Thursday, May 22, 2008

Science on TV: A Question


Recently, I caught a TV program called "Braniac: Science Abuse". It's a British program (or is that programme?) The episode I saw involved various segments including what happens to toothpaste when you put it in liquid nitrogen (it freezes), what happens if you put the ingredients for a parfait in the microwave with a fluorescent lightbulb and a bowl of flammable liquid (it explodes), can an aerobics teacher do her job while being randomly given an electric shock (she can't) and what happens if you blow-up a shed full of fireworks (they go off). It also included more scientific segments: an attempt to replicate Galileo's Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, and an experiment intending to determine whether a person performs better when starving or when over-stuffed. (There were many other segments of both types) In all cases, the background science wasn't well explained and the experiments were poorly designed. The show has even been accused of forging results. 'Science Abuse' is an accurate subtitle.

This is a particularly bad example, but there are other science shows that aren't exactly rigorous with the scientific method (Mythbusters, for example, is a great show but the experimental design is sometimes lacking). I understand that these are television programs and the goal is to entertain, but it seems to me that those kind of changes needn't get in the way of the watchability. In the feast or famine performance example above, adding a person who had neither over-eaten nor been starved for a day wouldn't be difficult (forgetting that it's still an n=1 experiment). Or breaking up the tasks and assessing them individually rather than one mega-challenge of both physical and mental events.

So my questions are these:

Is it more important to have an accurate portrayal of the scientific method, or an entertaining program that attracts kids to science even if it mostly portrays it as blowing things up?

Is it impossible to make a more rigourous science program fun?

[Comic credit: xkcd]


12 comments:

rob said...

First of all, Mythbusters is not just for kids. I'm a huge fan.
I don't watch it for scientific rigor. I watch it to see the imagination and ingenuity of the Mythbusters as they try to address myths. While for sure they don't prove much there are many times where I'm convinced they have addressed the myth to a reasonable degree to make a conclusion about its validity.
The question is wrong: I don't think you have to have an accurate portrayal of scientific methods or try to attract kids to science. Can't it just be an entertaining program?
And to your last question do you think that a camera following you around the lab as you do experiments would make a fun show?

kamel said...

Well, I figured somebody would misinterpret the question as an attack on the show (I think it's great too). The question was about science shows in general, not necessarily that specific one, it's just an example that most people will be familiar with.

These are programs that either explicitly or implicitly claim to be about science (and education). Both kids and adults 'learn' from them. (How many times have you heard someone claim something because it was seen on one of these shows?) That being the case, do they have no responsibilities other than to entertain?

Blowing up a shed full of fireworks is fun. If we call it science, and people walk away thinking 'science is fun', is that good enough? Or would we rather they said 'science is fun' because real science is fun? (By 'we', I mean people who care about science education, promotion and portrayal in the media - not TV producers or network execs who only care if a show makes money)

And to your last question do you think that a camera following you around the lab as you do experiments would make a fun show?

This is just a silly strawman. Maybe you could make a fun show like that, I don't know. But I'm talking about application of the scientific method, not following around bench scientists or fundamentally changing these programs. That was the point of my second paragraph. An experiment can be done sloppily or it can be well designed, with proper controls, etc. Is it impossible for both to be entertaining?

Bayman said...

There's another purpose that can be served that hasn't been brought up here - provoking thought and questioning. By entertaining people with interesting questions, maybe they'll be stimulated to try and figure things out on there own and maybe even think up their own experiments.

As long as they're not suggesting their "findings" be taken as gospel truth, then I'm OK with it. And besides you only find gospel truth in religion not science. Science is about skepticism, questions and experiments, not reciting "truths".

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Brainiac haterz!?!!

You need to lighten up. For many people (perhaps the vast majority) rigor will kill curiosity.

Brainiac has never pretended to be anything more than science-themed entertainment.

And boobs, glorious boobs.

kamel said...

Bayman: "Science is about skepticism, questions and experiments, not reciting 'truths'."

This is what I meant by attracting people to science/the scientific method (not necessarily careers in science) and why I included the cartoon. I tend to agree with you and zombie Feynman, that these shows do plenty of good. Can they do better?

Lim: " For many people (perhaps the vast majority) rigor will kill curiosity."

Is that true? That's what I'm asking.

To take a trivial example (that Rob may appreciate): A program can feature a DNA precipitation experiment and say they resuspend the DNA pellet or that they dissolve the DNA pellet. One is correct, one isn't. Would using the correct terminology diminish curiosity? (Of course you could also ask me the reverse, does using the correct terminology enhance the program?) As I said, this is fairly trivial, but you can easily imagine non-trivial examples.

Braniac (and I admit I've only seen one full episode and a bit) can carry out an experiment to illustrate that cesium is more reactive with water than sodium. When it doesn't go the way they want (because of poor design, or whatever reason) they can fake the reaction with explosives or they can can show the truthful results and explain them (or they can repeat the experiment properly using equal moles of each element instead of equal mass). Do the latter two scenarios kill curiosity? (And if yes, is curiosity come by dishonestly worth it?)

Does adding a control to an entertaining experiment make it less entertaining?

You're probably right, and I shouldn't think too much about it and just sit back and enjoy the boobs.

Anonymous said...

Kamel,
You're thinking about these shows as though they were classrooms or lecture halls. I think that's a better question: In a formal education setting, what's the balance between being accurate and being engaging (assuming there's a trade-off to be made there)?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Will rigor kill curiosity? That's a "to-what-extent" sort of question.

If the focus on rigor distracts the audience from main essence of the scientific message, then it was excessive.

Rigor can kill curiosity when it alienates the viewers and conveys an erroneous impression that science is about jargon and intellectual snobbery, rather than about curiosity and rational inquiry.

In Kamel's example:

"To take a trivial example (that Rob may appreciate): A program can feature a DNA precipitation experiment and say they resuspend the DNA pellet or that they dissolve the DNA pellet. One is correct, one isn't. Would using the correct terminology diminish curiosity? (Of course you could also ask me the reverse, does using the correct terminology enhance the program?) As I said, this is fairly trivial, but you can easily imagine non-trivial examples."

The question here would be: what is the core scientific message of this demonstration? The distinction between dissolving or dispersing or hydrating or resuspending the DNA might be important to scientists, but unless the demonstration is about explaining the mechanism of DNA resuspension, these differences in terminology are irrelevant to the value of the programme.

"Braniac (and I admit I've only seen one full episode and a bit) can carry out an experiment to illustrate that cesium is more reactive with water than sodium. When it doesn't go the way they want (because of poor design, or whatever reason) they can fake the reaction with explosives or they can can show the truthful results and explain them (or they can repeat the experiment properly using equal moles of each element instead of equal mass). Do the latter two scenarios kill curiosity? (And if yes, is curiosity come by dishonestly worth it?)"

The main goal of the Brainiac programme is science-themed entertainment; to encourage rational thinking in a fun and twisted way and to poke fun at the stereotype of the poker-faced boffin (eg. "Dr. Bunhead" and "I can do science me").

If Brainiac claimed to be a real documentary then I would be very disappointed at their faked results on the caesium experiment.

But we're talking about a show that blows up caravans linked to a snooker table, puts gunpowder into microwave oven and runs like hell, toasts bread with a flame-thrower and blasts open a safe by firing a tank shell at it.

The core scientific message in the Caesium experiment segment is "NEVER mix alkali metals with water". I think that message was hammered home pretty well for such a wacky show.

As for the question "Is curiosity come by dishonestly worth it?", I don't think curiosity (and creativity) can be "produced"; kids are already naturally inquisitive, some much more than others. It's not "dishonest" to focus more on nurturing their inquisitiveness and appreciation of rational thinking.

"Does adding a control to an entertaining experiment make it less entertaining?"

Actually some episodes of Brainiac do include controls in their experiments, eg. throwing a TV out of the back of van using various wrapping material. Frankly their application of controls is usually a joke (but entire show is just a big joke anyway).

I think the strength of programmes like Brainiac (and Mythbusters) is that viewers can write in with criticisms of their experiments, which they then address during the show. Despite all that flashiness and irreverence I don't think they have departed much from the essence of scientific thinking.

kamel said...

Lim, Thanks for the comments and the interesting discussion.

I agree with you that it's possible to go overboard with rigor and turn even the most interesting demonstration into a bore. I hope that's not what I'm suggesting we do, or turn such things into intellectual snobbery.

Re: DNA precipitation, you say "these differences in terminology are irrelevant to the value of the programme."
It sounds like our difference here is you see it as not adding value, so why bother while I see it as not detracting so why not. (Actually I do see it as adding value, even if it's not relevant to the core idea of the segment. But to be clear, I'm not asking for belaboured explanation of the difference). To make another, similar, example: A couple of years ago, I was reading a local paper over the Christmas break. The point of the article was things to do to get out of the house and beat the winter 'blahs'. It began saying something like "The Earth is at it's furthest point from the sun and winter is upon us" (this is a local Ottawa writer). This statement is wrong. It's wrong because, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Earth is at it's closest to the sun in the winter and it's wrong because it implies that the distance from the sun is what causes the seasons. But that wasn't the point of the article. Would you argue that it's OK because the difference is irrelevant to the value of the article? What if it was on a science show, but not central to the demonstration?

Re: forging results
The final line of the alkali metal segment was "NEVER mix alkali metals with water", but in getting there, they make statements about the reactivity of Rb and Cs, explanations about the reaction that occurs and predictions about what would happen. Now, for me at least, what would pique curiosity is seeing them drop the metal and not see the predicted result. Instead we get a faked result and a 'gospel truth' (as Bayman put it) rather than an honest scientific endeavor which would be much more valuable. Of course, that's just my opinion, and everybody will walk away from the segment with a different take home message. That's sort of the point. Some will walk away with the desired take-home message. Some will be more interested in what is actually going on with the Cs and water. Some may get the impression that if the prediction doesn't bear out that the experiment is wrong, not the prediction (or worse, that it's OK to fake results). Some will take the message to think critically and test ideas, others will just take the message that a human can eat faster than a pig. Obviously you can't account for how every viewer will interpret your program, all you can do is make it accurate and honest.

No, these shows don't sell themselves as documentaries, but there is an implied trust. If every segment was revealed to be a fake, would people still watch? Would they look at it the same way?

If you were a science advisor for this type of program what, if anything, would you change?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Kamel:

You're welcome, it's an interesting topic.

If the subject matter is about the winter "blahs" (ie. seasonal affective disorder) then I expect the psychology information to be top-notch accurate because that is the main scientific message.

In a perfect world, a counsellor should also know enough astronomy to understand how the seasons occur, but if this doesn't happen I won't immediately dismiss the psychological insights.

As for Brainiac, if I become a science advisor for such shows, I certainly wouldn't permit faked results, but in the spirit of fun and wackiness I would not restrict their use of dramatizations, exaggerations and boobly goodness.

Instead I would add a "Would you like to know more?" at the end of the programme, so that the viewers can log on the internet to an official website to read accurate scientific details about those "experiments" (maybe some "making of" segments) and provide a forum for viewer discussion and feedback.

kamel said...

Instead I would add a "Would you like to know more?" at the end of the programme, so that the viewers can log on the internet to an official website to read accurate scientific details about those "experiments" (maybe some "making of" segments) and provide a forum for viewer discussion and feedback.

That is a great idea.

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neurion said...

what almost everyone in this conversation has failed to realise is that Brainiac was never trying to be sold off as a documentary, or even a science show. It is featured on Sky One, not on the Discovery Channel, it is entertainment, not factual science.

i always think anyway that the main joy of science is carrying out the experiments yourself rather than watching. If you want to see factual scientific experiments, learn the facts yourself and carry it out yourself. Why can't science be fun and not so safety precautioned all the time