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Null points for BBC Horizon's junk science

Not just Horizon, you say

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Last week, the BBC Horizon's science show drew exclusively on New Age cranks for a programme entitled "Human v2.0". We thought it may have been made by a cult - but you were even less impressed. A new low for the BBC, or a part of a trend...or both?

Here's what you think of the "singularity" special - and the corporation's treatment of science in recent years. Along with the creepy pedo stills from the "show":

You're absolutely right in everything you say and its treatment of a potentially interesting subject was indeed error-strewn, superficial and sensationalist.

Where was Roger Penrose? Where was any serious treatment of the mind/body problem?

However, this is in keeping with the dumbing-down that's characterised Horizon over the last few years. Phrases such as "altering the *very* nature of <insert your own time/space/mind word here> itself" have become its trademark in a bid to bump up viewing figures and pander to a sensationalist mass [trans-Atlantic] market.

Mind you, it's not alone, and it's genuinely difficult to find a serious science or nature programme these days. Even the New Scientist magazine is dumbing down )

It's pandering to a larger American market and is also forcing terms such as "cellphone" upon us - presumably because our cousins across the pond wouldn't be able to work out what a "mobile phone" was. [Sigh...]

Regards,

Jeremy Scott


To think I gave up a whole hour of my life for that drivel, and they couldn't even focus the cameras. Are blurred shots of raving 'scientists' supposed to make them seem more important or something? I'm lost.

There's one point that these people who forecast super intelligent, human killing computers always miss: When you turn on a massively intelligent, but empty, computer brain it will be on... and still be empty. No matter how powerful it is you still have to program the damn thing to compute anything. It wouldn't necessarily have the means to collect and filter external information like eyes or ears etc needed to become 'aware' therefore, in order to make it evil, someone would have to tell it is so and then write another program to tell it what to do now it is evil.

Ah well, it stirs up the fear in the common populace, I guess.

Alasdair Weir


I relished every word of your review of the Horizon programme. It was a travesty. I hope that a copy ends up on the desk of the Director General of the BBC.

The second episode of Simon Sharma's 'The Power of Art' last night was equally as cheesy. Sharma now has his name above the title (which may be an attempt by the production team to avoid any suggestion of collective responsibility). Sharma's facial and neck contortions when he was presenting suggested that he had either originally graduated in Indian dance or was trying to convey the reptilian nature of Renaissance Italy through body-language.

The programme as a whole was contorted: lots of people running down corridors with long coats flapping about them (I wonder what movie that particular iconography was borrowed from?) and chiaroscuro close-ups of intense doe-eyed young men with long hair. This, plus the worst background music ever dubbed onto an arts programme.

Awful beyond words.

Robert Houlton


I wrote to Auntie about their crass treatment of the sciences at the start of their last series and got the usual dusty reply. You have to realise that they are stuffed out with Oxbridge Establishment mafiosa and their useless progeny. At best they have a degree in classics, at worst they dropped out. At the Beeb, they don't know one end of a test tube from the other and care a good deal less.

The Beeb is a milch cow to soak up public funds and reward the great and good with a sinecure. Sadly, it can be a bit like this in the Oxbridge science departments - more of a promotional exercise than cutting edge discovery.

Anon.


The Science/Nature page of the BBC News website posted, as it often does, an advert for it masquerading as a science article. I think I got three or four paragraphs into it before giving up in despair at its utter uselessness. At the same time there was another article on the Technology page marking the release of the latest Firefox iteration. Presumably because name includes the mystical symbols '2.0', the headline trumpeted 'Firefox browser for web 2.0 age' when anyone who has the slightest clue what they're talking about knows that 2.0 just means its a new iteration of a piece of software - a significant new iteration maybe, but that's all.

All this illustrates that the majority of BBC reporters do not understand science and technology, even those employed specifically to report on these subjects. With a few exceptions this goes for the rest of the mainstream media as well. It even penetrates the specialist scientific press, at least at the populist end of the spectrum. This week's edition of New Scientist contains an opinion piece on unmanned and robotic weaponry, that does a lot of hand wringing and worrying about machines killing people and worse making the decision to do so themselves. As a an example of this danger, it uses the example of an armed Predator UAVs taking out an Al-Qaeda target in Yemen, whilst failing to mention that at all times in this and every other Predator mission, there is a man sat at a screen flying the aircraft and deciding when to release weaponry (not to mention the chain of increasingly senior officers and lawyers who have to agree that the target is valid). Whether these omissions and errors are made through ignorance or in order to further a specific point of view, it can only serve to weaken the understanding of the reader.

All in all science and technology and being very poorly served by those who are supposed to tell us about it, and as you alluded to at the end of your article, the effects are showing.

Mike Plunkett

Creepy child, courtesy of BBC's Horizon


Not sure the present tense is correct - I was under the impression that apart from a few small enclaves, science had been abandoned by the beeb long ago.

I think the turning point was the axing of Tomorrows World, and I think that had been going downhill since it lost Raymond Baxter.

Simon


I gave up on Horizon more than 10 years ago, after their tabloid piece on the extinction of the dinosaurs. They didn't even bother with balance in that one, they just said that "the riddle has been solved at last", despite the fact that there was then - and still is today - considerable debate in the scientific community over exactly what did for the dinos (sorry, this tabloid stuff is catching). It's really sad to see Horizon doing this, given its track record in the past - my all time favourite documentary was Horizon's piece on the Zeugma mosaics.

Colin Sharples


Thanks for that article. After seeing the Horizon in question, the irritating, credulous and clueless approach to the horrendous Warwickisms on show left a very bad taste in my mouth. The assumption that a computer could be built to match the complexity of the human brain in the next 20 years is all well and good, assuming complexity is the only significant thing about the human brain, but the assumption that the software to generate a mind with it will instantaneously appear from somewhere was totally baffling to me. It takes long enough to write working code at present levels of complexity.

Horizon seems to swing between absolute any-other-explanation-is-inconceivable scepticism and vacuous credulity entirely based on which has the best chance of grabbing the most headlines. It's a shame as I'm sure it used to be pretty good.

Ben Moxon


I had many of the same thoughts as you while watching this ludicrous piece to piffle. What happened to the BBC that showed such wonderful programmes as Cosmos and The old series of Horizon?

No wonder the new generations of children aren't being inspired to go into the sciences when Cosmos has been replaced with "Space" (Nice graphic but no discernible cosmology) and horizon has been dumbed down to such a degree at to contain no actual factual information or background material behind the vignettes of half baked "scientists" talking about their wonderful theories seemingly backed up with nothing but ego and rather bad geeky in jokes.

Keep up the good work,

Dale Cunningham


Loved your critique of the BBC's Human 2.0 programme. The whole programme seemed to reek of a contempt for the human body and all its weaknesses and limitations. Wasn't it old Descartes and his dualistic thinking all over again? Or have I got the wrong philosopher? As if we could separate the body from the mind/brain without utterly altering (destroying?) the latter. Tony


The distinction between increased intelligence and increased computing power is a very subtle one which even some academics claim doesn't exist (usually ones called Warwick).

However, the distinction can be very easily seen by looking at something as simple as a chess video game from 1983:

http://www.intellivisionlives.com/bluesky/games/credits/strategy.html#chess

"(The programmer) tested the program by playing countless games against the cartridge at all levels. He found that when playing at the highest levels, the cartridge was good, but slow. He got in the habit of making a move, then going home and letting (the console) think about a response overnight."

In other words, the processor of the console wasn't a limit on the skill with which it played chess, it was a limit on the SPEED with which it played chess. The more patient the user was in waiting for a response, the higher the quality of the console's chess.

Had they put in a faster processor the console would have played more quickly, but the actual moves themselves would have been just as good. The processor upgrade would make no difference whatsoever to the "intelligence" of the console, only to the patience required of the human playing against it.

The real key to making a computer do anything better is by writing a better program, rather than making the hardware better. If you're only interested in seeing the best response a computer can give, you wouldn't care how long it took to give that response, so the actual hardware speed wouldn't make any difference to you.

Of course in the real world people aren't infinitely patient and want to see a response as quickly as possible, but that's no criticism of the quality of the response, only its speed, and that's why in the real world we have constant processor upgrades on computers.

(Obviously another use for faster processors is to create better graphics but that's also entirely for the benefit of humans who like to see pretty pictures, and doesn't have anything to do with making intelligent decisions.)

-kris

PS: Good job for standing up to these fantasy programmes masquerading as science. FYI Horizon has been doing this for years, they arbitrarily adopt one position on some key issue rather than simply focusing on one key issue and presenting a variety of positions. It's very frustrating, and the opposite of educational, but they seem to think the average viewer can only cope with one clear "narrative", no matter how deceptive such a view of the world might be.


Great review, Andrew. The non-sequitur (of many) that jumped out at me was the implication that once computers were cleverer than us, we would automatically become cleverer, too.

Not on this evidence, we won't, although I suspect we have the small but useful advantage of not having to be plugged in to work...

Sorry to see such tosh on the Beeb - I guess Moore's law applies inversely to TV programming.

James Pickett


It made one reader happy, though. Here's one of just two emails we received defending the Horizon program:

I rarely watch television so I haven't seen the programme on which you commented.

However I have to disagree with some of your criticisms. The singularity is almost inevitable; it may be delayed by religion or war, but it will happen, if not in our lifetimes, then in a thousand years. Software is not necessarily buggy; people choose to buy buggy software like Windows. Control system software that I wrote a couple of years ago had to be bug-free, because it has to work until the next planned update 30 years from now. Bug-free software might be lagging behind, but it does exist and it will get faster and faster.

I suspect the singularity will go largely unnoticed by most of the World's population. There will be the opt-ins and the opt-outs and the too-religious and the too-poor and the too-ignorant.

Creepy child, courtesy of BBC's Horizon

For a final thought, how does anybody know that the singularity hasn't happened already? A hundred years ago or a billion years ago? If those fellas in the flying saucers came from some other solar system, they would surely not want to visit Earth, sexually abuse psychotic people in a drunken orgy and then crash their saucer. So I suggest that a human or pre-human race invented technology (Incas or Atlantians always look good in a story) and transcended the human condition. Now they've been flying around for ages without being noticed, and we can't even buy duty free booze any more.

Regards,

John O'Leary (I think I'll put a 2 before the O in my name when the time comes :-)

Make sure you do, John.

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