Quite Interesting: Stephen Fry et al sedating the nation

stephen fry

Further to my hate piece on David Attenborough (no, I’m kidding, read the article) I am continuing the theme with another perilous critique of a beloved national treasure: in this case, the ever-cuddly Stephen Fry.

Really, what I want to say isn’t about Stephen Fry in particular. It isn’t specifically about the scriptwriters either, or the research team, or the BBC, or the viewers, it’s about the relationship between those groups. It’s particularly about the now-popular phrase “if Stephen Fry said it, it must be true” ringing from the mouths of otherwise intelligent human beings. It’s about the friendly Friday-night bath of facts and repostes that so effectively entertains a swathe of the population, soaking them in an illusory sensation of certainty and subtle superiority.

The show is so very reassuring. After a little intelligent dinner-party chat around an amusing topic we know we’ll eventually hear the “Well, actually…” as Stephen Fry launches into enlightening us all, with some surprising fact or tidbit. The origins are never discussed; but interested parties can see documentaries showing the dedicated team of researchers at their work, going to all the best sources and getting only the best information for the BBC.

Yet more satisfying is the booby-trap aspect, any contestant (we all know who THAT’LL be) foolish enough to own the common misconception is not pointed at but flashed up, sirens and all, their trusting foolishness in believing the unreliable information chattered by their commoner peers held up and ridiculed by a now better-educated audience.

The problem with this has something in common with the sea change now facing education. In an age when whatever fact or figure is needed can be tapped up on the shiny screen of a quickly-whipped smartphone, the traditional facts and figures of education have a rather different significance. Any piece of information that you care to find can be snuffled out in no time at all; the trick becomes in selection, in knowing how to tell what information is reliable and even to what extent it should be given priority; we live now in a world in which many truths must coexist.

To remain relevant, the education system must take into account the smartphone revolution, just as mathematics examinations reluctantly accepted the examined use of calculators. In that context the education was in the use of those devices to reach further, more quickly. Here we must teach strategies to gather information of a good quality and significance, an understanding of responsibility and multiplicity, the importance of critical appraisal.

In QI all information is preceded by “It turns out that…”, no mention made as to how the out was turned or the fact ferreted. After some discussion the answer descends or is validated always from on high, from a faceless authority whose validity is assumed on the basis that this, after all, is the BBC. Retractions of previous errors are publicly declared, and although this is admirable, this fact serves to reinforce that authority. There is a sense that somebody, somewhere, will flag up any small error and the great god of BBC knowledge will be sure to inform its trusting public.

Much of the nation’s faith is put in the BBC, broadly extolled as the unbiased entity that it was conceived to be. I tend toward having faith  that at least intentions are generally good, but the fact is that the BBC is a large institution and its workings and employees lean toward a certain corporation-positive, large enterprise set of opinions (as demonstrated in Peter Watkins’ note concerning globalisation, here). Millions put their trust in these shows without being aware of the shaping force that they have on their perception of the world.

The organisational structures involved in the creation of a show like QI necessitate the presentation of fact as handed down by some deity; the internal workings of television are not habitually shown. This adheres to a standard pedagogical model in which what we are told is accepted at face value. As anybody who has ever Googled their way around a question knows, not every statement of fact should be accepted.

For a show that places so much value on a critique of conventional wisdom, this is a strange tendency to reinforce. The aggressive ridicule directed at the participant choosing the conventional answer is not constructive; it does not give any pointers for better fact-finding, and instead creates an atmosphere of mild fear, of appearing stupid for believing the information distributed and repeated by one’s peers rather than the television.

Thing is, I have no more reason to believe Stephen Fry and his team than I do to believe the Chinese whispers of my friends and relatives. I may see a documentary showing a representation of their methods but I have no more direct experience of this than I do of the topic at hand. True, one cannot be universally skeptical and function, but I feel uncomfortable placing my faith in something that many more degrees removed from me just because it looks and sounds good and because everybody else is.

The television has serious power over the minds of its consumers. A show like QI for the curious mind can actually be more damaging than any brainless soapy fare because of the illusion it gives of learning, of curiosity and exploration. In fact it does nothing but sedate, reinforcing passivity and providing no tools to use in the independent pursuit of knowledge.

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