Is Ignorance the Key?

I read an article about a forthcoming series about the Universe to be presented by Professor Brian Cox with a sense of anticipation.  I’d really enjoyed his series ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’ and had become geekily engrossed by the Stargazing Live season a few months ago.

Apart from being caught up in the fever of the Space Age as a child in the 1960s; watching the Apollo launches and the first landing on the Moon are very clear, if distant, and regular school visits to the Planetarium in St Louis, I know very little about astronomy or astrophysics. Indeed it wasn’t until I watched Stargazing that I learned that Pluto is no longer a planet.

I do enjoy listening to people talk knowledgeably about their enthusiasms though.  There is something very pleasing about watching an articulate expert at work.

As I made a mental note to look out for the scheduling of the new series, it occurred to me that my interest in it was in marked contrast to my reaction to the series ‘Faulks on Fiction’.  I think there have been three episodes now.  I’ve already written about my disappointment in the first programme; I procrastinated for over a week before I attempted the second, and I’m afraid to report that I fell asleep half way through.  It’s not looking good for the third.

Yet I am a fiction enthusiast; I read constantly and always have an opinion.  Even though I disagreed with most of Faulks’ choices from literature, I couldn’t summon enough interest in him or his view to stay awake.

It set me wondering.  Am I bored by Faulks because he is speaking, about something about which I have some knowledge, and he is not satisfying me with any extra insight?  Or is he just dull?

How do scientists react to Brian Cox?  Is he presenting something at such a simplified level that they fall asleep with the tedium of it all?  Or are they pleased that there are programmes on television that are awakening an interest in their field in even the most scientifically ignorant?

Are practicing artists turned off by Andrew Graham Dixon’s programmes on art history?  Is it only people who share my untutored curiosity who consume it so avidly?

(I should probably confess that while I will also watch programmes on Mathematics presented by Marcus de Sautoy, or the history of scientific discovery by Prof Jim al Khalili, I actively avoid natural history programmes and am not part of the David Attenborough fan club, so my interest may be a minority one, but it is not indiscriminate!)

Some 16 or so years ago Panorama did an ‘exposé’ on the company I worked for; I wasn’t in a senior role, but I had witnessed some things which were ripe for challenge.  I watched the programme, tensed, ready to witness some uncomfortable revelations.  Everything ‘revealed’ was astonishingly trivial; ‘star witnesses’ that no-one at the company could remember, interviewed in clichéd close up.  The ‘investigative team’ had entirely missed the real story.

So, that’s the question for today: is enjoyment of factual television programmes predicated on ignorance?  Will knowledge always spoil it?

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  1. Recently there was a TV series on, on Famous Experiments in Psychology. Paul, (not a psychologist) and I (a psychologist) watched it. Or rather, I patiently watched the first two episodes, Paul sitting beside me going “Oh my God! Did you know this??!! This is terrible!!” To which I replied, bored, yes, I did. The programmes were well made, and I could see they would be fascinating to someone who hadn’t studied the subject. But for me, well, I already know it, and I also know the bits they haven’t commented on and I can see where they have over simplified.
    So I agree with you Rowena: Ignorance is the key!!
    Though I would watch Professor Brian Cox saying anything at all……

    • I think I saw that psychology programme and, like Paul, was fascinated…… Do you have a view on the Faulks? Would people who don’t read be interested enough by it?
      I hope it’s Prof BC’s erudition and enthusiasm you’re referring to!

  2. Pam Knauer

     /  February 24, 2011

    Good question Rowena, and I think the answer lies at the intersection of ignorance and curiosity. There are things my husband wants to watch on TV that I know nothing about and in which I have no interest. ZZZzzzz…. On the other hand, people often ask whether I enjoy watching any of our pseudo-reality legal dramas, since I’m a lawyer. ZZZZzzzz….. But show me a program on neurobiology and I’m a captive!

    PS – I ride around my car with Stephen Hawkings books on CD playing, but I mostly tune them out. Somewhere past the intersection of ignorance and curiosity I reached the point of “Huh?”

    • Pam, You’ve hit the nail right on the head. Ignorance AND curiosity – and I’m fairly full of both! I think it’s the requirement of our time to own something by Prof Hawkins and not to have finished it.
      Great to know you’re with me on this!

  3. margaret nickels

     /  February 25, 2011

    Brian Cox is just better looking and S.Faulks is really boring ( a bit like his novels !) So I am totally with Voula !


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