Everyday knowledge of how the world works is retreating to the medieval

Monday 29 December 2014

Believe it or not, as you look glumly out on the post-Christmas Stygian gloom, the days are actually getting longer, the nights shorter.

The winter solstice fell last weekend at around 11pm on Sunday. The northern hemisphere had reached its annual nadir of darkness. For six days now the sun has been on its long indomitable march back north.

I happened to be watching the BBC News Channel last Sunday and presenter Nicholas Owen informed us that it was the solstice. I thought this simple statement would suffice. But he went on to ask: “So, why do we have winter and summer?

"Why do the seasons change?” Nicholas handed over to an earnest weather forecaster to explain, with computerised graphics and bullet-point captions, stuff like: “The earth takes 365 days to orbit the sun. We call this a year. And the planet spins in a complete circle every 24 hours – or, a day.”

Reader, I thought I’d stumbled on to a kiddies’ news channel. Really, I did. A mainstream bulletin for grown-ups surely wouldn’t need to explain what a day or a year is, and what turns the seasons? I almost expected them to throw in a helpful guide to why it gets dark at night.

I went to find my wife.

“BBC TV News is telling us why we have seasons. Can you believe it? Talk about never underestimating your audience. I honestly think that they... ”

Judy silenced me with one of her looks. “Don’t you understand?” she said. “People aren’t taught that kind of basic stuff any more. everyone thinks it’s more important to know how the internet works, not the planet.”

I refused to accept this. I called a bunch of 20 and 30-somethings – family and friends, all of them decently educated and mostly working in the professions (including journalism) – and asked them: “in a couple of sentences, explain to me why we have winter and summer.” Later, I did the same survey when out Christmas shopping, an informal vox populi at the checkouts.

The results staggered me. Answers included:

“Because it’s cold in winter and warm in summer.”

“Because the earth moves further away from the sun in winter.” (When I gently asked why Australians don’t have to wrap up warm too, and enjoy their roast turkey on sun-drenched beaches I was met with baffled silence.)

“it’s to do with the tides. The water’s colder at this time of year.”

“The sun doesn’t shine as brightly in winter but it’s much fiercer in the summer.”

Best of all: “Global warming, obviously.”

Only two people out of nearly 30 told me that the earth’s double tilt or “wobble” on its axis every 12 months means one hemisphere favours the sun while the other faces away from it.

I humbly apologise to BBC News for my first scathing reaction: it clearly has its audience demographics right. But dear God how did we come to this? We may be the most technologically advanced society in human history but our everyday fundamental knowledge of how the world works appears to be retreating to the medieval.

Next week on BBC News: “The tides: does our moon play a part?”

Read more in Richard and Judy's Express column here.
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