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Science and Skepticism on TV

by Steven Novella, Nov 10 2008

Commercial television is a business, and that business is entertainment. Shows that capture and retain viewers prosper, regardless of any other aspect of their quality. Those that fail to, die, regardless of their value to society.

That is a simple, if inconvenient, truth.

Therefore, while I feel very positively about the crew that Brian and Ryan have assembled, and I believe we can create top-notch skeptical content – none of that matters if we cannot compete to keep viewers glued to their TV screens (or convince no-nonsense executives that we can).

Science and skepticism have been fairing a bit better on commercial television of late, giving me some hope that the timing might be right. Everyone thinks immediately of Mythbusters and Bullshit – both highly successful shows built around a format of debunking. Recently, though, there has been a growing lineup of science-based entertainment programming. Some of it good, some of it not so much.

I was initially very enthusiastic about The Mentalist. The lead character, Patrick Jane, is a stage mentalist who used to pretend to be a medium, but now plays for the good side. He proclaims without apology that there is no such thing as psychics. He shows off his mentalism skill in every episode. I still retain some hope that the show will be a home-run for skeptics, but the last few episodes have been a bit stale.

The problem as I see it is that the mentalism is being reduced to window dressing. Jane is playing the part of Columbo – figuring out quickly who done it by keen observation and social instincts. He then spends the rest of the show contriving a situation in which the guilty party will be exposed or confess. Mentalism and skepticism are not driving the plot. The audience does not sharpen their critical thinking skills as they follow Jane through the process of solving the crime. Rather, he just shows off his talent.

Before you argue that what I was hoping for cannot be done (or at least not in an entertaining way) you should check out the BBC series Jonathan Creek. Creek is a inventor of stage illusions. Too dorky to perform himself, he was the real genius behind the tricks. Each week he used his knowledge of illusions to actually solve crimes, and the audience could not help but become a bit more skeptical while being entertained.

I had hoped that The Mentalist would become an American version of Jonathan Creek – so far, it has not.

Then there is another new show, The Eleventh Hour. On this series Jacob Hood is a science adviser to the FBI – using his preternatural knowledge of science to solve the most difficult and dangerous cases. The show definitely portrays science in a positive light, and Hood is a very likable character.

Two quibbles so far – first, the science is a bit inaccessible.  Brilliant scientists are often portrayed as magicians, dispensing their arcane knowledge to the normals. This could have the negative effect of pushing people away from science because it seems so unreachable. Hood is almost too smart – the show would work better if he had to struggle a bit more, and he were more vulnerable. Bring him down to earth, and show the audience that anyone can do science. There is nothing magical about it.

Second – the science gets a bit wonky in places. It’s too early to tell how grounded they are going to keep the show. It is all too easy for bad or sloppy writers, however, to fudge the science whenever they need a quick plot device.

This show was lifted directly from a BBC show of the same name, starring Patrick Stewart. I much prefer the Stewart character. He was more realistic, less ethereal, and came off as more dedicated to the process and integrity of science.

I hate to say this, but I get the distinct impression that high quality science-themed British shows are dumbed down for US television. This does not bode well.

So where does The Skeptologists fit into all of this? Well, we would be more of a reality TV show, like Mythbusters, and not a drama. It would simply be impossible, given the cast, for us to compromise on the science. It seems as if we found a way to make it entertaining – and we have a great deal of experience collectively making science accessible to a general audience.

But making science fun for science afficionados is not the same as making it fun for the broad public. That will be our challenge. The Mythbusters get to blow stuff up every episode. Our formula is less violent, but has the same – let’s explore something really cool and see what we find. We all really love what we do, and that is going to be the best hook that we have.

The formula for the show is still evolving. We understand that no matter how good the science and critical thinking education is that we squeeze into each show, if it is not compelling and entertaining TV, the show will not survive or even happen in the first place.

That is the reality of TV.

21 Responses to “Science and Skepticism on TV”

  1. Sprawn! says:

    Psych beat The Eleventh Hour to the skeptical punch by three years. Unfortunately, it did so on the USA Network where not so many people are watching. The lead character in that show has to fake being a psychic in order to get in on cases where his observational skills pay off. Then he sometimes does an amusing mock-psychic reveal. It’s very funny, and moderately high-brow to boot.

  2. Sean Ellis says:

    Since you’re worried about programs being dumbed-down in the US, it occurs to nme to adk if you have pitched The Skeptologists to any UK networks? The BBC might be interested for the shamelessly highbrow channel BBC4, for example.

  3. “I hate to say this, but I get the distinct impression that high quality science-themed British shows are dumbed down for US television.”

    This made me seriously LOL! My cublicle mate asked me what was funny, and when I showed him, I think it only confused him… Now I’m depressed!

    I am seriously pulling for you guys and Skeptologist. It would be refreshing to get more skeptical and critical thinking on TV.

  4. Mike B says:

    I think it is just as important to mention the very poor anti-science shows that networks are also pushing. #1 on my list this season is “Fringe”. It explores fringe science claims and they all seem to be true in the show (what a big surprise). Some of the claims include reading the mind of dead bodies, syncing two people’s brain waves in order to enter another person’s mind, etc…the list continues and becomes more ridiculous.

    Please, let’s bring the skeptologists to the poorly-informed American public.

  5. oldebabe says:

    That the new shows the Mentalist and Eleventh Hour continue to survive at all is surprising to me. After I heard “there’s no such thing as psychics”, I thought the show wouldn’t make it to the next week! (Also, there’s a rather silly program called Bones, which occasionally startles me with skeptical and non-mainstream remarks.) Sure, nothing is perfect, and perhaps lots to criticize, but these shows ARE fiction, and, as you say, supposed to be entertaining for the general viewers on regular commercial TV, but, I think, a positive step, no matter how small, in spite of your quibbles.

    After all, not all programs can be Nova Science Now (PBS), which makes science and scientific facts entertaining – and with no commercials!

  6. Speaking of Nova Science NOW, are there more episodes in the making? I miss seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson on my TV. He’s a great popularizer.

  7. Cat Girl says:

    This isn’t exactly the same thing, but I think it’s a good sign that the show ‘Good Eats’ is so popular. It is a cooking show that goes beyond other shows and explains the basic science behind food and cooking. Advanced scientists probably won’t learn anything new from it, but it makes science interesting to a large number of people.

    As for fictional shows like ‘Fringe’, they don’t have to be scientifically correct because they’re fiction. They’re supposed to be made up. I can enjoy Star Trek without believing that humanoid aliens exist throughout the universe, and I can watch the X-files without believing that a bat boy could actually exist. The point of fiction is to use your imagination.

  8. I think that The Skeptologists will do well because I think that a lot of people will find it fascinating to watch just like they do mythbusters. I definitely don’t watch mythbusters for the explosions. I watch it because I think it is cool to watch them test urban myths. So hopefully this will be the opinion of many other people

  9. Daniel Sean Osborne says:

    Well, Steve, you know you have at least 40K+ viewers from the SGU fan base. I really hope this project sees the light of day.
    Might not be a bad idea to pitch the idea oversees where the audiences are not dumbed down.

  10. Gold says:

    @Daniel It would be great if the 40k+ potential viewers in the SGU fan base were able to get it.

    Will the pilot, at least, be being released online? Downloads of the show would be a great way of boosting the numbers so the network funding it has an idea of the potential value selling it to other networks.

    And you know that if they don’t release it someone will. So there goes all those downloads by people that can’t see it on TV, but really want to, untracked by those that determine how popular a show is…

  11. Jim Shaver says:

    Steve, I second your assessment of The Mentalist thus far. The plots have been pretty thin, there hasn’t been much mystery to keep the audience playing along as detectives, and in my opinion the writers have left the story of Jane’s past and the tragic loss of his family as a mere contrived flashback now and again. It’s too bad. They have a good-looking cast, which seems capable of performing more subtle, complex, and dramatic stories.

    I’ll keep watching and hoping… for a while anyway.

  12. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    How about a video podcast of “The Skeptologist”. You could charge 1 or 2 bucks a download. I think most of us fans would get it. This may give you some clout with a network.

  13. Colin J says:

    Hey, last nights The Mentalist had a good moment. He gave a short lesson on memory and how he uses memory cues to memorize cards. That was a good moment in skepticism! Maybe they’ll get to doing more of that.

  14. Chris (H) says:

    Ah, Jonathan Creek was awesome! Alan Davies (who’s on QI, with Stephen Fry, if you know of either of those wonderful things) is an extremely funny man, and a very good actor. I’m going to watch some episodes now :)

  15. Prue says:

    You should check out the Sleek Geeks an Australian show with Adam Spencer and Dr Karl. Very informative and amusing and extremely well done.

  16. SkepticOz says:

    “I hate to say this, but I get the distinct impression that high quality science-themed British shows are dumbed down for US television. This does not bode well”.

    There’s more than likely some truth to that which, as noted, tends to allude to intellectual hurdles being lowered for the USA market. But there are many cultural reasons also, many of which may suit the average audience member but not a skeptic.

    I wonder if a key variable isn’t that USA skeptic, science and educational groups are openly and honestly highlighting the negative effect ‘Wedge strategists’ have had – particularly in the media – on science ['scientific materialism'] and in promoting the illusion ‘Darwinism’ is morally bankrupt, if not malignant.

    In Australia science media [not drama] is reportedly digested by those with a workable knowledge of the scientific method – or what ‘science actually means/does’. That’s only 20%. And it follows expeditious funding requires shows be themed to keep their audience. But I’m not sure even some of our ‘premier’ shows are not a little dumbed down, as ‘reporting’ hasn’t been what I’d assume is for a science minded audience – perhaps even [gasp!] in the habit of checking source material.

    The supposed format to avoid is blending popular lifestyle themes with science or reporting of scientific progress. Which I guess is a way of saying certain viewers don’t have the “viewing habits” to consume or benefit from scientific material.

    As for discourse on drama shows like The Mentalist, which does interest Aussie skeptics, it’s presently drowned out by commercial coverage of the “gifts” of present visitor Jon Edward, persistent strange happenings and dusty old woo-woo for non ratings seasons.

  17. Ozzy1248 says:

    Not sure if you have yet or not Steve, but I haven’t heard a critique of the show House. This seems a little odd since it is right up your ally.
    Not being a physician I’m not sure how accurate the science is, I can be fairly certain it’s not, but it does seem to emphasize rationality and skepticism, and with the character House mostly cynicism.
    With the success of the show, I was curious what your take on it is?

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  19. BURR says:

    Gonna use this and cite it for my school essay! Thanks a lot!

  20. mike sheridan says:

    Jonathan Creek was pitched twice to american production companys and turned down twice. The second time would have stared Alan Davies in the same role.

  21. mike sheridan says:

    Also, you can watch all but two episodes of Jonathan Creek on youtube. I discovered this Series searching for something close to my childhood alltime favorite “Banacek”. I also found a tv show called “blackes magic”. It stared Hal Linden as a magician solving seemingly impossible crimes. It only ran one season and all are also on youtube.