Should science filmmakers tell the truth?


Sure, docs should tell the truth. But then again money.

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Maybe I’ve made a mistake in not watching any of these shows on the Discovery channel. When I see something about “real live mermaids found” I assume it’s the television version of clickbait, and that if I watched it the reality would be be much more mundane. Actually a program on the history of mermaid folklore, which, on Nelson’s scale, would fall kind of in the middle as long as it was emphasized that there’s no evidence of fish people, would be interesting and instructive.

If they’re at the “just making stuff up” at the end of the spectrum, though, I’d say that’s a problem no matter how much money it makes.


No, “the truth” is a philosophical problem. Documentaries should instead strive to be accurate.

I dealt with this problem a lot when my child was around 7-8 years old, trying to explain that this stuff is cool and interesting precisely because it is real. Which gets easily undermined by those making the shows resorting to mumbly faux-dramatic narration, weasel words, irrelevant graphics, and outright deceptive framing. I pointed out how if one disregarded all of that stuff to sift for actual factual bits, your 30-60 minute documentary might yield only a couple paragraphs of sketchily-written information. For the investment of time, this seems quite an inefficient way to convey knowledge compared to, say, reading articles.

Also, the whole enterprise of encouraging fake and fake-ish documentaries ties directly into the problems of debate and having an informed public. Trying to cultivate “ratings” through bogosity tells people that scientific evidence is a kind of populist contest, based upon pandering to what they like. To what extent this can be said to encourage science, it encourages bad (i.e. biased) science. I can’t relate to the idea that the actual universe we live in is supposed to be less exciting and interesting than obfuscation, superficiality, and cheap drama.


There has to be room for parody. Spinal Tap, for example.

There doesn’t have to be room for misrepresenting people’s work and opinions. That one on Punic exiles in the Andes, for example.

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When science is misunderstood, I feel like the problem is much deeper than misleading fictional documentaries.

There’s the capital T “Truth” that I don’t believe humans can fully know and then there’s whether you’re being honest about what you think could be true and what you have evidence to suggest is true.

Many of the shades of gray in that truthiness scale fall into a category I would call intentionally deceptive. If you’re intentionally deceiving people, even by using provable facts to mislead and intentionally omit reliable contradictory evidence, then you’re acting unethically.

I don’t care if a documentary is going to make everything up (and yet not be intentional parody and satire), as long as it is disclosed at the beginning of the documentary or mentioned as a disclaimer when the made up shit is presented.

When the ancient aliens big hair meme dude appears on camera, I know to discount everything he says as the result of an acid trip. Unfortunately, there are members of the public who actually trust what airs on TV, because they wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true, right…?


You’re worried about truth, when 30% of Americans think there’s a “debate” over climate change.


There can and should be debate about everything. This is a separate problem from choosing to be ignorant of evidence. Even if everybody agreed that they had the evidence, they would probably not agree as to what should be done.



There is a debate over climate change. It’s just that one side has no idea what it’s talking about. I just find it dangerous to subordinate the truth to popular opinion, since the truth is inherently undemocratic.

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It would also become a hugely complex practical problem to try to protect or safeguard the reputation of “Science Shows.” What becomes the regulatory line between a science show and another show. Is just the word “Science” blocked from use, they professional titles are protected? Or would also the trappings of documentary also need to be managed? Would there be a fact-checking panel to see whether a self-titled documentarian should be given key to the cupboard where they keep the Ken Burns Effect?

To some degree its a worthy effort, and I think there is responsibility on the part of editorial powers and critics to comment on and maintain quality and accuracy in non-fiction programming. There should also be every effort to make clear the conflicts of interest for filmmakers and “scientists.” However, stopping bad science programming is about as hard as stopping bad science, which is a consummation devoutly to be wished…

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This one?

You seem to think of this as a fundamentally top-down problem, which I think is undemocratic while also addressing only the symptoms of the problem.

People tend to be taught from from the very beginning (in my awful part of the world, at least) that the differences between fact and opinion vary according to one’s own self-centered perceived convenience. People are conditioned to use factuality, or whatever else they can, to further social role-playing games. This need not be the case. Overcoming the instinct towards self-centered outlooks and bias takes some discipline, but is hardly as difficult as many make it out to be. Teaching children formal reasoning and encouraging objectivity from a young age IMO does more to address the fundamental problem.

This would all be very nice if people were actually objective or rational. They’re not. It’s not taught, it’s built in. One cannot “overcome” bias so much as one can try to compensate for it with more bias. Even so, there is something to be said for encouraging critical thinking and skepticism.

Funny that people are rarely ever satisfied to accept supposedly “built-in” limitations in other areas of human experience. Even when there are limitations, athletes, physicians, thinkers, and others can certainly push the envelope as to what is humanly possible. For all I can be certain of, pervasive irrationality could have been deliberately bred into people over time, not unlike other limiting adaptations such as dachshunds physiology. How long did that take?

I do not doubt that there are certain limitations to human perception and cognition, but this hardly rationalizes the notion of deciding that knowledge and reason are not worthwhile.



And the athletes have a wide range of tools, from drugs to gene therapies to surgeries, for further improvement of their performance. We should get similar tools for our minds…

Again, to reiterate: there is something to be said for encouraging critical thinking and skepticism. The danger is in believing it is possible for people to be entirely objective or rational. Maybe we will evolve to become so (though, I am not entirely sure that would be a good thing), but we’re not there yet.

“Everything” might have been a bit extreme, but I think there’s a case to be made for some breadth in the scope of debate. Maybe just not everything.