Beware the Spotlight

It has been sometime since I posted a blog rather than simply a link to some article or media clip related the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. The lectures were a great success with some of the best audience viewing figures both for the lectures and for BBC Four over the festive period. In fact, the lectures are being broadcast again next week on BBC2 which generally has a much larger audience, though with a time slot of 11.20pm, I doubt there will be many families staying up to watch. That said, it is the first time the Xmas lectures have been re-broadcast and everyone involved has been delighted.

So now I am receiving lots of emails, lots of enquiries and a few criticisms. Why did I dumb it down? Why did I not have more female scientists? How can I possibly say on national television that supernatural powers do not exist? People are interested in my opinion.

Today the Guardian newspaper asked me to write a commentary on the reports of the Italian captain who abandoned his ship before the passengers and generally behaved in a way that most would regard as cowardly. I was not there. I do not know this captain. I simply pointed out that if he panicked (and it sounds as if he did) then it is not too surprising that he was unable to control his urge to flee. That’s the definition of panic. I simply stated that panic is difficult to reign in with reason.

I agreed to write the commentary so that readers could reflect upon what they would do in the same situation. I have a book coming out on “The Self Illusion” – the narrative we all generate about who we are. Most of us have beliefs about how we would react but my point is that these beliefs are part of the self story we tell ourselves which may or may not match up to reality.

Anyway, the commentary has attracted a lot of mixed opinions. Most of the negative criticisms seem to think that I am condoning his actions. I am not. But it does make me question whether it is wise to place one’s self in the public light to face the brunt of criticism and focus of prejudices and grievances.

The trouble is that when you become a public figure, you become fair game. Guess I was asking for it.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

16 responses to “Beware the Spotlight

  1. Peter Etchells

    Chin up, sir. My reading of a lot of those negative comments was that they’d misunderstood the point of the article. Don’t let it get to you 🙂

  2. Karen Doherty

    I can entirely understand your viewpoint. Furthermore, I agree. I suspect none of us really know how we would behave in an unusual situation until we encounter it.
    I say this because I regard myself as a well educated and reasonable person. Yet when faced with evidence of intruders one evening, my rational self knew I should call the police and leave action to them. Instead, I found myself striding purposefully around the house actively HUNTING for the intruders. I felt calm and focussed but even now I recall my overwhelming intent to attack the intruders. I was not afraid, indeed I felt invincible. ( Me, a 5 ft ,unarmed, female with no martial arts training!) I wanted to find them and hurt them. Hurt them a lot.
    The cold determination/rage with which I set about this hunt surprises me even now.

  3. I thought I heard you say there is no *evidence* of supernatural powers, not that they don’t exist. Don’t people listen?

    Content of the lectures, I suppose, depends on what audience you expect. Now that the basics are explained I would enjoy themed lectures which discuss the implications of brain science (does it affect how we shop? etc). Even more so I’d like to see a discussion of why we believe in gods and spirits (in addition to what you’ve already published).

    I also think we can’t underestimate the general public; people should hear scientists talk in complex language, as long as we give a definition for the complex terms we use right after.

  4. I agree with what you said about the Captain. Unlike most people, I have been in emergency situations. You don’t think. You react. On the other hand, this is what he signed up for. As you said, more training is needed. He needs the willingness to sacrifice his life for the passengers and to step into the wheelhouse every morning prepared to do so. End of story.

  5. mcb


    “Individuals who regularly have to deal with danger need to be trained to cope with instincts of self-preservation. With training, we can learn to recognise and evaluate danger and develop coping strategies.”

    Well said. I read your post and the first page of replies. I think you did a nice job and most of the replies were not critical of you (I was actually surprised by the number of people who described themselves as panick prone).

    Unlike the generation of ship’s officers who had their naval or merchant marine vessels shot out from under them with some regularity during WWII one wonders where today’s captains develop the skills and the self knowledge to best their fears during what has become a gratefully rare crisis.

    Be of good cheer.

  6. Anonymous

    That’s great news about the Christmas lectures. I think they will certainly be considered by many as being among the very best of the televised Christmas lectures. The RI lectures always have been a little dumbed down in the sense that they are intended to be understood by children as young as eleven. Many of the previous lectures were far more simplified. Perhaps it’s also down to neuroscience being such a fascinating area – we’d all like to know more!

    I’m sure The Self Illusion will be a very popular read. I only wish it were being published in full a little sooner. I’ve decided to write my dissertation on the self (philosophy) and your views seem as far as i can tell to be entirely reasonable. I now have to spend the next ten weeks working out how to defend it philosophically (no doubt while tearing hair out!)

    Regarding the article, I think any particular event that has ethical questions is always going to be a minefield. And, feeling a little discouraged by negative reaction is probably completely normal when entering the fray that is public debate. I do hope that you won’t be put off writing more articles. I’m sure there were a great many people who didn’t respond but were in agreement. Perhaps that’s another aspect of the human condition.

  7. Susan james

    Great stuff to read. Not buying into the judgement machine. Helps keep us out of self-centerdness, and therefore in with at least a chance to connect with and understand the rest of humanity. Grest for me to read- that you didnt feed a public stoning. So much of the articles in my local and national newspapers is like “Hey, look how bad this guy is”, or “Be afraid”, the shame files. Primitive and lonely making.

  8. Kylie Sturgess

    Today, complaints in the news – tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers. Your work will live on.


  9. As the first poster wrote: “Chin up, sir”. And illigitemi non carborundum, for that matter.

    Your Christmas lectures were a treat, and I envied your power to hold the attention of your young audience.

  10. I have seen your interview in Redes, spanish program of my country. Your theory is fantastic, very very explanable of the fundamental believings right now. Thanks

  11. Anonymous

    “Italian captain who abandoned his ship before the passengers and generally behaved in a way that most would regard as cowardly. I was not there. I do not know this captain. I simply pointed out that if he panicked (and it sounds as if he did) then it is not too surprising that he was unable to control his urge to flee. ”

    True. He was probably going through a whole array of emotions, from shock to fear and perhaps even the sense of being a failure.

    If we compare the two men involved in the radio conversation, the captain and the coastguard, the former has become a scapegoat and the latter a hero. However, both were in completely different situations and in a different “place” mentally.

    Firstly, a ship’s captain rarely expects to have to deal with such a dangerous situation (in a job which should usually be plain sailing), whereas a coastguard has to anticipate this as being the main function of his/her job. Already, there are differences in how the two men would have prepared mentally for doing their “normal” day to day job.

    Secondly, the coast guard was “removed” from the situation (both physically and mentally). His response (during the radio recording) is cool, calm and calculating. He informs the captain that he is recording the conversation and is heard asking the captain to confirm that he has abandoned ship. He is already thinking about possible legal ramifications. He has the clarity of thought to do so.

    Conversely, the captain has just been responsible for (as a result of poor judgement or inaction) the damaging and sinking of a multimillion pound ship. Surely, that would mess with someone’s state of mind. I would speculate that the delay in evacuating passengers was down to a desperate hope of being able to salvage the situation. Evidently, fleeing was not on his mind at that time. So this is not a man so cowardly that he jumps ship at the first sign of trouble.

    I can’t even begin to imagine how someone would feel sitting in lifeboat, in the dead of night, cold, wet, in the shadow of and being dwarfed by a monolithic ship that is turning on its side. Possibly, surrounded by chaos and the sound of people screaming or calling out. A very different place to the control guard’s control tower.

    During the radio conversation the captain says, “Do you realise it’s dark and we can’t see anything?”. I don’t know about other people’s opinions, but I actually found the coast guard’s response to be quite unhelpful and unnecessarily incisive. Playing the devil’s advocate here, there were elements of the conversation that could be construed as someone who was covering their own back, rather than genuinely trying to be of useful assistance to the captain.

    e.g. two problems preventing the captain getting back on board were 1) it was dark and they couldn’t see and 2) the ship was lilting. Maybe these things were genuine difficulties and not excuses; after all ships of this scale do not sink everyday and who better to comment on the practical difficulties of doing something than the people experiencing the problems?

    The coast guard could have been more proactive in resolving these difficulties, via the available helicopter assistance (to arrange winching / air lift, flood lighting, or even dropping down torches).

    IMO, repeating “Get back on board damn it”, is just not helpful in any way; even less so when this is accompanied by threats and the person being spoken to is potentially traumatised / in shock.

    It’s very easy for arm chair critics to point the finger after the event, but the captain was responsible for making the “right call” at the time it happened; which would have been a complex decision made without the benefit of hindsight.

    In a different scenario, if he had decided to evacuate a ship that could have been salvaged, he would no doubt have faced repercussions from his employer (for allowing the ship to perish and not trying hard enough to save it). If an evacuation had proved to be needless, then he would have been left with angry passengers and complaints (again attracting the attention of his employer). No doubt, these alternative scenarios would have played out in his mind before the evacuation.

    Everyone is criticising this man for being a coward and incompetent, but the whole basis of this seems to be the scapegoating by the press (and all others involved) and the “leaked” radio conversation (wonder who leaked it).

    IMO, this is not a straightforward case of a brave hero and a cowardly villain. It’s a sad thing that people can be vilified and subjected to a trial by media, based on spin and incomplete presentation of all the facts. The professional / right thing for the Italian authorities to have done, would have been to offer “no comment” until after a full investigation and / or trial. Thus allowing the relatives to mourn the dead without creating a convenient figure of hate to channel their anger.

    Sorry about the long comment, but it’s a shame you feel the need to defend yourself for expressing an entirely valid (and probably correct), albeit different viewpoint. I’m surprised by the narrow-mindedness that you have encountered.

  12. Kylie is quite correct. She is an Aussie as am I. Yes, putting your head above the parapet has inevitable consequences. All responses are time consuming and some commenters will be trolls. A lot more won’t be:-)

    It was a great set of lectures!! And no one can take that away. And it is collated into the Christmas Lecture series with a long history.

    Smile, Bruce Hood, smile. And don’t ever try to explain. The one thing my father taught me was never to bend to explain.

    You engaged me and I am 68. How much better that you engaged children. Very good:-)

    • brucehood

      Thank you Veronique – I am very touched by your kind comments and yes, I am much heartened now. Actually, a number of commentators subsequent to the original posting have come out and said much the same thing so I was not being unreasonable.

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