Science in the public eye: titillate, educate, or promulgate?

Picture taken from a survey plane, showing broken ice sheets.

Observation taken from a survey plane on the Wilkins Ice Sheet as it disintegrates. Photo taken from the episode photo gallery of "On Thin Ice" at Discovery Channel.

The controversy over the exclusion of current scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change in the Discovery Channel/BBC’s Frozen Planet raised some important issues about the consumption of science.

First, some background story. Discovery Channel, in partnership with the British Broadcasting Corporation, has produced a series called Frozen Planet to document the polar regions of our Earth. Just like in Planet Earth, scientists and journalists risked life and limbs capturing amazing images using advanced technologies, so that we can watch it in the warmth of our living rooms in high definition and marvel at the wonders of our planet.

The controversy began last year in November when BBC decided to sell the show without the last episode (“On Thin Ice”), which talks about the causes of the disappearing polar regions (more on that later) that are documented in the first 6 episodes. But that decision was reversed a month later by Discovery Channel, the U.S. distributor for the show.

So where is the controversy?

It turns out that the 7th and final episode, the one that’s supposed to talk about the impact of climate change on polar regions, has carefully sidestepped the issue of the role of humans in the climate change. I learned about this first from a friend who linked me to the article by Brian Stelter at NYT. There is also another report on this by Eric Boehlert at Media Matters. Both articles talked about the decision of the producers of the series to avoid the issue. Here are two quotes that are pretty telling. The first one is from the episode itself:

One of the seven episodes, “On Thin Ice,” was devoted to climate change. It placed the narrator of the British version of the series, David Attenborough, in front of the camera to show how warming trends are affecting humans and animals in the Arctic. Shown standing at the North Pole, Mr. Attenborough told viewers: “The days of the Arctic Ocean being covered by a continuous sheet of ice seem to be past. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.”

The second quote:

Discovery and the BBC jointly decided what to film and how to pay for the production of “Frozen Planet,” as they did for the previous series “Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth” and “Life.” The documentary makers felt a sense of urgency to focus on the polar areas, Ms. Berlowitz said, “because this region is changing faster than any other on Earth — we needed to make this series now.”

Both quotes are taken from the NYT article linked above.

What interests me here is not so much the impact of climate change deniers and U.S. right-wing groups on the parameters of discussing the human contribution to global climate change, but what this omission makes me think in terms of the public consumption of science.

The undeniable draw of the nature series is the breath-taking images of rarely-seen areas of our natural world. I own the blu-ray discs of Planet Earth, for instance, and it is an amazing experience to watch, from the comfort of my own home, the migration of the elephants across the African plains.

In pedagogy for science, the adage is that you have to make science connect with your students in order to engage them in your teaching, and shows like this are excellent starting points of engaging people because it’s visual, it’s beautiful, and it’s easy to relate. But if we skip the science in these shows, aren’t we just turning these productions into the TV equivalent of empty calories? Like candies that satisfy our taste buds but which bring nothing of nutritional value to our bodies, nature shows that are devoid of science serve to titillate and entertain, but bring nothing nourishing to our intellect. We will coo and ahh at the penguins and polar bears, but all in the context of marveling at their exotic nature and their physical beauty, all without engaging in a deeper level of connection.

In other words, haven’t we transformed an educational experience into something that shares more similarity with pornography?

I’m sure some will argue that Discovery Channel is a for-profit entertainment channel, and one only needs to look at the roster of its other shows to know that their commitment to scientific education is at best marginal. One can also further argue that it is not the proper role for entertainment companies to educate or to promulgate a particular idea.

But then, who is responsible? And of those who’re responsible, who can muster up the resources that a commercial for-profit interest can to obtain the material in the first place? One of the remarkable things about these series that Discovery Channel and the BBC had done is the financial commitment to produce these shows upfront. Perhaps in comparison to popular sitcoms where the stars in lead roles command a couple million dollars per episode, the financial burden to produce 7 hours of footage from a nature expedition isn’t so unusual. I wouldn’t know. From the perspective of a scientist who counts his pennies in lab supplies, it sure seems extravagant.

As a science educator, I am sensitive to the issues of science education and scientific literacy in our society. I think shows like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet are tremendously useful tools to raise awareness of our natural world. I just marvel at the loss of great educational opportunity when the series fail to tackle the science behind what they’re showing because they fear the controversy that can erupt. Of course, the channel spokesperson states that it is for other reasons, but I don’t find those explanations terribly convincing.

So, I accept that it is not the responsibility of Discovery Channel and/or BBC to educate the public. I still lament the loss opportunity, though.

P.S. As I write this blog, it dawned on me that Planet Earth, the series that I have watched a few times, really didn’t go into the role of human activities on the changing habitats for some of these animals showcased, either. And without the controversial issue over climate change, I may not have ever noticed this at all.

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