Saturday, June 28, 2014

Science Documentaries

Once, when the secrets of science were the jealously guarded property of a small priesthood, the common man had no hope of mastering their arcane complexities. Years of study in musty classrooms were prerequisite to obtaining even a dim, incoherent knowledge of science.
Today, all that has changed: a dim, incoherent knowledge of science is available to anyone.

-- Science Made Stupid
A couple of weeks ago, a reader posted a comment on my post regarding the "Axis of Evil" as allegedly supporting geocentrism.  The comment was in fact very sparse:  it consisted of nothing more than this link to an article that is shocked! that scientists are dismissive of a documentary that some have never seen and in which others actually participated.  In reality, this is not shocking at all -- and I am not making a cynical statement about scientists in saying that.  Instead, my response is due to three facts:
  1. details are not always necessary to make a sound judgment;
  2. form matters; and 
  3. appearing in a documentary does not mean a person endorses the claims of the documentary.

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map edit

1.  Documentary shows, whether good, bad, or indifferent, really don't bury the lede; they almost always let you know from the beginning what kind of conclusion they are promoting.  Regardless of format, anyone who knows that conclusion to be bunkum does not really need to see the evidence presented in favor of the bunkum.

Maybe the best example would be "documentaries" (many of which can still be found on YouTube) claiming that something really profound, probably the end of the world as we know it, was going to happen precisely on December 21, 2012.  If somehow you had been living under a rock and had seen none of this, would you really think there was still any point in watching the documentary now?

The scientific community is actually quite small, and the community of scientists engaged in research on cosmology is a very small part of it.  Any professional cosmologist will be aware of the current state of cosmological research, the controversies within the field, and the arguments for and against the proposed resolutions to those controversies.   That means he will be particularly good at sniffing out bunkum in his own field.

2.  Form matters:  sometimes the manner in which a claim is presented destroys its credibility.  Legitimate business opportunities do not come in unsolicited emails from strangers.  A man who interviews for a job as a bank manager while dressed as a chicken does not seriously want the job.  Presidents almost never announce anything that is both new and important in State of the Union Addresses because they want to guarantee that the speech is a "success".  No Bigfoot program will make the announcement of proof that Bigfoot is real -- in the highly unlikely event that such proof emerges, probably in the form of a real body found by a hunter or motorist, every network will cut into its programming to announce the discovery immediately. 

There is a hierarchy of credibility when it comes to the forms in which scientific claims are released.  At the top are claims released through a peer-reviewed journal with a good reputation.  Below that are claims released at scientific conventions attended by the leaders of the field in question; they will not be able to carefully check the claim, but at least they will be able to point out obvious flaws on the spot.  Then come press releases.  Generally speaking, the press has no idea what scientists are talking about, but at least the release might have been written by a scientist.  Documentaries actually are near the bottom, mostly because they are either produced by the "edutainment" industry, which is more interested in telling a story the public will enjoy than the truth, or by advocates of fringe ideas who knew (either from experience or from a sound intuition) that they would not be taken seriously if they tried presenting their ideas in any of the above forums.

There are still worse ways to release a claim -- for example, one could do like Melba Ketchum and buy a small and insignificant journal so that it will publish one's paper.  She still maintains that the paper was "really" peer-reviewed, but not many people, let alone scientists, take her seriously.  Her paper is still the only one published by that journal in the year or so since she bought it.  The has got to be just about the worst possible way to present a claim without actually breaking the law.
By the way, the insistence on real peer review may seem like snobbery, but it isn't; it's a necessary step given the number of claims made and the limited amount of time available.  The truth is that it is not even possible for any one person to keep up with all the peer-reviewed articles published in any of the larger sub-fields of a basic scientific discipline (for example, condensed matter physics as a subfield of physics).  Besides that, most of the really interesting conjectures based on the current observations and experiments will inevitably turn out, on the basis of further observation or experiment (or sometimes for theories, more careful math or better computer simulations) to be wrong.  Filters are necessary so that time is spent mostly on ideas that are at least plausibly correct.

3.  I remember some TV show from the '80's or early '90's about a Weekly World News-type newspaper that wanted to run with a headline that maybe Elvis was an alien.  Someone thought that Carl Sagan would be a fantastic source for a comment.  So they phoned him.  "Dr. Sagan," said the reporter on the phone, "what do you have to say about the theory that Elvis was an alien? ... Oh. ... I see."  (He hung up.)  "Well, what did he say?"  "He said, 'I am absolutely astonished that you would have the audacity to ask me such a ludicrous question.'"  Everyone looked glum, until someone came up with the headline.  "I've got it!" he said, "Elvis an Alien?  Carl Sagan Says, 'I'm Absolutely Astonished!'"  (If anyone remembers this show, please remind me of its name.  I've been looking for it off-and-on for several years.)

Unfortunately, similar stunts by TV shows do not seem to be limited to fiction.  One scientist describes the way he was misled and his words twisted by a "documentary" here.  A similar account comes from an advocate of ideas as near the fringe as is geocentrism.  In fact, I've heard similar stories often enough to conclude that if someone comes asking for your comments in a "documentary", unless you have a preexisting relationship of long standing so that you really have a reason to trust the producers, it is essential to retain the power to veto the use of your name, image, and words in the final production -- a demand that the producers will almost certainly not agree to.

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