Steve Irwin’s big sting and other tales

Beyond science pornography

Bill Hanage 30 September 2006

The message is that science is all big bangs, and it's not cool to know too much about it or you'll end up looking like Dr. Bunhead

Barely has the world recovered from Steve Irwin's final fatal encounter with one of Ocean's Deadliest, the stingray (previously responsible for a whopping three fatalities in Australia), only to be reeling again at the news that Richard Hammond, beloved presenter of the British car program Top Gear, has suffered a 'significant' brain injury after careering off a runway driving a jet-propelled vehicle at close to 300 mph. Two men feted as great communicators, especially of science, have suffered terribly for their craft. Something must surely be done!

One thing we could all do is get a sense of proportion about this. The question of whether Irwin's injury could count as a 'bizarre accident' or what happens if you constantly raise your risk well above minimal around dangerous animals is a good one. I'd rather leave it to the coroner, and simply say that it certainly counts as a tragedy. It was clear that years of risk-taking had degraded his capacity to estimate danger. His hubris when confronted by the press after dangling his baby son in front of a hungry crocodile was shocking to behold. He claimed it would have taken a "meteorite strike" on Australia to have knocked him off his feet. Well, sorry, but that's just moronic.

Steve Irwin was a personality, yes; whether or not that is all that is required these days to qualify as a communicator is another question. By far the most admirable thing to have emerged about him since his demise is his unflagging devotion to the cause of conservation. Was this assisted by his televised antics? I think we have to say the jury is out. It certainly made him a lot of money which he ploughed back into conservation projects. Great. But does the public as a whole understand anything more about biology? About the threat to biodiversity represented by human actions? Or about what we can do to help conservation? Or do they know about how deadly so-and-so snake is? Is that communication, or simply the pornographic end of nature programming?

Richard Hammond presents, as well as Top Gear, the 'science' programme Brainiac on Sky. The latter show, subtitled 'science abuse', is mainly about making things explode. And that is about it. Again, Hammond is bigged up as a communicator. The BBC's Breakfast chose to illustrate this with a telling bit of library footage of him saying “When I push the accelerator and I feel myself pushing back in the seat, that's physics!" I might as well leer at an attractive girl and say "that's biology!"

The Brainiac website, at this stage, has not modified Richard Hammond's profile, which describes him as 'Chief Idiot', and asks him if he has received any injuries from explosions. ("None, but I did fall off a CO2-powered wheelchair."). His lack of scientific qualifications is a subject of pride ("Er, what was the question again?"). The people who are meant to do the 'real' science on Brainiac are a stereotyper's dream of white coats, pocket protectors, glasses and general geek weirdness. The total message is that science is all big bangs, and it's not cool to know too much about it or you'll end up looking like Dr. Bunhead.

I have long disliked Top Gear. This may be because I have an allergy to the sort of machismo-led programming it epitomises. It has a big audience (six million at one count). What a surprise. Try driving on any road and you will encounter people who I would bet like Top Gear: wankers who think that it is OK to speed if you are driving at “the appropriate speed for the road” and that they can judge that better than anyone. Or the odious lackwits that joke about a scoring system for hitting pedestrians. Make no mistake, Top Gear encourages this sort of dangerous nonsense for all its supposed safety advice ("Don't try this at home! But we're going to show you how fun and dangerous it is!"). And while I am sure I'll attract plenty of abuse of the “I enjoy the programme and I've never been in an accident” variety, I can only roll my eyes and add the word “yet”. As for the “You're just a metropolitan snob who likes making fun of the innocent pursuits of normal folk” sorts: then fine, I'm a snob. A snob who likes responsible driving.

The skill of a communicator can be judged by the complexity of what they are communicating. Hence Richard Dawkins (who I could pick many a bone with) counts as a communicator without parallel. In comparison, the achievements of Irwin or Hammond are simply infantile. The work of both possesses undeniable star appeal, and it is hard to tear your eyes from the screen (in comparison, Dawkins' hectoring manner can be a dreadful turn-off for those who do not share his opinions). I would suggest they both count as primary school teachers. The audience has a short attention span, is easily distracted, does not really want to know very much, and may have issues with potty training.

And the achievement of both men is probably greatest in this age group. How many biologists will there be in 20 years who were first excited by Steve Irwin? How many kids are there now thinking “physics isn't all dull” thanks to Hammond? This is a great, indeed essential contribution. But what we have to remember is that this is only the very first step. You have to spend time with less exciting animals, and learning how to do experiments without faking the results. Ignoring this, at best, risks disillusioning people. At worst it could lose them entirely. Science is too important to be left to the people who think that communicating is just a matter of how loudly you shout.