TV as a source of science inspiration

By Phil Plait | December 15, 2010 9:27 am

I have long said that science fiction on television, even when it’s bad, can serve as inspiration for a budding scientist. Heck, I watched some pretty phenomenally bad scifi TV and movies and a kid, and it fueled the fire of interest and love I had for science. Do I wish the quality of science in the entertainment media were better? Sure! But that doesn’t mean it’s not serving a purpose.

Science in other media, like the news, is another matter. There, it’s critical that it be accurately represented. And it gets worse when someone makes a documentary that’s actually a polemic – a persuasive piece meant to change or guide opinions.

That’s why I really like this talk by scientist Brian Cox, who makes science documentaries for the BBC and is becoming a science celebrity in the UK. It was the Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture which he gave earlier this month on BBC2. he has a lot to say about the difference between documentaries and polemicals, and it’s worth your time to watch.

You can also watch Part 2 and Part 3.

Brian’s overriding point is that TV is not fair and balanced, since it gives far more weight to non-mainstream views than is deserved. But this is in the nature of the medium, of course. Brian makes it clear that when a scientist does research he or she must not worry about the audience and must not worry about the conclusion before it is reached; if they do then the work will be hopelessly compromised. But television has the opposite view: it must keep its audience in mind or else it won’t make any money.

The thing is, at the heart of this is that the audience needs to know if it’s seeing something that aligns with the scientific consensus, or if it’s an opinion-piece that may denigrate the actual truth. Usually that’s clear, but these days, with increasingly lax rules about what can go on TV, I suspect polemicals disguised as unbiased documentaries will be more common.

Still, as Brian says,"the presentation of ideas must sit at the heart of TV." Even straight, unbiased documentaries can make excellent television. His "Wonders of the Solar System" is an excellent example of that; the demo he does of the retrograde motion of Mars is one of the best I’ve seen on TV (he shows that clip in his talk). It goes to show you that compelling science can make compelling television, but the science must be allowed to speak freely.

Comments (41)

  1. noen

    I could have sworn there was something about lasers. Maybe I shouldn’t have looked into the beam?

  2. Gus Snarp

    Um, did the laser post just disappear?

  3. David C

    DO NOT LOOK AT LASER BEAM WITH REMAINING EYE!

    (Yes, I think he pulled the post as it was inappropriate)

  4. Ray

    Uncool. Deleting the laser article. As if that removes it from the internet.

  5. Gus Snarp

    @Ray – If you act fast enough it might. The Google cache page takes you right back here. There’s something in that post the reptilloids don’t want us to know….

  6. ruidh

    You’ll put your eye out!

  7. Aaron

    “I suspect polemicals disguised as unbiased documentaries will be more common.”

    From what I have seen thus far, these things make up most of the “science” programing on outlets such as the History Channel.

    We should arm ourselves with high-powered lasers and take the media back!

  8. Chris A.

    I didn’t get to read the laser post before it disappeared, but I wonder if it could relate to the fact that Federal law in the U.S. prohibits the use as a pointer any laser whose power exceeds 5mW, and Phil didn’t want to be seen as promoting an illegal activity once that was pointed out to him (no pun intended).

    (Goes looking for places the post may still be lingering, and confirms suspicions.)

    Oh dear. In the post, Phil admits to using a, shall we say, “higher than 5mW” laser as a pointer at star parties. While he’s far from alone on this, it’s worth noting that doing so is, technically, breaking the law. (A law I disagree with, FWIW–a classic case of clamping down on law-abiding citizens because of the actions of a few idiots.)

  9. Science then technology fail as public policy because they do not require mortification of users’ flesh but do require understanding rather then belief. Management obsesses on what is measurable and salable instead of promoting what is important.

    In order to maintain an untenable position you must be actively ignorant – though stupidity, religion, or insanity are passively adequate. Culture must never bow to society. Diversity!

  10. Gus Snarp

    @Chris A – I don’t think that’s it. Phil was quite clear about appropriate and safe use of the laser. I don’t expect there was any legal issue. He may have had second thoughts about how responsible it was to potentially promote that product, nonetheless.

  11. David C

    Chris A… you are incorrect about the law. It is legal for citizens to import and own lasers that are higher than 5 mw. I myself have many high power lasers including Class 3B (the laser Phil was writing about was a Class 4, but is also legal to own).

    What the law says is the laser must be equipped with a number of safety features and warning labels. The Wicked Laser (and most lasers of similar power sold by other companies) meets this requirement. The law also makes requirements about where you house the laser (specific warning signs, etc).

    That said, it was appropriate to pull the article because that particular laser is indeed very dangerous and should not be used for star pointing, etc. (Blue laser light at that power can cause temporary and permanent changes in your ability to see green. Even the specular reflection and indirect viewing can cause damage in a very short period of time).

  12. Stu

    The writer for “TV as a source of science inspiration” really should learn the difference between “then” and “than”.

  13. Ron1

    “But television has the opposite view: it must keep its audience in mind or else it won’t make any money. … the audience needs to know if it’s seeing something that aligns with the scientific consensus, or if it’s an opinion-piece that may denigrate the actual truth. Usually that’s clear, but these days, with increasingly lax rules about what can go on TV, I suspect polemicals disguised as unbiased documentaries will be more common. ”

    Alas, that is problem – the need to make money corrupts (a lot of) the content and yet, to make content, you need money.

    In a way, while science fiction definitely does drive interest in science, I strongly think it also corrupts people’s scientific expectations in the sense that, for the majority, real science is boring in comparison to science fiction ( or even ‘science’ rich dramas such as CSI) – they want to be entertained rather than taught.

    This is not to say that people can’t both be entertained and taught – Bad Universe is a good example. In the case of Bad Universe, you’ve managed to teach science and maintain viewer interest by presenting BIG concepts with lots of BANG, FLASH and rapidfire scene changes – the better to address the short attention span of the remote clicking modern population. The problem is that while the concepts are big, the depth of the show is shallow and the complexity and uncertainty of the issues cannot be addressed in a sixty minute time period, less time for commercials.

    However, people can also be entertained and taught false ideas (dangerous memes according to Dan Dennett) just as easily and I think Science Fiction can facilitate this.

  14. Gus Snarp

    @Chris A – “Federal law in the U.S. prohibits the use as a pointer any laser whose power exceeds 5mW”. That sounds kind of legalese, but I certainly hope there’s not such a poorly written law as to state that a laser of a certain power can’t be used as a pointer without clearly defining “pointer”. A laser pointer is usually something you use to point at a screen or white board, not so much a star.

  15. See, you guys are so optimistic.
    I assumed he pulled the post because Wicked Laser was not pleased to have donated the laser and then have him discuss why 99.9% of the world should never buy the laser. And that he himself wouldn’t use it.

    If my assumption is true, Wicked Laser is stupid. LOTS of people would consider his warning as a reason to buy the thing, not a reason to avoid it.

    PS – If you get a RSS feed it amazing how often you get to read articles that the author later removes. Its kind of fun. Its still on my feed.

  16. Chris

    Just a warning to the squeamish, Part 3 for the first 1.5 minutes has a whale eye necropsy. Interesting, but icky. Why I didn’t go into biology.

  17. jeff

    yes, media does hype ATM science way out of propotion.

    The coast to coast am phenomenon is an absolutely terrible development, mixing up ATM with mainstream science, I think Noory is an airhead.

    In the political realm, media does the exact opposite.

  18. Ethyachk

    Why no lasers? Phil Plait Doomsday Machine. He told us too much…

  19. The Captian

    I don’t know about the laser, but I know that many times watching the Discovery Channel, or the History Channel has made me feel stupider! Brian’s right that these (and others) give more weight to non-mainstream ideas, but it goes far beyond that, they do entire shows around made up nonsense (and don’t even get me started on the History channel airing a show “Future Disasters”).

    Both networks suffer from what I call “But what if” syndrome. Too many of their shows start of on a subject explaining the scientific consensus accurately, then usually around the 3 min mark the announcer will let drop the “but what if”, and then the next 50 min are all about the most unsupported crazy ideas possible.

    The problem I really have is I think this actually has the effect of making kids who watch these shows hostile to scientific thinking and yes, dumber. This teaches them that just because you can think of something, that means it must be as plausible as things there are evidence for. We already have too much of that going on as it is (YEC, Anti-Vac, magnetic bracelets, deepak chopra), yet it feels like our “science channels” are all encouraging this type of thinking in kids.

    I blame the networks program managers and producers for either being just lazy (just run with the most sensationalized idea for maximum effect wether true or not), or ignorant (And why would a TV producer actually know or care about science?).

    Although Phil’s show, and the Myth busters are great, they are a very small minority now a days.

  20. Charlie Young

    A little off topic…I came to the site earlier and saw a post on a laser Phil was trying out. When I clicked on the “read further” link, the whole article disappeared. A mis-post, by chance?

  21. Chris Winter

    Apparently the laser article was withdrawn “in the mutual interests of world peace and security” — to quote a bad SF movie, I hope accurately. What I mean is that lasers of that power level can be dangerous.

    I was hoping to catch the cache of the article, but it too seems to be gone. Here is a related story from August. The comments are interesting.

    http://www.nerdist.com/2010/08/should-lasers-be-banned/

    Apparently, in Australia, you can be jailed for multiple years if you’re caught in possession of a Class III laser. The one Phil wrote about was a class IV. Australia, of course, banned all private possession of firearms after a shooting tragedy several years ago.

    Perhaps the laser article should have been left up, in modified form, since that would be the place for discussion of the topic, which is important and popular.

  22. Mercator

    You know what could really inspire people? A post about lasers.

  23. Michel

    “I watched some pretty phenomenally bad scifi TV and movies and a kid”
    Why were you watching a kid?
    I love this site. It always makes you wonder and think.
    Anyhow. SciFi made me always wonder what we would do in the future.
    And growing up in the 60´s/70´s with all the space programs going on (US and Russian) I had lots to wonder about.

  24. Mark

    Is there any one else who hates the way Brian Cox talks? I love his shows and lectures, but his voice is so irritating to me. :(

  25. Gus Snarp

    @Non-Believer -I thought of that, but then I thought that the company wouldn’t really have any power to compel Phil to take the post down, and surely he wouldn’t cave to them, no would he? Unless of course they have a space laser pointed at his house, ready to fill it with popcorn.

  26. QuietDesperation

    You know what could really inspire people? A post about lasers.

    Yeah, blue ones, because blue is the most inspirational color. Or something.

    Maybe Phil thought it read like an ad for the laser? Or the FAA gave him a call about the picture with it pointing in the sky? ;-)

  27. Leon

    “Maybe Phil thought it read like an ad for the laser? Or the FAA gave him a call about the picture with it pointing in the sky?”

    Or maybe the lasers were mounted on the heads of sharks, and he was afraid Homeland Security might bring him in for questioning about connections to Doctor Evil! ;)

  28. Maybe the laser post had to be pulled because Discover doesn’t allow advertising in the bloggers’ posts. Just a guess.

  29. Michel

    @25. Mark
    Like the way he says “Big Bank”?
    Besides, it´s far more interesting what he says then the way he says it.

  30. Anyone as cute and smart as Brian Cox can talk any way he wants to. There, I said it.

  31. Chris A.

    @David C:
    I never said it was illegal to own a Class IIIb or higher laser. I said it was illegal to use it as a pointer.

    @Gus Snarp:
    Allow me to quote the actual FDA statutes. First, the statutory definition of “pointer”:
    ———————-
    21 CFR 1040.10 Laser products

    (b)Definitions. As used in this section and 1040.11, the following definitions apply:

    (39)Surveying, leveling, or alignment laser product means a laser product manufactured, designed, intended or promoted for one or more of the following uses:

    (i) Determining and delineating the form, extent, or position of a point, body, or area by taking angular measurement.

    (ii) Positioning or adjusting parts in proper relation to one another.

    (iii) Defining a plane, level, elevation, or straight line.
    ——————————
    Second, here’s the statute prohibiting the use of lasers more powerful than Class IIIa as pointers:
    ——————————
    21 CFR 1040.11 Specific purpose laser products.

    (c)Demonstration laser products. Each demonstration laser product shall comply with all of the applicable requirements of 1040.10 for a Class I, IIa, II, or IIIa laser product and shall not permit human access to laser radiation in excess of the accessible emission limits of Class I and, if applicable, Class IIa, Class II, or Class IIIa.

  32. Miko

    “Brian’s overriding point is that TV is not fair and balanced, since it gives far more weight to non-mainstream views than is deserved.”

    This is stupidity of the same sort as when Christians complain that they’re being oppressed whenever someone says “happy holidays,” and for the same reason. While the mainstream naturally wants to suppress all other points of view entirely in order to justify its faith in conformity, the idea that any particular view “deserves” to have a set amount of coverage is nonsensical. For the most part, views (mainstream and otherwise) get exactly as much TV coverage as TV viewers want them to have.

  33. Ron 1

    @33. Miko

    Well, duh! That’s exactly what Brian is saying. He’s simply trying to point out that scientists still have to be ethical in the face of a medium that is less than factual, more often than not.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Chris (17) said:

    Interesting, but icky.

    That sums up quite a lot of biology.

    Especially the ichneumonidae.

  35. XPT

    Meh, the idea of keeping your audience in mind is not new at all!

    I’m not one of Cox’s fans. Which is ironic ’cause I am definitely a fan of cocks.

  36. Brad

    Australia, of course, banned all private possession of firearms after a shooting tragedy several years ago.
    Not quite true. They banned certain classes of firearms, and instituted a licensing scheme. So people surrendered their semiauto and pump shotguns (newly banned), and took the money from the buyback and bought new bolt-action shotguns.

    On topic: Watching Brian Cox stand there and talk for fifteen minutes tops anything I have watched on television in the last month.

  37. Nigel Depledge

    Going into a bit more detail about this one…

    Miko (33) said:

    “Brian’s overriding point is that TV is not fair and balanced, since it gives far more weight to non-mainstream views than is deserved.”

    This is stupidity of the same sort as when Christians complain that they’re being oppressed whenever someone says “happy holidays,” and for the same reason.

    Not really.

    All religions and lack thereof should be treated more or less equally, since none is permitted to be superior in our societies (well, in theory at least).

    In science, there is only one right answer – the universe is what it is, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. As we learn more about how the universe works, there are certainly plenty of areas of uncertainty. But, at the same time, the areas in which we can be confident that our theories are at least a good approximation to reality gradually grow.

    Thus, we can be pretty sure that the following are at least close approximations to reality:
    Atomic theory;
    Quantum mechanics;
    Evolutionary theory;
    General relativity (with certain exceptions);
    Germ theory;
    Big Bang cosmology (with certain exceptions);
    and so on.

    Thus, the “mainstream” view, i.e. the scientific consensus, in each of these areas is (1) most probably right in all important respects; and (2) if wrong, at least not grossly wrong but wrong only in subtle ways.

    To illustrate what I mean by example, general relativity (GR) is a much better description of gravity than Newton’s gravitational theory. Newtonian gravitational theory is “wrong”. However, in most circumstances, it is a very close approximation – close enough that the differences between Newtonian gravitation and GR are genuinely trivial. Thus, Newtonian gravitation approximates GR under many circumstances.

    If the theories I listed above are “wrong”, they are most probably only “wrong” in the same way that Newtonian gravitation is “wrong”.

    While the mainstream naturally wants to suppress all other points of view entirely in order to justify its faith in conformity,

    Utter rubbish. Where do you get this from?

    the idea that any particular view “deserves” to have a set amount of coverage is nonsensical.

    It’s not a question of the amount of coverage, it’s the credulity of that coverage.

    Much TV coverage of science presents new, uncertain or controversial ideas as if they were not uncertain, as if they were not controversial, and as if they have as much validity as the well-established and well-supported theories they seek to replace.

    Big Bang theory is an interesting example. It is very successful, and explains so much of what we observe, and yet many leading cosmologists feel that it is inadequate or “wrong” in various ways. IIUC, there is no consensus about what is most wrong with it, and there is no consensus about how we should go about fixing it or replacing it. But there are some very clever people working on these problems. However, from the point of view of trying to present this to a largely-ignorant public, it would take at least a full hour (not counting commercial breaks) to convey a very shallow overview of the topic. And even this goes no way to addressing the many misconceptions about cosmology that are floating about in the internet, never mind those that are propagated or promulgated by some of the less good TV coverage of science.

    For the most part, views (mainstream and otherwise) get exactly as much TV coverage as TV viewers want them to have.

    But TV viewers are not – for the most part – suited to judging what is good science and what is bad. That’s where you need experts. And much TV coverage of science will give (approximately) equal time to opposing views, no matter how many experts are convinced that viewpoint A is a better fit to the evidence than viewpoint B.

    Sometimes the “fringe” views are proven correct (Wegener’s continental drift comes to mind) but often they are not (Fleischman and Pons’ “cold fusion” is a relatively recent example). What is too rarely conveyed in TV programmes is the inherent uncertainty of many of the new ideas, and the fact that more or better data is often required to resolve the question.

    Ultimately, the nature of science is such that public media are not a useful forum for determining what is or is not a better description of reality. The correct forum is the primary literature. “Popular-science” TV shows, as a concept, are far more valuable informing the public of what is known with some fair degree of confidence, and what is not, and what questions are being tackled at the forefront of research, than determining what is or is not the correct answer. And the same applies even more so to news coverage of scientific topics.

    I think this is why Brian Cox says what he says about TV not being balanced appropriately.

  38. It seems that most people learn about science from “science fiction” movie and television dramas. Regretfully, there is much more “fantasy” than “science” in vast majority of these productions. On the one hand, the old adage of “why let a few facts get in the way of a good story” seems to commonly apply. On the other hand, the observation that “truth is stranger than fiction” would probably make for more compelling and interesting material. As more people in the general population are becoming a little more savvy about science, the pressure is on the writers of these stories to do more research about the science behind the subjects that they represent. Otherwise, their laborious creations will become easily ridiculed and then ignored.

    With more than 300 TV stations available by cable and satellite nowadays, there are at least a few science- and nature-focused networks. Many of the programs on these networks are highly educational and entertaining, but it is so damn annoying to watch 40 minutes of program punctuated liberally with 20 minutes of commercials. I highly recommend the purchase of a programmable video recorder; it is a great time saving device. It is ironic that pseudo-science products, such as Q-rings, are quite often featured in the commercials on these stations. The nature programs on these stations are great, but here especially, the information provided about the creatures shown is often very limited. This is particularly evident in the Japanese productions that have wonderful photography, but scripts that seem to be aimed at elementary school children. These TV stations are not at the top of the list of those that kids and teenagers want to watch.

    With respect to the general news programs that cover science-related topics, no one should expect to learn much from a 3 minute spot on the nightly news. Informed documentaries probably remain the best way to educate the general public about important scientific issues such as environmental pollution, warming, resource and species depletion as well as plethora of other worthy topics. As increasing opportunities arise with new mediums for the communication of scientific thought, more scientists should directly leap into cyberspace to engage the general public to spread the facts and challenge popular misperceptions. We should not be leaving it just up to the TV, radio, magazine and newspaper reporters to disseminate science to the general population. Inquisitive minds will seek the truth if it is out there.

  39. Chris Winter

    Brad, Thanks for the correction in #37.

  40. Dave

    I was definitely inspired by some bad television myself. Star Trek had been on for only a few years when I was little, and was my favorite show. Some technology that was imagined for the show has come to be. An outdated flip phone is far more capable than the ‘communicators’ of the show. A 3.5″ floppy disk (also outdated) looks almost exactly like the ‘library tapes’ carried around, and inserted into console slots. The bridge viewscreen is greatly outdone by todays large flatscreens. Warp Speed, matter-to-energy-and-back transportation, and antimatter reactors are still fiction, but every bit as inspiring today as then.

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