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Putting Science on Screen (A Tale Told In Tweets)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What responsibilities do filmmakers have in terms of scientific accuracy? Usually, I argue that filmmakers are storytellers first, and while scientific accuracy (or plausibility) can often support a narrative, the first responsibility of the filmmaker is to weave a captivating tale. But what happens when the film (or TV series) in question is overtly scientific in nature?

It might be a straightforward nature documentary like BBC’s Planet Earth or National Geographic’s Great Migrations, or it could be a docu-drama – a narrative derived from clever editing of thousands of hours of footage of wild animals paired with heart-tugging voiceovers – like March of the Penguins or Disney’s Chimpanzee.

In these cases, filmmakers might have a higher obligation to get the science right, which poses a unique science communication challenge.

Yesterday, Cristina Russo wrote a post about some of these issues at the PLoS Blog Sci-Ed, which sparked a twitter conversation, which I’ve compiled into a storify. Add your own thoughts in the comments below, on twitter or on Google+.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Neil Losin 3:12 pm 02/5/2013

    Regarding animal behavior on screen, my feeling is that if the “story” that comes together in the editing room is something that 1) could plausibly happen in nature, and 2) doesn’t mis-represent the natural behavior of the animals, then you (as a producer, editor, whatever) are doing OK. If I had to identify my biggest pet peeve in nature documentaries, it would be the tendency of filmmakers to ascribe human hopes and desires to animals, particularly when it comes to survival and reproduction. A well-camouflaged animal is not “trying not to be seen.” A bird raising its chicks is not “trying to pass its genes on to the next generation.” Talking about morphological adaptations and behaviors in these terms trivializes the influence of natural selection and, I suspect, contributes to common misunderstandings about how evolution works.

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