Why do I bother?

5 10 2007

When I was a kid, one of my most-favorite videos was the Christopher Reeve hosted documentary Dinosaur!, a program filled with shots of fossils, interviews with experts, awesome stop-motion animation sequences, and host segments shot in the dim halls of the AMNH. I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it so fondly that it makes me want to go out and buy a VHS player just so I can watch it again. There have been more recent documentaries that have take a similar strategy, like the Jeff Goldblum-narrated When Dinosaurs Ruled series, but Dinosaur! remains my favorite, and it’s a far cry from modern programming.

“Ooo… At 8 something called ‘The Land of Lost Monsters‘ is on. Do you want to watch it?” my wife asked. I should have said “No” and saved myself the pain. The recent trend in paleo-documentaries has been to use CGI and storytelling as much as possible, pushing the actual science further and further into the background. This trend started with Walking With Dinosaurs, which was alright for what it was, but it has spawned so many clones that I wonder when we’ll be able to actually have dinosaur documentaries be about science and not just CGI critters that don’t look half as good as their big-screen equivalents (i.e. the work of Weta in King Kong [albeit speculative] and Stan Winston’s work on the Jurassic Park series). For those who haven’t had the displeasure of seeing the program, the Land of Lost Monsters is a two-hour program about man vs. beast from the time of Australopithecus africanus to the Pleistocene. Rather than containing any educational content, the show is all about sensationalism, hominids being beset by ravenous monsters throughout history. The treatment of Neanderthals as only cold-loving super-hunters that craved mammoth flesh was enough to make me roll my eyes, and the analogy “Neanderthals were to humans what the saber-tooth tiger was to a housecat” was enough to make me change stations.

What is strange about the current trend in pseudo-scientific television programming is that there are some people who still realize how to make a good documentary, even if it’s not prominently shown on the air. For instance, I didn’t particularly care for Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, but a companion documentary about the science behind the show (featuring interviews with many paleontologists) was fantastic. Likewise, the series Dinosaur Planet featured little “science breaks” here and there giving the audience some clue as what evidence the reconstructions were based upon. The interruptions were far from comprehensive, but there was at least the recognition that scientific reality should be addressed. I won’t go into the Nigel Marvin Chased by… and Prehistoric Park nonsense as I don’t want to go sailing off on a more vicious rant than necessary here.

At this point I should probably mention why I torture myself with shows I know are just going to be repackaged sensationalism with little scientific content. While I am trying to educate myself more and more about the scientific points of paleontology, I also am very much interested in the public perception of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in paintings, drawings, sculpture, television, movies, amusement park rides, etc. All contribute (not always helpfully) to the public understanding of creatures that are no longer around to be viewed, at least not with flesh on. When someone creates a 3-D model of a Tyrannosaurus I am curious as to what it will look like, how it will move, what behavior the producers will make it perform, etc., and I am very concerned with the move towards “edutainment” on many of the “science” networks like TLC, the Discovery Channel, and the National Geographic Channel. Good programming is seemingly few and far between or generally less-promoted than the expensive rubbish that is constantly generated, a good documentary on the juvenile Tyrannosaurus “Jane” and a stunning documentary about lions & buffalo in Botswana (Relentless Enemies, to which there’s a beautiful companion book) receiving much less attention than pure B.S. about Bigfoot and “Hogzilla.”

To sum things up a bit, I feel that current paleo-programming all-too-often cheats the audience by hiding the science (or even distorting it), making it appear that all the problems have been solved and we now know everything about these animals. Documentaries that are supposed to be educational are more like B-grade monster movies, only they’re not nearly as fun to watch. As discussed in the comments of The Ethical Palaeontologist as well, many spectacular paleontological finds that are being published in Nature or Science seem to be little more than brief announcements, and it can only be hoped that the specimens will be more fully studied and described (as is the case with the strange theropod Majungatholus from a few years back). Perhaps I could use these problems as a way to launch into the whole “framing” issue, but I think I’ll leave that sleeping canid lie for the moment, although misrepresentation or oversimplification of paleontology to the public is nothing new.

This post shouldn’t be taken as a cranky call to return to some of the methods of paleo-documentaries of the 80’s and 90’s, however, even though I wonder what a modern day equivalent of “Mesozoic Mind” would look like (hat-tip to Neil for unearthing the video);

And while we’re at it, here’s another video that’ll probably bring back memories for some readers, and see this previous post for even more;

Prehistoric Flashback…

21 09 2007

Many years ago, I can’t remember exactly when, I spent the majority of a wonderful Thanksgiving Day watching a marathon of dinosaur documentaries on PBS. I do not remember what the series was called, I don’t remember how many of episodes there were, nor do I remember the year they were aired, but I do remember the dinosaur animation. Someone has been kind enough to put some of the paleo-vignettes up on YouTube and it’s definitely a bittersweet experience seeing them again. One the one hand, I loved the show as a kid (my parents had to tear me away from it so the annual consumption of the dino-descendant carcass could begin), but seeing them now nearly resulted on me rolling on the floor laughing. I won’t specifically go into what’s wrong with each of these videos (at least not yet), but it seems to me that the dinosaurs are both new and very old. They’re not waddling about, dragging their tails; they seem very active and dynamic, yet they’re exhibiting behaviors that were in vogue during the Charles R. Knight era (in fact the Tyrannosaurus/Triceratops fight seems to play up the whole “eternal enemies” narrative). I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw Stegosaurus menacingly flattening its plates at the offending Ceratosaurus, but I will leave a fuller discussion of stegosaurs and their armor for another day.

Knight rex triceratops
Charles R. Knight’s famous painting of a “duel” between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. It is one of the most well-known (if not the most well-known) images in all of paleo-imagery.

The Discovery Channel ditches science for Shark Week

30 07 2007

One of my first encounters with the Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” was in the summer of 1990, watching a documentary featuring shark scholar John McCosker with a dead baby great white shark, pointing out its bits of anatomy and why they were important. The narrator’s description of the sharks miraculous blood-circulation system, allowing it to maintain a body temperature several degrees centigrade about the surrounding seawater, is as clear in my mind today as it was shortly after viewing it. Even when turning to the subject of shark attacks, the approach was minimalist, letting famous photograph Al Giddings recall an attack on his friend Leroy French among the Farallon Islands off California; it was a beautiful, fair documentary that was reflected more of the nature of the Great White than its more famous monstrous media persona. Other shows documented shark tracking techniques, their sensitivity to different kinds of light, and there was at least some inclusion of science into many of the programs I watched year after year.

Then, a few years ago, things started to change. There weren’t as many shows about the sharks themselves as melodramatic retelling of shark attacks, lots of fake blood, spliced stock footage, and terrible synthesizer music being more common than anything else. Conservation was almost never mentioned, the larger focus being on attacks (even if there were the obligatory mentions that attacks don’t happen all that often). Indeed, the Discovery Channel hit rock bottom with the schlock-fest “Anatomy of a Shark Bite,” a self-serving piece of junk that tried to sensationalize an attack of shark biologist Eric Ritter, the metallic reconstructions of shark jaws giving rise to terrible “documentaries” like “Hippo vs. Bull Shark.” Given the downturn of the programming, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that in 2000 I assisted the “Creative Works Team” to find information about sharks for the Discovery Channel, my keys hanging from a lanyard that I was given as a “thank you” for my work for the channel.

This year, the 20th Anniversary of Shark Week, things are worse than ever. While some decent older documentaries like “Jurassic Shark” are thrown in, the new programs are mostly more of the same blood-and-guts survivor stories, one of which is called “Top Five Eaten Alive.” The synopsis of the show is as follows;

Each year dozens of people are eaten alive by sharks. These are the world’s five most amazing survivor stories.

For a short time I worked on organizing and researching cases in the Global Shark Attack File, and I can tell you that dozens of people every year are not “eaten alive” by sharks. There are a number of attacks every year (so low as to be almost insignificant risk-wise), but there have been very few cases where victims have actually be consumed by sharks. Attacks by Great White sharks, for instance, are primarily of the “bite and spit” variety, sharks being unsure whether surfers or swimmings are seals, and so they take people into their mouths and then let them go almost immediately; if they really wanted to eat us, the inch-long serrated teeth would make short work of prey with a few side-to-side thrashings of the head. Again, some people have been eaten by sharks, but I am hard pressed to think of even one substantiated case where someone was swallowed hole or “eaten alive.” This kind of sensationalist B.S. certainly doesn’t belong on a channel claiming to be educational, but then again we know the Discovery Channel is no longer educational, and columnist David Hinckley has pointed out that it’s just another version of pushing the envelope in one area (disgusting and bloody content instead of sex, drugs, or profanity), only there may be more leeway since it’s perceived to have some educational value.

Despite it being well known that sharks are in serious trouble all over the globe, the Discovery Channel continues to ignore there is a problem (see the film Sharkwater if you have any doubts). Instead, they continue to revisit the 1916 shark attacks off of New Jersey (some years saying it was a Bull Shark, others that it was a Great White), “Black December” off South Africa, the USS Indianapolis tragedy, and other tried-and-true horror stories. While the Discovery Channel endorsed the well-made horror film Open Water a few years ago (featuring one absolutely awful documentary about a woman stranded at sea, her camera capturing “Death Tape footage” even though she survived the ordeal relatively unharmed), they seem to do absolutely nothing when it comes to conservation. It’s too late to change this years programming, but concerned shark fans (people who have looked forward to watching Shark Week every year since it’s inception) are starting to speak up about the irresponsible programming. Science should not be a ratings game, and there is no reason that the Discovery (and even National Geographic) Channel should continue to ignore the real horror story; what we’re doing to our oceans.

Update: In attempting to recall at least one case of someone being “eaten alive” I remembered two files from the mid-1800’s in South Carolina. A sailor was taking a swim off the side of his ship when a supposedly 25-foot long shark came along and, as the story goes, swallowed him. Another file from that same year tells of a man in a sailor’s uniform found in the stomach of a 25-foot long shark caught off South Carolina, and I have reason to believe that this is the same shark, sailor, and case. The date of the attack was listed as “circa 1840″ and the capture of the shark is listed as 1837, so although the capture would seem to precede the attack the actual date of attack is only rough at best. Unfortunately many of the original records were lost due to fire or other causes, and so we’ll probably never know for sure.

She’s not a paleontologist, she’s a very naughty girl!

25 07 2007

Inspired by on exchange on Julia’s blog the other day;

Monday Night Muddle: Krauss vs Ham on O’Reilly

29 05 2007

As PZ noted yesterday, Lawrence Krauss and Ken Ham both appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show last night and the YouTube video is now up (and PZ’s take on the subject appeared online just as I started typing this post, along with a transcript and some comments by Jason Rosenhouse). In case you haven’t seen it as yet, here it is;

Ham opens up with a classic bit of Gish gallop, all of the false claims he sputters out (especially about the creation museum being “mainstream science”) requiring more time to refute than is given to Krauss. Krauss doesn’t do a bad job overall, but (being the O’Reilly Show and all) the debate seemed more about religion than responsible science, and I think Krauss’ statements on the intersection of faith and science could have been better. I know it’s a hot topic (do we really need another round of calling people militant atheists or appeasers?), but for my own part I don’t have a problem with concessions like God started off the universe, knowing man would be created and intervened at a later point; as Krauss rightly notes that’s a religious notion and not science.

What irked me about Krauss’ response was his use of the term “purpose”, which immediately conjured up (at least in my mind) the phrase “purposeful arrangement of parts” and other ID catchphrases. I know this isn’t what he meant at all, but he needed more time than was given to explain (you can’t tackle an issue like this in sound bites). I’m not saying that everything else said by Krauss was therefore worthless, but when I hear the term “purpose” show up during these debates I do cringe, as it seems to make some room for intelligent design. Of course, I can’t guarantee that I would have done any better, and although I was not at the rally from what I’ve seen Krauss has done a wonderful job organizing people in response to the house that Ham built. It’s easy to be critical on my own blog without remembering the good, so I don’t want to primarily come across as a crank or malcontent.

In any event, it was a rather crappy interview. It was good to see the conservative newscaster side more with Krauss than Ham, but by the same token he was more concerned with Krauss’ allowance for God than with good science. In that way it reminded me of many debates about “science” on television that were really about religion, being able to drive gas-guzzling cars, etc., so it seems that unless science seems to be running in conflict with certain beliefs or market practices, many people just don’t care. Even so, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and I am thankful that there are people who are willing to confront creationists in the media even though the odds are stacked against them.

Beyond “Planet Earth”

18 05 2007

SEED Magazine has a new article online by Laura McNeil about the Discovery Channel’s famed Planet Earth series, and I can’t say I particularly agree with it. I have yet to see the entire series (I’m waiting to get my hands on the David Attenborough-narrated DVD version), but although it was beautiful I don’t see it doing much good for conservation. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing some of the few remaining Amur leopards captured on film, desert elephants, sweeping vistas, etc., but what impact is such programming going to have? Many people concerned with conservation in American and England can trace our own interests back to seeing episodes of Wild Kingdom, a David Attenborough-hosted documentary, a National Geographic special, or other such program, but such shows typically give us an appreciation for the wild. Nature is shown almost mystically, beyond the reach of human influence or habitation, almost like a grand playground for wildlife. I realize that this is a broad generalization and there have been efforts to show animal life in the city or the effect of hunters/poachers, but when I think of series like Blue Planet or Planet Earth I can’t help but wonder what viewers who are not so concerned with ecology or science will react.

In a way, a program like Planet Earth serves the same purpose as a zoo, only in your living room. Zoos are primarily places where people come to look (or perhaps a more appropriate term would be gawk) at various animals, and documentaries afford us experiences with animals in their habitats which are beyond the reach of most people. If anyone learns anything, it’s a bit of a bonus, but the primary focus is not education but eye-candy. I did see that Planet Earth attempted to tie global climate change in with the show by focusing on a polar bear that was unable to find food (and possibly died of starvation, I don’t remember if it was resolved), but it seemed that the rest of it was an attempt to show us various charismatic animals all over the world. A companion series, Planet Earth: The Future has hardly been mentioned at all and I am not sure if it ever aired here in the U.S. (it certainly wasn’t advertised). This series of 3 hour-long documentaries focused on conservation and ecological problems facing the world, but I have to wonder how many people watched this program? It seems to fall squarely in the realm of “supplemental material” and I imagine was overlooked by many. Why?

While some children who watched the Planet Earth series may someday become ecologists or (at least) informed members of the public, I don’t think this is enough. Planet Earth has its place, but if we’re to spur ecological concern we need to take an unflinching look at how we’re changing ecology during prime time, not relegate it to the background. Why not put just as much effort into a 11-part documentary about pollution, climate change, species extinction, wildlife reclaiming urban areas, etc.? If we continue to merely focus on how beautiful nature is, hoping that some will be inspired by its charms, we will ultimately fail; what is lacking from mass-media today is a long and hard look at just what we’re doing to the planet, and I don’t think we can afford to ignore the full depth of our impact anymore. I want to see a BBC crew catch a Japanese whaling ship red handed, I want people to be able to watch as a fisherman cuts the fins off a shark and dump the still-living animal back into the ocean, I want someone to film the ecology of landfills, and I believe that we need to be exposed to how climate change is transforming animals all over the world (spurring both evolution and extinction). Let’s stop vomiting up endless platitudes about “saving the planet” and “going green” and actually confront people with the damage we are wreaking on our one and only home in the universe. There are more stories about species becoming imperiled or habitats being destroyed than I can keep up with, so there is no shortage of material for a frank and up-front discussion of ecological destruction, and I hope the BBC has the guts to produce such a show.

Thoughts on the Comfort/RRS debate

8 05 2007

PZ has posted a some footage from the Ray Comfort + Kirk Cameron vs. Rational Response Squad debate from the other night, and to tell you the truth I wasn’t impressed. Interestingly enough, I received a copy of William Paley’s Natural Theology today and the first few pages more eloquently and coherently express intelligent design than Comfort’s ramblings about paintings. Also, as members of the RRS pointed out, Comfort alluded to the 10 commandements (without actually saying the words), therefore breaching the rules of the debate. In all Comfort’s attempt to explain the existence of God without Biblical authority was stupid; obviously I would contest his claims still but he essentially cut the balls off his own argument by trying to avoid using the Bible to back up his claims.

As for the Rational Response Squad, I wasn’t that impressed; they seemed a bit stiff and lacked charisma, as well as focusing more on attacking religion than providing evidence for evolution. If Comfort and Cameron were suppossed to should scientific evidence for God, shouldn’t the RRS have countered with scientific evidence against the need for divine intervention in nature? Instead it seemed to be more about atheism vs religion than science vs crackpot claims, and I wonder what the reception to the program will be due to this reality. I don’t wish to be too harsh on the RRS speakers at the debate, but I think outwardly antagonizing religion and associating it with science isn’t helping. We can go ’round and ’round on this issue, and I am not suggesting that religious beliefs must always be respected and never questioned, but I do find it interesting that often times debates that are supposed to be about science degrade into atheism vs. religion and how anyone who holds religious belief is somehow irrational or delusional.

In any event, I think Comfort came off as an idiot but the RRS focused more on countering religious belief in general rather than creationist claims specifically. I’m sure science bloggers will all have their own take on this, but we would do well to pay attention to how the general public digests the debate and how they react to it; how can we effectively reach the public if we don’t listen to what they think about this debate?


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