Tales from the Industry XXXIII: Sometimes I Say No

…But then I feel bad about it at times, especially when there are good people involved. I was contacted on Thursday by a producer I know (I’ve worked with her before) about contributing to a TV show on a certain topic. They wanted to shoot this week. I was to talk in very specific terms about one issue, but it would be then fit into a larger topic that the whole episode is about, and the big theme of the whole series. It turned out that I also had worked with the filmmaker (writer-director) for the episode as well, on various things for the series The Universe on the History Channel that, as you know, I contribute to a lot. (See here.)

So all seemed fine. My concerns about the topic and how my contribution might be edited began to fall away, since these are good people… I spoke on the phone about some of the ideas I could bring up, and how I might try to frame things, and maybe we’d talk again about days of the week to set up the shoot, and so forth. But I asked if I could see other examples of episodes from the series, just to make sure that I was ok with it all.

It turned out that they could show me them since they were online. I looked at them over the weekend, and, well, just felt uncomfortable with the way it was cut together, promoted, the supporting material on the site, and so forth, even though it is on a major channel. Frankly, there was just too much kookiness mixed in loudly with the solid stuff, for the whole series, and I’m not convinced that most members of the general public can tell the difference. It’s just going to lead to a lot of confusion about things, and legitimize a lot of fringe stuff that people love to believe in, but that has little or no evidence or credibility. I’m not sure I want to be involved with that.

But I feel bad, because there are good people involved in trying to make fine documentary work, but often under pressure to add some spice to get high viewership. I don’t like this particular spice, and since in this case I’ve no access at a level that could help me change minds about the spice, I think it is best to stay away. I could be wrong, but there it is.

I hope they find someone else who can speak to the issues they wanted addressed. (I’m sure they will, since it seems that almost everyone wants to be on TV, right?)


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11 Responses to Tales from the Industry XXXIII: Sometimes I Say No

  1. PJ Eby says:

    Good for you. There’s way too much “woo” out there already.

    (Speaking of which, did you see the Bem paper on time-reversed priming, and the subsequent flap about the use of statistics in experimental psychology?)

  2. Clifford says:


    Great to hear from you! No, I know nothing about this topic… Do enlighten me/us…!



  3. I hope you explained, calmly and politely, why you turned them down. This kind of feedback can do a lot of good.

  4. Clifford says:

    Hi Jonathan. Yes, of course. It is the kind of feedback I’ve been giving for many years, in fact, as frequently mentioned in posts here.



  5. PJ Eby says:

    (re: the psi powers stuff)

    This is a good place to start: http://lesswrong.com/lw/32p/study_shows_existence_of_psychic_powers/ – the most interesting answer though, is this critique (http://www.ruudwetzels.com/articles/Wagenmakersetal_subm.pdf) which shows that actually, it’s not so much that the psi paper is low quality compared to general experimental psych papers, as it is that the standards for the statistical methods used in experimental psych papers aren’t nearly high enough.

    In other words, a lot of psychology is just as much bunk as psi powers are, but nobody’s looking closely enough to tell. 😉

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  7. Tevong says:

    Always nice to hear scientists maintaining their integrity. It baffles me to see what others who should know better willfully promote.

  8. Belizean says:

    Well done, Clifford.

    Now if you could only transition into script consulting, we might enjoy the rare treat of a scientifically accurate movie or TV show.

    [Although science fiction dramas and dramedies normally do have science consultants, these people don’t seem to have your integrity and apparently sign off on anything (Eureka on SyFy is a particularly egregious example.]

  9. Clifford says:

    You are both very kind. Thanks.

    Belizean, the issue is much more complicated than that, as I’ve explained here in the past. I am sure those science consultants do good work, but there is nothing in the system that requires their advice to be followed. It is just advice. The problem runs more deeply.



  10. John Smart says:

    I’m betting it was Ancient Aliens. Don’t do it. Ever. I’ve watched a few and other than being really silly, it’s insulting. Apparently, humans have never invented a thing on their own. Or evolved a culture on their own. I’m waiting for the episode is which they examine Disneyland and insist humans could never have invented The Enchanted Tiki Room or It’s a Small World, way back in 1955 without alien help. They will then ask if the shape of Micky Mouse ears represent some star system…

    “The Universe” is quite interesting,though. The hadron collider/mini car race track bit actually helped a lay person like myself to understand…