Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, February 20, 2006

How to get science across to the public

Following up on comments by the maker of Flock of Dodos, PZ Myersh has taken to task the idea that we ought to dumb down our message in order to entertain [summarized by PvM here, with links]. On the Dino List, Kent Stevens posted the following analysis of why science programming is so poor in terms of the sets of audiences and advertisers, which I think needs to be widely available. He has given permission to reproduce it:
The Calculus of Science Documentaries

Regarding the production of science documentaries, it's all about making money, remember. Producers decide on matters of content (e.g., dinosaurs) and delivery vehicle (e.g., Nigel Marvin) as business/marketing issues.


Science documentary producers try to maximize profit (ROI, or Return on Investment) derived from some carefully-targeted set V of viewer. It takes financial investment to create a program. Producers do not merely try to maximize |V| i.e., the size of set V. They also tune their product (the documentary) to target a particular demographic. They seek an audience that is both large AND willing to spend their money on the products of their sponsors. To attract this demographic, what sells?

1) science sells [= attracts science-predisposed viewers, call that set S]. S is a subset of V. That is, some members of V are not really members of S, but landed on a given channel and think Nigel is fun to watch. They are really members of set P (see below). Note that to the extent that science sells, dinosaurs really sell.

2) personality sells [= attracts some other set of viewers, call that set P]. Note that sets P and S are distinct, but not disjoint, i.e. some members of S are also members of P, but |P| >> |S|.

3) sex sells. That's always there in show biz. Just think about "derring do", of wrestling crocodiles, and pith helmets, and safari jackets, and of course, some people find intelligent, witty people attractive. But it might really be just the safari jackets.

Producers understand that as the scientific content (selling point 1, above) is increased, |S| tends to increase but |V| tends to decrease, other factors remaining constant. Too much science puts off some people. In the limit, as the scientific content is maximized, V reduces to roughly S (where |S| = |DML| approximately). So science is introduced, but in moderation.

On the other hand, increasing personality (selling point 2, above) might turn off some diehard members of set S. This is attested by some recent DML postings to this thread.

Producers know what they are doing. As a consultant/talking head in a dozen dinosaur-related documentaries (BBC's WWD, Discovery, NHK, etc.) I have found that most (but not all) producers are open and explicit that their game is to maximize ROI. While the sound guy threads the lapel microphone inside my shirt, I've been reminded to keep it simple, not use big words, and always look excited and dramatic. "Give the viewer no reason to go to the refrigerator" was a recent admonishment.

My advice to the DML is for you individually to maximize the ROI. It's your hour to invest, either in watching the dinosaur show, or American Idol if that's on at the same time, or to contribute to the DML, or to share with your kids, whatever.

Bottom line: dinosaur shows are not meant for you, the members of S. They are meant for ROI.
So, given that we who appreciate and want to teach science are seeking to maximise |S|, the problem is how to ensure that as much as possible this will increase |V|, if we want to maintain a scientifically literate population via the mass media. Personally I think the trick is to ensure that science is taught properly in the first place, requiring a considerable revision of the way it is presented and assessed. That would ensure that |S| was a sizeable subset of |V|. But if we are reduced in the shorter term to using the media to counter the well-funded idiocies of creationist and antiscience organisation, then it pays to consider that ROI.

Free to air television has a number of desiderata, one of which is the cost of filling all that airtime between advertising. Creationists have realised this and offered slick, but of course scientifically useless and vapid, shows for broadcast. It's an expensive business even doing a Ken Burns pan over photos with talking heads style show. So if they get free or mildly licensed stuff with appropriate production values, they'll likely show it.

So we can go some way to meeting the calculus of TV producers while at the same time maintaining our own standards by finding funding to do lots of these shows, each with a bit (just a bit) of good science in it. There's a solution. Go to it...

[Oh, you want money? Ask the Discovery Institute or Answer in Genesis - they have slabs of it.]