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DOCUMENTARY PROBLEMS

  From Gregory S. Paul, one of the world's leading dinosaur artists -

Until recently, there were so few science documentaries because there were so few
media outlets, so the problem was not sufficiently large to warrant a
response. Now there is enormous programming time to be filled because of the
proliferation of outlets, hence a plethora of documentaries. Some of the media
outlets are exploiting this situation by exploiting the scientists who have
not yet developed a strategy for gaining more control over the situation whose
scope has suddenly expanded to unheard of proportions. This situation is
permanent in terms of the system that needs the product, and many producers
will not cease as long as they can get away with it. To a fair extent the
media outlets have worked to gain and control the product, often making
researchers into independent vassels that are expected to happily go along as
they are often abused, and the public misinformed.

A new and its not going away problem requires a novel and sustained
response. The only way to change the long term situation in a manner favorable
to scientists and the public is for researchers to organize in some manner and
assert a level of control over the contents of the product they are
associated with. There is no point in whining and complaining unless a serious
effort is made to address what will be a permanent problem.
The discussion on the problem of documentaries clarified some possibilities
in terms of what is and is not practical at this time.

Some commentators said that nothing can be done because those producing the
documentaries will just go ahead and do what they like. This is both
defeatist and unrealistic. Although it is not possible to gain complete control
over the situation and prevent any defective programs or segments from being
produced, many producers will respond positively -- some simply from being
made better aware that there is a problem they may not have previously
realized, others from pressure -- and the product can be improved.

Some downplayed the problem, suggesting that errors are soon forgotten by
the public. This is doubtful, flawed ideas often take on a life of their own
and can be hard to kill off. Nonscientists often assume that when something
is stated on a documentary it must be  true. A given documentary may be
repeated a number of times over the years, reinforcing the mistakes. And there
is just no excuse for many errors -- such as the statement in one program
that T rex had a brain as large as a gorilla's with the implication it was very
intelligent, or the hadrosaur explicitly shown chewing like an ungulate.
Something needs to be done, the question is what.

It looks like having an organization such as SVP operate a constant vetting
program is not an option in part because such groups are already overloaded
with other projects,  as well as other issues.

Probably the best thing to start with would be a statement of principles
for nonfiction programs on prehistoric life. Because it is a straightforward
project perhaps SVP can handle it. The document can start with a statement of
concern that the unprecedented and now permanent proliferation of programs
has often failed to meet scientific standards, and that the situation needs
correction over the short and long term. The statement should list the
minimal characteristics necessary in a scientific documentary -- such as the
views of researchers who appear should never be misrepresented, and
controversial ideas should not be presented as established facts. At the same
time it should be worded in a manner that does not unduly conflict with the academic
freedom of researchers to present controversial ideas. It would not much
effort to put together the document, and could be handled through SVP or the
like using people familiar with the problem.

Producers and researchers can be asked to adhere to the standards. When
asked to participate in a documentary paleontologists can conveniently state
they will do so only if the producers adhere to the guidelines. Whether it is
practical to allow programs that meet the standards to carry some sort of
seal of approval may not be achievable at this time.

The statement should be released to the press. This would do a number of
things. It would certainly garner a lot of publicity. This in turn would alert
the public the fact that past documentaries have contained flaws and should
be taken with a grain of salt. 

Producers would receive a heads up that there is a problem, that the paleo
community is fed up with the situation, and would be aware that they are now
being held to a set of standards. Just how much effect this would have is
not clear because it has not been tried before. The only way to find out is
to try. It can't hurt.

If the statement is effective then it might be expanded to other others of
science, perhaps in a general statement on scientific documentaries in
general. Same for those of historical subjects. Could be used as template for
this sort of thing.

If the statement proves ineffective then further steps can be considered.

On the same track, it might be a good idea for a group of those who work in
paleo to set up a company to produce programming. Would need to include
some media professionals experienced in creating documentaries.

On an individual basis always feel free to refuse to provide assistance
unless one receives monetary compensation above expenses. $750 a day is not uncommon,
but ask what you think your time is worth. If they refuse for one
reason or another then that's more time for you to do what you want or need to
do.

As a pet peeve I would like to see higher standards in the quality of the
dinosaur animation, which is often not much better than the models I was
pulling out of cereal boxes in the '60s. Getting the animators to stick to the
provided plans can be like pulling teeth, they tend to want to add in their
own preconceptions.