of upbeat and optimistic scientists who trumpeted that their work would make the world a better place.
It’s a message that scientists are still trotting out today – Channel 4’s recent series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking had Hawking’s trademark Voice of Wisdom declare “we will show you how science is a force for good” at the beginning of every episode.
Few people doubt science is a force for good. But scientists repeatedly telling us this does smack of elitism. And every time science feels under threat, or undervalued, we hear the refrain again: “we’re making a bigger contribution than anyone else – why does nobody appreciate us?”
Re-imagine it as a husband talking to his wife: “You don’t seem to appreciate how much I contribute to this household.” It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Even if it’s true, there’s little to be gained from saying it out loud.
Scientists and the public are, in many ways, trapped in a bad 1950s, Mad Men-style marriage. This may be one problem that scientists are not qualified to solve. Does anyone have the number of a good marriage guidance counsellor?

Peter Ritchie-Calder (picture: National Library of Scotland)

THIS MORNING I spent a very enjoyable hour or so with Robyn Williams of ABC's The Science Show. We were recording an interview to promote Free Radicals (launched in Oz at the end of August). He told me about the very first episode of the show, which featured Robyn quizzing a member of the House of Lords about energy issues and ending up with a warning about the climatic effects of burning fossil fuels. So, let's play guess the year:

Lord Ritchie-Calder: In the course of the last century we've put 360,000 million tons of fossil carbon into the atmosphere...Now remember, this is coming out of the bowels of the earth, and now we are taking it out and we're throwing it back into the atmosphere, and into the climatic machine, the weather machine, where it is beginning to affect the climate itself. Now this is a very serious matter, and to me there is no question that our climate has changed.

Robyn Williams: Do you expect the limitation to this ever-expanding use of fossil fuels as an energy source to be due to either running out of them or to this second question of climate effect?

Lord Ritchie-Calder: I think what is going to be definitely the factor will be governed by environmental factors, that you will simply be confronted with a situation which will make life virtually intolerable.

You can read the full transcript of the show (some pretty interesting stuff) here.

The year?

1975, people. 1975.

Now I know that Peter Ritchie-Calder wasn't the first to be talking about climate change from burning fossil fuels (see this from ClimateCrock for some older examples). But let's remember, this is not a professional scientist spouting; this is someone who was bringing it up in the UK political arena in 1975. Do we need any more evidence that, without a major catastrophic event or some serious civil disobedience, governments will never act?