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Getting science wrong

Boz magazine, 66: 33, November 2001.

Brian J Ford

The 'News at 11.00' programme is said to be pretty good these days. I wouldn't know - can't bring myself to watch it. The opening has the world turning backwards and it makes me dizzy to watch. Night after night it turns, making the sun rise in the west and set where it should have risen. I suppose you could rationalize it and say that it's the view from a spacecraft over the southern hemisphere and pointing the wrong way, but that is hardly the way we look at things in London, now, is it? 'North' goes at the top. The world turns from left to right. Perhaps someone could mention it to ITN.

It's not only the news studios that get science wrong. In a recent episode of Heartbeat, part of the story centred on a lad mixing concrete. The great joke was that he added rather too much water to the mix, so it stayed permanently slushy and never set. That is impossible. Concrete always sets when it's wet. It isn't like poster-paint: cement doesn't dry, it sets. Hard.

On a schools programme on Channel 4 the other day I watched some eager beaver explaining that the cherry-red lava from a volcano was at 1,000oC (the real temperature is far less) and added: 'Water needs very little energy to melt it.' Nonsense. Water needs large amounts of energy to melt. That is why snow hangs around so long, and it also explains why the ice-cubes in drinks last such a long time.

BBC2 for schools offered a gem a bit later: 'Clouds may look like cotton wool but they are really made of water, and when the have too much it falls out as rain.' How on earth is a child supposed to make sense of that little offering? Most little kids are happy to understand that clouds are much the same as steam from a kettle, and they all understand that condensation is water, so why confuse them in this way?

Even ITV isn't immune. One of their television commercials has disaster-prone girl with chap who steps onto a dry bar of soap on a carpet. Whoa! He slips. That's wrong, too. Soap may be slippery when soaked and lying on a wet tiled floor, but soap on a carpet is no more slippery than a box of tintacks.

Here we are, in the middle of the most scientific age in history, and everywhere you look the basic ideas of science are confused. The books are no better. I had an exuberant meeting with the Dorling Kindersley people some time back, who produced one of their glossy science books as an example of what they could do. I opened it at random; each page has glaring mistakes. Were this finance or gardening, nobody would get away with it.

The levels of scientific training are now so low that the technicians in clinical screening programmes regularly miss positive results. In Japan we had the makings of a massive disaster because the staff at a nuclear-processing plant broke the rules and started an uncontrollable nuclear reaction. Time alone can reveal the legacy of disease they have caused.

When matters are so confusing, and the science around us so muddled, what hope can we have for a safe future? There are disease germs around us that we didn't know a generation ago. There is much hope that geneticists may get to the root of the diseases that have struck down people like Stephen Hawking and Dudley Moore. Meanwhile, GMO's are being tested in open fields. Genetics can offer so much - but, in the wrong hands, it could be disastrous.

ITN's backwards-turning world may be a pointer to the future. If ignorance can reverse the way our planet spins and threaten the survival of a Japanese community, then it's high time we made sure the future of science is in hands we can trust.

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