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Return to the chronic documentary problem
Having finished up some other items I have the chance to return to the
issue of paleontological documentaries. Dealing with this serious and if
anything growing problem will require action by SVP, and I have talked about
issue with other very concerned about the issue, including Phil Currie. At the
minimum the society needs to issue a statement that requires that producers
– aside from not outright misleading participants as creationists are wont
to do -- actually ensure the accuracy of their product by fully meeting the
requirements of the scientists involved in the project. It is a good idea to
note that the more creative and content control held by participating
experts the more technically correct the content is likely to be. There are
examples of this being done. A BBC production (The Fatal Attraction of Hitler)
had a much higher level of historical sophistication and accuracy than is
usual for the genre because it was scripted and actually narrated by a
professor who actually knew what he was talking about, rather than the
standard procedure in which the producers do what they consider “research,” and
“consult” with the experts in a manner that places limits on the expert’s
control and usually results in a defective product. There is no actual
reason that the experts do not more directly create, write and narrate programs
on their field of expertise other than the industry has snatched control from
the scientists, and we have let them do so. Ergo, rather than the real
experts directly transmitting the information to the public, the current system
filters and distorts the science while mistreating the experts.
Below is a very tentative draft statement to get the discussion ball
rolling. In addition, it could be a good idea to have written up by legal
a draft contract that we paleos can use. If just about everyone refuses to
use standard contracts the producers will have to acquiesce.
Statement of Concern by The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Concerning
Paleontologists understand that one of the most important aspects of
their research and analysis is presenting the results of their efforts to the
public at large. This is necessary both for basic educational and
information purposes – which are critical to encouraging the next generation of
researchers – and because the public often supports paleontological scientific
research through their tax dollars and contributions.
One of the most important venues for transmitting the results of
scientific research to the public are documentary programs that appear on
television and digital media. The tremendous expansion of the sheer number of
documentaries in recent years on proliferating cable and satellite channels
be a positive for the scientific community and the public.
The Society finds that the proliferation of science programming
approaching and entering the new century has not only failed to improve the
standards of the genre, but is not even maintaining what was already sometimes
questionable quality levels in prior decades. We are instead seriously
by the lowering of quality standards regarding the information that many
programs contain. This situation is not acceptable. Every single program
should meet the highest criterion of scientific content, to the degree that
are all scientists are pleased by the results. This is not occurring because
of a competitive race to the bottom between too many producers to the
lowest common denominator in order to maximize ratings and revenues.
In parallel, there have been rare but grave instances of illegitimate
producers posing as mainstream documentarians who have exploited the
appearance of scientists unaware of the true intent of the program to support
defective, pseudoscientific claims.
The above problems often stem from the unbalanced contractual control of
the content of programming. These documents typically require the contributor
to waive all control of their appearance, and leave them unable to determine
the final technical content of the documentary. This is a serious defect in
that experience shows that programming directly controlled by experts
provides superior information content than does programming in which experts
as mere advisors and lack final say on the contents of the documentary.
We therefore issue the below principles regarding the production of,
and participating by experts in, science documentaries.
All paleontological documentaries must meet the highest standards of
quality of scientific content, as determined by participating experts who have
contractual finally approval of the content.
Program participants are urged to utilize contracts that favor the control
of experts over programming content.
It is unethical for producers to misrepresent the intended contents of a
program to the participants in the program.
The inherent priority of the scientific community is to ensure that the
public views only programming of the highest quality, not to meet the needs
of the creators of such programming that may be having a detrimental impact
on the excellence of the product. Researchers also need to protect
themselves from the rare but seriously damaging cases of outright fraud by
programming producers. The above steps will hopefully bring the situation under
better control to the advantage of the viewing public.
Another possible way to address the problem is for some paleontologists to
collaborate with a producer interested in working in true cooperation with
scientists to form a new company to produce programming. I have talked about
this possibility with some colleagues, and if there are any producers
interested in examining the potential let me know.