The Mighty Power of Blogosaurus?

By Carl Zimmer | December 17, 2009 10:21 pm

Over the past few days, I’ve been following a tale of paleontological woe with a surprisingly happy ending.

Matt Wedel, a paleontologist, has been blogging about his experience with a television show on the Discovery Channel called Clash of the Dinosaurs. It didn’t go well. The producers edited Wedel’s interviews to turn his words around 180 degrees. For example, remember that old notion of big dinosaurs having a second brain along their spinal column? Not true! Wedel explained this, but if you tune into the show, you see Wedel essenitally saying, True!

Wedel understandably flipped out. He complained to the producers and got back a non-apology that just made him angrier. He was transformed into the terrible Blogosaurus, and with his resonant nasal cavity he let out a clarion call for his fellow blogosaurs to stampede the production company

I’ve heard this sort of story many times before, and this is where it usually ends. Blogosaurus slinks back to his office and sulks.

But today the story has another ending. Wedel now reports that someone from the Discovery Channel called him up and is going to make things right. I can only guess that blogs do actually make a difference some of the time. Or maybe just this once.

Still, I find this story heartening, because I find science on television to be so vexing. We’re at the point now where all the pieces are in place for some utterly exhilarating programs. We’ve got awesome computer graphics. We’ve got lightweight HD cameras that people can bring to out-of-the-way places. We’ve got scientists ready to give their time and expertise. We’ve got all sorts of innovative ideas about how to make documentaries. Sometimes they add up into good science shows, but rarely great ones. And too often we end up with Clash of the Dinosaurs, or worse.

There are three kinds of terrible science shows on television.

1. The sleepy, dutiful schlep. Just because a show is accurate doesn’t mean that it’s worth watching.

2. The show that’s crazy from the start. Exhibit A: Nostradamus 2012. Just full-goose bozo from scene one, and spreading misinformation far and wide.

3. The show that could’ve been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what it is. Wedel’s experience is a good example of this category. The show sounded great to Wedel when the producers described it to him. But along the way, somebody got the idea stuck in his or her head that it would be so cool for dinosaurs to have a second brain. It would look great. And so great effort and editing was undertaken to achieve that dream–with no apparent interest in whether it was actually true.

I’ve been involved peripherally in some television science shows. In some cases, the producers and I were totally on the same wavelength. I helped them make their shows accurate and clear, and they understood what I was getting at. In other cases, I got stuck in Category Three situations. I had to explain again and again why something in a script was just totally wrong. I wanted to rig up an electrified fence around the falsehood to keep the producers from sneaking back to it. The producers in these particular cases, I suspect, really do just care about the good look–or, rather, they don’t want to spend the time making the truth look good instead.

Wedel has had a small victory in Category Three. The DVD of Clash of the Dinosaurs will get right what the broadcast version got wrong. Wedel’s experience shows that scientists and audience members can have an effect on science TV. And I suspect that it also shows that deep down, television producers know that they can’t do science shows without scientists. (Although there’s always the chance they’ll turn to pseudo-scientists.)

Still, it would have been nice for the show to have been right from the start–and not just right, but to convey how scientists do science. Some have argued that the only way to be sure you don’t get involved in a turkey is to get lawyerly. Get the final approval on all your material in writing.

It’s good advice, up to a point. At best, it leads to a hostile detente between scientists and producers. If scientists just crouch in their offices, ready to thwack any passing television producer with legal documents, I don’t think we’ll see a blossoming of great science TV any time soon. For that to happen, there will have to be deeper partnerships, in which TV folks recognize what science is actually about, and scientists will leave their staid jargon and lecturing styles at the studio door and spend some serious time thinking about what documentaries can achieve.

In the meantime, as my fossiliferous friend Chris Norris notes, there’s always Wikipedia.

[Image: Sauroposeidon, Matt Wedel’s beast of choice, via Wikipedia]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Comments (15)

  1. remember when shelley batts got that creepy letter? collective action can work.

  2. Thanks for this, Carl. As you probably saw in my post, in the aftermath of this kerfuffle I am left thinking (to quote David Byrne) “How do I work this?” Scientists obviously want to participate in helping production companies making the best shows possible, but they also want to protect themselves from the shenanigans that went on with Clash of the Dinosaurs. As I said in the post, the fact that there is high turnover in tv production companies does not seem to help since who you started working with may not be the person who ends up deciding what goes in the show (so all those good ideas you seemed to agree on go out the window…).

    There is no easy answer, and frankly it is hard to see how scientists can level the playing field. Documentary production is a business, after all, and given the current state of things I guess we should be glad that production companies are still consulting with scientists. Still, what happened to Matt is not a one time thing and has been a consistent problem for scientists who have participated in interviews, tv shows, etc. Contrary to many of the books that came out this year, there is more involved in fixing out science communication problems than getting scientists to seem hipper while on screen.

  3. Jeff

    Carl,

    Could you (or anyone reading this) recommend some really good science documentaries that you think got things right?

    Thanks,

    Jeff

    [CZ: Jeff: I was the science editor for this 2009 show about the evolution of eyes. When I told the producers about stuff that was wrong, they figured out creative ways to make it right. It may not delve into the full details that experts on the evolution of eyes deal in, but I think it got across some of the key points well. And at least one scientist involved in the process was happy with the experience. Obviously, given my involvement, you have to take this with a hefty grain of salt, so, as always, judge for yourself.]

  4. Unfortunately, it looks like there’s a lot of other junk that isn’t going to get corrected that was in the show. From Wedel’s original piece: ” There is no evidence that Quetzalcoatlus could see dinosaur pee with its ultraviolet vision, or that a herd of hadrosaurs could knock over a predator with their concentrated infrasound blasts.” I’m hoping that the second one is him exaggerating. Because if they really tried to claim that on the show… wow.

  5. Joshua: they did claim that, and indeed “wow”…

    My experience with Clash of the Dinos wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Matt’s. I think a lot of what happened can be explained by the fact that during production and post-production the staff did not interact with the experts in terms of fact-checking and the like. (In part this was due because of major changes in the production team after filming had been done: many of the people who edited and wrote the narration for the project were not even with it last winter when we talking heads got filmed!)

    In contrast, shows where the production team does vet ideas to their subject experts during the process tend to wind up with more accurate products (surprise, surprise!)

  6. johnk

    Jeff,
    Using my way-back machine, I really liked the Bell Telephone science shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The hour-long episodes “Hemo the Magnificent” and “Gateways to the Mind” (on the senses) stand out in my memory. I think these represented major commitments by the sponsors and Hollywood studios to science documentaries. They were broadcast on network TV, and I remember watching some of those in my middle-school classroom. I’ve recently seen a few of them on youtube, and they hold up well. They had great production values, nice ways of presenting science, and good accuracy (from what I can tell). It’s fun to compare the the old animation methods with current techniques. While they didn’t have computer graphics, they used top-level cartoonists who produced catchy animations.

  7. Tim Vickers

    Chris Norris is perfectly correct, cut out the middlemen and write about your science on Wikipedia. About 4,000 to 7,000 people per day read the Wikipedia dinosaur article. That will be far more people than ever see this crappy documentary.

  8. Derek

    National Geographic station here in Canada plays some awful awful science programs. It is just frustrating. Some things that annoy me:

    – little info: what takes them an hour to say with dramatic pauses could be said in 5 minutes. How about fewer pauses, more info?

    – monster-trunk style commentary

    – British accents (sorry, I just don’t like them unless they’re female)

    – Comparisons. ex said dramatically “That’s as heavy as 50,000 dwarf rabbits each pregnant with 4 pups !”, or “as long as 10,000,000 badminton rackets lined end-to-end !”

    – and generally treating the audience like they are 12 year old boys that have been held back in kindergarden

    Gah !

  9. The reference to Nasa was made, I believe in the dino mailing list, as an exemplary way of putting the science out there under the control of the scientists themselves. A paleoplatform with brief videos presenting key concepts would be an interesting way of getting the ideas out there, supported with specific links to the many fantastic blogs and sites such as wiki, http://www.paleocene-mammals.de/ and http://www.palaeos.com/ for further reading… as well as books.
    There are many artists out there who I’m sure would be honored to have expert consultations with scientists to make sure content is correct, and having their work presented next to other graphic materials. I’m sure the artists are the key multiplicators in accessing popular opinion and fascination, not just in the form of sexy illustrations, but in the form of explanatory graphics.

  10. Darren Garrison

    #9 Derek said:

    – monster-trunk style commentary
    – British accents (sorry, I just don’t like them unless they’re female)

    Hm. Don’t like monster trunks, don’t like British accents. Better avoid the 2008 BBC movie of The Colour of Magic!

    Actually, that is good general advice for anyone…

  11. Daniel J. Andrews

    and generally treating the audience like they are 12 year old boys that have been held back in kindergarden

    Considering the stunning ignorance regarding science that seems to be rampant on the net, newspapers, and the high ratings achieved by tv shows that pander to the lowest common denominator, can you really blame them for thinking their audience are like a bunch of 12-year olds?

  12. “can you really blame them…?”

    Yes. Its the Discovery Channel.

  13. Thanks Carl for this article. I hope science editors will pay close attention to this rather odd situation.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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