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Doomwatch: does it really present dangers of today?

I’m pleased to see Doomwatch (BBC1) coming back. However, your article on it (RADIO TIMES, 10 December) was misleading when drawing close parallels between some of last year’s programmes and recent incidents with a scientific or technological basis.

I agree there were some close parallels, and the team is to be congratulated on the uncannily appropriate topics they chose, but there were also some cited parallels which were by no means as close. One could dismiss this as excusable journalistic licence if it were not for the general slant of the article, summed up by the title ‘Presenting the deadly dangers of today.’ Articles of this type undoubtedly lead to fear, as well as condemnation, of science and technology, so they must present information in a responsible and unambiguous way. Important parts of your article are irresponsible and ambiguous. Before describing any of these I should state that, as a scientist, I share Kit Pedler’s fears about the real dangers of uncontrolled scientific growth.
‘Friday’s Child’ was transmitted around the same time that a human egg was fertilised outside the body. Both your article, and many misleading newspaper headlines, herald this advance as a great leap towards ‘custom-tailored’ test-tube babies. In fact it did bring us nearer this, but only to about the same extent that the moon landing brought us nearer to the Milky Way. Such test-tube babies are certainly not ‘a deadly danger of today.’
Similarly ‘The Plastic Eaters,’ ‘Tomorrow, the Rat,’ and ‘The Red Sky’ presented science fiction themes that are still very far from reality. I’ll single out the last of these, about damage caused by a rocket plane, which your article equated with some of Concorde’s test flights. Concorde’s boom did, as you say, cause discomfort and slight damage to buildings, but the effects of Doomwatch’s-rocket plane were far more severe.
You also state that at Heathrow people complained of the unbearable noise, yet in fact Concorde 002 is not that much louder than many conventional
planes, and the complaints have been shown to be exaggerated. Anyway, people round Heathrow are, rightly, complaining of ‘unbearable’ aircraft noise every day. I ought to add that I don’t support Concorde.
I agree Doomwatch could inform viewers of real dangers, but it must not be used as an excuse to magnify and distort those dangers. Nor, and this is worse, must those same distorted dangers be used as an excuse to blow Doomwatch’s own trumpet.
(Dr) Robin Brightwell
Further Education (Radio),
The Langham,
London, W1

DR KIT PEDLER, Co-deviser and Scientific Adviser, ‘Doomwatch,’ replies:
To take Dr Brightwell’s points in order:
It is quite clear to us on the programme that there already is a real and deep-seated fear of science and technology, and that this is firmly based on real-life experience. Does Dr Brightwell really think it is irresponsible of us to transmit a story about leaking toxins in the sea off Plymouth when, even as I write this, a cargo ship full of herbicide has foundered off the coast of Italy and wiped out a local fishing industry?
Does he think it wrong to put out a story about a nuclear weapon armed by accidental release and impact when a precisely similar event occurred in Texas some years ago?
About test tube babies:
Is Dr Brightwell really certain that this type of procedure cannot be developed? There are, in fact, only a few technical difficulties separating an experimental tour de force from a relatively easy routine. Is he, then, certain that everybody is going to be so damn moral and not start making people?
About ‘The Plastic Eaters,’ ‘Tomorrow, the Rat’ and ‘The Red Sky’:
Each one of these stories developed from considerable research into fact, and I would remind Dr Brightwell that we are producing a fictional programme and not a series of documentaries. In each episode we take what seems to be a reasonable jump forward from a real contemporary event and create an exciting story around it.
In my view, the most dangerous Doomwatch theme at present is the extent to which ordinary people have become conditioned to accept an intolerable environment. Is Dr Brightwell quite free from this process, I wonder?

With thanks to John Archbold and Scott Burditt

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