"Gutless" TV science

Martin Robbins last week posted a column with a great title: “Return to the Silence: Is theatre exposing the gutlessness of TV science?” In it, he discusses some innovative storytelling approaches, not only in the theatre but also beat poetry and science comedy. Sounds to me like London is a great place to be a science fan.

His complaint about television is that science shows are too formulaic. Seems to me he’s got the formula down:

Pick a topic that people love, like space, dinosaurs, cavemen, sex, or preferably cavemen on dinosaur-back having sex in space.
Find an athletic, easy-on-the-eye presenter in their 30s or 40s (or one with an amusingly-distinctive facial feature like Robert Winston's moustache).
Send them to to a series of increasingly improbable locations based on the slimmest premise you can imagine. For example, if the presenter is talking about the element lanthanum, send them to Los Angeles, because the symbol for Lanthanum is 'La.'
Once there, get them to resort to increasingly desperate uses of nearby objects to explain concepts. Force Brian Cox to steal fruit from Indian market stall owners to explain an eclipse. Make Robert Winston shave off his moustache as a metaphor for the effects of cliff face erosion.
Film lots of sweeping landscape shots in HD. If you film too many, don't worry, just stick them in the next documentary you make - no one will notice.
Overlay the whole thing with audio from the latest Moby Sigur Rs album.

In other words, siphon the genius out of the tank of British Top Gear, resulting in something like the lifeless corpse of American Top Gear.

Well, I give the BBC Horizon and other science programs a lot of credit, since here in the States the number 2 science program on television is …

Ancient Aliens.

OK, yes, it’s highly misleading to call that a science program, since it denies science in every episode. It’s a pseudoscience program. Likewise for Ghost Hunters and MonsterQuest. But these shows have been averaging well over a million viewers per episode. Since the new season started, Ancient Aliens has had more than 2 million viewers every week. Those are big numbers for cable, which means the History Channel will probably bring us Ancient Aliens for longer than they gave us Hitler’s secrets.

Pseudoscience drafts off science’s fumes. It doesn’t work if it isn’t trying to look like science, so it follows the forms. Ancient Aliens has a disembodied narrator, parade of experts, HD landscape shots of the Nasca lines, pyramids, and whatnot. The “experts” are retreads like Erich von Däniken, Michael Cremo and Graham Hancock – the show presents them “asking the tough questions”, implying that real archaeologists don’t have the answers.

It’s a joke. Put one real scientist on the show and it’d fall apart like a house of cards. The entire premise is that ancient people were too stupid to invent stuff.

You know what I’d really love to see? I’d like to see somebody give Ghost Hunters the VH-1 treatment – you know, coming up with totally comical riffs on the “EVP” recordings that supposedly have ghost voices on them. Oooh-oooh! A spectral voice said “Bring me the head of Mo Rocca.”

Mythbusters is the only science show right now that smokes these pseudoscience programs. What makes it work? Well, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it shows experiments with a real chance of failure, it calls on many different specialties and relates to ordinary experience. It definitely isn’t “gutless” – although it does have its conventions, including the frequent explosive endings.

Anyway, I think Robbins is onto something. During the past few years there have been some excellent programs featuring archaeology on American TV. Some of them followed the high-Q presenter formula, others the disembodied narrator approach. Some of them I’ve really enjoyed. But I’m afraid people are lulled into complacency by the format. Viewers who are already knowledgeable about science can follow them and get a lot out of them, taking on faith that the people doing the science know what they are doing. What’s the difference between that presentation and the pseudoscience shows, though?

Robbins writes that the solutions to these problems are most likely to come from the innovative approaches found in new and alternative media:

[A]mateur science communicators are beginning to reach audiences that rival science magazines and the backwaters of digital TV. Some of the most creative new work is springing up at blogs, Youtube, local theatres, and even pubs. It's messy, but it's quietly brilliant, and reaching a bigger and bigger audience, and no doubt if TV had come along and picked it all up I'd just be sitting here ranting about how they ruined it all with their bloody rules.

These laboratories are great for developing new concepts, but they’re a niche. Science should have a better presence on TV.