Brian Cox doesn’t dumb-down science. He does worse. He makes it disposable.

A couple of decades ago, when I was half of a failed long-term relationship (technically, a marriage) at its point of rupture, I clung desperately to all my security blankets – favourite books, CDs, DVDs, clothes and even my favourite TV – as a means of reassuring myself that despite the emotional turmoil I was going through, there could be continuity and reassurance.

When something similar happened again some 15 years later, my attitude had changed. It was an opportunity to dump all the meaningless dross that I had collected like flies around a cow-pat. The local recycling centre had never been so busy as books, old IT and other electrical gear, everything from the loft and shed and God only knows what else ended up in their tender care. It was remarkably easy to label previously important stuff as trivial and disposable. So, although it took 45 years to learn, these days I have a well-developed sense of what “disposable” means – trivial, unimportant, sidelined. So…

In today’s G2 supplement to the Guardian, TV presenter and former unknown member of the band D:Ream Brian Cox gets all hot and bothered at people who accuse him of dumbing down science. (link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/mar/24/brian-cox-wonders-of-the-universe).

He is right to be bothered by the accusation, because it’s not true. It’s not the science that has been dumbed down but the role of the presenter. Beautiful, long, lingering slow-motion shots of Brian in a desert, Brian standing on a mountaintop staring off into the sky while a camera helicopter circles overhead and the sun sets behind, Brian posing with his legs akimbo like his testicles need more air than those of the rest of us due to the heat given off by his brain, and Brian chatting to us like a mate in his hire car. We get it, Brian, the entire universe revolves around the massive black hole of your ego.

Cox has single-handedly turned the fine art of science presenting into a Katie Price impersonation competition. Me, me, me, it’s all about me.

But as a result of that, he has morphed science documentaries from the brilliant Horizons of the seventies and eighties and the still excellent Attenborough efforts into trivial, forgettable and worst of all, disposable parodies of reality television. “I’m a scientist, get me out of here”, if you will.

I don’t WANT to be Brian Cox’s mate in his car, I don’t WANT to be impressed by the skills of his helicopter pilot and I certainly don’t want to witness the airflow around Cox’s gonads. I want an authoritative, interesting and informative science documentary which conveys its message without me having to see the presenter at all. Just like they used to be, but so rarely are these days.

The thing about those is that they’re a lot more difficult to write, and can’t be rattled off in a few weeks like most pop science books or TV series. A lot more thought, skill and time is needed to put them together, and time is something a modern media whore has very little of these days.

I worry for the future of science on television if this is the direction it’s taking. When it comes to science, if the presenter becomes more important than what’s being presented, then the plot has been well and truly lost.

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About Paul Harper
These posts represent the collected thought of Paul Harper. Usually rants, occasionally lucid, always easily ignored. Read, don't read, your call!

27 Responses to Brian Cox doesn’t dumb-down science. He does worse. He makes it disposable.

  1. Steve says:

    I don’t WANT to be Brian Cox’s mate in his car, I don’t WANT to be impressed by the skills of his helicopter pilot and I certainly don’t want to witness the airflow around Cox’s gonads.

    I don’t want these things either. But I suspect most people DO. And a popular broadcaster – public or commercial – is bound to reflect that. It’s for the same reason that our news programmes have become almost beyond the parody of The Day Today, and our TV quiz shows so intellectually light but full of suspense. The masses are weak – they are curious, but too easily that curiosity is overcome by the need for spectacle and emotional stimulation. An “authoritative, interesting and informative science documentary” without all this added dressing would not get the viewers.

  2. Paul Harper says:

    Agreed that’s what’s happening.

    However, Attenborough seems to achieve high information content and very high viewers without all the loss of value associated with the ego-wanking that Cox seems to so love. I am sure that with more thought and a LOT fewer pieces to camera he could achieve similar viewer figures without cheapening the whole exercise the way he does.

    Entertainment is only part of the BBC’s remit, and the relentless search for viewing figures at the cost of credibility is prevalent enough as it is without extending it to science programming.

    Cheap television is cheap television however much you spend on it – and I shudder to think how much was spent on the Cox farce!

  3. Steve says:

    I’m not sure it’s Cox that loves the ego-wanking – he strikes me as a reasonably humble and pretty down-to-earth chap. More likely it’s the producers milking his appearance and demeanour for all it’s worth.

    • Paul Harper says:

      Sadly, that’s not the impression I get from his Twitter feed. When “Wonders of the Universe” was first announced, I asked him if there was any chance we’d be seeing less of him in the series. All I got back was a curt “no”. Also, his over-reaction to the BBC deciding to turn down the music.

  4. Beefy says:

    I have to agree totally that Brian Cox has gone too far now, athough I think it was important in the first series for him to actually travel the world because the whole premise of the show was about Wonders of the Solar system that we can see in our own back yard, Earth. But this series I have struggled to keep up with, or even lost concentration because I’ve been lost in a seemingly worthless scene. I find the best presenter is the one that is learning at the same time and Aubrey Manning’s Earth Story is without doubt the best science series I have ever seen, an adventure of a botanist learning about geology as he travels the planet to tell the story of our home, outstanding series. For me I like to see a face to the voice, I connect more with what I am learning, but it’s not all about the face.

  5. Beefy says:

    However, Cox must have nicked the budget this year, because poor old Jim Al-Khalili got a field and a helter skelter for Everthing and Nothing, which was probably more interesting and mind blowing than The Wonders of the Universe.

  6. geoffpaddock says:

    I am not sure this a new phenomenon, Paul, you no doubt remember Sagan’s posturings in the old ‘Cosmos’ series with his virtual starship, strange command of English (“U-mans”) but then again he was a REAL SCIENTIST, unlike Dr Cocks. And again unlike Cox, carl only found he could sing posthumously. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc&feature=player_embedded#at=83

  7. leanne says:

    I think that failed marriage turned you into a bitter old cow if you weren’t one already which would explain the divorce. Brian Cox is good at what he does I disagree he doesn’t trivialise science.

    • Paul Harper says:

      Blah blah blah… If you had bothered to read what I wrote, you would notice I said he didn’t trivialise science, but the role of science presenting. Now go away and learn to read properly before you try writing again.

  8. Charl says:

    I understand where you’re coming from but the main thing that attracts people to his tv series is that it appeals to people who don’t usually watch science documentaries, that’s the whole point. I find him really charismatic, entertaining, and most importantly, he explains concepts in a way that’s easy to understand to the average person. He’s also popularising science which is really important, did you know that the number of people studying physics has risen since his series came out? That can only be a good thing.
    Besides, there’s plenty of other science series to watch if you don’t like this one.

    • Paul Harper says:

      That’s a false “post hoc ergo propter hoc” proposition!

      And yes, I know there are other science programmes. I try to watch all of Prof. Jim Al-Khalili’s ones – his programme on entropy yesterday was excellent.

    • Graham Rounce says:

      “it appeals to people who don’t usually watch science documentaries, that’s the whole point.”

      What about people who DO usually watch documentaries? Aren’t we allowed anything good?

  9. elevengoalposts says:

    When I first read this article, I thought I must have written it myself, but had somehow forgotten all about it!

    For decades now, the presenter has been becoming more important than the subject and/or content, as far as the dumbed-down TV format has become.

    I gave up on Parkinson after a series – it was The Michael Parkinson Show, and then some. The guests, ”*My* guests tonight are…”, got lost in the system – as if the audience gave too hoots about *him*. It was never ”The stars of the show tonight are…”. He could not be compared with (The) Johnny Carson (Show), who had a powerful talent as a comedian, day in, day out, compared with a very modest Yorkshire journalist.

    The early TV (and radio, where applicable) shows on science, history, philosophy, etc, were not sexy by today’s standards, but focused on content, presented by acknowledged intellectuals, and relied on the viewers’ own interest and desire to be informed and intellectually-challenged. Where are the Jacob Bronowski-style presentations these days?

    Listeners and viewers of even modest education, but with intellectual curiosity, looked forward to the quality material presented to them. They were pleased and proud when they grasped the material’s meaning, and read extensively to understand it better – whether it was arts (including music) or science.

    Now, we have the focus on the ”presenter”, first and foremost, filmed segueing across camera, mouthing platitudes, presenting juvenile material that used to appear almost exclusively in the Children’s section of public libraries, supplemented by shiploads of CGI re-enactments and electronic (digitally-enhanced) background ”music”.

    Now, it’s not just ”The History of whatever”, but something like ”Tony Robinson’s History of whatever”, in the vein of ”Bram Stoker’s Dracula”-type of film promotion.

    • Paul Harper says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Thanks.

      • lukatic says:

        Wow kindred spirits here. He goes to the desert to film grains of sand flowing through his clenched fist to describe entropy. *amazing*. With many documentaries, i am looking for erudite and efficient communication of information and am left frustrated. Dr cox exemplifies this for me. However can we start a list to which we can add programmes of worth, without all the visual segways and inane repetition of information we saw ten minutes ago. For me, an excellent communicator is graham harman in ‘object oriented ontology (in the arts)… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJ0GR9bf00g

        would love to be part of something that builds.

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    • Paul Harper says:

      This is a wilful misquoting of what I actually wrote, which while being insulting enough in implying that my English needs remedial treatment for it to make sense (because the quote doesn’t), also completely misrepresents what I actually said. I guess there’s no fury like a fanboy whose hero has been shown to be fallible, is there? Please correct the imaginary quote and use what I actually said, or don’t quote at all. It makes you look like an amateur…

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  14. knockoutpass says:

    Cock’s ego was demonstrated recently in Australia. Knowing sod all(?) about climate science, he insisted the “consensus” of those who do has proved that a climate catastrophe is not far away. “Peer reviewed” research had removed all doubt and the deniers were all loonies.
    Two points Brian: Science is NOT about consensus and peer reviewing is only of ANY value if the peers are not carefully chosen from ONE side of the scientific argument. The truth is Brian can only see as far as his next BBC TV deal and is desperate to show he agrees with everything they say. And that awful smile reminds me of Tony Blair…

  15. john says:

    What a jealous, bitter, deeply offensive little man you are……The mystery of your marriage failures deepens…….

  16. Jim Baker says:

    Agree with what you say. Recently went to his live show which was basically an expensive powerpoint presentation of him spouting facts figures and looking across at his audience as if there were no more interest to him than plant pots. I happened to notice him arrive at the venue, his taxi door was slid back open as it stopped at the barrier 2 yards across from me. I waved as he looked across at me….which was returned by blanking me and looking away.
    OK I thought…maybe his head is full of tonight’s show. Midway through a slightly disjointed presentation we had the Q&A session where a 9y old put a question. His pal ‘Ince’ pointed out he was sitting in the front row as the young lad frantically waved to get attention. Cox didn’t even say his name or ask where he was sitting and totally ignored the poor lad as he went on to reply to the question in his usual ‘Aren’t I great and clever’ Attitude but little regard for his audience except for the gratification of getting money from them, and plugging his books available at the venue. By the time he’d finished answering the young lads question he had already forgotten his name which speaks for itself on how little value he places on his audience except as a money cow to make him rich.
    Very dissapointed at the attitude of the man. If he indeed believes the Earth to be a special place to look after and we should all stop fighting, then one thing that is guaranteed a barrier against that happening is human arragance Brian!
    We were even subjected to out takes of close ups from his BBC 1 show with the song Brian from the life of Brian as (This is me trying to be funny) section. Again another ‘Aren’t I great me me me’
    Sadly very dissapointed and please don’t have the nerve to drop your name in between the likes of Carl Sagen who was extremely good at putting across theories of the cosmos in an exciting way and would certainly not treat his public as just a cash cow with no other interest or appreciation.
    Professor Brian Cox crossed of my list of great people. May have great knowledge of cosmological facts and figures but ignorant of how to value his audience and followers as people.

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