The Big Experiment: What’s the message?

What's good for the science goose?

The Big Experiment

Feast your eyes on that. Hey? Hey?

Sorry about the poor picture quality – I had to scan it off the back of a DVD given away free with The Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago. It’s a publicity shot for The Big Experiment, a reality documentary on the Discovery Channel:

A flagship six-part series that takes a class of teenagers from East London and explodes their misconceptions about science. With the help of three of the country’s most passionate experts, the group of 13 year-olds will be fast-tracked through their GCSE science. No ordinary Science lesson, the series sees them undertake anything from leaping off a 40-foot scaffold, suspended only by helium balloons, to climbing into a phone box to be struck by lightening.

The Big Experiment speaks to them in their own language, challenges them to take risks with science and brings the curriculum off the textbook and into the real world.

But will these kids make it though their GCSE and find science has the power to inspire lives?

Yes, apparently, if you stick cameras on kids an under-resourced East London school (always East London, isn’t it? Never bloody Glasgow or Manchester, is it?), take them on trips and expose them to explosions and more, all financed with roughly the budget for the entire school year, they’ll be more interested in science than they were before. Wow. What an experiment.

Anyway, my interest here is the three hosts. Now, much as I hate to make personal comments, particularly about people’s appearances, I can’t help but note that, to put it leniently, the woman (Dr Laura Grant) is a good deal more attractive than the two men.

There are two ways to look at this, initially, with typical knee-jerky liberalness:

  1. This is a disgrace. Science is above looks, it’s only about truth. More importantly, now that the chains of patriarchy are being sloughed off, we shouldn’t go back to the old double standards of a woman having to look good to be paid attention to, while men can look how they like and they’ll still be respected.
  2. This is a good thing. More women are needed in science. By demonstrating that women can do science and still be attractive, more girls are likely to take up science.

Nevertheless, there is something that kneejerk liberalism will not automatically pick up on.

It’s worth noting that fewer and fewer teenagers are studying science. Opinions vary about why that is, including the idea that teenagers are going for easier subjects (science, in Malibu Stacey speak, ‘is hard’). However, the main argument finding favour is that science is seen as geeky and being geeky is bad.

This argument doesn’t affect just girls: it affects boys as well. Despite various attempts (eg Doctor Who) to convince us that geek chic is in, the general British culture is anti-geek. It’s also worth noting that boys are feeling increasing pressure to look good – although not as great a pressure as girls.

So if knee-jerk general liberal argument two (aka CSI: Miami feminism) is correct, what is the effect on boys of the two blokes in the picture, who I think it’s fair to say are a bit geeky and at least pay less attention to their appearance than Dr Laura (or the Discovery Channel’s make-up team) does to hers? Are we not, in fact, sending the message to boys that if they want to be into science, they’re going to have to be geeks who wear less fashionable clothes and work with women who are way out of their league – in other words, discouraging boys from taking up science? Science may be cool, but are the men who do it cool?

What do you think?

PS Turns out DMAX is Discovery MAX