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Council for Media Integrity Blasts Networks for Distorted Treatments of Science

News & Comment

Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.3, May / June 1997

The opening salvos in the new Council for Media Integrity’s campaign to improve the treatment of science in television entertainment programming were fired in Los Angeles — the heart of the TV and movie entertainment industry.

The Council, established last June by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), held its first meeting and first news conference January 9 at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton Hotel. The Council was formed to closely monitor and quickly respond to distorted treatments of science and uncritical presentations of paranormal and fringe-science claims in the media.

The Council attacked the major television networks for running two or three pseudoscientific specials almost every month. “Recently there have been programs on prophecies, astrology, psychic powers, creationism, Noah’s Ark, angels, and alien abductions,” said the Council. All of them posed, in some way, as being based on scientific fact.

The Council also criticized the many talk shows devoted to the paranormal in which claims in favor of the paranormal are given a platform but the scientific viewpoint is rarely allowed.

The Council’s two co-chairs, entertainer and author Steve Allen and Nobel laureate nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg, called for the television industry to exercise greater responsibility toward science and truth.

Allen emphasized that the Council’s concerns are not with entertainment programs that honestly present themselves as fictional dramas. “We are talking about shows that are presented as if they are true, as reality,” said Allen, creator and host of the original Tonight Show, producer of the award-winning Meeting of Minds television series, and author of nearly fifty books, including “Dumbth”: And 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter (Prometheus 1991). Allen has been a long-time advocate of critical thinking.

He and other speakers emphasized that series like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone never crossed that line and are not of concern. But a recent disturbing trend is “reality-based” TV programming in which fictional dramas or pseudodocumentaries claim or at least imply that they are based on truth and scientific fact.

“I call them damn lies,” said Allen. “How,” he said, referring to their producers, “do you approve of irresponsibility and lies?”

Seaborg, discover or co-discoverer of eleven elements including plutonium, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and current associate director at large of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, pointed to the discouraging state of scientific literacy in American society.

“I have been interested in the general problem of scientific literacy since just before Sputnik,” said Seaborg. “So I have been an advocate of scientific literacy for nearly forty years.” He was a leader behind the famous study “A Nation at Risk” that identified a need for renovation of pre-college science education to advance scientific literacy.

“We have a problem with regard to the amount of pseudoscience facing us,” Seaborg said. “One solution is increasing the scientific literacy of the general public.” Unfortunately, he said, too much television programming has the opposite effect.

CSICOP founder and chairman Paul Kurtz said the media have now virtually replaced the schools, colleges, and universities as the main source of information for the general public.

“The irresponsibility of some of the media in the area of science and the paranormal is a worldwide problem. But it especially applies to the United States, where the media have been distorting science, and in particular presenting pseudoscience as genuine science. Indeed, we are appalled by the number of ‘documentaries’ that are really entertainment programs presenting fringe science as real science.

“We believe that the media have presented a distorted view of science,” Kurtz said, and that they have a responsibility to provide a more balanced view of what is real science and what is pseudoscience.

“We are asking only for some balance. We are asking TV not to dramatize pseudoscience as real science.

“We are not, of course, asking that TV producers not run these shows or make a profit,” Kurtz added. “We surely do not wish to censor the media. We only ask that they provide some balance and some appreciation of the scientific approach. The Council will monitor such programs and attempt to persuade producers, directors, writers, and the general public to leave room for the appreciation of scientific methods of inquiry.”

Kurtz, recovering at the time from surgery, spoke to the news conference via videotape. Barry Karr, CSICOP’s executive director, hosted.

Council member Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, California, said the concern is that science be presented honestly. “We offer to provide our help, our expertise to help you do a better job,” she said. “We would like to encourage you to consider that science, in and of itself, is exciting, creative, and wonderful.

“You don't have to present the crackpot stuff to be interesting.”

CSICOP staff member Tom Flynn lamented the increasing blurring of entertainment and fact-based programming. He showed excerpts from NBC’s notorious 1996 pseudoscientific, documentary-style ”Mysterious Origins of Man,” which presented, as Flynn put it, “the utterly baseless idea that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time.”

“This program did probably more than any other to reinforce the idea that dinosaurs and man co-existed.”

Scott, a physical anthropologist, agreed that much of what goes on in school is absolutely swamped by television. The day after the NBC program aired, she said, science teachers throughout the United States were deluged with questions from their students about dinosaur-human coexistence. She said this single program set back science education on this topic by decades.

—Kendrick Frazier, Editor

Nye, Aykroyd Receive Council’s First Awards

Bill Nye

Bill Nye, creator, writer, and host of the award-winning PBS and syndicated television series Bill Nye the Science Guy, was honored by the Council for Media Integrity for his program, targeted at young people, which presents science as a lively, creative, and fun endeavor. Nye was given the Council’s first “Candle in the Dark” Award for his outstanding contributions to the public’s understanding of science and scientific principles.

Bill Nye the Science Guy (see SI, January/February 1997) is a joint production of PBS, Disney, and the National Science Foundation and is telecast daily in most big-city markets. He was presented his award by Kendrick Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer.

Nye was once a student of Carl Sagan’s at Cornell University. He said he was delighted to receive an award linked in any way to Sagan, who died December 20 and whose last book, The Demon-Haunted World, was subtitled “Science as a Candle in the Dark.” He thanked CSICOP and the Council for recognizing his program as a contribution to the nation’s science education.

In marked contrast to Nye’s award, the actor Dan Aykroyd was presented in absentia the Council’s “Snuffed Candle” Award. Aykroyd is host of the new television program Psi Factor and has been a long-time promoter of all sorts of paranormal claims. The award recognized Aykroyd “for encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience as genuine, and contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.”

CSICOP Senior Research Fellow and Council member Joe Nickell said he had been trying to inform Aykroyd of the award by mental telepathy but had not yet had any response. He said he would attempt to send the handsome plaque to Aykroyd by telekinesis.

Following up on the events in Los Angeles, Nickell wrote to Aykroyd on behalf of the Council requesting that Aykroyd and OSIR (Office of Scientific Investigation and Research — the research group behind the “cases” presented on Psi Factor) provide “full particulars” on a Psi Factor episode in which NASA scientists are killed while investigating a meteor crash and giant eggs are found and incubated, yielding a flea the size of a hog. Nickell made the request in response to a statement by Aykroyd on Entertainment Tonight that skeptics would have to withdraw their criticism once they've seen the OSIR data. It remains to be seen whether Aykroyd and OSIR will provide the data.

CSICOP to Become Shareholder in TV Networks

To provide leverage for its response to the television networks’ lucrative commercial marketing of fringe science and pseudoscience, CSICOP is asking friends and supporters to help it acquire common stock in media conglomerate companies. This will allow CSICOP to take part in shareholder meetings, where it can question the infatuation with the paranormal increasingly demonstrated in television programming.

“We are deliberately targeting each of the four major television networks, which is to say, the well-known media conglomerates Westinghouse (CBS), General Electric (NBC), NewsCorp (Fox), and Disney (ABC),” said a CSICOP statement issued in Los Angeles. Also targeted is Time Warner.

“As a ‘shareholder,' CSICOP will have opportunities to attend shareholder meetings, submit viewpoints to shareholder publications, and sponsor shareholder resolutions. While exercising these and other shareholder rights, we will be representing the broad constituency of readers and donors who support CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.”

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.