It's science, Jim - but not as we know it

February 17, 2006

Scientists' work is rarely shown in TV dramas, but when it is, Robert May finds artistic licence can be utterly irresponsible

Most people get their information about what is happening in the world from television. So it would be good if television could offer more than it usually does by way of engaging drama that involves the issues raised by the increasing pace of advance in scientific understanding.

Consider the recent four-part ITV1 series Eleventh Hour , which featured Patrick Stewart, who is more familiar as the commander of the star ship Enterprise , as Professor Alan Hood, the UK "government science adviser".

Hood leads a more dashing life than I did when I was Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. His time is spent running around the countryside accompanied by someone who appears to be his sole member of staff, a gun-toting Lara Croft figure who is his "protection officer" (and he needs one).

The first episode gets off to a good start as Hood tracks down an unscrupulous scientist (henceforth abbreviated to USc) trying to clone a wealthy industrialist's dead son. Although lumbered with a clunky script, Stewart manages unobtrusively to convey the essence of the Government's position: "yes" to research on therapeutic cloning, which offers beneficial new medical procedures, but absolutely "no" to cloning humans.J In the second episode, another USc has started a poxvirus epidemic. Here, the underlying epidemiological science is melodramatically misrepresented:

"In 24 hours, the (virus) will be on every continent." Episode three and another USc, this time in cahoots with unscrupulous industrialists who deny the reality of climate change and are prepared to kill to suppress the publication of a scientific breakthrough. But our hero Hood wins the day, and we close with dramatic depictions of the "breakthrough" prediction of a temperature rise of 13C by 2100 accompanied by a 1.8 metre rise in sea level that leaves half of Britain under water.

In my opinion, those seeking to bury this publication were doing its author a favour. But we might have hoped for a government science adviser who was more familiar with the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, much less the topography of the British Isles. Mainstream climate-change predictions are deeply serious enough without parodying them by exaggeration.

Science, when it appears in TV drama, fares badly. On BBC One, Martin Shaw is the liberal, libidinous and eponymous hero in the excellently produced drama Judge John Deed . But in recent episodes, science has been presented not merely badly, but in a seriously irresponsible way.

Three weeks ago, the court action involved an admirable animal-rights activist who had been falsely accused of killing a scientist with a bomb.

It turned out that the USc, terminally ill with cancer, committed suicide in a way intended to discredit protesters. The defence of medical research using non-human animals was presented in a consistently unsympathetic way, usually in the form of pompous rant by cartoon researchers.

In the following episode, the action revolved around purported evidence of the damage done by combined vaccines.

And on a roll, the court focused last week explicitly on the measle, mumps and rubella vaccine and the alleged harm it does. In this, an unholy alliance between the Government and the pharmaceutical industry involved the murder of a whistle-blowing researcher, while "expert testimony" gave "evidence" - none of it rebutted effectively - of vaccine-associated damage going well beyond the most extreme of the discredited claims that have actually been made. These are the wilder shores of media irresponsibility.

To end on an upbeat note, I can recommend ITV's Numb3rs , a US import produced by Tony and Ridley Scott. The show features two brothers, one of them an FBI agent and the other a university mathematician, along with his senior colleague (the superb Peter MacNicol, whom aficionados of Ally McBeal will recall as John Cage). MacNicol's introductory voiceover tells us "math is around us every day, in everything we do" - Jand the plots illustrate this, in natural, watchable and convincing ways.

Unusually, all the mathematics, although lightly presented, rings true. The epidemiological episode is uncompromisingly accurate (in sad contrast to Eleventh Hour ) and gripping. When equations appear, they are real (unlike the gobbledygook in the climate-change episode of Eleventh Hour ).

There is, of course, a significant audience for well-produced programmes on science. Sir John Krebs's Royal Institution Christmas lectures on Five drew prime-time audiences of more than 1 million. But for wider public engagement between society and science, we need watchable dramas in which the science is done well. There are a few examples that show it can be achieved. Unfortunately, many more show that it is usually not.

Lord May is a professor in the zoology department at Oxford University.

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