Radio review: James Burke’s Web of Knowledge, Crowd Science, and The Essay

01 February 2019

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I HAVE rarely encountered a pro­gramme so ultimately pointless as James Burke’s Web of Knowledge (Radio 4, weekdays). The fact that James Burke’s name — those of a certain age will remember him as the bespectacled presenter of television’s Tomorrow’s World — appears above the title says much about the kind of project this is. Burke has a website which bears his “Knowledge Web”: a creation of his own Institute for Innovation in Education. This series of 15-minute advertorials gave us five case-studies in how Burke’s web is spun.

Fans of the television quiz Only Connect will appreciate the pleasure to be derived from linking apparently disparate persons, places, and events through common trivialities. James Burke’s Web of Knowledge appears to turn this parlour game into an all-embracing epistemological method, boasting in advance that he will show how Mozart is connected to the invention of the helicopter, or what links the 17th-century linen industry to the Brooklyn Bridge.

He then narrates, in a supercilious tone, a route through an otherwise random cluster of facts, and, at a point when the audience is getting restless, the rabbit is produced from the hat. Thus, to get to the Sikorsky helicopter from Mozart we travel via Beaumarchais, Thomas Jefferson, the study of phrenology, Edgar Allan Poe, and Rachmaninov.

As a means of understanding the history of ideas, it is about as useful as a letter-shift game for understanding linguistics. Burke claims that he is “joining the dots”, but a dot-to-dot puzzle relies on an embedded pattern. Or is it that Burke is unwittingly inviting us to appreciate some other, greater, epistemology? In which case, let’s keep talking.

I prefer the question-and-answer method for the dissemination of knowledge. Crowd Science (World Service, Friday) does this particularly well, the question arising from the particular interests of its far-flung listenership. Last week’s provocation came from Uganda: why is it that we as a species tend to bury our dead?

An entomologist described how termites dispose of their dead, and an anthropologist enthused over the practices of certain Indonesian tribes who unearth their dead on special feast days. But, if you really want to know about death, you had better ask a Thanatologist; and, on this occasion, our resident expert gave an explanation for burial which is poignantly contemporary: our ancestors buried their dead so as to stake a claim to the land.

Anyone from Yorkshire would understand — just as they (used to) understand that you could play for the Yorkshire cricket team only if you were born there. Andrew Martin understands the quality of Yorkshireness, and, in his contributions to The Essay (Radio 3, weekdays), in which he journeyed physically and psychologically through God’s Own County, he offered as near a paean to God’s own county as any Yorkshireman — steady and studiously undemonstrative — might manage.

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