Brian Cox and education through the media

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I read a very interesting piece in the Guardian today reporting that Brian Cox had urged television chiefs to do more to educate as well as entertain.  Can science and particularly forensic science be used to help educate through entertainment?

Television is the most powerful way of getting ideas across. Often, it doesn’t take its responsibilities seriously.

Professor Brian Cox, Radio Times via The Guardian

In an interview reported in today’s Guardian ‘TV Physicist’ Brian Cox (Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and ex pop-star) urged the media to take seriously the remit of education and entertainment.  Obviously the short article took only a few words from an interview but the whole can be viewed here.  The report appears to show him aiming at the talent show idea of get rich quick rather than rewarding hard work through education. The clip is a bit more rounded and he is generally promoting the idea of informing as well as entertaining, not necessarily one without the other.  Science (and in my opinion) forensic science is a very good medium for education on TV.  We have seen the likes of Brian Cox and (in my youth) Jonny Ball promoting science and education on hugely popular factual TV shows, whilst forensic science is featured regularly on drama shows also.

In my opinion the more exposure to science for the public the better.  The more people understand general scientific principles the more they will be able to understand everyday news stories.  I also think that people with a greater understanding of science are better able to weigh up certain decisions and risks.  It also better enables people to understand health related issues – risk factors around heart disease and cancers are often given in the newspapers but without context or understanding are very confusing to the lay person.  For instance is there a real risk from giving children the MMR vaccine or is in fact the risk from driving to the GP three times to get separate vaccines greater?

What is important is the correct use of science.  The use of a Professor of physics is certainly a very good way of getting the background correct but this approach isn’t always the case.  The investigation of crime in dramas is often very badly handled and would not be to the standard expected by the Police or Courts   Proper precautions are not always seen to be taken to preserve forensic evidence, continuity and chain of custody.  Many TV shows have used forensic experts to clarify the contents prior to filming, which is to be encouraged.  I was asked for input on a couple of TV programmes in New Zealand to ensure they were factually correct and one of my colleagues regularly gives his opinion on TV scenes for the price of a cup of coffee.  I know that many authors use forensic experts before writing books.  One interesting event that draws together writers, police and scientists is the CSI:Portsmouth event hosted by the crime author Pauline Rowson.  This kind of collaboration between the entertainers and the educators is really good for promotion of science.

This fleshing out of a story is generally what I am trying to do here on this site.  Finding some interesting scientific stories and some extra knowledge behind the headlines for interested parties.  For example some statistics around horse race testing that weren’t widely published but were available on the BHA website added some interest to the Golophin story last week.

Forensic science is just one example but there are many other subjects that can be used to educate.  Astronomy is an obvious other one.  These kind of subjects are interesting to the general public which means they pay more attention to the content.   I am all for making things popular but sneaking in the science when you’re least expecting!


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Picture of Prof Cox by Dave Pearson on Flickr 



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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.