THE opening salvos in the US Skeptics’ new Council for Media Integrity’s campaign to improve the treatment of science in television entertainment programming were fired in Los Angeles — the heart of the TVand movie entertainment industry.
The council, established last June by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), attacked the major television networks for running two or three pseudoscientific specials almost every month.
“Recently there have been programs on prophecies, astrology, psychic powers, creationism, Noah’s Ark, angels, and alien abductions,” said the council. All of them posed, in some way, as being based on scientific fact.
The council also criticized the many talk shows devoted to the paranormal in which claims in favor of the paranormal are given a platform but the scientific viewpoint is rarely allowed.
The two co-chairs, entertainer and author Steve Allen and Nobel laureate nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg, called for the television industry to exercise greater responsibility toward science and truth.
Allen emphasized that the council’s concerns are not with entertainment programs that honestly present themselves as fictional dramas.
“We are talking about shows that are presented as if they are true, as reality,” said Allen. He and other speakers emphasized that series like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone never crossed that line and are not of concern. But a recent disturbing trend is “reality-based” TV programming in which fictional dramas or pseudodocumentaries claim or at least imply that they are based on truth and scientific fact.
“I call them damn lies,” said Allen. “How,” he said, referring to their producers, “do you approve of irresponsibility and lies?” Council member Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, California, said the concern is that science be presented honestly.
“We offer to provide our help, our expertise to help you do a better job,” she said. “We would like to encourage you to consider that science, in and of itself, is exciting, creative, and wonderful. You don’t have to present the crackpot stuff to be interesting.”
CSICOP staff member Tom Flynn lamented the increasing blurring of entertainment and fact-based programming. He showed excerpts from NBC’s notorious 1996 pseudoscientific, documentary-style Mysterious Origins of Man, which presented, as Flynn put it, “the utterly baseless idea that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time.”
Scott, a physical anthropologist, agreed that much of what goes on in school is absolutely swamped by television. The day after the NBC program aired, she said, science teachers throughout the United States were deluged with questions from their students about dinosaur-human coexistence. She said this single program set back science education on this topic by decades.