I’m writing a book. Well, it’s more like 20+ blog posts strung together, all on the theme of how science is depicted in the media. More than just factual errors, I’m interested in how science and scientists are depicted and how it influences peoples’ opinions of science as a process. This includes looking at fictional depictions. Here’s one sub-essay from it – looking at a particular episode of the comedy series Yes Minister.
That has science in it? Yes, it does. Let’s have a look…
Yes Minister is one of the most seminal British political satires, remaining profoundly relevant even decades after it first aired. The series centres on the ineffective and self-aggrandising Minister for Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker, the somewhat-Machiavellian civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and their fight over who truly runs their department. Given the biting political satire on the nature of the British government, its traditions and sprawling bureaucracy, it’s possibly the last place you’d expect to see some serious depictions of science in fiction. Yet, nestled amongst the normal political spoofs of self-preserving civil servants fighting against self-serving politicians, is one of the most striking bits of satire on science with respect to political policy.
The second series episode The Greasy Pole, named after a Benjamin Disraeli quote on the nature of climbing the “greasy pole” of political promotion, focuses on the minister trying to give the go-ahead to the British Chemical Corporation’s (BCC) manufacture of propanol in Merseyside. It opens with Sir Humphrey talking with the chairman of the BCC, and offering assurances that his minister will find no objection to their new chemical plant – after all, it’s Sir Humphrey who truly runs the department whenever he can befuddle the minister into agreeing with everything he proposes.
Any standard essay delving into science on television would stop here to examine some chemical facts and inaccuracies brought up in the opening exchange. Yes Minister gets some of this almost hilariously wrong. In the real world, propanol is a short-chain alcohol, only a single carbon unit longer than ethanol, the compound that gets you drunk and gives you a hangover afterwards. The TV show, in addition to pronouncing it with shortened vowels not common to modern chemistry, seems to imply that it’s some mysterious chemical or medical drug, and a complex concoction that requires dioxin to produce. Similarly, “dioxin” isn’t an individual chemical, per se, but a conventional name for wider class of compounds known as “dioxin-like compounds” (DLCs). DLCs are known to be very persistent pollutants, amongst the most toxic and dangerous chemicals commonly used. The most basic DLC is known as 1,4-dioxin but there are a few hundred derivatives with this structure at their centre. We’ll talk about the most likely candidate the fictional characters are referring to in a moment.
The mild factual errors continue. In Yes Minister, the British Chemical Company have shown that they can produce propanol not with dioxin, but meta-dioxin, which they claim is inert and safe compared to the deadly dioxin. Trouble is, there is no such thing as meta-dioxin – the closest real DLC that would match that name is known as 1,3-dioxin. There is also metadoxine, which, despite its incredibly similar name, is something else entirely.
Meta in chemistry refers to a position around a hexagonal ring of six atoms. The closest position (to a particular reference position) is known as the “ortho” position; the site opposite the reference position is the “para” position; and the one in between is the “meta” position. Ortho-, meta– and para– compounds, therefore, are similar chemicals where a particular group of atoms has been moved around the ring to different positions. “Metadioxin” makes a small amount of sense as a name, but can’t tell us what group of atoms is “meta” to what other group of atoms – unless we reasonably assume it means the two oxygen atoms, in which case we arrive at either 1,3-dioxin or an isomer of 1,4-dioxin that hasn’t been made before.
The confusion around the identity of “metadioxin”, however, is mostly a side effect of using “trivial” or “non-formal” names for chemicals. When you see long, convoluted names that sometimes span more than one line of text, complete with brackets and numbers (and we’ll come across one shortly), this is a sign that the name is systematic – it follows rules that allow you to construct the exact structure of the compound from knowing only the name. Without this (and the knowledge to unpack the name into the structure) a trivial name can be very misleading, verging on complete meaninglessness, and leave us at a complete loss as to the identity of the compound.
This brings us nicely to where Yes Minister gets its depiction of science absolutely correct: no-one in the TV show knows anything about the chemistry at hand and, as they say, hilarity ensues. The characters lack the ability to evaluate the safety of metadioxin and propanol themselves, and can barely even identify the compounds in the first place. At one point in the episode, the minister, a local MP and two civil servants try to make their way around the decision while attempting to not betray their utter ignorance of the subject at hand. When asked what “meta” means, Sir Humphrey uses his education in classics to describe it as “after” dioxin, or “beyond” dioxin, from the literal Latin translation of “meta” – as opposed to the positional nomenclature described above. Even the definition of “inert” evades the small group – they conclude that it must mean that the compound isn’t “ert”, whatever “ert” means. “Inert”, of course, means unreactive, or harmless – nitrogen gas, or argon, are considered “inert” gases, for example, and the term is perhaps one of the more common chemical definitions. But the fictional scene is a good example of how apparently common jargon for a specialist might elude a non-specialist audience. The show depicts people making an important political decision about chemistry, while blindly knowing nothing of the science.
This isn’t too far removed from events that have happened in reality – the 2016 “psychoactive drugs” act in the UK was widely criticised for not having a rigorous definition of “psychoactive”. Drug enforcement legislation up until this act was based around banning specific chemicals, which can be codified into law fairly easily. That posed a clear problem; what about new drugs that weren’t legislated against? So-called “legal highs” were major news stories throughout the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, often with dubious factual accuracy. So the government aimed to ban them in advance by banning substances that ‘affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. But such a broad, and medically meaningless, pre-emptive strike by legislation caused a lot of confusion – it would ban countless substances from alcohol and caffeine, and even incense as used by churches across the country. The government would struggle to implement the legislation.
What do the fictional characters have to go on when talking about chemistry, if not an education in the subject? The politicians and civil servants only have two things they’re sure of:
- The US Food and Drug Administration have given the fictional metadioxin a clean bill of health. There’s enough precedent for them to go ahead without worry.
- Protests are erupting in Merseyside about the process – protesters don’t want the “dangerous” metadioxin in their backyard.
This is where the show seems to have done its homework in depicting representations of science in the public eye, and the name “metadioxin” becomes more consequential than you might expect. Just as with the “nuclear” in “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging”, the name alone has struck a chord with public perception. Chemical names can sway people because of their familiarity and unfamiliarity work in tandem. Vani Hari, aka “the food babe”, uses the mantra that you shouldn’t eat a chemical if you can’t pronounce it. This makes absolutely no scientific nor chemical sense but the mantra is simple enough that people do genuinely follow it assuming it must be a good idea – it seems fine as a heuristic. Names and guilt by association, therefore, do affect peoples’ judgement of chemicals in the real world – Yes Minister is a little heavy-handed about it, but that’s expected in satire. It’s certainly not wrong.
The episode makes it clear that the protesters’ have a rationale for being sceptical of the British Chemical Company, and have an origin for their fears over the mere name “dioxin”. A key plot point of the episode is the Seveso disaster, where their knowledge of “dioxin”, apparently exclusively, comes from. Unlike the apparent nature of the “propanol” and “metadioxin” mentioned in the episode, this event is very, very real. The disaster occurred on July 10, 1976 (only five years before the episode aired, so still in recent memory at the time) about 20 km north of Milan, Italy. The disaster exposed thousands of people to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) – this is one of those long systematic names that lets us identify it more specifically. Although the much simpler 1,4-dioxin is the basis for the word, TCDD is possibly the dioxin as far as public perception and environmental harm is concerned.
TCDD gets its infamy from both the Seveso disaster and as a contaminant in “Agent Orange”, the military herbicide used in Vietnam to destroy crops and foliage. TCDD in Agent Orange has affected the health of around a million Vietnamese, causing birth defects, cancers and skin reactions. About five years after the end of the war, the accident near Seveso released around six tonnes of TCDD into the atmosphere, which settled into the surrounding area, affecting a population of over 100,000 people. The exposure immediately killed around 3,000 animals, and over the next two years 80,000 were slaughtered to keep TCDD out of the food chain. About a quarter of 1,600 people examined in the zone closest to the chemical release suffered extreme skin lesions and inflammation, and 15 children were hospitalised. The political aftermath was significant, and Seveso gives its name to the European Union directives governing safety for chemical sites.
Seveso, however, is small fry compared to one chemical disaster that would yet come. Three years after this episode of Yes Minister aired, a leak of 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal, India, would kill around 4,000 people – just over 2,000 of them in the immediate aftermath – and harm around half a million. Other estimates put the direct death toll at around 8,000 for the weeks following the Bhopal disaster.
Despite the immediate reaction of the pro-science crowd to say that chemophobe protesters have nothing to worry about, their fears are based in very real, and very deadly, precedents, and need to be understood and accepted before we can begin reassuring them about the stuff that definitely is safe. Or, at least, safer.
So politicians, just as depicted in this episode of Yes Minister have a very fine line to tread. On the one hand, they have evidence that they may not fully appreciate or understand, and on the other they have public opinion that they very much do understand. The Rt. Hon. Jim Hacker, therefore, has a tough decision to make. Bring jobs and industry to a constituency by opening the chemical plant, and trust the evidence of scientists and chemists, or kowtow to the public fears and make a popular decision to shut it down – to ensure both the local MP is re-elected and preserve his own position in government. Even Sir Humphrey, who throughout the episode sings the praises of the chemical industry and is keen for the Minister to give the go-ahead for the plant, lacks the chemical know-how to make a convincing case.
The mostly-accurate, albeit cynical, depictions of science and policy continue. Faced with an FDA report that they can’t quite trust, the British government commission their own report by Cambridge academic Professor Henderson. The fictional “Henderson Report” is expected to follow the FDA’s conclusion and clear metadioxin for use – as a result, the Minister has no reasonable grounds to make the politically expedient decision to block the chemical company. He could, however, attempt to circumvent the report. They could fail to publish the report (which Sir Humphrey emphatically denies is equivalent to “suppression”) or they could discredit it – which they can do without even reading it by issuing blanket statements such as “it leaves questions unanswered” or “the conclusions have been questioned”. The suggestions to personally discredit Professor Henderson himself will also seem familiar – they echo tactics used against Dr David Kelly, a biological weapons expert who (conspiracies about assassination aside) was pressured by the government over his involvement with the media and driven to suicide, and Professor David Nutt, who was forced out of his position as a government adviser because of his evidence in the relative harms of different drugs went against government policy.
In the end, Hacker takes the politically self-serving decision and blocks the chemical plant, after putting pressure on Professor Henderson to add a note of caution to the report’s conclusion, even if the evidence in the body of the report couldn’t back it up. He’s hailed as a hero by the protestors, and might have secured re-election for his party’s MPs in the area – all at the expense of any scientific evidence. We can’t take self-confessed satire as a literal depiction, but we can see it reflect accurate attitudes of science, politics and protest. Twenty years after The Greasy Pole first aired, we can see how it reflected things such as the MMR/autism hoax or climate change denial in politics. The scientists work in the realm of fact, the people work in the realm of heuristics and emotion – relying on the familiarity of names and words to inform them – and politicians can find themselves torn between the two with only have their own interests and experiences to guide them.
This shows that some depictions of science in fiction need to be looked at a little deeper. Their factual errors may amuse science enthusiasts, who can claim a brief moment of superiority over the ignorance of the writers, but these are merely superficial. Below the simple assertions of scientific fact lie depictions of how science works as a process and how it interacts and influences people. Some can be accurate or satirical exaggerations. Indeed, the deeper meaning and satire might not be so profound if the superficial facts were entirely correct.