Shouldn’t Something Be Done?

The sheer awfulness of last night’s History Channel program on physics is hard to exaggerate. Here’s some of what Clifford Johnson (one of the participants in the program) wrote on his blog while watching it:

Oh, right… I remember “there are dinosaurs in your living room” thing. Oh dear. It is coming on in 8 minutes here, and so I guess I’ll pour myself a long single malt and prepare myself. I’ve still got faith in Andy, though…

Got to first commercial break. Er… need more whiskey. There’s some good science embedded in there somewhere (e.g., Tegmark talking about inflation, and WMAP results and flatness and so forth (but the laser beams!?)), but the voice-over (among others) is taking serious liberties (like claiming right at the beginning of the show that scientists have evidence that there may be parallel universes…sigh. No, No, No, No. That was really not necessary.)…

Need. More. Whiskey*.

Ok… That’s it. I had a lot of fun shooting my stuff for this, and while I know that it is maybe really not polite to say this, and I really like Andy and the crew who put this together…but I can’t really defend this. They really really should have sent this out in time for us contributors to comment on. By time I saw the rough cut and sent in suggestions it was too late… I presume other sensible people contributing to this such as Ovrut, Lykken, etc, would have liked to have seen a rough cut of this and made remarks. It is really clear that the VO and script was written without a very good understanding of some of the basic concepts in place, and certainly not a careful regard for what’s accurate and what is blatantly misleading. Anyone watching this would think that string theory or M-theory is experimentally verified and a working tool used to study the early universe… I spilled my whiskey when they showed pictures of people working in (what looked like optics) laboratories while talking about “years of research into string theory…”.

I have never ever heard of this “level x” business. I don’t know who says that. But what was with the laser beams?! Where did that come from? Not the burning a hole in the fabric of spacetime and escaping a dying universe to go to another (WHAT?!), but the shooting them out from WMAP in order to measure the flatness of the universe. What was that?! And did you see the red struts between the blue branes that were supposed to be the “extra dimensions holding the branes in place”? What was that?!

This is all so sad because there’s so much, as we say above, good TV that could be made of this material if done right.

Ok. I’m done with this. It’s very sad.

One would like to just ignore something like this and let it fade into obscurity, but the problem is that the History Channel is likely to keep rebroadcasting it for years and years, doing continuing damage to the public understanding of science and the public image of physicists. I don’t really see how an intelligent person can watch this thing and not come away with the impression that theoretical physicists are a bunch of idiots. It seems to me that it would be a good idea for people in general, and the scientists involved in this in particular (Clifford Johnson, Max Tegmark, Michio Kaku, Joe Lykken and Alex Filippenko) to contact the History Channel with a polite request that this program not be rebroadcast, and that steps be taken to avoid creating more disasters of the same kind.

Update: Chad Orzel also saw the program and has some comments about it one of its dumber aspects, beginning with:

Yeesh. That was so actively irritating that I don’t know where to start.

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39 Responses to Shouldn’t Something Be Done?

  1. Academic Lurker says:

    It seems like scientists (or, more specifically, physicists, since this seems to happen to them in particular) are in a bit of a bind here.

    It’s one thing to avoid charlatans like the makers of “What the Bleep…”, but this was a documentary for the History Channel. Folks like Clifford Johnson & co. had every reason to think that this would be a respectable production. And from your post below:

    “I’ve heard that one mediagenic physicist who was offered a role in this program told them he would only participate if given the right to veto any segment involving him that misrepresented his views. He’s not in the program.”

    it’s clear that scientists are allowed little influence on the production once they’ve given their interviews. Is the only option to just avoid involvement in these projects?

    It seems like that would be doubly unfortunate because a) public outreach & getting people excited about what physicists do is good, and b) it leaves the stage to folks like Kaku.

    I’m not sure what the answer is.

  2. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I agree, it’s a pickle. Over on CV they’re talking about improved outreach and media representation, but the main paradox, I think, is that it’s extremely difficult to make accuracy/edification entertaining to the general public, and producers of such programs are in the business of entertaining and making lots of money, not providing a public service that there’s no demand for. It’s a problem all school teachers struggle with on a daily basis: How do keep the average student interested, and actually give them a high-quality education? On the one hand, it’s vitally important that scientists remain engaged, but on the other, they lose control over the message as soon as it leaves their mouths. As Lurkee notes, when the interviewees make unentertaining demands, the producers simply move on to someone with fewer scruples. How do you win?

  3. Bee says:

    I recently learned that Discovery Channel will be airing some of PI’s public lectures. I generally think it is a better idea if movie guys help scientists to get a message across than if they ask scientists for help to get their own message across.

  4. milkshake says:

    I remember watching a PBS-NOVA program few years back, about Andrew Willes, Galois representations and Fermat’s last theorem, and I thought it was entertaining enough for the lay audience – and it even provided some taste of a life spent working on an esoteric problem. The documentary had some annoying parts (repeated annoying song and animations) but given the dry subject they did a decent job popularizing the historic background and the story of the proof itself.

    So its not like “it’s extremely difficult to make accuracy/edification entertaining to the general public” if one actually cares about the subject he is trying to popularize.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    I think physicists should continue to get involved with media projects, even ones like this. But, at the same time they need to be wary about what they have gotten themselves into and behave accordingly. In this particular case, the topic should have set off a lot of red flags.

    Once the damage is done, in egregious cases like this one, I think it really is the responsibility of those who participated, and of the physics community to at least try and do something about this. If the only complaining is a bit of grumbling on blogs, it will keep happening.

  6. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Hi, Milkshake,

    I don’t doubt you were entertained, but you may have more discerning tastes than the average viewer, for lack of a better way of putting it. Public Television is not immune to the need for ratings, but they don’t have the same business model as a commercial cable channel like Discovery or History, and likely cater to broadly different audiences. I’d frankly be shocked if the numbers and demographics of the eyeballs either network grabs bore much similarity, and I’d be flabbergasted if PBS’ market was more representative of the general viewing public than DC’s or HC’s.

    All this said, protests, both formal and informal, do make a difference. I’m reminded of the outcry generated by “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. Granted, that execrable excuse for a documentary was motivated more to influence policy than to simply earn advertising revenues, but it used the same sorts of distorting tricks to hook the audience, it sounds like.

    So, yeah, I agree, speak up loudly, for what it’s worth. I doubt it will solve the overall problem, though. Just dampen this particular fire, which is a worthy enough goal.

  7. Michael Bacon says:

    I favor an ‘Everettarian’ MWI, but even I had to switch the show off after a few minutes — really, breathless, content free viewing.

  8. changcho says:

    Peter, I think you meant to write the History Channel, not Discovery Channel. Other points:

    * The History Channel’s treatment of science is a mixed bag. I do recall watching at least one very good show (“How the Earth was Made”) there.

    * NOVA on PBS is, in general, much more careful and accurate with their science shows.

    *I have seen M. Kaku on several science shows (mostly on Discovery Science Channel, History Channel) talking about extremely speculative ideas (parallel universes, string theory) as if they were commonly accepted by most scientists. This is clearly a disservice (except for him, of course).

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  10. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for catching the mistake, fixed now. My apologies to the Discovery Channel…

  11. milkshake says:

    Discovery and History are both full of X-files-level rubbish – all presented with the utmoust seriousness by a team of independent experts.

  12. Serifo says:

    I think the media ( specialy private media ) are more concerned with the number of the audience than to inform the audience in a honest way ! Well , general public seems to enjoy ideas that are not part of the orthodox scientific thinking. I think the basis for this , is in the history of science . See, people ( general public ) learned with the history that, in their time , Scientists like Galileo challenged the orthodox ( scientific or religious ? ) thinking about universe. So , these days whenever somebody comes up with non orthodox ideas about universe, people normally start to have pictures of Galileo and others who were rejected , which is actually something positive in my view, as long as they are aware that “ Galileo and others also had incomplete or even wrong ideas about universe “ !
    Now , I think the media has the responsibility to inform the people on “ what is currently the orthodox and non orthodox scientific thinking about universe “ otherwise the general public will end up ………

    Ps – I just hope the research funding agencies ( specialy the private ones ) don`t make decisions based on TV programs ! 🙂

  13. rick says:

    I watched this and the whole while I was thinking, maybe there’s a parallel universe where Michio Kaku still has his dignity, but probably not.

  14. Chris W. says:

    As a child I came to the conclusion—semiconsciously—that wanting to really understand almost anything is viewed in mass society as a vaguely subversive and perverse attitude. If you manage to maintain this desire while meeting other people’s expectations it is tolerated, and with luck even encouraged. If not, difficulties often ensue.

    Let’s face it, as a joint venture of Hearst, Disney, and NBC, the History Channel (like the Discovery Channel) is a commercial enterprise, and it aims to draw and hold viewers. In the contemporary media environment that inevitably devolves to pandering and efforts to titillate and offer shallow diversions. When people sit down to watch TV at night they are rarely prepared to concentrate deeply or be intellectually absorbed by something, and frankly, broadcast television has never been a good medium for that. (I think video on the internet is—at least potentially—a different story, notwithstanding the vast quantities of vacuous garbage on YouTube.)

    Many professional scientists seem to be too easily taken in by flattering invitations. Think about the context, folks, and get a clue.

  15. Janne says:

    There are vast quantities of solid material on youtube aswell. For example MIT and Stanford physics lectures and some researchers have contributed computer animations from their research. I’ve watched some interesting lectures on Googletalks as well. I think the scientific community could do a lot more with youtube.

  16. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    There’s certainly good stuff to be had via YouTube, but it’s not easy to find if you don’t know exactly what to look for. I bet, though, that somebody more educated and obsessive than myself has compiled a clearinghouse of links to freely-available content that has both accessibility and integrity. If not, I’d be willing to kick in a few bucks to make it worth their while

  17. Hun says:

    I found that the History Channel often sends out biased documentaries just like the Fox Channel, using interviews to deliver the message ‘they’ like. PBS seems to be much more careful.

  18. Charlie C says:

    It’s useful to look at this from a different perspective. What we have been talking about here is how to turn entertainment into education, a tough row to hoe. Following Janne’s lead, maybe scientists should be asking how to we use modern tools to explain our ideas clearly. The scientists should take the lead, as has started to happen with YouTube. However, so far, most of the YouTube scientific lectures are pointed at fellow professionals. The REAL challenge is how can modern animation, graphic packages, YouTube video clips, etc be combined, by scientists, to CLEARLY yet ACCUATELY explain basic and sometimes profound concepts. Maybe some scientists should be taking the lead and forming small teams of media experts in order to create professional, accurate, and yes, maybe even exciting expositions intended for the non-pro. You don’t have to talk down to your grandmother, but you do have to really understand how to describe your topic clearly and simply. And, of course, to teach is to learn. Win-win.

  19. Mitch Miller says:

    “I don’t really see how an intelligent person can watch this thing and not come away with the impression that theoretical physicists are a bunch of idiots.” [PW]

    This is too harsh of a statement, but there is a danger here. We have all probably seen programs on the history channel with PhDs talking about how aliens built the pyramids who are clearly idiots. While this program was no were near that level (most of the experts came of as very smart people trying to explain speculative ideas to lay persons) it is concievable a physics show in the future could approach alien/pyramid if the experts aren’t careful.

  20. Coin says:

    What confuses me is why we don’t ever seem to have a situation where they just hire one of these physicists to write the program script. It’s not like real scientists are magically incapable of writing for a popular audience; they let scientists write books for a popular audience all the time (and more than one of the participants in this program has done exactly that), so why not let scientists write tv programs? Why relegate the science people to “consultant” at best– Clifford Johnson etc were expressing concern that they weren’t able to view and give feedback on the program before it aired, but why is it that people like Clifford Johnson are being kept so far away from the production of the program in the first place that “request minor changes once the thing’s done” is the best they can hope for?

  21. Heineken says:

    the FLT video was called The Proof. it was a very good Nova episode. there are also 2 (?) NOVA episodes on Einstein’s work. very good stuff for the lay audience.

    i had some questions about the symmetry with modular forms, how to find an E series, etc.

    some of my favorite books combine equations and history, and are geared to the lay audience with a year or two of calc background. Prime Obsession being a good example.

  22. Chris W. says:

    From Coin:

    What confuses me is why we don’t ever seem to have a situation where they just hire one of these physicists to write the program script.

    What I said previously:

    [The History Channel] is a commercial enterprise, and it aims to draw and hold viewers. In the contemporary media environment that inevitably devolves to pandering and efforts to titillate and offer shallow diversions.

    Why would the producers of a History Channel program let a physicist muck up their efforts to target the audience they’re trying to reach? They are media professionals, and they figure they know better than anyone how to reach the audience that upper management wants to reach. That includes controlling how the script is written. Consider what professional scriptwriters, let alone academics moonlighting as script consultants, often have to contend with when they write for film or television. Stories of scripts butchered at the behest of producers and directors are legion.

  23. lcs says:

    By the way, I stopped watching PBS/NOVA science programs years ago because of the obnoxious introduction of MTV style editing, background music or drums (always completely unnecessary) and other concessions to the 10 second attention span of today’s under 50 audience. The last good PBS show was about Feynman.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    I’m not so sure this is such a simple story of “bad TV people ruin good physics”. There’s a lot of pseudo-science in the multiverse to begin with and precious little good physics. The physicists participating in this all seemed willing to, on camera, go on about how cool it is that there is some other universe out there with people exactly like you, but slightly different. It’s not too surprising that the film-makers took this kind of thing and ran with it.

    Clifford Johnson seems to have gone into this without having any idea of what many of his colleagues (e.g. Tegmark) have been promoting, writing:

    “I have never ever heard of this “level x” business. I don’t know who says that.”

    You don’t need to have followed much of the multiverse mania to have run up against Tegmark’s 4 levels of multiverse. And any exposure to multiverse mania should make one very careful about getting involved in a program promoting it.

    Again, at least one physicist had no trouble recognizing this, insisting that he wouldn’t participate unless he could be sure his words would not be used to promote this kind of pseudo-science, and dropping out when he couldn’t get convincing assurances. Of those who participated in the program besides Clifford, I have no idea whether they feed betrayed by the program, or whether they actually think it made sense. Fillippenko is listed in the credits as “scientific consultant”.

    I tried to contact the History Channel about this, got nowhere. Maybe other people might have more luck. I’m curious whether any of the physicists involved have complained to anyone there about the program.

  25. Professor_D says:

    And we wonder why the general public (not to mention politicians) is virtually scientifically and mathematically illiterate. Whenever I catch the occasional NOVA, I’m always hoping that it will really be about science this time. But alas, it always seems to be more boring historical reenactments and other renaissance faire fluff more appropriate to something that should be shown on the History Channel. It’s essentially like a glorified version of Wishbone (the dog that reenacts classics like Romeo and Juliet, and Treasure Island, with the neighbohood kids). Oh well. Just my two-cents worth on this stuff.

  26. Chris W. says:

    For some modest relief, BBC2 offers Einstein and Eddington [Physics World blog review]. The science is apparently lightweight, but at least it seems to be a well-done drama on an interesting historical period; the producers show a modicum of taste.

  27. abbyyorker says:

    The public loved “What the bleep do we know” (I guess – didnt it have a sequel?). That movie was not only nonsense – it was boring. Public has no clue about physics – even physics from the 20’s. Some great science communicators can give a whisper of understanding but it is of little consequence. So let the theorists run wild – the wilder the better because the public will not (cannot) call them to account.

  28. csrster says:

    “I’m always hoping that it will really be about science this time. But alas, it always seems to be more boring historical reenactments and other renaissance faire fluff more appropriate to something that should be shown on the History Channel.”

    The dearth of good history broadcasting and it’s replacement with costumised puff is a topic for another day …

  29. Chris Oakley says:

    FYI: Einstein and Eddington is on in the UK, BBC2, tomorrow night (November 22) at 9:10pm.

    I didn’t see Parallel Universes, at least not in this one. Although one of my body doubles in a parallel universe may have watched and enjoyed it, this strand of Dr. Oakley probably won’t bother.

  30. trond says:

    Anything broadcast on History/Discovery Channel is mostly infotainment and it’s unreasonable to expect peer-reviewed content (no pun intended on Chaos, Solitons & Fractals). As mentioned by the other posters, there are only two broadcasters, BBC and PBS, that still occasionally produce quality productions.

  31. Visitor says:

    “I tried to contact the History Channel about this, got nowhere. Maybe other people might have more luck. I’m curious whether any of the physicists involved have complained to anyone there about the program.”

    Perhaps it might worthwhile, and more productive, to contact the physicists involved. It would be interesting to know, not only their opinion of the show, but if they feel that they have any duty to do anything about it, or if they can just wash their hands of the matter.
    If these people are sufficiently dissatisfied with the show’s treatment of the subject, and if they could ante up enough money to put an ad in a magazine, trade journal, or some publication of that sort, it is – and let me make this statement sufficiently conditional – it is not impossible that the resulting bad publicity could serve as a caution to other tv producers considering traipsing down the same road as was done in this show.

  32. bane says:

    To Serifo,

    Whilst funding bodies generally don’t consider media appearances, unfortunately many career important committees like hiring, promotion or other-university-responsibility boards often consider only the volume of a scientist’s media work (via the pile of clippings and lists of TV work they attach to the CV) and not their quality. In all honesty I can’t say considering media profile in these kind of things is wrong per se, it’s just that if you’re going to consider it you really should evaluate it properly rather than just “weigh it”.

  33. Tom Whicker says:

    This program was really terrible, but sadly just standard operating
    proceedure for the History Channel. I had the misfortune of seeing
    “The Earth’s Black Hole” not long ago on the HC. This one was so
    astoundingly absurd that even non-technical fans of the channel were
    calling for a boycott. There were plenty of mis-quoted scientists
    in this one also. Here is a list of those that appeared if anyone
    wants to contact them and maybe get some kind of group action going:

  34. GR says:

    CUNY has a new NYC subway train poster with a life size color photo of Dr. Michio Kaku. It describes him as “co-founder of string field theory” & “international authority on theoretical physics”.

  35. db says:

    The “Einstein and Eddington” drama on BBC 2 wasn’t all that bad. It focused more on the political and social consequences of corresponding with “the enemy” than the physics, but what physics they did include wasn’t outrageously mangled.

    They took a fair number of liberties with the characters, but they were largely forgivable with the exception of one cringeworthy speech toward the end.

    Overall it did a better job than most of the pop sci stuff out there, but the science was almost entirely incidental.

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  37. WP says:

    As a writer-producer-director with a strong background in the sciences, I can see the validity of the points brought up. I personally thought the program was entertaining, but thought someone reached way up to pull out some of the stuff showcased on the show.

    Now, I’ve always been a proponent of the idea of a ‘multi-verse’ yet some of the theories like ‘well there may be other identical universes, they’re just too far for us to see’ should get the ‘plasticman’ award for reaching. That and the ‘burning a hole in space-time with lasers’ was way too sci-fi even for me.

    I do agree with the poster who mentioned that once the script is in the network’s hands its a done deal. I’m sorry to say that it’s all ‘infotainment’ including NOVA which I thoroughly enjoy and respect. So at best, production personnel and scientists will strive to get in and keep in as much solid info as possible.

    One good thing about all of this is there are young people watching this stuff and are building an interest in how all these things (i.e. physics, math, science in general) work and want to know more. I know that NOVA, Jaques Cousteau, Wild Kingdom and a host of other shows made the sciences very attractive to me. I’m sure it is having the same effect on others.

    The good news is; those who end up exploring these disciplines will soon discover the ‘smoke and mirrors’ whipped up by these programs and one day they’ll say, “Hey, there really wasn’t a lot of good math in this program….”

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  39. P says:

    The history channel tends to be pretty sensational in many of its programs. Sometimes, late at night, they have had programs about the illuminati and alien conspiracies. Their religion programs like to focus on the gnostic gospels. If a real historian would laugh at some topic as total bull, they will probably do a special about it on the history channel.

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