Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Today programme and its attitude to scientific study

I was half listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning when an item came on about learning poems by heart. It was introduced by a long clip of Alan Bennett talking about Larkin's I Remember I Remember. I enjoy listening to poetry read well and at first was interested to hear the guest being interviewed by (I think) Justin Webb talking about the importance of its sound to the understanding of poetry. He compared the textual analysis of poetry with trying to engage with a piece of music by looking at the score and I was sort of with him even then, despite the huge value I have always found in the textual analysis of poetry.

However it was when he segued into extolling the virtues of learning the times tables by rote that I began to wonder what this item was actually about. I had to piece it together- I had missed the start of the interview and never got the interviewer's name- but it appeared that he was from the University of Cambridge and that he was announcing a large-scale study to examine the benefits of learning poetry by heart. This was presented by Justin Webb as a scientific study, though a key element appeared to be getting people to post favourite remembered lines of poetry on Twitter.

If this was an item about a scientific study then it revealed something that I have noted many times about the Today programme: they simply do not understand the scientific process. How else could one explain an item announcing a scientific study into the benefits of learning poems by heart that consists almost entirely of discussion and illustration of those supposed benefits? No scientist would start a study into something by explaining what the outcomes of that study were going to be, and anyone who did so should not be considered a scientist. Yet routinely on the Today programme (and elsewhere) this is how scientific studies are presented.

I have no objection whatever to an item for National Poetry Day extolling the virtues of learning poems by heart. Just don't call it science.

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