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Taking control of the documentary situation, an immodest proposal
Back when I was a lad anything to do with dinosaurs on the telly was so
rare that one went for years craving for anything to show up. It was wonderful
when in 77 NOVA broadcast "The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs," the best
dinodocumentary ever. Its been pretty much downhill since.
I think almost everyone agrees that the situation has gotten out of hand,
in which the producers of dinosaur documentaries are egregiously exploiting
and abusing paleontologists on so many levels. I pretty much dread being
asked to in some way participate in documentaries because I'm tired of being
taken advantage of in assorted ways. I rarely watch them because I wish to keep
my TV in working order.
The problem is with both the broadcasters who pay for the programs and the
producers who supply them. The former in particular are interested only in
producing product that will make money in what is a very, very difficult
financial market. Because there are so many channels to watch the audience for
any given program is too small to generate much revenue, so the programs have
to be done on the cheal (one comment that the producers have lots of money
to kill is errant). Presenting accurate science is way down the list.
Remember that most of the channels produce programs promoting the reality of
visitors, the predictions of Nostrodemus, ghostbusters etc.; their is no
Science Channel (the best channel in this regard is NatGeo, which continues to
largely adhere is a science based worldview). The hands on produces vary in
quality. Some may want to do a good job but are pressured to meet market
demands. Others should not be allowed to produce serious scientific
In principle it is possible to take control of the situation. How? By
getting organized. As it is the producers exploit us by dealing with us
individually, and making promises that they are going to do THIS program right,
then doing what they damn well please until we get suckered the next time
around. Researchers would need to agree to not participate in a program unless
it has undergone a vetting process by a qualified group. If enough paleos do
so this would severely constrain the producers who need talking heads and
the legitimacy of at least claiming to have consulted experts. The publicity
of announcing such a system would itself make the news and in effect "shame"
the broadcasters and producers. Such a system would not need to be
permanent, run it for long enough to see if it works, and then drop the
until the producers get out of line and revive it as necessary.
Whether such a system is practical is open to question. How would it be
run, would enough researchers adhere to the rules to make it effective, etc?
And it is a pain in the butt to have to do something in the first place. I
only bring it up because the situation is so bad (I wonder if scientists in
other fields have similar complaints, or are dinosaurs a special problem).
One possibility is to have a set of principles for documentaries written
up, and researchers can sign it. Producers would have to agree to the terms
before signers could participate. The more I think about this idea as at least
a minimal step the more I like it. For example it can include a clause that
programs will not state an idea is fact unless this is not controversial
(such as hadrosaurs were herbivores, while hadrosaurs protecting their young
from predators would be qualified as plausible but not proven). The sheer
press publicity should act as a wake up call to the producers that the
scientific community has had it and they need to shape up. Or maybe something
organized is called for. Maybe try the first and if that does not work try a
more formal arrangement.