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Feedback: Science on the BBC

Friday 22 March 2013, 17:36

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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I was fortunate to have a pretty good education at Carlisle Grammar School in the early 60s but not in one particular area - science.

Despite some good teachers I was pretty hopeless at physics (30 per cent in one exam) and even less in my final chemistry exam.  So when, at the age of 14, I had to choose between specialising in the arts or the sciences there was in effect no choice. It was the arts. At 16 I scraped through my biology and maths O Levels and then studied only English, history and geography at A Level.

I regret that. I now think that in the 6th form some science lessons should have been compulsory. The teachers would have had a hard time, and so would I, but it would have been worth it.

The result of not doing so, and after taking a degree in English Literature and Philosophy at Liverpool University, was that when I became a programme editor at the BBC I had an inadequate understanding of the context in which to place the science based investigations which we undertook, and insufficient knowledge to adequately challenge some of our journalism. Of course I read up as much as possible, and talked to experts but I was also surrounded by reporters and producers most of whom, like me, had graduated in the arts.

How much has that situation changed in today’s BBC? Not much according to some Feedback listeners, who point to a news bulletin in which hydrogen was referred to as a mineral and to a news presenter who did not know the difference between a virus and a bacterium.

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BBC Science Editor David Shukman discusses how the BBC covers science reporting.

Of course there have been improvements in the quality and quantity of science reporting, particularly on Radio 4, whose Controller has significantly increased science programming following a BBC Trust report, but concerns remain.

In the programme this week I talked to the Corporation’s science editor, David Shukman (a geography graduate).

Also this week we discussed how Radio 1’s Newsbeat treated a report from the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS did not approve and neither did many of Newsbeat’s listeners. So if you want to listen to the full Feedback programme, which includes many other delights of course, including shocking revelations of one of my teenage love affairs (well a bit tepid really) you need only pop over to the Iplayer.

Keep listening, keep writing.


Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.


•Listen to this week's Feedback

•Get in touch with the programme, find out how to join the listener panel or subscribe to the podcast on the Feedback website

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    That adults can rattle off the 10 Commandments but are tongue-tied when it comes to, say, Newton's Laws of Motion is indicative of a systemic flaw in our education system. It was probably much worse when Mr Bolton was at school: illness, for example, was more likely to have been associated with sinfulness back then. It would be interesting to know how many BBC journalists have taken part in the Science Education Programme referred to by Mr Shukman.

    When one hears someone talk about, say, viruses and bacteria one frequently says to oneself "I know that". However, if asked cold to describe the difference problems emerge. A page linked to in the blog contains this:

    "Antibiotic drugs kill bacteria by disrupting their cell walls. But virus' external covering, known as the viral envelope, is almost identical to the host cell's membranes, making them difficult to target."

    News to me, and, I guess, to many others too. More science news and scientifically literate presenters would, of course, be most welcome. It would be most unfortunate, however, if Feedback's reporting on the matter discouraged presenters from commenting on certain issues through fear of having a minor slip blown out of all proportion.

    Robert Winston's programme on DNA was excellent. Did DNA exist when Mr Bolton was at school? Even an arts graduate would see something wrong with the previous sentence!

    Je vais et je vienes...

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    Comment number 3.

    Sadly true, as the excellent Dr Ben Goldacre and
    Simon Singh so frequently demonstrate. These guys have made a career out of debunking badly reported science. Bring em on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Does anyone know what has happened to the podcast of the program broadcast on 29 March 2013? Other Radio 4 podcasts from this date are available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    As an American fan of BBC Radio( online & podcasts) I would like to say how much I enjoyed Radio 2's History of British Comedy. While most of the material was familiar to me as a long time British Comedy fan there were things I did not know or not as familiar with.
    However I wish to mention 3 minor things that could struck me-
    1. no mention ( or did I miss it?) of comedy panel shows on tv & radio through out the years.
    Shows like Just a Minute or Have I got News for you have are just 2 examples of their influence and Longivity.

    2. The impression that Monty Python were the First to use the No punch- line or have sketches ending abruptly on TV- surely that Honor goes to Spike Milligans's Q Series- all of the Python members have stated how much the Q Series and Spike influenced them.

    3. Trying to pack 4 decades ( 80's-to present day) into One episode didn't work in my opinion-too much to cover in too little time.

    But having said that it was a good program all round.

    I only wish the usa had a Quarter the variety of programs on our radio that the UK does- you have no idea the Treasure you have in the BBC. 99% of usa radio is music or talk with adverts.


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Find out about this year's panel and theme