Punch and Judy Science Coverage

Punch and Judy

(Since I took the image from their site, and since they are making available lovely examples of the traditional puppets, I’ll make sure you can link to the punch and judy company I found.)

There is a style of coverage of issues which the media in the UK uses a lot, which is really loved by the viewers and listeners. I think it has to do with the tradition of Punch and Judy, which is deeply ingrained into the psyche of a child growing up in the UK. Basically, there’s a fair amount of conflict between two puppets -Punch and Judy- (sometimes coming down to beatings with a bat or truncheon, and yelling of “oh yes it is!” vs “oh no it isn’t!”) and the kids and adults sit and watch this and have a good laugh. Occasionally there are other traditional characters, like the crocodile, and the policeman, but it’s basically just an entertaining conflict between two traditional puppets with funny voices done by the person behind the screen.

Often, it is a lot of fun, actually.

What the BBC’s Radio 4 (especially) likes to do, is use this formula to sustain the listenership of their morning show called “Today”. Basically, a huge percentage of the population all listens to this show every morning. It is a pretty excellent source of news and current affairs that you listen to as you get ready for the day, and/or on your way to work/school/etc. There’s a bit of chatter in the studio, and a lot of reports from around the country and the world on various things, sent in by journalists.

At certain points in the programme, they have the Punch and Judy format. The primary one is the big interview just after 8:00am. These are most enjoyed when they have someone like the journalist John Humphrys to do the interview with some senior politician of the day. This is basically a blood sport that is appreciated by one and all, which has a useful primary output: You get real information about political positions, the unvarnished story behing matters of policy, etc., as a result of a skilled interviewer breaking past the fascade. Actual political decisions at the highest levels have been changed as a result of what has been brought out in such interviews. As an example of the style, see this post that I did about one example a while back.

When applied in certain other areas, the Punch and Judy style has serious shortcomings as a means of getting across real information. One constraint is that they are very mindful of appearing “unbalanced” and so oftentimes they will inappropriate put together two representatives to bring the argument for each “side” of the debate, producing a pairing which does no favours to either side, and ends up confusing or trivialising the issue in the name of, essentially, entertainment. (I’ve witnessed them use a popular comedian in a supposedly serious debate about an environmental issue, for example. Or pair a “research scientist” (male, of course) with a “worried mum” on a debate about immunization. I know what you’re thinking about this latter example: Seems like a reasonable choice of representatives, right? Not if the debate comes down to dryly digested facts and figures about trials and the history of immunization on the one hand, and “but will my Binky get autism?” on the other. Both valid concerns, but a useless set-piece debate to set up.)

One of those issues poorly served by this is science. It is not that the format fails in and of itself, but rather, the editors of the programme often simply give up on trying to do a good job of getting across good science information in favour of having a good entertaining shouting match, and/or a nudge and a wink to the listener which says “this all does not matter anyway”. So given the unwillingness to find a decent amount of time to devote to science, they’ll typically find 4 minutes right at the end of the programme where they’ll squeeze in a tiny bit of “debate”. Sometimes it is something trivial, like debating whether or not the quack of a duck can have an echo, or whether milk should be poured into the tea or tea onto the milk. Nothing wrong with a bit of fun, but when this is applied to something more serious, you can have a problem of serious misrepresentation of the issues.

The typical setup is this: They’ll pick someone for the red corner and someone for the blue corner, maybe play a pre-recorded piece of background information to set it up, and then back come to the studio for a good scrap. They then run out of time, and go to the news. Nobody learns anything, but there was a good squabble, and so everybody’s happy (except those who actually know what the real issues were).

So imagine what I thought when I heard that they had Peter Woit on the programme to plug his new book (which, if you haven’t heard, claims that string theory has failed as a theory of Nature, and that it is a total waste of resources. As you know, I have no problem with someone expressing that as a gut feeling, as long as they acknowledge that it cannot currently be put forward as a fact. Nobody actually knows whether it is true or not since last time I looked we were still all doing research on developing the theory to the point where we can actually address the question).

Given all the pointless screaming and shouting that has gone on about this issue, which has been blown way out of proportion on the web and elsewhere, I was relieved to hear that they had Dan Waldram (from the theory group at Imperial College) to represent “the other side”. Relieved because if there was ever a competition to find the nicest guy in the field, Dan would be in the final stages for sure, and so would likely bring some civility to the fore. The debate has not moved on at all since a year ago, and has become incredibly boring (I tried to explain this to Peter recently in this comment on his blog, and this one, but it seems to have had no effect and so I’ve given up on the whole thing), so I was worried that this would mean that it would degenerate into pointless squabble pretty quickly.

I am delighted to report that I was wrong to worry!

Except for the opening “information” pieces by Sarah Montague and Matt McGrath at the beginning, which were both heady mixtures of fact and fiction masquerading as a neutral piece of factual background, the whole thing was pretty good! (Example of the fiction: Sarah Montague introduces the piece with the statement “String Theory is the theory of how the world works that has held sway for the lat 20 years”. What!? Since when?! Did anyone check this copy? I bet they did, but leaving in such a statement helps with the “establishment vs the outsider” scenario, one of the only two or three angles that will convince editors to give science issues any coverage.)

I think that the BBC was hoping for a lot more heat in the debate, but Peter (who had inexplicably been given a field promotion to the rank of Professor at Columbia) and Dan were models of polite discourse! Neither of them overstated their positions at all. In fact, Peter’s concerns were more reasonably and cautiously stated than I’ve ever heard before, and Dan addressed them well. They listened politely to what each other had to say, and then responded, disagreeing gently but firmly where appropriate, and empathizing with each other’s point of view from time to time. And, the piece was longer than the usual four minutes (it was eight or nine), and was not quite the last thing before the news (it was lumped together at the end with a piece about the new Michael Mann movie, Miami Vice).

I don’t know if anyone learned anything from this, but it was a welcome failure as Punch and Judy entertainment and a success in terms of giving a rough approximation of the issues under debate, and the two sides of the argument. Also, eight or nine minutes was a good amount of time to do this in.

You can find audio of the broadcast here.

Well done to both Peter and Dan for doing a good job!


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6 Responses to Punch and Judy Science Coverage

  1. robert says:

    re Peter Woit’s “field promotion” (miaou or what): in the UK it is well known that all american academics are professors of some sort. That Woit, by inclination and as a consequence of his financial independence, is something of an outsider and less subject to the usual strictures of academe, should have been mentioned to provide context. Sub-Lubos sniggering about discipline might also have injected an element of slap-stick that was, as you rightly say, absent from a very civilised exchange.

  2. Clifford says:

    robert:- Thanks. Two corrections.

    (1) It is not well known in the UK. Far from it.
    (2) It is not true either. You’re thinking of the different ranks of professor from Assistant when you begin, up to full. That is not the case here.

    I mentioned it because it was misleading, either deliberately on the part of the BBC for the reasons I pointed out in the post (adds weight to the spectacle they wanted to create) or by accident. I don’t believe the latter since any researcher half awake would have found the correct designation with Google in a few seconds. If I were Peter, I would have corrected them on air, confident that the strength of my argument, and not my presumed academic rank, could carry the day. But it is easy for me to say…. being aware that one is speaking to a radio audience of several millions does things to one’s brain. You’re supposed to try to imagine that you’re just talking to one person. Even so, it is all you can do to focus on keeping your primary message straight in your head, and so focusing on correcting the reporter might not be a priority.



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  6. grace says:

    what is the history behind punch an judy and how did the writer come up with the story?