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Catalyst catastrophe

November 3rd, 2016

There are reports that the ABC’s Catalyst science program is to be dumped, and replaced by a series of specially commissioned 1-hour documentaries. The move has reportedly been prompted by the disastrous broadcasts of Maryann Demasi, on the supposed dangers of statins and wifi. I have mixed feelings about this. Catalyst has serious problems, going beyond Demasi, but the alternative sounds like it will require a lot of money to do well. I fear that “specially commissioned” will turn out to mean “recycled from Discovery Channel” and that we will end up with lots of variants on “Shark week”

More generally, it’s depressing to reflect on the near-total failure of television as a communications medium for science. The demands of the medium (flashy visuals, and continuous sound) overwhelm what ought to be its potential. Discovery Channel is a joke that makes Catalyst at its worst look good. Even the great David Attenborough is now presented inaudibly, drowned out by the monotone background noise of Sigur Ros. Overall, radio is better, and text better still.

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  1. November 3rd, 2016 at 21:48 | #1

    So, not just one bad broadcast but several. That indicates the rot goes deeper than Maryann Demasi. To the writers, researchers, producers and directors. How do you sack them all? You can’t. You can only decommission the show.
    Sane people: 1
    Insane SJWs: 0

  2. Donald Oats
    November 3rd, 2016 at 21:48 | #2

    Any wager on the proposed 17 one hour specials getting the snip (just not right now)? Easier to sack another group by quietly dropping the specials order form in the cylindrical filing cabinet…

    Catalyst was quite a frustrating show—it ran hot and cold, and I gave up on it quite a while ago. The odd show I did see, but not with any regularity. It has felt as if at every point where the designated science show upgrades its format, a bit more of its brain fell out through its nose, lost forever. From Science Report, Profess Julius Sumner Miller’s science show (“Why is it so?”), and other old gems, the slow decline has reached its endpoint.

    This leaves the public dissemination of science and scientific enquiry in the hands of those with predominantly commercial interests as the driver; don’t expect to see much action. Not a good look for a country (whose Prime Minister is) claiming we are STEM friendly.

  3. Lt. Fred
    November 3rd, 2016 at 21:53 | #3

    I agree with everything except the slight against Sigur Ros, which is a great band.

  4. Ikonoclast
    November 4th, 2016 at 05:44 | #4

    TV died long ago. No, that’s wrong. It was stillborn. It never lived. It was a zombie from birth.

  5. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2016 at 07:07 | #5

    @Lt. Fred

    I don’t mind Sigur Ros, and I love David Attenborough. I just don’t like the two at once.

  6. Paul Wellings
    November 4th, 2016 at 08:23 | #6

    It is not the visual aspect, as such, of television that makes it a problem for scIence programs.

    With television, you sit back in your armchair some distance from the screen, and passively absorb what is transmitted to you. This means of communication is not suited to you thinking about what you are seeing and hearing. It is suited to watching programs like, say, Neighbours, where you can switch off 90% of your cerebral cortex, chat with whoever else is watching it with you, and still get what is going on.

    On the other hand, if you are watching a science program streamed on your computer, you are by yourself, leaning forward and concentrating. This is suited to thinking. As well, you have a keyboard and mouse that you can use to replay bits you didn’t quite get the first time.

    Smart TVs are supposed to offer the best of both but they don’t overcome the lean in lean out problem.

  7. rog
    November 4th, 2016 at 09:54 | #7

    The problem with the ABC is that other free to air channels repeat the good shows, like David Attenborough. So they will have to do better that just recycling or repeats.

  8. Ivor
    November 4th, 2016 at 10:42 | #8

    Just make Robin Williams executive producer and rename the program as Quantum.

    Problem fixed.

  9. GrueBleen
    November 4th, 2016 at 12:54 | #9

    @Paul Wellings
    Your #6

    If you wqnt to “lean in”, why not just connect to the Catalyst webpage and reply each episode on your computer at your leisure ? They’re all there – at least from the last bunch of years – as far as I could see.

  10. Paul Wellings
    November 4th, 2016 at 13:52 | #10

    @GrueBleen

    Sciençe programs that are made for television are dumbed down. It doesn’t get any better when you watch them on your computer.

    Science programs that are made to be watched on your computer are not dumbed down.

  11. GrueBleen
    November 4th, 2016 at 14:20 | #11

    @Paul Wellings
    Your #10

    Science programs that are made to be watched on your computer are not dumbed down

    .

    Oh right, got it: so that was why I could mostly understand Sagan’s Cosmos, it had been “dumbed down” for the likes of me. As has all of Attenborough’s stuff too, I guess.

    So what scientific qualifications in which fields would I need to be able to follow those “made for computers” docos ?

  12. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2016 at 14:55 | #12

    GrueBleen, please keep it civil

  13. GrueBleen
    November 4th, 2016 at 15:09 | #13

    @John Quiggin
    Your #12

    I wasn’t aware that what I had written was something you would consider uncivil, ProfQ.

    Without in any way trying to be uncivil again, could you please explain to me just what about my comment to Paul Wellings was uncivil in your view. And also, please, why Wellings could say what he said without it being considered ‘uncivil’.

    Thanks,
    GB

  14. Jim Birch
    November 4th, 2016 at 15:23 | #14

    I won’t mourn the passing of Catalyst, not just because it was too storied for me to watch, but because anyone putting out “science” programs like that deserves it in the neck. Appalling anywhere, but for the ABC… I’m slightly interested to know if chopping the program was a way of getting rid of a deficient broadcaster or two. Which would indicates a management problem.

    This is a pity from a more general science education perspective but personally I’m regularly surprised how much science ordinary people know. Must be the internet. On the other hand, I’m also surprised at the crazy things that some people believe. Ditto.

  15. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2016 at 15:42 | #15

    @GrueBleen

    I assumed your “Oh right, got it: so that was why I could mostly understand Sagan’s Cosmos, it had been “dumbed down” for the likes of me.” was intended sarcastically. If it was actually an admission that you are too dumb to understand sophisticated science I apologise – irony is always difficult on the internet. But assuming it was sarcastic, this is unhelpful and consistent with a tone that seems to be creating unnecessary conflict

    I didn’t read Wellings as making a personal reference to you, or anyone else in saying that TV programs were “dumbed down”.

  16. GrueBleen
    November 4th, 2016 at 16:57 | #16

    @John Quiggin
    Your #15

    Hmm, just as a clarifying question, who isn’t too dumb to understand sophisticated science ? I freely confess that I am much too dumb to understand the majority of sophisticated science.

    But otherwise, your ruling is noted: I was being sarcastic while Wellings was being civil.

  17. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2016 at 17:12 | #17

    @GrueBleen

    Fair point on sophisticated science and thanks for accepting my ruling.

  18. Paul Wellings
    November 4th, 2016 at 19:39 | #18

    @John Quiggin

    I was not making a personal reference. I was continuing my previous point that it is in the nature of television programs and television watching that science programs are dumbed down, because the producers think, probably correctly, that if they aren’t also entertainment, not enough people will watch to justify the cost of making them.

    It is also not the case that unsophisticated science presentation means dumbed down science presentation. I’ve seen visual explanations of quantum mechanics and relativity that are completely free of the maths yet demand attentive viewing to understand the concepts.

  19. hc
    November 4th, 2016 at 20:48 | #19

    There are legitimate doubts about statins.

  20. Collin Street
    November 5th, 2016 at 06:32 | #20

    I was not making a personal reference. I was continuing my previous point that it is in the nature of television programs and television watching that science programs are dumbed down, because the producers think, probably correctly, that if they aren’t also entertainment, not enough people will watch to justify the cost of making them.

    See, “producers think, probably correctly &c” is a tendency. Your conclusion, though, “nature of television programs &c dumbed down”, is framed as an absolute [“nature of”].

    You don’t get absolute conclusions from tendency premises. You get tendency conclusions from tendency premises.

  21. Ernestine Gross
    November 5th, 2016 at 23:13 | #21

    I suppose from the perspective of Prof Brian Cox his program, “Forces of Nature” is ‘dumbed down’ (in the sense of leaving out so much technical detail – scientific knowledge – that only those who know the detail can make the program and form critical opinions). I liked this TV program. I appreciated the call-outs with names of concepts, dates, names of scientists, etc; the measured pace of presentation, Cox’s enthusiasm for his subject material – my perception – and the absence of dramatised – hyped – speech, sound, and flicker. Yes, as JQ suggests, text helps. Yes, as Paul Wellings suggests, Cox’s TV program is not suitable for paralell conversations. In short, Brian Cox’s TV program retains a basic lecture structure. If Catalyst is replaced by TV programs like that by Brian Cox, I’d be all for it.

    Incidentally, due to my neighbour’s childrens visits, I had cause to watch some ABC science learning programs. I found them quite good in the sense that visual tools supplement text and oral presentation of material.

  22. Jim Birch
    November 8th, 2016 at 11:14 | #22

    There are legitimate doubts about statins but they aren’t about harm. There’s a straightforward case for giving statins to high risk individuals. The question is more about prevention in low risk individuals: the number needed to treat in order to prevent one death per year was 1000. Adverse effects are rare, so it’s more a question of whether this health care spend is appropriate. Lifestyle changes are more effective than statins in this group, however, the compliance for medically prescribed lifestyle changes is terrible.

    Cochrane Reviews are pretty much the evidence based medicine go-to on the this sort of question:

    https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/statins-the-cochrane-review/

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