March 10, 2004

The Decline of the BBC

The BBC seems not to be doing very well in the areas of parrot language and frog biology, but I'm afraid that this is not a recent phenomenon. I used to think that the BBC was the Voice of God, the one truly authoritative and unbiased source of news. I still watch their regular newscasts from time to time - the British accents are fun to listen to, and Mishal Hussein is rather cute - but I learned over a decade ago that they can't be trusted when it comes to scientific matters.

Back in 1992 the BBC broadcast a "documentary" entitled Before Babel about how all the world's languages are related to each other and how path-breaking linguists have succeeded in reconstructing the Mother Tongue, Proto-World. It included melodramatic scenes with eerie background music in which people uttered bits of what was alleged to be Proto-World. The people interviewed were at the extreme fringe of the field - to be blunt, they were people whom most historical linguists regard as cranks - and the claims made were completely unjustified by evidence. The presentation was totally one-sided, with only a brief comment by a single mainstream historical linguist. The biological analog would be a program promoting the view that the world was created only 6,000 years ago with only a single, brief comment by an evolutionary biologist. It was so bad that WGBH in Boston, which is not run by linguists, recognized it and remade it, in a much more balanced version entitled In Search of the First Language that was broadcast on its NOVA program. You can read the transcript here. In short, it was trash, the sort of thing one expects from the National Enquirer, not from the BBC. That was when I learned that the BBC had fallen from grace. It's a shame.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 10, 2004 02:54 AM