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Holly-weird science

by Donald Prothero, May 21 2014

As I wind down the semester teaching six different classes in introductory geology and oceanography at three different colleges, I’ve found myself explaining in nearly every lecture the difference between the real world and the popular mythology that appears in the movies, television, and the cartoons. Since nearly everything the general public thinks they know about science seems to come from bad Hollywood movies and TV shows, it’s not surprising that these myths are perpetuated, and our scientific literacy is so abysmal.

This is not a new topic, of course. Physicists and astronomers have long complained how badly most sci fi movies and TV and novels mangle science (starting with the impossibility of transmitting sound in the vacuum of space, which nearly all the space movies get wrong—but explosions without sound simply don’t do it for today’s audiences). I know of some geology departments that have “Bad geology movie” nights, where they play older films and laugh at all the ridiculous things they say about the earth. (In fact, nearly every Hollywood movie gets the geology all wrong). But I’ve been a scientist since I was hooked on dinosaurs at age 4, and consequently I’ve never enjoyed movies that distort or violate the rules of science. Websites like document the wide range of stupid or silly things that show up regularly in movies or TV, and how little reality or science influences the decisions of scriptwriters. Of course, this is basic Scriptwriting 101: the story arc of the plot, the development and interaction of characters, and many other things take priority over keeping the movie within the bounds of scientific reality. I’ve been a scientific consultant on enough shows to know that what I say is only a guideline, and the story and characters take precedence over reality. Still, in many or most cases, the movie  plot would work just fine with a realistic portrayal of science, but that rarely happens. After all, screen writers tend to be no more literate about science than their audiences, so to a large extent they don’t know that all these cliched ideas are false—and most don’t seem to care, even if it is explained to them. As puts it, it’s the “Rule of Cool”: audiences will forgive gross scientific inaccuracies and completely implausible action if it makes the movie more spectacular and enjoyable. Continue reading…

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Teaching evolution through Pokemon?

by Donald Prothero, Sep 05 2012

Pokemon is full of interesting “evolving” sequences of form, some of which resemble normal ontogeny of metamorphosing insects

The dogs days of summer were finally ending, and I was glad. The heat waves that have fried the U.S. all summer long were still hanging on in late August. The kids were trapped inside the house in the air conditioning, since there’s no way to play outside in the 105-degree heat, humidity, and smog, and even running an errand is unpleasant and potentially dangerous when the car is 140 degrees inside after you open it. Besides, there’s no place to go for them to get exercise in the air conditioning: they’ve outgrown McDonalds play lands, and I don’t want to spend money in a mall or in those overpriced indoor entertainment complexes. The boys had a few days left before school starts, and then they resume  a regular healthy routine, and they’re occupied again. In the meantime, they lounged around the house in their pajamas till afternoon, with the TV blaring Cartoon Network non-stop while they play with and build their Legos. Any time we suggested an activity for them, they may engage for a while, then it’s back to goofing off. It’s summer, they’re kids, and they have no obligations. We already did the family trip to Colorado for my field work, and had our planned activities back in June and July.  And I was counting the days until they were back in school and on a healthier routine.

Continue reading…

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Day on the Set

by Brian Dunning, Jun 04 2009

OK, this is weird.

Today I was invited to host an episode of a new series for a major cable network in which I was to interview and administer a test to three professional psychics. This was the first episode they’d shot, and the producers and director were really nice and cool and it had all the makings of a fun and productive day. They had located three psychics who were all game, and were fully willing to undergo the tests under controlled conditions. Moreover, the show had even secured a $50,000 prize that any psychics who passed today’s tests would be qualified to try for. I arrived fully prepared, with some detailed protocols, and a raft of properly controlled materials.

Here’s the rub. The entire day was a setup. It was a gag, with Michael Shermer and myself as the unwitting victims. Continue reading…

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An Invitation

by Ryan Johnson, May 19 2009

As many of you read through the entries for the SkepticBlog from all of these talented minds, you probably see many references to The Skeptologists.

I’ll assume for a moment that many of you already know what The Skeptologists is all about. Since the start of the blog, many new readers are undoubtedly trying to figure it out. Today, rather than writing a long blog here, I’m going to invite you to take a look at the newly refreshed Skeptologists Website.

This past weekend, I spent a few hours giving our Official Show Site an overhaul, adding details about the theme of the show and giving some never released details about how the program will be presented.

You don’t get it for free however, It will cost you a minute or two. Once you’ve read through the website, please take a quick moment to make a comment on the “Your Turn” page so that those who come through afterwards (including TV execs and agents that we send there) will understand just how much support we have for a skeptically-minded TV program.

Visit the Official Show Website at

Visit the Official Show Website at

I hope you enjoy the site, and look forward to your comments.

If you see any typo’s or encounter technical problems, please feel free to email me directly.


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Trip Report – Woo in my hometown

by Yau-Man Chan, Apr 05 2009

I just came back from a 10-day trip to my home town of Kota Kinabalu, capital of the State of Sabah (formerly North Borneo) in East Malaysia. It was a wonderful vacation.

Troupe of Proboscis monkeys

Troupe of Proboscis monkeys

The purpose of the trip was to attend my high-school class of 1969 40th reunion. In addition to meeting up with classmates who stayed and made their lives in Malaysia, I met up with classmates from Canada, Australia, Singapore and the U.S.  A few of us made our way (45 min. flight, 5 hr. drive and 45 min. up river by boat) to the interior of Borneo and spend a few nights in the Kinabatangan valley to see for ourselves what was left of the virgin primary forest – and communed with orangutans, horn bills, proboscis monkeys and even a pygmy Borneo elephant.
Continue reading…

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Star Power!

by Ryan Johnson, Mar 24 2009

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the comments from my last post about the Quarter Incident at the Queen Mary. The discussion, the lines of thought and the way that people differ in their analysis of this event is one of the things that I most cherish about the power of my line of work. I love being able to be the catalyst for that.

You know, It continually amazes how much utter garbage is on TV. The work to getting something like The Skeptologists that is not only entertaining, but is thought provoking and dare I even say it aloud: “educational” on TV is stupendously difficult.

The problem that we (And I mean we as Skeptics) really have is that we’re not cool. Ah ah ah, don’t even start… Nope, we’re not. Granted, there’s a few that tip the scales towards coolness, and heck most of you all are some of my biggest heros! I am humbled by the intellect, provoking discourse and ability to wrangle science like a frontier cowboy. BUT! Compared to the stars of the entertainment world, sports, politics and just pure celebrity, we don’t got it. Well, not yet anyway.

I’m not worried though. That’s not what it’s all about. The issue however is convincing the TV execs that in this case, the star power is truth and science! They want celebrity-star-power and a sure fire hit. One reality that is very evident by the response that we get as we work through the process of selling the show, and other projects that I’m working on is that no exec will put his or her individual neck on the line and go to bat for a show anymore. They want consensus, unanimous opinion and a way to point both their fingers in opposite directions and say “it was their fault” when the ratings start to fall, as they eventually will, no matter how good a show you have. All the TV executives want a clear and unobstructed way out. If you watch a few hours of network prime-time, you’ll quickly understand why everything pretty much looks and feels the same within a few major genre’s… They all can point to another show and say “But American Idol was a hit! So America’s Got Talent has GOT to work!” Everyone around the big mahogany table nods appropriately, and bang-o you got a network deal.
Continue reading…

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A New Hollywood Scientist Cliche

by Steven Novella, Jan 26 2009

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in the Victorian era in 1886. In this classic novella the civilized Dr. Jekyll struggles with an inner demon he has released – Mr. Hyde. Hyde is described in the book as the natural inner beast that resides within us all, always barely kept in check by our civilized morals. While a work of clear fiction, the underlying assumption of the story is that it is humanity’s nature to be a cruel, brutal, selfish beast. Fiction can tell us a great deal about cultural beliefs and values.

As skeptics we are concerned with the promotion of science to the public and so we pay attention to the portrayal of science and scientists in mass media. Television and movies, and now the internet, are our modern forms of storytelling and they reflect and help create the collective consciousness of our culture. Even pure fiction, like Jeyll and Hyde, can tell us a great deal about the assumptions and icons of our society.

The scientist as Hollywood icon has gone through a limited number of permutations, and I believe a new icon has emerged in the last few years. Dr. Jekyll reflects the classic vision of a scientist as a lone mad genius, playing god and uncaring about the consequences (only realizing them when it is too late). Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, a few James Bond villains, and just about every comic book scientist fit that icon.

Continue reading…

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Target Audience

by Ryan Johnson, Dec 16 2008


I ran across a comment on the blog that I wrote last week. It caught my interest.  

Ejdalise wrote:

Not to say you guys won’t get there, but . . . I don’t know; perhaps it’s where I live, but I don’t often meet people who would be considered your target audience. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I thought about it for a bit, and wondered, why would he make that type of comment?  It didn’t take that long to realize that what is happening at least in terms of Ejdalise, is that many people don’t really understand our goals and intentions for this program, and thus think that we are aiming to create a show that is aimed at our smallish, yet active skeptical community. This is just not so.  

In order for a TV series to be successful in a “real” way that’s judged in the scale that will even make a blip in the Nielsen ratings, one must create a program that is consumable on the national, dare I say, international, scale. Too bad really, because that means that we have to create a show that must be, hmm how to say this correctly well… just easily understood by the general TV viewing audience. 

If we went out and created a TV show “For the Skeptics by The Skeptics” We wouldn’t last a season, probably only two episodes.  Forget the major networks, it wouldn’t get off the ground. As big as the community is, we’re not nearly big enough…yet. Continue reading…

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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.

Continue reading…

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Creating a Television Series is Hard.

by Ryan Johnson, Oct 28 2008

All the elements of TV production are difficult and require much attention, time and money.

Landing a network TV production deal to have the opportunity to show all that hard work to a nation, and even the world, is much like hitting the lottery.

Too bad I don’t play the lottery.

Convincing entrenched, and complacent programming TV executives that you have a program that will change the way people consider their TV entertainment seems to be next to impossible.

I set out on a journey to do just that, and with the help of an amazing production team and an all-star skeptical cast, we’re going to make it a reality!

In my last blog, I shared some of the process to get this idea off the ground.  In this second installment, I want to give you an idea about how we came to decide who should be on our esteemed panel of brilliant minds for the show. Continue reading…

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