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RE: Taking control of the documentary situation, an immodest proposal

  I tend to wonder if the scientists' own careful language is not hoisting some 
of us up when it comes to our actions. I will explain:

  1. Whenever a scientist refers (or should refer) to a hypothetical or 
theoretical unproven concept, one tends to hedge his or her bets and include 
cautionary language. Obviously, some people don't do this, but it's considered 
good writing in articles to do so as one doesn't point oneself into a corner.

  2. The lay people who view scientists words are often entreated with the 
cautionary laguage as a mishmash of "I don't know," and are given free license 
to ignore it. This is especially relevant in the current era of 
documentarianism where the ratings of our programs are what decide its content, 
and that depends on the demograph who are being enticed to view the 7-10 
minutes of add-space bought by others through which the show is interspersed.

  3. The producers know that since their target audience is the lay, and not 
the professional, the use of "maybe," "possible," and "I don't know" tend not 
to work well, and completely eradicate the purpose of the program. As such, 
many documentarians (or I should say, publicists) want to send a stronger 
message. A full-on proposition of habit, nature, etc. This means taking out 
cautionary language. Darren Naish (and Matt Wedel) have both called this "quote 

  4. "Quote mining" is a special form of propoaganda in which the actual 
printed/spoken words are chained in such a way that what is represented as 
having been said differs so widely from what was originally said that it can be 
construed to say the exact opposite or any other of a whole group of things. 
One could write "I love my brother, I hate my sister," and have it mined to say 
"I love my sister." This is often a misrepresentative form of writing, and is 
used when the original material is not available or is typically obscured: the 
reader is not expected to chase down the source.

  5. When a scientist says "maybe," such cautionary language is ignored for the 
sake of expedience, and the resultant commentary, while different from the 
original, still contains the original thrust of the language. Cautionary 
language being removed does not result in quote mining, and scientists have 
been quoted in such a manner on programs like _NOVA_ for the last two decades. 
If this is "quote mining," then such a subject has been so pervasive and 
ignored that it is pandemic in the media, and we are all doomed. An alternate 
point of view is that it is not quote mining, and that this is such a common, 
media related quoting method that few scientists have ever balked at the 
receipt of finding their comments "chopped" in the final piece, even in press 
releases (where this process also occurs more prevalently). If anything, it 
gives a good opportunity for "dissenters" to be heard, as they can now take up 
their own discussion of the comments to insert cautionary language (even if it 
were included at first) in order to elucidate the public; this would actually 
help the public see the faces of science better as it exposes them to differing 
points of view.


Jaime A. Headden

"Innocent, unbiased observation is a myth." --- P.B. Medawar (1969)

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the 
experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to 
do so." --- Douglas Adams (Last Chance to See)

"Ever since man first left his cave and met a stranger with a different 
language and a new way of looking at things, the human race has had a dream: to 
kill him, so we don't have to learn his language or his new way of looking at 
things." --- Zapp Brannigan (Beast With a Billion Backs)
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