Ok, ok. Since more than a few people have spotted it, I think it is best to (as they used to say in Hill Street Blues back in the 90s) “get out in front of this thing”.
You’ll recall (see list of related posts) many of the good things that I’ve talked about concerning the work various program makers are doing for the History Channel’s The Universe, and KCET is doing for PBS’ WIRED Science, Discovery’s Science Channel, and other science shows I’ve mentioned (and there are more I’ve not yet mentioned). I’ve shared with you some details about some of my own small role in some of these sorts of things so that you can see some of how these programmes come to be, including various shoots I’ve mentioned here and there, various behind-the-scenes activities, and my optimism about what seems to be a general renewed interest by program makers on various channels in making more and better science programs, working more closely with scientists in the process.
From all this you’ll be of the expectation that within a year or two, my dream that everybody on the street will be chatting about science topics/culture just as often as any other topic in our culture might be realized. Well, of course, that’s a bit hasty. The vast majority of stuff out there is just as it always was, and some efforts go rather wrong. Here’s an example:
You’ll remember a couple of fun shoots I did last year. I blogged them here and here. I had high hopes that they’d turn out to be part of something promising. I was (and am) willing to try to bring a little science flavouring to places where it is not normally found, to audiences who don’t normally seek out science programming. Who knows where that can lead? But… the show turned out to be, how shall I put it? Low on science and high on… other stuff, shall we say.
The show I’m talking about is on Spike TV and it is called MANswers. I always knew it was going to be close to the mark, but was willing to take the risk just in case it got a few people thinking about science for a second or two or more. My reasons? No matter how good shows get on PBS, and History, and Discovery, this will do only so much to bring science to a wider audience. These are niche channels with niche audiences. What about all the other people who aren’t actively seeking out science shows to watch? So when I heard that they were shooting a variety show for Spike that would include scientists giving answers to everyday (but, yes, “guy-oriented” questions, given the channel) and they wanted me to contribute, why would I not help out? Afterward, as the months went by and I did a bit of research on the web chatter out there to see if I could learn how the show was going in development, I could see that the show was going in a bad direction, but could not be sure. Anyway, the show started airing this Fall, and I (with trepidation) watched one of them.
To my horror here was some mention of it over on Bad Astronomy, and so I placed a comment or two there to explain (see here and here). Then I forgot about it for a while, until rather more than a couple of people mentioned seeing it (who knew so many people I knew watched the bizarre stuff on Spike?!) with reactions from congratulatory remarks to saying it’s the funniest thing they’ve seen in a while. (I sense the possibility of irony there somewhere in there…)
So by way of explanation, I reproduce my remarks and thoughts below, with some modifications for formatting and relevance. (You should know that I am speculating a bit here and there about what was going on in the program maker’s minds. I could be totally wrong.) Overall, I remain positive about things – these things happen. To be fair, even if I don’t like the overall final production values (!!), there is a bit of science in there here and there, so who knows? Yeah, I’m an optimist. Anyway, my thoughts that I posted on Phil’s blog:
I was hoping that nobody would see this showâ€¦
I agree, it is pretty awful. Did they have to use that blaring voice, and put shots of half-naked women in every segment? At the same time, I must confess to appearing in maybe three or four segments of that show. Part of the problem is that they are very unscrupulous editors, and also at the time they shot a lot of those segments, they did not really know what the show was going to be -Spike did not make it; a production company made if on their behalf and they were making it up as they went along (with, I suspect, confusing instructions from Spike about what they wanted).
I am pretty sure that many of the people who appeared – myself included – were not aware of quite how low the show would stoop in its attempt to hit the lowest common denominator. I suspect that the original concept of the show was such that the program makers did not know eitherâ€¦. there was a lot of clever and deceptive editing in post production. We were simply told it was a comedy variety show, and on Spike. It would be a show about answers to questions that â€œguysâ€ ask. I therefore knew that going in it would be a bit of a frat-boy atmosphere, but was willing to take a bit of a risk for the sake of seeing some science show up in an unusual setting, and to an audience who might not bother to think about science at all.
Unfortunately, most of the stuff has been cut to pieces in the editing room, most of the science cut out, and contributorsâ€™ sentences interspersed with shots of half-naked women, and the science segments interspersed with dubious pieces about how to get â€œsomething extraâ€ behind the curtains in your massage parlour.
For example, I did a long and fun explanation of the forces involved in crushing a beer can for them. We did an experiment, measuring the weight required, and compared it to results of a computation I did on the board, etc, etcâ€¦. – all to camera. None of that appeared. Just some quick cuts and then lots of shots of women with increasingly large breasts. Did I know that the can discussion was relevant to a woman crushing a can with her breasts? Yes I did, but I made it clear that I wanted to have nothing to do with that part. I would answer the physics question about how much weight youâ€™d have to stack on a typical beer can to have it collapse, and what the issues were. Sadly, they cut all that out and just went on and on about the breasts, and cut back and forth between me and the breast stuff, including having me say at the end that it looks very painful (indeed it does, and indeed I did say that).
On a segment where I was talking about why vending machines topple over so easily, I said (with the aid of diagrams, discussion of center of mass, and a scale model, etc) that it was because it is top-heavy. At this point they randomly cut to a woman with large breasts. Irrelevant and annoying. The entire logic of the explanation was sacrificed, and they just cut to me at the end pushing over a vending machine onto a crash test dummy. This was fun, but they cut out my step by step explanation during the push, of the point at which it overbalances and whyâ€¦ Annoying. Could have been a fun segment.
On another segment, they go me to discuss the issues surrounding why a hardened steel sword cuts a speeding bullet in half. Opportunity to get a discussion going about materials science – I went for it. Surprisingly, they left a lot of that in the actual piece, and no women with breasts were featured. However, they wanted me to say that the sword was â€œstronger than a bulletâ€, and I said (with all due respect) that it was a rather meaningless statement, and preferred to stick to the facts of what actually can happen. Watch the piece though, and at the end, youâ€™ll hear my voice saying it – but you donâ€™t see my face at that point. Draw your own conclusions about what happened there.
Itâ€™s a bit of a shame that they did this, since I think that the actual idea of the show (scientists coming in to answer questions about everyday stuff in a magazine format) was a good one. I think that Spike probably saw a lot of the finished pieces and made them recut it as a bawdy trashy show. This may also explain why they delayed launching it by six months after having originally announced it was to debut in the Spring.
It also betrayed the trust of a lot of contributors who want to help in the public understanding of science. I must say at this point that I would not want people (other scientists) put off by thisâ€¦ Please take opportunities to do this type of outreach – contributing to programs and talking with journalists and even entertainers about science. Iâ€™d say that there are more and more good program makers out there who want to work with scientists to make better and better science shows. Every now and again thereâ€™ll be setbacks like this, but I think that the gradient is positive. I for one will keep trying, as I think that the overall gain is of high value.
Interestingly, the version on their website of the vending machine segment is cut differently from the one on the show. This online one is not so bad. I wonder if again this reflects some internal inconsistencies about the showâ€™s final look.
Anywayâ€¦ I should stop babbling now. Just thought youâ€™d like to know a bit more of the background to the story. You should also know that contributors all routinely sign releases for this type of shoot. Only courtesy requires them to show you what theyâ€™ve done with your image and your wordsâ€¦. nothing else. But let me again say that I think that good trust relationships can and should be built between scientists and film makers if we are truly going to reach new audiencesâ€¦.
To end, I must mention that some people I know actually like MANswers and think of it as harmless fun, and think that the science that there is does bring a fresh aspect to this type of show, so maybe the goal of the program makers was indeed achieved. I just wish that it was not quite so lowest-common-denominator. It could have been a fun show without that. Or perhaps I’m just wrong, and a boring old man.