18 November 2016

How I learned advanced math from a fake documentary

Q. Are pseudoscience shows like Ancient aliens having a negative effect on the scientific literacy of Americans? (From Quora.)

If you want to rank the biggest negative impacts on the scientific literacy of Americans, I would not put pseudoscientific television documentaries on basic cable at the top of the list.

If you look at the issues where the public disagrees with scientists the most (climate change, evolution, vaccines, genetic modification of food), it’s not because they don’t have access to facts or that basic cable documentaries have mislead them. It’s because those issues have become political issues, and political leaders and political pundits actively promote narratives that are not scientifically justified.

That said, sensationalist TV shows like this do have an impact, and that effect is probably generally negative. Andrew David Thaler writes about some of the long term effects here: The Politics of Fake Documentaries. See also: Fish tales: Combating fake science in popular media.


Here’s the thing. This “ancient aliens” genre is not new. It reaches back at least to the late 1960s when Chariots of the Gods? was published, and the early 1970s, when books like this were published:

Now, I read that book as a kid. Yes, there’s a lot of rubbish in it, and I was pretty gullible. I thought a lot of it was plausible. Hey, what did I know, I was a kid. Did reading that book hurt my science literacy?

Well, in all the credulous interpretations of archaeological data (“This ancient gold trinket described as a bird, but it looks like a jet plane!”), there’s a chapter that I think was called “Shortcuts in space-time” or something like that. And that’s the chapter I remember most about that book. It introduced me to the concept of a tesseract. That’s real mathematics and real science, and it stuck with me because as I learned more, I learned that those ideas were real.

That book was unscientific. But it made me curious. And I learned some new science that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to until university, if then. And when I got to university, I discovered The Skeptical Inquirer and learned to be a little less gullible.

I’m not arguing that those are a good means of science education. But they are works of art more than science, and art – and our reactions to it – are complex.

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