Date: November 24, 2010

Title: Differentiating Science From Spectacle


Podcaster: Jon A. McIntire

Description: Creators of the History Channel series The Universe have a responsibility to educate and inform the viewers about the very real facts and not simply to entertain them with the hyper-real fantasies of Hollywood. In the first season alone, 11 out of the 14 episodes contained some sort of computer-simulated apocalypse. There runs the risk for astronomical inaccuracies being accepted as fact; such misinformation is potentially damaging to a culture already floundering in scientific illiteracy like the U.S. Scientifically-calculated odds of death by astronomical phenomena are tallied. Bottom line? Don’t panic.

Bio: I’m a part-time student and fulltime employee at Carnegie-Mellon University. Originally from Erie, PA, I grew up in a trailer above Presque Isle State Park (where I was certain Bigfoot roamed). As a kid, I was inquisitive, stargazing, and bookish—my favorite tome being National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe. My childhood heroes were Doctor Who, Adam Ant, She-Ra and Carl Sagan whose book, Cosmos, would lay the foundation for my love of science into adulthood and motivate me to pick up Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and Parallel Worlds, Rudy Rucker’s Infinity & the Mind, and Nina Hall’s Exploring Chaos.

Today’s sponsor: The Carnegie Mellon University Physics Department is proud to sponsor this episode of 365 Days of Astronomy and to support its Introductory Astronomy student Jon McIntire. Jon’s inquisitive nature and logical reasoning skills are typical of the student body at CMU. We hope you enjoy his debut podcast here at 365 Days of Astronomy.


Differentiating Science from Spectacle
By Jon McIntire

So, what’s the deal with the History Channel series, The Universe, doling out an Earth-slamming cataclysm every other week? Initially, I joked about it being a crutch for the edutainment TV show. However, after further viewings of Seasons 1-4, I was left wondering if all of the hypothetical doomsday scenarios were more the crux to The Universe and less a crutch. For instance, in the first season alone, 11 out of the 14 episodes contained some sort of computer-simulated apocalypse. So, why is it that a television show appearing to be based on real science seemingly reverts (or is it resorts?) to the Hollywood flash and panache of explosive spectacle rather than remaining founded in the facts? Why do the logical words of sci-lebrities such as Michio Kaku and Neil Degrasse Tyson seem to be silenced by the reverberation of impact blasts and overshadowed by the image of Earth annihilated by asteroids, comets, supernovae, and a variety of other cosmic dangers?

If it’s a case of feeding off of the viewers’ fears via sensationalism—similar to some Dateline NBC expose about internet predators that may or may not be lurking in your backyard—then The Universe shouldn’t sheep-clothe itself in the scientific method. Furthermore, if entertainment rather than education is its ultimate goal, then the producers of The Universe might want to make it more apparent to the viewer that this isn’t solely science but Hollywood spectacle as well. I should stress here that I am by no means condemning or reproaching the show for venturing down such a path every so often. A little fear is healthy and natural. However, when said path appears less like the stars in the night sky and more like the stars on the Hollywood walk of fame week after week, The Universe starts to sever itself (and its audience) from scientific reality by assaulting the senses with a barrage of hypothetical, hyper-real, and hellish scenarios. Moreover, if the odds of such catastrophic events are underplayed by the overkill of computer-generated armageddons, there runs the risk for astronomical inaccuracies to be accepted as fact; such misinformation is potentially damaging to a culture already floundering in scientific illiteracy like the U.S.

According to a recent study conducted by the California Academy of Science, only 53% of adult Americans know how many days it takes Earth to revolve around the Sun, only 59% are aware that human beings and dinosaurs didn’t cohabit the planet at the same time, only 47% know the percentage of the Earth’s surface covered with water, and, when combined, only 21% of Americans were able to answer all three of these questions correctly. High-school students aren’t fairing much better. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a 2008 study of 15-year-olds from developed nations assessed that one quarter of high-school students in the United States never reach a basic level of scientific competency and, overall, ranked 21st in scientific literacy out of the 30 participating countries. With such sub-par scores over the most fundamental of scientific knowledge, does the spectacle of Hollywood really have a place on a show like The Universe? If the 1938 radio dramatization of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles is any indication, then the answer would unequivocally be “no.”

The mass hysteria that occurred due to the aforementioned radio broadcast that Halloween night back in ‘38 is a perfect example of when the hyper-real realms of entertainment collide with reality and can cause a public panic. My mother, who was only six years old when the War of the Worlds was broadcast on CBS radio affiliates across the country, shared her memories of the incident. “Your great-grandmother looked concerned,” she told me, “Aunt Edith stared at the radio and had me sit on her lap, telling me everything would be alright. The family had all gathered in the living room and listened. Your Uncle Jack kept pacing back and forth, walking out on the porch and looking up toward the night sky. I didn’t even know what a Martian was, but I was scared because my family was scared,” and, apparently, they weren’t the only ones.

As Barry Glassner points out in his book, Culture of Fear, concerning the Orson Welles’ adaptation of the H.G. Wells science-fiction classic, the reason that over a million Americans listening to the broadcast were bracing themselves for Martian invasion wasn’t due to ignorance or stupidity, but because “the program had a credible feel…it [the radio play] featured credible-sounding people professing to report scientific or firsthand information” (206). Now, I am by no means accusing or insinuating that the revolving door of scientists appearing on The Universe are frauds like Welles’s portrayal of Professor Richard Pierson nor am I suggesting that their words are questionable . Kaku, Tyson, and Rob Roy Britt aren’t sitting in The Universe’s editing room, chopping up their own words to match the theme of each episode. What I am driving at is that, unlike the radio broadcast back in ’38 which had no visual element to accompany it yet was still capable of causing a panic, The Universe does. When you add this to the abysmal statistics concerning scientific literacy in America, the possibility for another incident similar to that of the War of the Worlds broadcast might not appear as far-fetched as some of the hyper-real what-ifs the series offers up.

Sociologist and philosopher, Theodor Adorno, discussed such hyper-reality—which he dubbed “pseudo-realism”—in his book The Culture Industry and addressed the possible impact that televised imagery might have over its viewing audience. He suggests that “pseudo-realism allows for the direct and extremely primitive identification achieved in popular culture…as though they [the hyper-realities presented on TV] were the promise of something thrilling and exciting taking place at any moment” (170-171) and stresses that, as a result of this expectation, viewers may ultimately “lose true insight into reality” (171). However, Adorno also states that if the viewer is able to discriminate between fact and fiction “by exposing the socio-psychological implications and mechanisms of television, which often operate under the guise of false realism…the public at large may be sensitized to the nefarious effect of some of these mechanisms” (158). So, let’s sensitize ourselves by removing the various visual doomsdays and just look at the facts.

In his book, Death from the Skies: These are the Ways the World will End…, author, Phillip Plait, includes a convenient chart of many of the same apocalyptic events that the History Channel series touches on. For asteroids snuffing out human civilization and/or destroying life on Earth, the odds are 1 in 700,000, but notes that this is also “almost 100% preventable” (p.299). For solar flares eradicating our atmosphere, leaving humanity in its gasping death throes, the odds are 0. For supernovae unleashing cosmic chaos upon Mother Earth, the odds are 1 in 10,000,000. For stellar gamma-ray bursts setting the Earth afire, the odds are 1 in 14,000,000. For black holes spaghettifying the Earth into gravitational linguine, the odds are 1 in 1,000,000,000,000. For our Sun dying and taking Earth with it, 0…Although, Plaitt notes “Of all the ways the Cosmic Grim Reaper can pay us a visit, just this one and one other (Death by End of the Universe) have odds of 100 percent. You just have to wait long enough!” (304). Plaitt later states that the Earth’s destruction via the Sun’s death, intergalactic collisions, and quantum collapse of the universe “won’t happen in your lifetime, but they will eventually happen.” (306). He then goes on to add that the two most plausible scenarios of wiping out all life on planet Earth—that of asteroid impacts and massive solar events—also happen to be “the only two we can do anything about” (306).

Phew! Is your mind reeling from all of these statistics and odds yet? If not, then more power to you. If so, you’re not alone. Odds aside, let me make it perfectly clear that I think The Universe is an awesome show. I wish that there were more like it on TV; however, I also wish that the series would rely a little less on Hollywood spectacle. I’m not going to nit-pick over scientific faux pas’s like the sonic blasts that are pumped out of my surround-sound every time there’s a cosmic explosion in the vacuum of space, which the series often does. What bothers me most is when the odds are sacrificed to the gods of TV ratings. Although some of the visuals might make for next summer’s blockbuster in the theater, with scientific literacy in the U.S. faltering, television shows like The Universe have a responsibility to educate and inform the viewers about the very real facts and not simply to entertain them with the hyper-real fantasies of Hollywood.

End of podcast:

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