Thursday, August 17, 2006

Information or Imagination?

It is characteristic of science that the full explanations are often seized in their essence by the percipient scientist long in advance of any possible proof. ~John Desmond Bernal

A friend of mine, who likes science programs as much as I do, was expressing displeasure with some offering or another that had appeared on one of the Discovery-History channels one night. It was one of the “Walking With ...” series, although I don't recall if we were walking with dinosaurs or early humans. At any rate, his gripe was with the amount of dramatization that is part of these programs. He wondered how scientists could know with any certainty that a T-Rex gobbled up a meal in some spot or that a tribe of early humans joined up with some other tribe with the result that one of them got killed during a fight with yet another tribe.

I said that the producers normally try, through sound bites from the scientists involved, to explain how they came to portray a certain behavior or event based on actual dig findings. Of course, there has to be some latitude allowed for the amount of imagination that is being expressed, but it does make the program more interesting than just a dry exposition of the facts.

He was willing to concede that the programs were made more interesting, but he would have liked a more clear explanation that the actual portrayals were filling in an awful large gap in our knowledge with healthy doses of speculation.

Imagination has long been a part of science. If you look at Einstein or Newton making the intellectual leaps that lead to their incredible accomplishments, you recognize the value of being able to disconnect your mind from “current wisdom” and leap to something entirely new. That's a good use of imagination.

The flip side is that sometimes scientists start filling in the blanks when they have too little data. Perhaps archaeologists and paleontologists are most prone to this. In fact, it's almost a prerequisite for the job. These people are often faced with a dearth of information, and they can't just go into the lab and concoct an experiment that will provide the additional data that would verify their theories. Lewis Leakey was a major contributor to our understanding of early man, particularly in the area of toolmaking. But, there were times, as with his theories on the appearance of humans in the Americas, where his detractors felt he was seeing stone tools in every rock flake, including many that could have occurred naturally.

Whether he was or not, I certainly can't tell. I do know that the debate on the populating of the Americas continues to be very lively today, complete with conflicting carbon dates, competing theories, and scholastic name-calling. Everyone has a theory, and they can take the available information and create an entire history to go with it.

Sometimes these scientists can actually conduct experiments, and they can be very surprised at the result. In Great Britain, archaeologists have been digging up burial cairns for years, and they have developed theories about rituals that may have surrounded their use. Thanks to an experiment conducted in Scotland by the Caithness Archaeology Trust, some of those theories have had to be tossed. The group built their own cairns over the summer, as part of a reconstruction project. The reconstruction ended up providing some surprising results.

One common thing found in cairns is animal bones. These were assumed to be offerings left for the deceased, in the manner of foodstuffs being left in Egyptian tombs. Imagine the surprise of the reconstructionists when, after a time, they found a rabbit carcass in one of their cairns. Was someone leaving an offering? Well, not exactly. It seemed that a cat had dragged a kill into the cairn to get it out of the cold and rain. Thanks to one feline, a lovely picture of primitive Scots leaving sustenance behind for their dearly departed went down the tubes.

Another theory said that the cairns were ceremonially closed at some time after the burial. When the archaeologists started tearing down their reconstructions, they found that the stones fell in just the way that they were found in so-called “ceremonially closed” cairns. In other words, when a cairn collapses, because of rain or because materials are being reused, they'll fall in just the way that archaeologists have found the ancient cairns to have been “closed.”

Now, the cool thing here is that the scientists announced their results without a boatload of waffling. They accepted what they saw and admitted that their theories would take some adjusting. That's great. The trouble is their findings probably won't get the widespread dissemination that the old theories have had. The old theories are more romantic while the new ones just don't produce the kind of storyline that makes for entertaining stories for the general public.

I just started reading a book by Steven Mithen, entitled After the Ice Age, which covers the development of man from a hunter-gatherer to a city-dweller who has domesticated much of his environment. In the preface, Prof. Mithen says, “The popularising of archaeology on TV and in many recent books often adopts a condescending attitude to its viewers and readers, providing superficial and inaccurate accounts of our past.” The same could be said of paleontology, physics, astronomy, or any other scientific area. The problem, though, is also succinctly defined by Prof. Mithen: “[M]any of prehistory's most remarkable events remain hidden ... in scholarly works of impenetrable and jargon-laden prose.”

That's the nub of the problem. How do you sneak a some education over on the general public while keeping a grip on their attention spans? In a book like Steven Mithen's, you do it by having copious footnotes that contain the scholarly stuff while making the main text lively and entertaining. In TV you can make things lively (oh look, he's going to get stomped by a mammoth), but there's nowhere to put the footnotes.

I think the people who bring us science and history programming have a duty to make sure that we clearly delineate fact from supposition. They also need to update programs. The cycle of repeating programs over and over results in some very out-of-date information being sold as current. Either add a disclaimer to the front of these shows, indicating that recent findings may have rendered some of the program's content invalid, or update the programs.

Let's face it. Many casual science programming viewers believe that what they're seeing is the latest and greatest, when, in fact, they may be seeing an explanation (like ritual bones in a cairn) that's been found to be questionable. I know, that's asking a lot of networks that probably operate on small budgets. That they provide what they do provide is to be appreciated. But, as broadcasters, they have a responsibility to make sure that non-fiction programming is accurate.

After all, when the facts are known, things shouldn't be left to the imagination.

Postscript: After I prepared this piece, such an updated program was aired, concerning an investigation into Tutankhamun's death.

Don't update a program like the you did the King Tut "murder investigation" program. You know the one I mean, where a couple of "experienced" investigators sifted through the old evidence (and drove back and forth a lot) and decided that Tut was whacked on the back of the head by a trusted advisor or general or whoever. Not long after the show originally aired, Zahi Hawass led a team that conducted a through CAT scan of Tut's body. The scans revealed there was no blow to the head and further revealed that Tut was done in by horrible injuries to his legs and knees (possibly in a fall from a chariot), leaving the investigators looking a little silly.

They actually showed this program a couple of times after the CAT scan information was released, but finally they decided to do an update. What they did was show the earlier program in its entirety, sticking an introduction on it to prime us for the investigators' new findings. Then, in a brief conclusion, the investigators best shot was that while the CAT scan didn't indicate a murder, it didn't absolutely positively rule out foul play. Why, Tut could have been poisoned or strangled, they say.

Why exactly someone would poison or strangle a person obviously dying from a severe injury isn't quite clear, but then we didn't expect these guys to admit they were dead wrong, now did we?

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