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Tuesday
Aug112015

The science of science documentary filmmaking: the missing audience hypothesis

More on this, soon . . .

The scholarly and practical motivation behind the proposed research is to reconcile two facts about science documentary programming in American society. The first is that such programming has outstanding content. Programs like NOVA, Nature, and Frontline, among others, enable curious non-experts to participate in the thrill of discoveries attained through the most advanced forms of scientific inquiry. Second, the audience for these programs is modest and demographically distinctive. These viewers, television industry analyses consistently find, tend to be older, more affluent, and more educated than the general television audience. They are known to be less religious, and they are more likely to identify themselves as politically liberal.

Why is enjoyment of such excellent programming confined so disproportionately to this particular audience? The most straightforward explanation is that these are the only members of the public who are situated to comprehend and enjoy science documentary programming. They are the natural audience for programs like NOVA, whereas non-viewers simply are not interested in the content of science documentaries.

The professionals who produce such programs find this “natural audience” hypothesis unconvincing, and so do we. One reason to doubt the “natural audience” hypothesis is that it’s plainly not the case that appreciation of science is confined to individuals who fit the distinctive profile of typical PBS documentary viewers. Measures of attitudes such as interest in science and trust of scientists are not strongly associated with demographic variables (Gauchat, 2011) and in fact are highly positive across the entire population (National Science Board, 2014, ch. 7).

Another reason to question the “natural audience” explanation is the popularity of what might be called “reality TV” science programming. Mythbusters is a weekly show broadcast by the Discovery Channel that features the use of innovative, jury-rigged experiments to test popular lore (“would a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State building really penetrate the skull of a person on the sidewalk?”). Consistently among the top-rated primetime cable television programs among men 25-54 years of age (Good, 2010) , the show is broadly representative of a niche collection of successful shows  that feature real-life characters interacting in dramatic ways with technology or nature .

It would be impossible to explain the appeal of these programs if those who watch them did not find science and environmental TV shows entertaining. The protagonists of Mythbusters are not scientists, but they are using the mode of discovering truth—controlled experimentation—that is the signature of scientific inquiry. The show would not be such a tremendous success unless there was a broad popular audience that is exhilarated to observe such methods being used to satisfy curiosity about how the world works.

The audience for National Geographic Channel (co-owned by Fox Cable Networks) also serves an audience markedly different from PBS’s. Nat Geo’s series Wild Justice—a popular program that for four seasons chronicled the activities of California Game Wardens patrolling the wilds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains—testifies to its viewers’ fascination with nature and to their identification with the characters’ mission of protecting wildlife.

The reality-based science/nature genre is distinct from science documentary programming, which focuses on conveying the work of, and the insights generated by, professional scientists. But when combined with evidence of the breadth of curiosity about science across diverse segments of the population, including those from which these shows draw their principal viewers, the popularity of Mythbusters and like programs suggests an alternative explanation for the more limited appeal of science documentaries. We will call it the “excluded audience” hypothesis.

At least as striking as the difference in content between the reality-based shows, on the one hand, and science documentary programs, on the other, is the feel of them. Contrasting elements of the two—including the personality of the characters they feature, the dramatic quality of the situations they depict, and the narrative modes of presentation that they use—seem to fit the distinctive cultural styles of their audiences.

“The only difference between science and screwing around,” Mythbusters host Adam Savage once explained, “is when you write it down” (OneDublin.org, 2012). This statement might well perplex one class of documentary viewers, who would cringe at the suggestion that, say, work being done to investigate conjectures on quantum gravity at the Hadron Collider is even remotely akin to “screwing around.”

But Savage’s statement no doubt made perfect sense—even thrilled—the person to whom it was made: a sixth grade girl, whose adulatory letter asked Savage and his co-host, “what did you want to be when you grow up, and what inspired you to be scientists?” When that girl grows up, she might well be a scientist. Even if she decides to do something else, there is every likelihood that she’ll have retained the disposition to experience wonder and awe (as Savage plainly has) at how science enlarges our knowledge.

But what is most likely of all is that she will still be the kind of person who was engaged by Mythbusters. Science documentaries that don’t resonate with that person’s outlooks will thus be highly unlikely to engage her.

The “excluded audience” hypothesis holds that the failure to find an idiom that can speak to the diversity of cultural styles that characterize citizens of a pluralistic society creates a barrier between science documentaries and a class of viewers, ones whose curiosity to participate in knowing what is known to science these programs could fully satisfy. The barrier takes the form of cues that viewers unconsciously use to determine if a program is “right” for someone with their distinctive experiences, values, and social ties (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, Tarantola, Silva & Braman 2015).

If anything approaching a “law” has been established at this point by the nascent science of science communication, it is that hostile or antagonistic cultural meanings stifle cognitive engagement (Kahan, 2010; Nisbet, 2010). A better understanding of how science documentary programming can avoid conveying such meanings would allow them to make their shows more cognitively engaging to a larger segment of the population. The now missing audience would then be enabled to experience the thrill and wonder that such programs consistently allow their current audience to enjoy.

Refs

Gauchat, G. (2011). The cultural authority of science: Public trust and acceptance of organized science. Public Understanding of Science, 20(6), 751-770. doi: 10.1177/0963662510365246.

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature, 463, 296-297.

Kahan, D. M., Hank, J.-S., Tarantola, T., Silva, C., & Braman, D. (2015). Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658, 192-222.

National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014.Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Nisbet, M. C. (2010). Framing Science: A New Paradigm of Public Engagement Communicating science. In L. Kahlor & P. Stout, (Eds.), New agendas in communication (pp. 40-67). New York: Routledge.

OneDublin.org (2012). MythBusters Adam Savage and Kari Byron on the Art of Science and Experimentation, http://onedublin.org/2012/03/06/mythbusters-adam-savage-and-kari-byron-on-the-art-of-science-and-experimentation/.

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Reader Comments (17)

==> "One reason to doubt the “natural audience” hypothesis is that it’s plainly not the case that appreciation of science is confined to individuals who fit the distinctive profile of typical PBS documentary viewers. "

I haven't rambled in a while to make obvious just how limited my analytical abilities is...so let me fill in that gap.

I wonder if there aren't two variables of interest here. One is audience (ideological) demographic and the other is level of scientific sophistication.

My guess is that on average, the audiences that watch PBS science documentaries are more scientifically sophisticated than audiences that watch shows like Mythbusters. (Easily disproven by data, of course).

My guess is that it takes more scientific knowledge to "enjoy" shows like NOVA than a show like Mythbusters. I tend to not enjoy shows where I can't comprehend the material being discussed. It makes me feel stupid, or just bored.

NOVA having a more scientifically sophisticated audience doesn't have to be mutually exclusive with a finding that appreciation of science is not confined to individuals who fit the profile of PBS viewers. In other words, scientific sophistication, or even appreciation, does not explain the different (ideological) demographic profiles of a Mythbuster-watcher and a NOVA-watcher, respectively, but it may be a moderator/mediator affecting the relationship between audience demographic and type of show watched.

Relatedly, do you know whether scientifically sophisticated non-PBS types (i.e., a rightwing engineer) are equally (or less) attracted to Mythbuster-type shows than non-scientifically sophisticated viewers from a similar ideological cohort? In other words, perhaps NOVA is attractive to a more scientifically sophisticated audience among the PBS-watching cohort whereas Mythbusters is not particularly attractive to a more scientifically sophisticated audience among non-PBS watchers. In that case, how much does a failure to fiind an idiom that appeals to different cultural styles really an explanation for the different demographics of NOVA and Mythbutser viewers, respectively?

Along the ideological affinities explanation...I would also guess that perhaps, some non-scientifically sophisticated viewers watch NOVA (even if they don't understand it well) because doing helps them to raise their level of self-perception of their own scientific sophistication. Maybe that sense of self as being scientifically sophisticated is more important for the PBS-watching demographic.

August 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Since this is my first post on this blog I will begin with a self-introduction (which could be considered self-criticism). For 38 years before coming to Yale I was chief science correspondent for NBC News. I filed more than 4500 reports. One of the worst insults my bosses would hurl at me was that a story of mine “looked like a NOVA show.” Attempting to attract a mass audience is very different from producing a documentary that many scientists might like, but might induce yawns in most of the public. I agree with Dan that NOVA, Nature and Frontline produce high quality material. But I take issue with the “missing audience” hypothesis. If the people who produce these shows say they find the “natural audience” hypothesis unconvincing they are being disingenuous. Every producer seeks the maximum number of viewers, but if they are competent, they have a good idea who those viewers might be.

People watch a TV show to be entertained or far less often to be informed. Shows such as NOVA stand out precisely because they tip the balance so far in favor of information over entertainment compared to almost anything else on TV. And that puts them squarely in the realm of the culture of public broadcasting.

And yes it is a culture (thus highly appropriate for study by the CCP) of better-educated, wealthier people, a situation that has existed almost since President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967 and continues to this day
To appreciate the tension we need only quote the great flame fanner Newt Gingrich who said “I don’t understand why they call it public broadcasting. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing public about it; it’s an elitist enterprise” (1)

Must NOVA be an elitist enterprise? One need only look at the history of Discovery. It began as The Discovery Channel in 1985 at the dawn of the cable TV era. Suddenly audiences had hundreds of options for viewing instead of a dozen at most. The Discovery Channel aimed to offer the same sort of programming as NOVA, but with commercial sponsorship. That failed and the channel quickly devolved into the presentation of features such as “Dirty Jobs”, “Shark Week” and “Deadliest Catch.” Rarely a show like Mythbusters with some legitimate scientific information does succeed, but because of its entertainment value not because of its science.

PBS needs its audience to feel that it is part of a cultural elite so they will give money. Public TV receives 24.2 percent of its revenue from subscribers.(2) Those irritating pledge drives serve a critical purpose. People give money because they feel they are part of something, a place where they can watch a show like NOVA, which they cannot see elsewhere.

Ample evidence on this site has demonstrated there is no lack of enthusiasm or support for science among the American public. Searching for means to get people to watch TV they find boring might even diminish the enthusiasm and support.

refs
(1) http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/17/us/gingrich-foresees-a-world-without-public-broadcasting.html (accessed August 12, 2015)
(2) FY 2013 Revenue for Public Broadcasting http://www.cpb.org/stations/reports/revenue/2013PublicBroadcastingRevenue.pdf (accessed August 12, 2015)

August 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Bazell

"My guess is that on average, the audiences that watch PBS science documentaries are more scientifically sophisticated than audiences that watch shows like Mythbusters"

Or less, depending on your definition of 'sophistication'.

Most scientific documentaries tend to speak from a position of authority. They tell you the conclusions of the scientist's work, in a simplified and usually not entirely accurate way, but skip a lot of the details of how it was shown, what the alternatives were, and what the evidence is that eliminates them. 'Nova' is based on the British TV series 'Horizon' and I stopped watching Horizon years ago when the dumbing-down started to just annoy me. They'd tell you something in isolation like "The Higgs boson is the source of mass in elementary particles" without telling you what that meant, how the mechanism worked, what the evidence is, how people can read all those squiggles in a particle detector to tell what the particles are, why the problem is important, or what comes next. It's doubly annoying when I know enough about the subject to know that it's not quite true - it's one source of mass but not the only one, or even the biggest.

And then they state it again, and again, in slightly different words, with a lot of talking heads telling you in vague and completely uninformative words just how critically important it all is. And give you a five-minute recap of everything they've said so far after every break. And they superimpose the whole explanation on a range of squiggly visual effects that were generated by some media person and have nothing to do with the actual science in question. I'm especially annoyed by depictions of the 'Big Bang' that invariably show some sort of firework explosion into a black void - which looks nothing at all like how the real big bang would have behaved.

Mythbusters, on the other hand, does "Show Me" science, where they don't just tell you that the myth is wrong, they actually show them doing it on camera, so you can see. They start by making a serious effort to get the myth to work. They show failed attempts. They show competing hypotheses. They seek to challenge both sides of the argument. They show all the practical issues and difficulties of experimental physics. They show you the experiments that didn't work, and how messy science can be. And they present their arguments and evidence in such a way that you can see that what they conclude must be true. And most importantly, they're open-minded about stuff that sounds crazy, they're willing to take challenges to common sense seriously, and they apply scepticism out of principle.

I will agree, most of the physics they're demonstrating is a lot more basic and less cutting-edge than more traditional science documentaries, but they're streets ahead when it comes to their portrayal of the scientific method. They do sometimes get things wrong too, but they feel like more honest mistakes, and watching the program doesn't grate on my nerves. It smells like real science.

I have wondered in the past whether the conclusions versus methods dichotomy was politically correlated. Do liberals prefer to be told what's true by authority figures, while conservatives prefer to be shown what's true by practical methods? Is it the observation-intervention dichotomy? Do liberals prefer wildlife documentaries that simply observe nature without man's intervention, while conservatives prefer engineering documentaries that showed how people applied scientific knowledge to do something useful? Like blowing things up or setting fire to them? I doubt it, somehow, but it's a seductive hypothesis.

But anyway, I'd personally count Mythbusters as more scientifically sophisticated than it's more high-brow competitors, and all of the other right-leaning scientists I know personally seem to feel the same way, too. That's a small and self-selected sample, though.

Among the less strongly scientific people on the right I know, there seems to be a strong alternative hypothesis that's it's because most of the media science people (and indeed media people generally) have a left-wing slant, that right-wingers don't like. People like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye come in for particular criticism in that way. They're the same crowd that do the "The Republican Brain" schtick, and are obsessed by shibboleth issues like evolution and hardline atheism. It's well-known that there's a strong left-wing bias in academia - something the 'diversity coordinators' feel no need to do anything about. And since science documentaries so often concentrate on academic science, perhaps it leaks through.

I don't know if left-wing bias really is a plausible explanation for the audience figures, but I can tell you I dropped out of automatically watching any nature documentaries a few years ago after it seemingly became virtually mandatory to mention 'Climate Change' at some point during Every Single program. It just became irritating.

August 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

==> "Or less, depending on your definition of 'sophistication'."

Interesting that you left off the "easily disproven by data, of course" part.

My conjecture is that the "scientific literacy" of "NOVA" watchers (or similar PBS science-oriented programming) is higher than among Mythbusters watchers.

You're certainly entitled to speculate otherwise, but once again if you're going to base your speculation on trying to extrapolate from your own experiences as an outlier, as you did once again in your comment here, and as you have done so many times in the past,....well....just read one of my other responses when you did so. :-)

August 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Robert Bazell,

What about documentary-type shows that have aimed to be more entertaining and less Ken Burns-esque (not that there is anything wrong with Ken Burns!)? For instance Cosmos was designed to reach a broader spectrum of audience members and have high entertainment value. Yet, it fell short. Would you say that this is because the show was just less entertaining than something like myth busters?

August 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAsheley Landrum

Asheley,

You are right it is a show-by-show decision. Here there are lots of data from test (focus) groups to the ratings the program receives if it airs. Perhaps the goal of our efforts ought to be a guide to making science shows more appealing, not hand wringing over whether certain ones gain enough traction.

But one of the metrics for success in public television is whether the program appeals to the cultural group that watches PBS. (I’ll have more to say about this soon). This is hardly limited to science shows. “Great Performances”, “Austin City Limits” and yes Ken Burns need to clear that bar. To be clear labeling it a “cultural group” says nothing about its attitudes about politics, religion or science.

August 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Bazell

"Interesting that you left off the "easily disproven by data, of course" part."

If it's a matter of definition, data has nothing to do with it. By some definitions they are, by other definitions they aren't.

In any case, I'm logically covered by the word "Or" at the start of the sentence. Since they either are or they are not, what I said is a logical tautology and true by necessity. :-)

"My conjecture is that the "scientific literacy" of "NOVA" watchers (or similar PBS science-oriented programming) is higher than among Mythbusters watchers."

Possibly. But then "scientific literacy" seems to be little more than a science trivia quiz in most cases. You don't need to be able to reason scientifically, all you need to do is remember a lot of "scientific facts".

"You're certainly entitled to speculate otherwise,..."

That's so kind of you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

"... but once again if you're going to base your speculation on trying to extrapolate from your own experiences as an outlier ..."

And once again you seek to delegitimize and devalue anything I say by the trivial tactic of calling me an 'outlier'.

I'm just reporting my own experiences. The implications are whatever they are.

It's just an observation. The conjecture is made that Nova watchers are more "sophisticated" (whatever that means) than Mythbusters watchers. I observe a number of counterexamples from my personal experience. You protest that my counterexamples are just "outliers". Maybe so. But how do you know, if you don't have any data?

Until you do, all the evidence I have points one way, and none the other. What, I'm supposed to believe your data-less speculation, over my lying eyes?

August 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Everyone-- holy smokes!

1. I think @Joshua/@Robert's hypotheses are plausible, as is @NiV's. That's what empirical study is for-- to figure out which plausible hypothesis is "right" (or most supported for the time being). At which, point, everyone will say, "Oh that's obvious."

2. Just to refine a bit: The missing audience hypothesis (MAH) should be distinguished from any sort of claim that the "Natural audience" for NOVA etc. is some large fraction of the viewing population, or even a substantially larger one than watches now. MAH accepts that these are nich programs; they are for people who have a high science-enjoyment disposition. MAH says that some fraction of that specialized audience is missing. There's something that is deterring a group of people who have the same appetite as those who watch such programming from seeking satisfcation of that appetite there. Is this possibly true?

3. As I said, one has to test; but now we have the beginnings of a design.

One should come up w/ a valid predictive model of the sort of "science appetite" that a typical NOVA program watcher has. She is very very very different from others who are like her in many many ways-- including age, income, politics, etc. A demographic model will never do. The model has to be one that measures some latent disposition that sets this person apart from all those who are otherwise like her but just aren't into watching NOVA!

Will that dispositoin involve a high level of science sophistication? Probably. But how high? I can tell you, I know lots of people who aren't themselves breaking the charts on CRT, Numeracy, Ordinary science intellitence, etc. who go "wow!" when they see a cool experiment result.

So tell me how you think we should meaure this disposition? And obviously, don't tell me, "by seeing if they watch NOVA"; that's the test we'll use to validate the measure, our model.

Once we have it, then we figure out whether in fact there is some systematic explanation for why not *everyone* who has it watches NOVA. Does the dispositoin *interact* w/ other sorts of latent characteristics, like cultural style, such that the disposition predicts watching the show conditional on being "this sort of person" rather than "that"? Who do you *suppose* the missing audience is, we can ask those who, using professional judgment, have formed it? We can then develope profiles for those sorts & see if whether in fact there is inside of their number some subcommunity who-- weirdly; b/c it's weird in all groups-- has a comparable science interest/appetite to those who *are* watching NOVA etc. but who in fact isn't.

Maybe we will never find them, The longer we go, the more effort we expend w/o progress, the more compelling the Natural Audience hypothesis (the one that says all the people with that relevant dispositoin are already watching) becomes.

But if we do find them, then we will be smarter. We'll likely not be totally surprised, having found them using the informed understandigns of those most likely to have formed a valid apprehension of who they are. But almost for sure, the process of discovering them will give us reason to revise & update -- not just our undersstanding of *who* they are but *why* they are missing.

Our smarter future selves will use *those* judgments to form conjectures suitable for testing....

August 13, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Questions raised here continue this week to provoke noisy discussions among my tribe members who are trying to make TV shows about science and the environment every day. The original blog post hits the target, and the Comments expand the discussion so well. It seems we all perceive the same need -- for more testing, for better understanding of the cognitive process of consuming media, for more evidence that can be used in the shaping of future TV or film productions. For every claim that the audience is "missing" for one content-based reason or another, there is a counter-claim that "it was just that the promos were boring" or "it aired against the Super Bowl" or "I didn't like his hair."

There are other questions that have us scratching our heads, some came from the Comments above (and I also have heard "this looks too much like a NOVA, go fix it!", in spite of the fact that NOVA's ratings are often quite high, certainly higher than cable's). If we are going to endeavor to understand why the ratings for "Cosmos" fell off so dramatically from episode to episode, in spite of hugely expensive promotion and high production values, or why "Through the Wormhole" (Morgan Freeman) or "What Could Possibly Go Wrong" (Grant Reynolds) didn't break through on Discovery Science in spite of their very high qualitative marks, we need someone (CCP!) to do bigger, wiser studies than Nielsen can do.

One other thing it might help to resolve: the goal of the networks is more viewers, higher ratings, more ads, more profits, sure, why not -- that's their business. But what are the goals of the writer-producers and the viewers? Polluting the brains of Americans is probably not one of them, but spreading knowledge and illuminating ideas may not be prioritized either (we wish, but that's an antiquated notion in this era of the Bachelorette and Naked & Afraid). Will there ever be a way to get those diverse groups and their conflicting goals back into some form of synch? Some say the evolution of broadcasting into "narrowcasting" is inevitable, but if there is a way to make a science show that engages a wide audience and doesn't end up polarizing us -- let's figure out what it is!

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKatie Carpenter

I think that engaging a wide audience is quite a challenge in the modern era. We went from a time where there were 4 significant TV channels, the three networks plus public TV, to the expanse of cable choices. And now, one that is re-segmented. The National Geographic show mentioned above, for example, is something I am unfamiliar with. I don't have cable and would have to see if it is available on something like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Other people have gone from a fairly broad selection of videos from places like Blockbuster, to the much more limited selection of the Redbox machine in front of the local supermarket. Some may not see anything not posted to Facebook by someone they friended and available on YouTube. And at the shortest end, notice involves tweets or short Facebook pages that go viral.

In terms of "dispositions" I think we need to consider time. If we factor in two income households, long commutes, greater than 40 hour work weeks, and those piecing together a series of part time positions with continuously varying hours, and childcare issues who has time these days? Many people quite likely may be looking for some quick and easy entertainment in their video diet, not something that requires attention or deep thought. Or is in any way distressing. I say this as a science-y person who liked shows like NOVA or Nature but had a long history of falling asleep during any show for which David Attenborough was the commentator.

I also think that shows like NOVA or Nature changed the bar for commercial television. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and Marty Stouffers Wild America were staples of an earlier era. They were packaged to present animal life as occurring intensely within 30 minute segments. Marty Stouffer in particular was drummed into oblivion by accusations that he staged his animal's encounters. In my opinion, Myth Busters partially succeeds because they can define a narrow problem that can be solved in that 30 minute space, and while one's mind is also multitasking on family issues in the background.

The internet also provides the public with enough "facts" that they are able to see through holes in shallow, quick explanations, and feel as if they can shoot presentations down. That makes getting beyond headlines, or tweets) hard.

Science really is a slow process, full of nuances and caveats. What if the complexities of science exceeds the time willingness of the potential audience? Music might be an example. Hardly anybody attends symphonies (of course hardly anyone ever did). Many people though do listen to 3 minute tunes (or sang folk songs).

I'd be curious to know what Robert Bazell would do if he were the new Rupert Murdoch.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

These viewers, television industry analyses consistently find, tend to be older, more affluent, and more educated than the general television audience. They are known to be less religious, and they are more likely to identify themselves as politically liberal.

To ask the seemingly obvious ... Is there no matching demographic data available for MythBuster Watchers?

--------
I have been a fan of NOVA for years. In the last few years I've become more aware of a amount of "cultural", affective content in some of the programs -- lots of motivational type material about the feeling and experience of discovery etc. As I have become more aware of the cultural, political, and competition for funding aspects of science. I have the judgement that some NOVA episodes are trying to sell me on something -- likely STEM education and science funding. I wish the programming would get back to the "hard science". More recently @Dan these parts of the programming has me thinking about cultural cognition.

I'm wondering what some content analysis of transcripts of PBS science programming would uncover.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt

Cortlandt -

==> " As I have become more aware of the cultural, political, and competition for funding aspects of science. I have the judgement that some NOVA episodes are trying to sell me on something -- likely STEM education and science funding"

Not that I doubt that there is an element of what you're describing, but I would also would think that (as a kind of fundamental law of human nature) you are likely to see what you are looking for. Are you more aware of it because the amount has increased, or has the amount that you see increased because of your awareness (or, perhaps more likely, some combination of both)?

==> " I wish the programming would get back to the "hard science". "

Additionally, if changes have taken place over time, are there other changes that have also taken place? Is the technical level of the science portrayed actually higher than previously, and in the end the ratio of science to "cultural" affected content increased?

IMO, this goes back to two points you raised; the first is that more demographic data would be needed (about both audiences, but mythbusters in particular as well as the comparative data on Mythbusters' audience in comparison other cable viewers and NOVA audience in comparison to other PBS viewers)...and content analysis of transcripts of both shows.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Are you expecting scientists to communicate science without:

1. Implying that further science education would allow even greater understanding and appreciation of the topics being presented.

2. Careers in science can be highly worthwhile and allow exploration of these particular highly interesting fields of science as well as those in other areas.

3. The underlying discoveries of the materials being described, and other such discoveries, would not have happened without adequate funding, and in order for more progress in finding new discoveries to be made, funding is necessary.

What kind of science communication is that? It is the process of science that matters, not just the currently available facts.

The support and study of science is very much a cultural attribute. Science thrives not only in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, and a society that can appreciate change and advancement, but one that also has the economic largess to allow individuals to devote time to it. Those needs are actually positively and constructively looped together. Some societies actually do function in an "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be" fashion, and don't really perceive a need for scientific discovery. An Amish farmstead, and the Taos pueblo might be examples. In my personal opinion, the Amish have a birthrate issue, but in many aspects, both groups may beat the rest of us at sustainability. Science, of course, if we wake up and pay attention, could also allow us to dig our way out of the hole that we've dug.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Gaythia Weis
Nova is available on Netflix. Mythbusters is too-- though only on DVD.

I sometimes watch both but not often. Like NiV I think Mythbusters is better at showing the process of science. So if I wanted kid to learn how science is done, I'd encourage them to watch that to see how ideas are tested against evidence. That's a very important part of science.

Nova is sort of better at presenting interesting findings. It's got more of a "tourist/magazine" feel. But it is an educational magazine and certainly worth watching because one can learn about interesting scientific findings without being burden with questions like "How would/did people figure that out." A very good show to watch when sipping wine and unwinding.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

@Cortlandt --

Mythbusters has-- or at least had -- a very big & fairly diverse audience. Younger than PBS, for sure; more men than women, apparently, but still good coverage in lots of key demographic segments.

Some info here .

August 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan provided a link to an article which reported some demographic data provided by the Discovery Channel for MythBusters viewers in the year 2010.

The demographic data is:

- Average Audience Median Age: 32 years old
- Persons 25-54 Gender Skew: 66% male / 34% female
- Discovery had the #1 non-sports ad-supported cable program on among Men 25-54, on the night when with premieres of MythBusters.
- MythBusters is one of Discovery's top-rated programs, in all key demos.

August 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt

@Gaythia Weis

If I were to be come the new Rupert Murdoch (I can’t fathom how that rumor was leaked) I would extend Roger Ailes contract to continue churning out the enormously profitable Fox News. And I would spend a tiny portion of the money for studies such as the CCR’s on better means to present science to the public in ways that are both informative and entertaining (and thus profitable). I would do the same of course for crime shows and dramas.. There are limitations to the latter, however. John Langdraf who works for Murdoch as president of Fx network warned recently there are simply too many good TV shows being made (especially of the crime variety). Maybe there is a big opportunity here for nerds or wanna-be nerds here.

August 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Bazell

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