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Radio review: Hoax, The Huberman Lab, and The Early Music Show

01 September 2023

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Hoax (Radio 4, weekdays, last week) told the story of a biologist injecting his toads with Indian ink in an attempt to prop up a hypothesis

Hoax (Radio 4, weekdays, last week) told the story of a biologist injecting his toads with Indian ink in an attempt to prop up a hypothesis

AS IT desperately seeks a role in the modern, highly diversified ecology of news, the BBC has set itself up as a defender of truth against “post-truth” — of fact against disinformation. BBC Verify and BBC Trending lead the way in this crusade; and we are promised a good deal more of this in the autumn schedules. In the mean time, Hoax (Radio 4, weekdays, last week) reminds us that deceit may come in many forms: as a night parrot, a midwife toad, or a humble latrine fly.

Of the five case-studies presented here, the most famous was surely Piltdown Man, whose creator, Charles Dawson, seemed motivated by pure cheek. Others, in contrast, turned to hoaxing to prop up cherished scientific hypotheses and professional status. Thus, the biologist Paul Kammerer injected his toads with Indian ink in an attempt prove that they could adapt to a more watery habitat; and the botanist John Heslop-Harrison sneaked Mediterranean plants on to the Isle of Rum, so as to try to prove that the Ice Age could not have affected that part of the British Isles.

Dr Tori Herridge is an entertaining guide to the misdemeanours; and, while she is keen to draw deeper inferences, the most profound lesson here is about the lengths to which otherwise sensible people will go to protect an academic reputation, and how very silly they look when they fail.

Looming over several of these hoaxes were the conjoined twins Nature and Nurture, the understanding of which has been the life’s work of Dr David Linden, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In an extensive interview for The Huberman Lab (hubermanlab.com, released each Monday), Dr Linden took us through an encyclopaedic range of topics, mostly related to his core assertion: that Nature v. Nurture is an unhelpful caricature of a paradigm that might better (though more exhaustively) be expressed as “hereditability interacting with experience, filtered through the randomness of development”.

It sounds heavy, but I urge anybody with a little time on their hands and even a passing interest in neuroscience to check out this episode. With the help of timestamps, you are able to navigate past those topics that are less agreeable. But the final section is essential listening, in which Linden speaks in measured and moving words about his own terminal cancer, the neuropathology of death, and his overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gift of life.

Space — just — to indulge in a moment of hero-worship. The object is Andrew Parrott, the pioneer of historically informed music performance for half a century; and the excuse is The Early Music Show (Radio 3, Sunday), which interviewed the great man and sampled his vast discography. Parrott is a musician of whom nobody will wholly approve. His interpretations are often controversial, such as his refusal to accept the existence of the counter-tenor voice in music of the Baroque period and earlier. It was thus surprising to hear a piece from Purcell credited to a tenor soloist when it was very clearly the voice of that quintessentially English counter-tenor Michael Chance. Some mix-up in the BBC Library, I fear.

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