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Radio: Scientists at odds

by
26 October 2011

by Edward Wickham

A “SCIENCE superstar”, an “agent provocateur”, an “evolutionary rock-star” — there is nothing more likely to raise the hackles of your academic peers than descriptions such as these. Not that Steven Pinker minds a bit of argy-bargy. He is used to winding-up experts from a range of disciplines, from neuroscience to psychology to sociology.

On The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), we got some tasters of these controversies. The most dramatic was an archived contretemps with the psychologist Oliver James, when the Radio 3 Night Waves studio was re-echoing to the kind of slanging normally reserved for The Moral Maze.

The Life Scientific is an admirable endeavour: an attempt to profile stellar scientific personalities in a manner similar to that afforded to arts celebrities. It does not elucidate much of the science itself, and some might grumble that the work is obscured by the personality. But we rarely get to hear how a career in scientific research is put together.

In the case of Professor Pinker, it all started with irregular verbs, and the way in which children (mis-) form them. When you correct a child for saying “buyed” rather than “bought”, or “digged” rather than “dug”, be reassured that she or he has grasped intuitively the template for the formation of the past tense.

This kind of work got Professor Pinker his tenured position; and, since then, he has spread his wings, his work ranging into evolutionary biology and genetics. Why he upset the clinical neurologist Oliver Sacks so much is that he argued for a rebalancing of the nature/nurture argument in favour of the former — suggesting that children’s person­alities are determined far more by genetics than we had cared to admit before; and, in his latest book, he argues that the human species has become a good deal less violent over the past 3000 years.

Inevitably, we cannot listen to programmes such as these without hearing about “the book”. Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week) has been the prime, non-fiction book-plug spot on radio for some time, and last week was no ex­ception. What was refreshing, how­ever, was hearing Professor Richard Dawkins talk for at least a minute on the subject for which he is justifiably admired: biology.

His discussion of the eye and its functions was so lucid and engaging that you could temporarily forget all the silliness. His “opponent” in this encounter was the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, although he seemed similarly charmed.

Words and Music (Radio 3, Sunday of last week) took as its theme “The Parish Priest”. It was an endearing and thoughtful sequence, full of domestic humour and home truths. The producer Helen Garrison’s selection contained the familiar (Trollope, Austen, Hardy) as well as some nice surprises.

The author Adey Grummet’s account of the thrill of being a vicar’s wife, and knowing what “the Reverend” looks like with no clothes on was teasingly juxtaposed with the voice of the Archbishop of Canter­bury at the royal wedding. I particularly liked the bathos of the end: Albert W. Ketèlbey’s senti­mental orchestral score Bells Across the Meadow, followed by a line from John Pritchard, commenting that the sounding of bells, rather than stirring the soul, would now more probably result in an injunction.

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