Turning the Brass Eye to science

Watching the ‘Paedophillia’ finale of 1990s satirical news show Brass Eye for the first time last night, I found myself plunging from pure hysterics to awkward discomfort with no easy middle ground.

This is comedy at it’s greatest: using humour to question society’s perspective on and the media representation of controversial subjects ranging from religion to sex. As reclusive producer Chris Morris explains in a rare interview in 2003:

“The very specific nature of Brass Eye is in identifying a thoughtless, knee-jerk reaction to an issue. If you deal with drugs or paedophilia, then you’re dealing with something where people’s brains are nowhere near the point of debate.”

Morris displays this ‘knee-jerk’ reaction in its purest form when fooling C-list celebrities to pronounce such absurdities as: “paedophiles have more in common with crabs than they do with you or me. That’s a scientific fact. There’s no scientific evidence for it, but it is a fact” (DJ Dr Fox).

Science appears throughout the series. Rolf Harris condemns an imaginary new drug called ‘cake’ which supposedly causes extreme water retention, fantastically swelling the neck to enormous proportions so that it engulfs the mouth and the nose. Similarly actor and director Steven Berkoff smashes to pieces a toy village to explain the dangers of ‘heavy electricity’ and its constituent ‘sodimised electrons’.

The inclusion of science in these hoaxes is not insignificant. Like these celebrities, the public often regards science as magical and untouchable; consequently we may fail to engage with the scientific issues affecting society. Rather than basing opinions on evidence, we can sometimes react with a similar knee-jerk instinct.

Morris tackles these specific issues head on in the ‘Science’ episode of Brass Eye. Watching a special report about weapons chemicals causing a woman to give birth to a two-foot testicle, he turns to his co-presenter and asks: “What percentage bad science is that?”.  In doing so, he emphasises media misuse of facts and figures, often placed out of context and carrying little meaning.  There is very little engagement with the public on ideas of risk and uncertainty, despite lying at heart of many scientific controversies and the resulting policy decisions.

His co-presenters response of 100 percent is equally significant. A black and white approach to science frames the entire show: each segment is introduced as ‘good science’ or ‘bad science’. Likewise, showing a picture of a crab pregnant with a human fetus to horse pundit John McCrick, he asks: “Is this right or wrong?”. Such polarised certainty stifles the debate necessary for responsible society driven science.

Following in the footsteps of Morris, why not satire current scientific controversies to shock people into debate. Human-animal hybrids, ‘Frankenstein foods’ and apocalyptic climate change all hold enormous comic potential, albeit a little dark. Morris stopped producing Brass Eye because it became “depressingly routine”— conning gullible celebrities was just to easy. Conning scientists, on the other hand, could present a new challenge, while also showing an oft-unseen normality to counter the stereotype of the infallible boffin.

As much as the knee-jerk reaction to scientific controversies needs to be questioned, so too does that towards scientists as unquestionable gods (Morris, always one step ahead, already does so with his rather close-to-the-bone impersonation of Stephen Hawking). While such tactics could arguably undermine the scientific authority needed for us to trust scientific research, a little bit of constructive public caution and criticism towards scientists is, in my eyes, very welcome.

Thomas Lewton is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College and is an Editor of Refractive Index.

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