Rethinking science on TV: what would you watch?

It’s a common complaint that television sensationalizes news, dumbs things down, or depicts people and content in an exaggerated and misleading way.

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, a historian based in Washington, D.C., has written a new scholarly tome that chronicles how science has been treated by television. The book, “Science on American Television: A History,” traces the evolution of programming, from shows that featured uninterrupted, serious discussion between two people to today’s slick productions and soundbites. She notes that in the need to make science entertaining, shows often focus on moral and ethical dilemmas, create a false sense of drama, and depend on a charismatic protagonist scientist. She argues that shows too often use as an explanatory crutch images that are more illusion than fact.

In some ways, this argument will seem incredibly obvious—the “boob tube” is primarily an entertainment medium, and not just in the domain of science. It’s true, many science channels feature shows that seem to have little to do with scientific inquiry. Even serious documentaries about heady topics such as physics will depend heavily on special effects that don’t necessarily add much to conceptual understanding. But for many of the people that produce such shows, the point is that people are watching and engaging with science; no one is earning their Ph.D. sitting on the couch.

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But LaFollette sees television as a real missed opportunity to educate the public about science. She points to the “Johns Hopkins Science Review” from the 1950s as a model of science on TV done right. In the show, a host and a scientist have a serious and literate discussion, without the production flair or the extensive editing that characterize most science documentaries today. Here’s a sample episode, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”

I’m not sure I’m persuaded by LaFollette’s dim view of how things have turned out. Is science on television so much worse than anything else on TV? Was this a failure of science, or television more generally? Maybe the medium just is better at entertaining than educating.

I do think simple, clear explanation can be captivating on video. As a young person, I loved the Richard Feynman lectures, which captured my imagination: a man talking to a classroom, conjuring excitement about the basic physics principles that underlie reality with nothing more than a resonant voice, a podium, and a piece of chalk. But I’m not convinced that modern science shows, with their animations, graphics, sound bites, and sometimes sleight of hand explanations, are actively doing a disservice. LaFollette answered questions about her book by e-mail. I’m curious, what do you think about the state of science on TV? Can it be improved? Should it be? How?

Q: Can you take us through the arc of science on TV over the past half-century?

A: By the 1950s, instead of waiting for the next issue of Life magazine, Americans could warm up the television set and watch interviews with Edward Teller or Robert Oppenheimer, and even witness atomic testing and eclipses in “real time.” The accepted approaches for science content became established fairly quickly, however, even as the technical quality improved. When Lynn Poole interviewed scientists on The Johns Hopkins Science Review during the 1950s, the shows were broadcast live, in black and white, with minimal rehearsal, but with close coordination between Poole and his guests. Compare that to NOVA’s tightly edited, carefully crafted presentations a few decades later, when a microbiologist’s fifty-second explanation was culled from hours of taped discussion and that researcher had no control over the result.

Audiences came to expect perfection in presentation. The remote control made it just as easy to turn science off as to turn it on. The television industry demonstrated increasingly little tolerance for the thoughtful, qualified explanations. Topics selected for investigation, even on public broadcasting, began to be chosen more for audience appeal and visual spectaculars than scientific significance. Science’s calm, methodical rationality was infused with drama or “the fear factor” in order to keep viewers enthralled. By the cable era and the establishment of dedicated “science channels,” the formulas were set—interviews interspersed with clever animation, anthropomorphized and romanticized natural history, Hollywood actor narration, and dramatic musical sound tracks.

Q: You say TV transforms science into an “entertaining illusion.” Can you explain what you mean?

A: Judges and attorneys often mention the “Law and Order effect”—that is, that some prospective jurors expect real cases and evidence to be as pat as shown on fictional television dramas. Over time, television has had a similar effect on Americans’ perceptions of science and scientists, from layering science content with moral lessons (ordinary laboratory researchers transformed into arrogant superheroes battling disease) and mischaracterizing expert consensus (“most scientists believe that”) to the choice of who is interviewed or described as a typical scientist. If television programs have included ever more female police officers, lawyers, politicians, and journalists over time but featured a disproportionately smaller number of female scientists, then that can influence your career choices—even if your math scores are high.

Q: You talk about the failure of television to bridge the gap and allow viewers to peer over the shoulders of scientists at their lab benches. But science is often incremental, many scientists aren’t skilled communicators, and much of bench research is so specialized and narrow that it is questionable why a general audience should or could know about it. How do you think it should be done in a way that would have greater fidelity to the enterprise?

A: The more difficult challenge must be confronted by the organized scientific community. Should the common goal of scientific professionals ... be to educate, inform, enlighten, or entertain the public, or leave those tasks to others? Television’s greatest advantage for science popularization is also its greatest disadvantage. How do you visualize (that is, televise) a process that is inherently intellectual?

The history of science presentation on television demonstrates that, without significant underwriting, entertainment values prevail. ... If there is consensus that there should be more educational programming on science, however, then the next question is whose responsibility should that be? Without substantial subsidy, the content decisions for commercial television audiences will be left to the marketplace.