Naked Untruth

The people behind BBC's Horizon abandon scientific discovery for cheap - and inaccurate - thrills

Nick Cohen

The Latin for the people – populus – has produced two words we foolishly treat as synonyms. A “populist” believes, or affects to believe for the purposes of career advantage, that wisdom resides in crowds. To populists, challenging the audience by questioning its assumptions and knowledge is an elitist assault on the sensibilities of the masses. It is a threat both to business and the comforting post-modern doctrine that all ideas are equally valid.

By contrast, a “populariser” welcomes the complex, and attempts to explain it “in a generally interesting and understandable form,” as my dictionary puts it. Finding a way to pass on a difficult but important argument is the hardest journalistic work there is. Fortunately, many are trying, and we live in a great age of popular science writing. Whatever their intellectual differences, Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Steve Jones, Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Jared Diamond have brought arguments about evolution to large audiences. The most ambitious populariser is the non-scientist Bill Bryson, whose Short History of Nearly Everything displays a master of English prose struggling to find ways to explain the counter-intuitive – actually you don’t see him struggle, as true masters never let the strain show.

Yet while brilliant accounts of scientific debates are everywhere in the bookshops they have vanished from the television screens.

Horizon was the natural home for the Bill Brysons of the BBC who once inspired a generation of young viewers to believe they could understand the universe. Writing in one of the many internet pages lamenting its decline, Matthew Stibbe described how he watched a Horizon documentary in the early 1980s about computer graphics, which was “the catalyst for a lifelong career in technology”. Then the populists at the BBC overthrew the popularisers, dismissing their insistence that the corporation must tackle difficult subjects as the presumptuous affectations of remote elitists.

To his subsequent mortification, Stibbe helped them. As the journalistic fashion turned, the BBC organised focus groups on the future of science programming – a self-evidently stupid idea because if the participants did not know about the latest developments in science, they could not offer an informed opinion on what science programmes should cover.

The BBC did not care and Stibbe found that “the event was full of people who had no understanding of science. One of them was espousing a firm belief in astrology. When I administered words of guidance and admonition, she snapped back and said, ‘What do you know about the wisdom of the ancients?’ as if this was the clinching argument. In the end, I was so frustrated that I started coming up with crazy ideas for future programmes. For example, ‘Inside Hugh Grant’s brain’.”

The populist mood is seductive. When you are caught up in a focus group or planning meeting it can feel reasonable to give the sovereign consumer what he or she wants. Participants have to shake themselves into realising that if they followed the same principles with the young, children would never learn to read and write. In the end, populism always ends up as the truest version of elitism, because it assumes that the peasants do not want their little heads bothered with difficult ideas. In TV, such condescension manifests itself in a sly form of documentary making, which employs stratagems that divert rather than illuminate.

Take the recent Horizon, “What’s the Problem with Nudity?” The documentary makers wanted to ask why humans do not have fur, when other primates do. The scientific consensus is that our ancestors lost their fur when they evolved the means to sweat profusely through naked skin. Their ability to cool themselves had the evolutionary advantage of allowing them to develop large brains, which did not overheat in the potential pressure cooker of the skull cavity. There is hard evidence behind the supposition. A genetic analysis of lice shows that the lice that live in the fur of chimpanzees and the lice that live in human hair diverged into separate species as our branch of the primate family tree parted and our line lost its fur. Unfortunately, you only have to glance at the debate to worry that a modern editor may well decide that it is not “sexy” enough for mainstream television.

So one did. Instead of concentrating on sweat glands, Horizon looked at sex glands. It went further than Big Brother dared and took eight “ordinary people” to a London house and asked them to walk about naked for a weekend. For the first 12 minutes of a one-hour documentary, the crew confined itself to recording their embarrassment at showing their wobbling bodies.

Even after that, the programme could not get to the main point and went off on a tangent as it tried to discover if humans lost their fur because women did not want to mate with hairy men. The late Stephen Jay Gould was suspicious of attempts to dream up evidence-free scenarios from pre-history to explain the modern human condition. “Just-so stories,” he called them. Just as Kipling wrote How the Leopard Got His Spots, so Horizon speculated on “Why the human lost his hair.” This viewer grasped the real point of the apparently pointless detour only when the scene cut to hunky Scandinavian students having their body hair shaved off on the orders of their Finnish professor. The women back at the Horizon house (yes, still naked) generally agreed that the “after” pictures of the boys’ hairless torsos were more attractive than the “before” pictures of hairy chests. A part of what we find sexually arousing is culturally determined, as the varying tastes of men over the decades for voluptuous or boyish women prove. The scientific value of 21st-century women’s opinions on men’s chests thus told us precisely nothing about the preferences of Pleistocene females.

Only after this titillation could Horizon screw up its courage and surreptitiously slip into its main theme: the discoveries on the evolution of sweat glands. It blurted them out and then scurried back for more nudity, justified by the supposition that most societies have a taboo against revealing our bodies because we do not want our partners to make themselves sexually available to strangers – an argument which is probably true and certainly old hat.

I am willing to bet that no young viewers were inspired to consider a career in biology. Subconsciously at least, they must have noticed that in a programme on nakedness, the only thing the BBC wanted to cover up was the embarrassment of an intelligent interest in science.

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