1970s, The BBC Controversy, an experiment in science television?

By Rupert Cole

In the early seventies, long before talk of ‘public engagement’ and ‘public dialogue’ was in vogue, the BBC and the Royal Institution (RI) staged a television series, Controversy (1971-5), that gave audiences an opportunity to participate in debates with scientists on issues in ‘science and society’.

Image credits: Financial Times

A critical success at the time but now largely forgotten, Controversy was an experiment in science television. As a science programme, it was both novel in showing scientists disagreeing with each other face-to-face and in subjecting the scientists to audience scrutiny.

Controversy ran for five series over 29 programmes (50-90 minutes in length), on debates ranging from racial differences in IQ testing to nuclear power. The name, format – a speaker presenting a controversial thesis before a panel of 4-6 opponents and audience in the RI’s theatre – and intention of the series reflected the cultural currents of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the idea of science being controversial was widespread.

Clip from 1973 Controversy, ‘The General Purpose Robot is a Mirage’, featuring James Lighthill who argued against artificial intelligence research was a dead end

As a historical instance of ‘public understanding of science’ (not a phrase commonly used in 1970s Britain), the series raises questions about the role of publics in the production of scientific and technological knowledge.

On more than one occasion the set of Controversy, the RI’s lecture theatre, became a stage for social movement demonstration, generating another level of controversy. Expertise and scientific authority itself were challenged.

In terms of public complaint, the most controversial programme was ‘A New Look at an Old Animal’ (August 1972), in which the aptly named Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger (who incidentally first met at the London Zoo) argued that human behaviour, including the social roles played by men and women, were governed by evolutionary instincts acquired during prehistoric struggles for survival.

Radical feminist Juliet Mitchell, who had lectured at the counter-cultural Anti-University of London, was one of the opponents, but the most powerful and lively criticism came during the audience questions.

A women’s liberation group dominated the proceedings. Some deployed the disruptive tactic of reading quotations from Marx and Engels, similar to the ploy used by the 1975 University of Manchester University Challenge team a few years later.

‘Let me tell you something about Engels,’ Robin Fox offered in rather patronising tones, in an attempt to engage. He was met with laughter and pantomime jeers, before a heckler shouted: ‘Engels was a sexist, white, Anglo-Saxon male’. ‘Well,’ Fox continued undeterred, ‘speaking at least as a white, Anglo-Saxon Male’. ‘Sexist. Don’t forget that one’, interrupted another loud heckle. (That Engels was German was beside the point…)

One woman, who introduced herself as ‘Miss Bra of the women’s liberation’, criticised Fox and Tiger of deriving their science from ‘a morality based on aggression and the domination of the man’, thus suggesting that the production of scientific knowledge is not value free and could be different if based on different principles. Similarly, another criticised their patriarchal language and conduct in the debate:

"[You] say you’ve been studying ‘men’. I don’t know when you say ‘men’ or ‘man’ whether you always refer to the human race or whether you are referring to your own sex."
After a few more heated exchanges, the protesters walked out past Fox and Tiger as they attempted to give a final word, one picking up the book on the lecturer’s desk before throwing it down dismissively.

Following the broadcast, a flurry of written complaints, all directed at the women’s liberation, were made, including letters sent to the Director and the Secretary of the RI, the BBC, The Times and the Radio Times.

Most of the complaints - coming from both genders - criticised the behaviour of the women's lib protesters, suggesting there was a conduct to how science ought to be discussed.

Examples of how they were described include: ‘abrasive’, ‘discourteous’, ‘an embarrassment’, ‘an insult to the aims and traditions of the RI’, ‘dogmatic believers spreading propaganda’, ‘mindless sub-yippees’, ‘deplorable’, ‘unforgivable rudeness’, ‘appalling manners’, and ‘childish females'.

The producer published a defense of his decision to broadcast the protest on democratic principles but also remarked it was 'unfortunate' the only contributions were from women's lib members when there ‘more qualified people present, including sociologists, anthropologists and zoologists’. The implication being that the most valid responses from the audience were those grounded in scientific expertise.

Controversy, albeit inadvertently, highlighted the highly political nature of public engagement with science, by which key cultural and intellectual boundaries of science can be challenged: what research should be done; who should be doing it, why and to what ends; and what are the biases and prejudices inherent in its production and end-product.

The public backlash to the women’s liberation protest suggest the forces that protect the established order of science were far from vulnerable to mainstream challenge in the early 1970s. What is the situation now? Are we closer to a more-widespread – beyond a small coterie of activists -- politically-charged public engagement of science?

Read the full paper 1972: The BBC’s Controversy and the politics of audience participation
More articles about Historical Moments in Public Understanding of Science

Rupert Cole
Rupert Cole is an assistant curator at the Science Museum, London. He has recently completed a PhD on ‘The Common Culture: Promoting Science at the Royal Institution in Postwar Britain’, jointly at the Royal Institution and the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.