Style and discrimination in popular science communication

Earlier today, a UK-based email discussion forum for science communication professionals was graced with a contribution from a recent science museum visitor complaining about androgynous employees of a Caledonian persuasion, and “frightfully overweight” assistants serving behind the information counter. Needless to say, this foul creature received a textual slapping for expressing such bigoted views in the forum. But what she wrote raises some important questions about the presentation of science in the public arena.

On reading the offending missive, my initial thought was that its author works as a human resources personnel manager or similar. Age and gender discrimination are endemic in the lower reaches of the communications industry, and, in our image-obsessed age, we have come to expect science and other media initiatives to be fronted by physically attractive and bubbly young people, a disproportionately large number of whom are female.

The obsession with youth is a peculiarly British thing. Elsewhere in Europe, it is more common to see middle-aged people presenting television programmes and fronting media events. Still comely, however, mostly women, and unrepresentative of the wider population.

I may be generalising here, and there are notable exceptions to the rule. But one doesn’t have to look far online to see anonymised comments referring to a well-known and highly skilled expositor of anthropological anatomy as “the thinking man’s totty”, and I have no doubt that such consumer demand feeds back into production values. We may be blessed with some exceptionally good popular science on television, in terms of content, but at the same time there is much in the various metanarratives that annoys me intensely, and has me reaching for the off switch.

The kind of discrimination advocated today by the bigoted forum contributor is all too common, despite it now being illegal. Smarter employers and others with influence can get away with it by not giving explicit voice to their prejudices, and obscuring the message in the corporate speak of the day. That goes for science communication as much as it does for other media fields. Style rules over substance.

Maybe we should ask Charlie Brooker to do a special on popular science communication. His recent stuff on aspirational TV is pertinent to this discussion.