The Sunday Magazine

Why England's new $300-million polar research vessel SHOULD be called "Boaty McBoatface"- Michael's essay

How an internet contest designed as a serious search for a fitting name for a new scientific research vessel, yielded "Boaty McBoatface." The great naturalist David Attenborough is not amused.
Boaty McBoatface started the trend. (Twitter/@NERCscience)
Sir David Attenborough, weighted down by a ton of royal honours, is deservedly esteemed as the world's greatest living naturalist. But sad to say, in the autumn of his great career, Sir David has become something of an old poop. He positively hates the idea that the new $300-million polar research vessel of Britain's Natural Environment Research Council might possibly be named Boaty McBoatface.
The naturalist David Attenborough is not amused with the name ‘RRS Boaty McBoatface’. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images))

Some background is called for. A while back NERC launched what it called the Name Our Ship campaign on Facebook. By crowdsourcing the new name, NERC was engaging in "community consultation," which is one of the things the Internet is supposed to be about. 

The response was overwhelming. More than 124,000 people voted for the name Boaty McBoatface, which was four times more votes than the second place RRS Poppy Mai. The name It's Bloody Cold Here came in fourth. Sir David himself came in fifth with more than 10,000 votes.

Despite the personal compliment from voters, Sir David was more than mildly appalled that the ship would be christened Boaty McBoatface. Saith he: "I think they should call it something serious. I mean, words like Discovery, Endurance, Victory, Indomitable. Looking at the Navy, it's got a great tradition of a lot of good names. You know." Yes, Sir David. Like "rum, sodomy and the lash."

The furor spread across the realm when Jo Johnson, the science minister, poured cold salt water on the Boaty McBoatface suggestion. He said the government wanted a ship's name that "lasts longer than a social media news cycle and reflects the nature of the science it will be doing." The Times, which once went by the name, the Thunderer, thundered that the government "should accept the will of the electorate and bow to the name Boaty McBoatface."

British journalist Ross Clark opined: "Our leaders of course love democracy until it comes up with an answer different to the one they were expecting." All of which has led American journalist Uri Friedman to write a fascinating piece in The Atlantic magazine entitled Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy. He argues that just because an overwhelming  number of ordinary people express a preference for something, that doesn't mean the legislators will follow through and enact those preferences in law.

We all might be deluding ourselves, he suggests, if we believe democracy will inevitably carry out the will of the majority. The Brits are passing up a good idea by nixing the name Boaty McBoatface. In the first place, it would bestow instant celebrity on what would otherwise be an anonymous ship. Boaty McBoatface would become the most famous research vessel in history.

The very rich get to name many things after themselves: libraries hospitals, theatres, colleges. In the cradle of democracy the people have spoken. The government should listen.

Hail to Boaty McBoatface and all who sail within her.

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