Pop science has its place. Where would we be without champions like David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Michio Kaku making science accessible to the general public? I love that here in the UK we have a long and proud tradition of the production of world-class documentaries, pulling no punches. These are, by and large, straight-up and un-patronising, treating the British public with a modicum of common sense and intelligence. (I was taught that in scientific writing, especially for the public, one should always credit your audience with intellect – your readers/watchers/listeners are INTELLIGENT but know nothing about the subject.) In short, we do pop science very well.
I’ve never been one for US science documentaries (has Attenborough spoiled me?), with a few exceptions, not least the fantastic Strange Days on Planet Earth (which you can watch on youtube – my favourite episode is below) and the incredible Casey Anderson who manages to make amazing documentaries for Nat Geo without the usual melodrama, bravado and anthropomorphism of US-style documentaries. [*I am aware that this is a SWEEPING generalisation and am always happy to hear of US docs that you think might change my mind on this!]
The champion of US science programming (for me, anyway) is the inspirational Carl Sagan, who made the original Cosmos series (Sagan also wrote Contact – made into a film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McCaunaghey – If you haven’t read it – get on that!). WHY they had to, frankly, MANGLE the recent cosmos series remake I have no idea! It is a perfect example of US style-over-substance with the nauseating Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is in my opinion a shockingly poor substitute for Sagan. (Now I know that Sagan’s are some pretty big boots to fill, but they were touting Michio Kaku for season 2 and I was doing cartwheels in my head, but now devastated to hear that NDT is back for the 2nd season.) Anyway, I Degrasse… 😉
SOME science TV educators walk the fine line between hard science (and biology IS a hard science – not Chemistry’s dirty liittle sister) and blatant anthropomorphism – and do it well. Jeff Corwin and the late, great Steve Irwin for example. They are clearly well-versed experts in their respective fields of Conservation and Behavioural Zoology, yet possess the ability to disseminate that information to the general public without ‘blinding them with science’, yet also make television that is accessible to the general public who may not be the type to tune into ‘horizon’ or ‘the sky at night’. (You might be surprised to hear that I actually put Professor Brian Cox in this ‘category’ – he’s inarguably an accomplished physicist but there’s something a bit too soft-focus about his Wonders series (even though I LOVE it!) for me.)
But I was drinking coffee watching Nat Geo Wild this morning: A documentary (I suspect American made but re-voiced over by a British voice – but I may be wrong) called ‘Lioness in Exile’. It was the biggest pile of Anthropomorphic Pop Ecology (APE TV) that I have seen in a long while (ergo the ranting blog post). Let me quote a few lines for you:
“its as if she understands that her cubs will have to grow up faster than they should”
“this is the harsh life she has chosen.”
“the youngsters are too hungry to show their elder any respect“
“the youngsters are a reminder that she has something to fight for”
“zebra stripes are designed to confuse her”
“they are wary but reckless“
Now, I’m not going to pick this apart line by line – but let’s just say that in general, it was a wee bit unscientific. Then I started to wonder – is this the demise of good Natural History TV? Is fecking Springwatch all we have to look forward to? The dumbing down of science programming is really heartbreaking to me. Are the public getting more stupiderer? Or are broadcasters deliberately deciding to feed us fluffed-up, watered-down coffee table conservation for some other reason? We NEED some new, bright young, hard-science presenters on TV (preferably in knitwear like Casey). I’m not saying we can’t do behavioural ecology without feeling affection for animal or thinking that they’re cute; Jane Goodall has mad a career out of hard ecology studying animals that she feels a DEEP affection for. Dear National Geographic, please sort it out.
Yours truly, Angry Mog x