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Article from New Scientist dated 18th March - 1970

Doomwatcher Incarnate

Next Monday sees the last programme in the present Doomwatch series on BBC 1. Kit Pedler, the brain behind the series, is actively seeking to establish a real Doomwatch—a group of scientists with no allegiances but to the public good. Last week he talked about his ideas with Graham Chedd.

BBC TV’s Doomwatch series—depicting the exploits of an unlikely band of scientific heroes protecting the nation from the worst excesses of science and technology—was devised by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler. The two of them met three or four years ago through the good offices of a certain Dr Who, whose weekly cliffhangers—also on the box—were at the time engineered by the former and scripted by the latter, a self confessed greenhorn writer of space opera.

The Doomwatch production team also draws upon the scientific advice of Dr C. M. H. Pedler, already well known in ophthalmic circles for his beautiful electron microscope studies of the retina, and becoming increasingly notorious among scientists and technologists generally for his outspoken attacks upon the precepts underlying their disciplines. Both Pedlers—TV scriptwriter and scientist—are, of course, the same man. And that man is determined, within the next couple of years or so, to establish a real Doomwatch.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, Pedler was a harmless enough sort of fellow; a bit of an egotist, perhaps, but quite acceptable to the scientific establishment. He had come into research from a slightly unconventional direction, having been trained as a medic and actually functioning as one for a year as a house physician and three weeks as a GP before deciding it had all been a bit of a mistake. His reason for leaving the healing profession would gladden the heart of any scientist: he didn’t like, as a doctor, having to make decisions on inadequate data. So he became an experimental pathologist, working for his PhD at the Institute of Ophthalmology in London on a retinal disease of the new-born. This got him interested in the retina itself, and about 10 years ago he began his investigations of its fine structure with the electron microscope. The work has gone very nicely; he has for some years headed his own anatomy department at the Institute; and he now has some intriguing new ideas about building functioning models of the retina in an attempt to sort out how the structures he has seen under the microscope, and particularly the nerve pathways, actually work together to enable us to see.

But then some very odd cracks began to appear in this correct facade. For a start, he began to write—with great enjoyment—rather mediocre science fiction. He invented, for the information of Dr Who fans, the dreaded Cybermen, robot-like creatures with boxes on their chests that foamed horribly when eventually (and inevitably) they met their just desserts. In itself, this aberration would have been forgivable; there are, after all, several precedents—and eminent ones (scientifically) at that But Pedler then did something very peculiar: he turned in his Home Office licence allowing him to perform experiments with animals, on the grounds that he found such experiments—even when the animals are not overtly harmed in an way—emotionally distasteful. Now of course according to canon law, emotion is not meant to enter into science, so his action to many of his fellows is totally inexplicable, particularly as it is likely to hamstring the progress of his research.
From the establishment’s point of view, however, worse was yet to come. For one day, according Pedler, I looked outside my laboratory door, and didn’t like what I saw.” There was, in fact, quite a lot that he didn’t like; but fundamentally he objected to what he felt was the way science and technology had got away from serving the human race, and instead was serving the advancement of individual careers (in the case of science) and company profits (in the case of technology). So what to do? Temperamentally, Pedler is unsuited to the normal channels for getting things done —parliament for instance—and by this time in any case he had met Gerry Davis and learned of the possibilities of television. To Pedler, the temptation of being able to reach out directly to a vast audience and express his own doubts and fears about science and technology through fictionalised drama proved irresistible Doomwatch was conceived; and, after the usual birth pangs, was brought forth upon the TV screen.

Now personally, I have very mixed feelings about Doomwatch. By the usual light entertainment standards, the series is indifferent; the characters are straight comic-cuts, the acting and direction are not exactly inspired, and it descends too readily to the melodramatic. More seriously, the “scientists” it portrays bear not the slightest resemblance to any I have ever known, and it often seems to blur dangerously the line between fact and fiction—between real or at least plausible situations, extended a bit to make a dramatic point, and quite unwarranted extrapolations of present research. Recently, the programmes have not been quite so culpable on this last point, but the first of the present series pointed up the danger graphically, with a scientist growing hen-human hybrid creatures in his lab—a foolish, even mischievous, leap from the research on hybrid cells going on at Oxford. With all that said, the fact remains that Doomwatch has undoubtedly got more about science and its concomitant dangers across to more people (some 12 million watch each programme) than a host of earnest, learned documentaries.

Pedler is immediately willing to concede almost every one of these criticisms, relying upon the last fact to justify the programme. He has the grace to look uncomfortable as one spells out specific exampIes of grossness, but counters with the argument that he isn’t the programme’s producer, and that often he disagrees with the production committee’s decisions. He agrees that the characters don’t behave like real scientists—the John Ride character, for instance, “is a sub-James Bond type who wouldn’t last live minute in a laboratory”-but contends that the programme doesn’t set out to convince scientists, who make up only a tiny proportion of the audience. In any case, the constraints of producing a popular TV series mean that the fictional Doomwatch. “can’t. really bear a strict, rigorous relationship with what is needed in real life.”

For, make no mistake, Pedler wants to see a real Doomwatch, Out of his “science fiction pipe-dream” has emerged the idea of a small, dedicated band of perhaps five or six scientists each with a specific expertise, setting itself up as a sort of freelance watchdog against the mis-use of science and technology. “Science for the People” might be its slogan, for its main task will be to confront and irritate the authorities——whether they be governments, town councils, companies or whatever—with uncomfortable sc ientific data whenever for expediency, convenience or simple blindness they take stupid decisions.

As an example of the sort of outrage he means, Pedler quotes the habit of many coastal towns of discharging raw sewage into the sea. “They know they are doing wrong; we know they are doing wrong. But they protect themselves if you challenge them by referring to a 1959 publication by the Medical Research Council which said that there was no health hazard in raw sewage.” Apart from the aesthetics of the situation, Pedler believes that this advice could now be demonstrated as plain wrong, and that virulent viruses can be recovered from sewage for some time after its discharge. His postulated Doomwatch, he suggests, might take a group of science students, with training in bacteriology, virology, oceanology etc, along to such a town, make measurements and assemble a report which would them be presented to the town council and to the MRC He would aim, in fact, to put a fly in the bland PR ointment used to soothe many of the wounds caused by the mis-application or lack of application of science and technology. And his fly will be the unvarnished scientific facts.

This example also illustrates what PedIer believes to be the two most important immediate aspects of a real Doomwatch’s work. To begin with, there is the emphasis on the environment. In fact, the very first task of Pedler’s postulated band would be to assemble all the available pollution data from its scattered repositories all over the world, and centralise it in a rapid access computer system. A major difference from the fictional Doomwatch (apart from the quality of its science) is that the real version will attempt, on the basis of this centralised data, to predict the unhappy outcomes of apparently splendid ideas, rather than come along and sweep up the mess afterwards.

The use of students to do most of the scientific data gathering in the seaside example also points up the real Doomwatch’s other key role: in education. Hopefully, it would engage in, perhaps, the design of simple biological testing equipment for schools, and the making of films. The leading of field trips for university students would give them valuable experience in applied ecology. But perhaps even more important than any of these specifics is the prodding of people into an awareness of the fact that technology is a two-edged sword: that there is a price to pay for every “advance”. People must be given an idea of this price—they should be aware of what goes on behind the scenes in the production of a battery chicken, for instance—and be allowed to consider if they are prepared to pay it.

At this point, Pedler’s ideas for his scientific watchdog merge with his own philosophy toward science and technology. What really maddens him as far as the latter is concerned is the useless, rapacious technology that plunders the Earth of its natural resources for no foreseeable benefit to mankind - except for the lining of someone’s pocket. This is epitomised for him by the fruit machine. “Recently I did an analysis of such a machine in a pub. It contained rare metals, complicated integrated circuits, chromium, copper— even ruthenium. And what does it do? Oranges and bloody lemons.”

Pedler would like instead to see technology applied to the problems of urban living. He has in mind, for instance, a house - an “urban spaceship”—designed along the lines of the Apollo command module, with recycling of the energy input and effluent output from the structure. It might also be “wired” with tubes of salt water rather than copper to save on raw materials. He calls this ‘rethinking technology on behalf of people”. But is this what people really want? Mightn’t they be content with the technology—in the shape of shiny new cars-and ‘fridges—that they already have? Pedler views the current obsession with technology as stemming from the fact that our society: “is out of goals; absolutely but out of goals. And technology, in the form of cars and ‘fridges, has become a goal surrogate. How exciting it would be if through education, demonstration, ceaseless activity, we could turn people round to realise that our Earth is going to pieces, and give them the goal of putting it right, to put them back on their mettle and raise us above the level of technological apes.”

So here is one more job for Pedler’s Meddlers. And another would be to propogandise about science as well as technology. Pedler would like to see a shift, a “torsion”, in scientific education, such that students are made much more aware of what science could do for people. They should also not be afraid, Pedler contends, of allowing emotion and ordinary human feelings of aesthetics to enter the scientific arena. If they were already there, for instance, few people would allow themselves to consider the eminently sensible, but “foul and ugly” proposition of a Russian scientist that we should graft onto human vegetables—people who have become deprived of their brain function through some cardiovascular accident—human organs for storage until needed for transplantation. “The public, indeed, have already got it in for the scientist, because they see him as a cold-eyed stockbroker in a white coat; they don’t see him as a human being at all.”
What of the practical details of a Doomwatch incarnate: where, for instance would the money come from? In its earliest days Pedler envisages getting support from a university, or perhaps from a few large private donations (he freely hints that money would be forthcoming from this direction). But once it has a success or two under its belt, the organisation would appeal for funds directly from the public; science for the people, paid for by the people. In this way, it would avoid commitments to government or industry, and all political pressures.

If you want to be cynical, it’s easy enough to see Pedler as a sort of Lone Ranger in a lab coat. There’s no doubt that he himself wants to be instrumental in seeing the fulfilment of his television dream, and would chuck up his own research tomorrow to do so. But he is also intensely realistic. He holds meetings of an informal group of scientists and artists at his house at Clapham, where the pros and cons of his proposal are thrashed to exhaustion. He claims to thrive on opposition, and hopes that this article will provoke people into pointing out the weaknesses of his scheme: he wants to get it watertight before he actually launches it out into the world. Of one point he is already firmly convinced: he won’t lack for volunteers to join him on board.