The Cambridge Geek

Rob Newman's Total Eclipse of Descartes

A bit more philosophy now, in this informative comedy show about the way different modes of thought impact our lives and society. This first episode covers education, and the influence that the ideas of Cyril Burt, (adviser to the education committees that developed the 11-plus) had and continues to have on it.

Burt was investigating the difference in intelligence between the different classes, and did a significant amount of work on the varying cleverness of twins, often separated at birth. Unfortunately, he also did a significant amount of work on fiction writing, with some more than slightly dodgy statistics. There are a couple of other interesting things he potentially invented, although this is possibly more contentious than Newman suggests.

What is important though is that Burt's work lead on to the streaming system we have now, with children often separated into public or comprehensive schools solely due to their parents' financial situation, rather than any possible meritocracy. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, with children who would otherwise excel being restricted by their limited environmental stimuli, because the posh kids have metaphorically nicked all their dinner money.

This system persists even though it may well be better for a simple mixing pot idea to be put into place, because that's not the way the world works. Parallels can be drawn with the anti-vaxxer idiocy and a subset of humanity's belief in things that happen to not be true (or at least have not been proved).

While informative, it's also pleasingly comedic, with the overall idea being viewed through the perspective of Newman's difficulties with his own child's schooling, and the trouble that a whimsical approach to child-rearing can cause. We also get some funny background into his own personal experience of "separated at birth" with an entertaining view of his worth as an adoptee child.

It's all mixed together with some neat little vignettes that offer a fantastical idea of the Smiley's people (read it, it's ace) version of investigating scientific fraud, and a look at a "fat man on a bridge". This is the updated version of the trolley problem, which is apparently a bit too impersonal, given all you need to do is flip a switch instead of perform active murder. (Note, the ethics of the Trolley Problem feature rather heavily in an episode of The Good Place, and was so well done that it happened to win a bunch of awards recently. Seriously, go watch it.)

The final point to recommend this is it's got what I suspect might be the first ever "beef" started between Radio 4 shows, as Newman points out an anti-science moment in a previous science show. (Although hilariously, the wrong show was initially called out, and the iplayer page has a correction/retraction. That, I suspect, counts as irony.)

It's a nice look into a bit of educational history, and delivered with a sufficiently cheerful tone. Will be listening to the rest.

Score 4

Tagged: Radio Comedy Monologue Informative Philosophy