The narrative device of striding around looking amazed

Lots of terribly clever people who I admire are busy laying into this on Twitter and I can see why. It’s basically trollnip for skeptics, with a headline which went for provocative and heretical and came to rest on clunky and stupid. It goes particularly badly off-piste at the end where the writer wants to stop the EEEVUL NEUROSCIENCE before it makes rational automatons of us and totally explains away poetry, truth, beauty and the creativity to which journalists presumably imagine they owe their employment. Even I know this is bollocks and I have taken to my current “Evolution of the Human Brain” course like a duck to table tennis.

But if you look beyond all the sniffy stuff about priests and anti-intellectual reverence – and I am actually going to snip it out so you don’t get distracted – this is the main point:

The crucial question, though, is who is doing the worshipping. Cox and co make much of their own humility in the face of natural marvels. They express wonder and we are meant to follow suit. But it’s too easy for the meekness we feel in the face of extraordinary facts to blur into deference towards popular scientists themselves, with their public profile and their privileged access to those facts…

The rhetoric of wonder is all about encouraging participation. But this infantilising power dynamic is not conducive to confident involvement or critical inquiry. It creates an inaccessible aura around science which has little to do with the everyday practicalities of what goes on in labs…

Now, you can cavil at the “privileged” bit depending on the extent to which you believe in technocratic elites. But the reason I know this is actually a valid point and not an assault on the mortal soul of everyone with a BSc is because I’ve long thought something very similar about the popular presentation of the humanities, and in particular history.

I don’t get why TV history is about authority figures relating a narrative. I really don’t. Because it’s not like that at all to work with the stuff. The process of “doing history” is really about being buffeted by a thousand different contradictory opinions, finding out a few things for yourself, and cautiously, with much caveating, raising a plucky little flag over your own carefully incubated opinion which only ventures to comment on a very small area at a time. Gradually, like a Civilisations player, you expand your areas of knowledge and write monographs and edit volumes, and eventually they start letting you write big narrative, and that still gets torn to shreds by everybody else.

(This is a bit of a worm’s eye view, obviously, don’t take this as a career guide. God help you if you’re here for career guidance.)

Yet big, unanswerable, monolithic narrative is what TV history is all about. Rarely is there any sense that there are wildly differing interpretations to be reconciled, long hard slogs of argument and counter-argument to assimilate, whole rival theoretical schools of thought who typically spend twenty years hissing at each other and the next twenty years apologising (this is called “synthesis”), and landmark contributions that suddenly have the effect of making everyone else look bloody stupid (this is called “creating a new paradigm”)  – no sense, in short, of any of the stuff that makes the whole pursuit fun. Historians and archaeologists don’t stay up long into the night at conferences because they like sitting around saying “Hey! That Henry VIII, eh? What a bastard! Isn’t it wonderful to know that!” any more than I imagine scientists do the equivalent. They do it because they like swapping ideas and arguing, and there’s everything that has ever happened to argue about.

I can’t say I get much of a sense of what the intellectual exercise of science is really like from popular science TV. And unlike with history TV, I can’t fill in the gaps myself. I’m guessing most of the people snarking at the above article on Twitter can fill in those gaps, so no wonder they know how to “wonder” in a constructive fashion. They take the wonder as shorthand for something else, just as I do when watching a historian or archaeologist stride across a landscape (male), or gaze soulfully into the distance with windblown hair (female and Neil Oliver). I know this isn’t what they normally do, literally and metaphysically.

It might be jolly if TV science made some attempts to tell the rest of us what it was actually all about, intellectually speaking, and if we did the same for them, so none of us would have to do this totemic “Isn’t this AMAZEBALLS?” striding around business any more. Not easy to figure out a way to do that, but it’s thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, it would be surprising if it were.

TL;DR I think that article has a point.



    1. Very kind, thank you. I wonder if the original started out as better, actually, and somebody (possibly even the author) read the draft and said “Hm, I think we need to jam some more snidey old chestnuts about religion in there”.

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