Science Fights Back

But is it really television that nurses our ignorance, or society more broadly?

Richard Zurawski is a very angry man. He is also deeply concerned. How concerned? Here is his statement a few pages into this blistering book:

Science has been systematically attacked, both from within and from without. And the attack has overwhelmed our society in a matter of decades and undermined centuries of progress and enlightenment … It is not an overstatement to say we are on the threshold of losing five centuries of progress and regressing backwards to a time when fear, superstition and vested interests, instead of science and scientific facts, dominate.

He goes on to say that while we are not quite at the point of burning scientists at the stake, there are ongoing witch hunts against scientists.

You get the picture and, on the surface and in general, one cannot disagree. There is, in contemporary North American society, a blithe disregard for accepted scientific facts. One only has to look at the cold prevention and anti-aging products sold during commercial breaks on TV to realize that many consumers do not know how colds or influenza are spread and have little grasp of the facts about aging bodies. And some governments, including the Conservative government in Canada, have made a point of diminishing scientific data, with examples ranging from the bizarre decision to scrap the long-form census to reduced research funding, to a concocted skepticism about some areas of environmental science.

As Zurawski sees it, the main culprit is television. This is not, however, a book by someone who is ignorant of the ways of television. (As the television critic for a national newspaper, I have come to the conclusion that the proudest boast of the Canadian intellectual is “I haven’t owned a television in years!”) Zurawski is media-savvy. He is the chief meteorologist for a group of radio stations in the Maritimes, an occasional TV host and the producer of many documentaries for television. He has also produced a science education TV series that has aired on countless channels. Thus he approaches the enemy, television, as an insider. This is good—there are enough Canadian crackpots attacking TV—but it also makes it a tad harder to accept some of his assertions.

Zurawski is correct about the urge to simplify things on TV, an urge that often means that truths established in science are abandoned in favour of an easily understood story. He cites the example of the enormous attention paid to two scientists who, in 1989, claimed to have discovered the secret of “cold fusion,” raising hopes of a cheap, new energy source. It was a great story—a huge scientific breakthrough using what he describes as “a set-up that a grade twelve high school science student could rig up.” The problem was that the “discovery” was made and announced without any peer review by other scientists and has so far not been successfully replicated.

Zurawski is also right about the scientific ignorance of many TV reporters, anchors and story producers. Mind you, most reporters and editors at newspapers, magazines and websites also lack a thorough grounding in science. So it seems a bit unfair to blame television, as Zurawski does in the main. It is a fact that most television operations have reduced their news staff and increasingly rely on other sources to generate their news content. Thus, when a piece of dubious science is offered as an item on the TV news, the originating frailty or false assumption begins not with television, but with somebody posting a pithy and probably dodgy item on a news website.

Essentially, Zurawski asserts that “educational TV” is an oxymoron. There is truth to that. The idea, prevalent in the 1950s, that the medium could educate as effectively as it entertained is now lost in the mists of time. The weekly PBS program Nova, devoted to scientific research, was launched in 1974, but its straightforward style of presentation—no colourful hosts, no wacky personal content—would never get past a pitch meeting at a TV network today, probably not even at PBS. The BBC, the CBC and public broadcasters all over the world play greatly reduced roles in education. However, this state of things has less to do with those who work in public television than it does with governments that want to see the value of taxpayer-funded broadcasters reflected in ratings success, not vague assurances that the next great intellectual is being nourished by nature documentaries and a friendly teacher offering advice on homework. Hardly the fault of the medium itself.

While there is much to admire in Zurawski’s well-articulated rage against television—he knows his McLuhan—the book tends to blame television for reflecting what is going on in the world. Blaming TV shows for airing the anti-science views of religious fundamentalists is rather like blaming The Globe and Mail for publishing ridiculous horoscopes every day. The horoscope predictions are not responsible for what Zurawski calls “the resurgence of superstition, the paranormal, fringe medical practices, creationism, global warming denial, anti-vaccination and conspiracy theories and a host of other quackery.” But Zurawski says the resurgence in these issues “can be laid directly at the foot of our television broadcasters, who value ratings and profit over fact.”

Well, excuse me, but television is about as guilty of creating an acceptance of superstition and science denial as the horoscope-printing newspaper. Surely the existence of medical quackery is neither new nor is it television’s responsibility, and the same applies to the paranormal. What is missing in this fascinating and argumentative book is the matter of viewers taking responsibility for what they consume and being educated enough to tell quackery and quasi-science from scientific truth. In reading some of Zurawski’s rants about the lack of rigour in alleged scientific information presented on TV, I was reminded of a droll comedy bit by Canadian comic Norm MacDonald. He “read somewhere” that men think about sex every twelve seconds or so. He then describes a day in his life, walking down the street, thinking about the shoes he is wearing and the fact that his underwear is uncomfortable. He notices a new building, then some guy he recognizes. It is a long time before he thinks about sex. He concludes that the term “every now and then” is not one that scientists like to use. Not everything can be measured rigorously, and suggesting that it can is an assault on the truth of human experience.

Oddly, in his conclusions—perhaps having got his frustrations off his chest—the author finally acknowledges the limits of television as a device for explaining and spreading scientific information. He even has praise for some programs on the cable channel Discovery that allow scientists to talk at length and avoid the tendency to dumb down. He also concludes that training in science journalism needs to be taken seriously and he outlines some useful tenets for that. He still says that “TV needs to change drastically,” but he marshals several relevant proposals for scientists and viewers to make that happen.

This is a cogent book, a worthwhile lambasting of TV in some key areas of responsibility. (There is an excellent “references and further reading” section.) It is correct about large issues and wrong about small ones. It tends to paint television in broad strokes and forget that, as a medium, tele-vision is only as powerful as its audience. What blame is laid on television should properly be laid on those who watch it. That is, all of us. Even those Canadian intellectuals who fib about not watching it. If TV is mediocre, then we are. TV might help make us lazy consumers of information, but it does not make us “stoopid,” as the book’s full title suggests. That is just not a scientific fact.