The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 22. Significance Junkies

We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling.

Henri Poincare (1854-1912)

I hope no one will consider me unduly cynical if I assert that a good first-order model of how commercial and public television programming work is simply this: money is everything. In prime time, a single rating point difference is worth millions of dollars in advertising. Especially since the early 1980s, television has become almost entirely profit-motivated. You can see this, say, in the decline of network news and news specials, or in the pathetic evasions that the major networks offered to circumvent a Federal Communications Commission mandate that they improve the level of children’s programming. (For example, educational virtues were asserted for a cartoon series that systematically misrepresents the technology and lifestyles of our Pleistocene ancestors, and that portrays dinosaurs as pets.) As I write, public television in America is in real danger of losing government support, and the content of commercial programming is in the course of a steep, long-term dumbing down.

In this perspective, fighting for more real science on television seems naive and forlorn. But owners of networks and television producers have children and grandchildren about whose future they rightly worry. They must feel some responsibility for the future of their nation. There is evidence that science programming can be successful, and that people hunger for more of it. I remain hopeful that sooner or later we’ll see real science skilfully and appealingly presented as regular fare on major network television worldwide.

Baseball and soccer have Aztec antecedents. Football is a thinly disguised reenactment of hunting; we played it before we were human. Lacrosse is an ancient Native American game, and hockey is related to it. But basketball is new. We’ve been making movies longer than we’ve been playing basketball.

At first, they didn’t think to make a hole in the peach basket so the ball could be retrieved without climbing a flight of stairs. But in the brief time since then, the game has evolved. In the hands mainly of African-American players, basketball has become - at its best - the paramount synthesis in sport of intelligence, precision, courage, audacity, anticipation, artifice, teamwork, elegance and grace.

Five-foot-three-inch Muggsy Bogues negotiates a forest of giants: Michael Jordan sails in from some outer darkness beyond the free-throw line; Larry Bird threads a precise, no-look pass; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unleashes a skyhook. This is not fundamentally a contact sport like football. It’s a game of finesse. The full-court press, passes out of the double-team, the pick-and-roll, cutting off the passing lanes, a tip-in from a high-flying forward soaring from out of nowhere all constitute a coordination of intellect and athleticism, a harmony of mind and body. It’s not surprising that the game has caught fire in America.

Ever since National Basketball Association games became a television staple, it’s seemed to me that it could be used to teach science and mathematics. To appreciate a free-throw average of 0.926, you must know something about converting fractions into decimals. A lay-up is Newton’s first law of motion in action. Every shot represents the launching of a basketball on a parabolic arc, a curve determined by the same gravitational physics that specifies the flight of a ballistic missile, or the Earth orbiting the Sun, or a spacecraft on its rendezvous with some distant world. The centre of mass of the player’s body during a slam dunk is briefly in orbit about the centre of the Earth.

To get the ball in the basket, you must loft it at exactly the right speed; a one per cent error and gravity will make you look bad. Three-point shooters, whether they know it or not, compensate for aerodynamic drag. Each successive bounce of a dropped basketball is nearer to the ground because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Daryl Dawkins or Shaquille O’Neal shattering a backboard is an opportunity for teaching - among some other things - the propagation of shock waves. A spin shot off the glass from under the backboard goes in because of the conservation of angular momentum. It’s an infraction of the rules to touch the basketball in ‘the cylinder’ above the basket; we’re now talking about a key mathematical idea: generating n-dimensional objects by moving (n - l)-dimensional objects.

In the classroom, in newspapers and on television, why aren’t we using sports to teach science?

When I was growing up, my father would bring home a daily paper and consume (often with great gusto) the baseball box scores. There they were, to me dry as dust, with obscure abbreviations (W, SS, K, W-L, AB, RBI), but they spoke to him. Newspapers everywhere printed them. I figured maybe they weren’t too hard for me. Eventually I too got caught up in the world of baseball statistics. (I know it helped me in learning decimals, and I still cringe a little when I hear, usually at the very beginning of the baseball season, that someone’s ‘batting a thousand’. But 1.000 is not 1,000.. The lucky player is batting one.)

Or take a look at the financial pages. Any introductory material? Explanatory footnotes? Definitions of abbreviations? Almost none. It’s sink or swim. Look at those acres of statistics! Yet people voluntarily read the stuff. It’s not beyond their ability. It’s only a matter of motivation. Why can’t we do the same with maths, science and technology?

In every sport the players seem to perform in streaks. In basketball it’s called the hot hand. You can do no wrong. I remember a play-off game in which Michael Jordan, not ordinarily a superb long-range shooter, was effortlessly making so many consecutive

three-point baskets from all over the floor that he shrugged his shoulders in amazement at himself. In contrast, there are times when you’re cold, when nothing goes in. When a player is in the groove he seems to be tapping into some mysterious power, and when ice-cold he’s under some kind of jinx or spell. But this is magical, not scientific thinking.

Streakiness, far from being remarkable, is expected, even for random events. What would be amazing would be no streaks. If I flip a penny ten times in a row, I might get this sequence of heads and tails: H H H T H T H H H H. Eight heads out of ten, and four in a row! Was I exercising some psychokinetic control over my penny? Was I in a heads groove? It looks much too regular to be due to chance.

But then I remember that I was flipping before and after I got this run of heads, that it’s embedded in a much longer and less interesting sequence: H T H T T H H H T H T H H H H T H T T H T H T T. If I’m permitted to pay attention to some results and ignore others, I’ll always be able to ‘prove’ there’s something exceptional about my streak. This is one of the fallacies in the baloney detection kit, the enumeration of favourable circumstances. We remember the hits and forget the misses. If your ordinary field goal shooting percentage is 50 per cent and you can’t improve your statistics by an effort of will, you’re exactly as likely to have a hot hand in basketball as I am in coin-flipping. As often as I get eight out of ten heads, you’ll get eight out of ten baskets. Basketball can teach something about probability and statistics, as well as critical thinking.

An investigation by my colleague Tom Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell, shows persuasively that our ordinary understanding of the basketball streak is a misperception. Gilovich studied whether shots made by NBA players tend to cluster more than you’d expect by chance. After making one or two or three baskets, players were no more likely to succeed than after a missed basket. This was true for the great and the near-great, not only for field goals but for free throws - where there’s no hand in your face. (Of course some attenuation of shooting streaks can be attributed to increased attention by the defence to the player with the ‘hot hand’.) In baseball, there’s the related but contrary myth that someone batting below his average is ‘due’ to make a hit. This is no more true than that a few heads in a row makes the chance of flipping tails next time anything other than 50 per cent. If there are streaks beyond what you’d expect statistically, they’re hard to find.

But somehow this doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t feel true. Ask the players, or the coaches, or the fans. We seek meaning, even in random numbers. We’re significance junkies. When the celebrated coach Red Auerbach heard of Gilovich’s study, his response was: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ And you know exactly how he feels. But if basketball streaks don’t show up more often than sequences of heads or tails, there’s nothing magical about them. Does this reduce players to mere marionettes, manipulated by the laws of chance? Certainly not. Their average shooting percentages are a true reflection of their personal skills. This is only about the frequency and duration of streaks.

Of course, it’s much more fun to think that the gods have touched the player who’s on a streak and scorned the one with a cold hand. So what? What’s the harm of a little mystification? It sure beats boring statistical analyses. In basketball, in sports, no harm. But as a habitual way of thinking, it gets us into trouble in some of the other games we like to play.

‘Scientist, yes; mad, no’ giggles the mad scientist on ‘Gilligan’s Island’ as he adjusts the electronic device that permits him to control the minds of others for his own nefarious purpose.

‘I’m sorry, Dr Nerdnik, the people of Earth will not appreciate being shrunk to three inches high, even if it will save room and energy...’ The cartoon superhero is patiently explaining an ethical dilemma to the typical scientist portrayed on Saturday-morning children’s television.

Many of these so-called scientists - judging from the programmes I’ve seen (and plausible inference about ones I haven’t, such as the Mad Scientist’s ‘Toon Club) - are moral cripples driven by a lust for power or endowed with a spectacular insensitivity to the feelings of others. The message conveyed to the moppet audience is that science is dangerous and scientists worse than weird: they’re crazed.

The applications of science, of course, can be dangerous, and, as I’ve tried to stress, virtually every major technological advance in the history of the human species - back to the invention of stone tools and the domestication of fire - has been ethically ambiguous. These advances can be used by ignorant or evil people for dangerous purposes or by wise and good people for the benefit of the human species. But only one side of the ambiguity ever seems to be presented in these offerings to our children.

Where in these programmes are the joys of science? The delights in discovering how the universe is put together? The exhilaration in knowing a deep thing well? What about the crucial contributions that science and technology have made to human welfare, or the billions of lives saved or made possible by medical and agricultural technology? (In fairness, though, I should mention that the Professor in ‘Gilligan’s Island’ often used his knowledge of science to solve practical problems for the castaways.)

We live in a complex age where many of the problems we face can, whatever their origins, only have solutions that involve a deep understanding of science and technology. Modern society desperately needs the finest minds available to devise solutions to these problems. I do not think that many gifted youngsters will be encouraged towards a career in science or engineering by watching Saturday-morning television - or much of the rest of the available American video menu.

Over the years, a profusion of credulous, uncritical TV series and ‘specials’ - on ESP, channelling, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, ancient astronauts, Big Foot, and the like - have been spawned. The style-setting series ‘In Search of...’ begins with a disclaimer disavowing any responsibility to present a balanced view of the subject. You can see a thirst for wonder here untempered by even rudimentary scientific scepticism. Pretty much whatever anyone says on camera is true. The idea that there might be alternative explanations to be decided among by the weight of evidence never surfaces. The same is true of ‘Sightings’ and ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ - in which, as the very title suggests, prosaic solutions are unwelcome - and innumerable other clones.

‘In Search of...’ frequently takes an intrinsically interesting subject and systematically distorts the evidence. If there is a mundane scientific explanation and one which requires the most extravagant paranormal or psychic explanation, you can be sure which will be highlighted. An almost random example: an author is presented who argues that a major planet lies beyond Pluto. His evidence is cylinder seals from ancient Sumer, carved long before the invention of the telescope. His views are increasingly accepted by professional astronomers, he says. Not a word is mentioned of the failure of astronomers - studying the motions of Neptune, Pluto and the four spacecraft beyond - to find a trace of the alleged planet.

The graphics are indiscriminate. When an offscreen narrator is talking about dinosaurs, we see a woolly mammoth. The narrator describes a hovercraft; the screen shows a shuttle liftoff. We hear about lakes and flood plains, but are shown mountains. It doesn’t matter. The visuals are as indifferent to the facts as is the voice-over.

A series called ‘The X Files’, which pays lip-service to sceptical examination of the paranormal, is skewed heavily towards the reality of alien abductions, strange powers and government complicity in covering up just about everything interesting. Almost never does the paranormal claim turn out to be a hoax or a psychological aberration or a misunderstanding of the natural world. Much closer to reality, as well as a much greater public service, would be an adult series (‘Scooby Doo’ does it for children) in which paranormal claims are systematically investigated and every case is found to be explicable in prosaic terms. The dramatic tension would be in uncovering how misapprehension and hoax could generate apparently genuine paranormal phenomena. Perhaps one of the investigators would always be disappointed, hoping that next time an unambiguously paranormal case will survive sceptical scrutiny.

Other shortcomings are evident in television science fiction programming. ‘Star Trek’, for example, despite its charm and strong international and interspecies perspective, often ignores the most elementary scientific facts. The idea that Mr Spock could be a cross between a human being and a life form independently evolved on the planet Vulcan is genetically far less probable than a successful cross of a man and an artichoke. The idea does, however, provide a precedent in popular culture for the extraterrestrial/human hybrids that later became so central a component of the alien abduction story. There must be dozens of alien species on the various ‘Star Trek’ TV series and movies. Almost all we spend any time with are minor variants of humans. This is driven by economic necessity, costing only an actor and a latex mask, but it flies in the face of the stochastic nature of the evolutionary process. If there are aliens, almost all of them I think will look devastatingly less human than Klingons and Romulans (and be at widely different levels of technology). ‘Star Trek’ doesn’t come to grips with evolution.

In many TV programmes and films, even the casual science -the throwaway lines that are not essential to a plot already innocent of science - is done incompetently. It costs very little to hire a graduate student to read the script for scientific accuracy. But, so far as I can tell, this is almost never done. As a result we have such howlers as ‘parsec’ mentioned as a unit of speed instead of distance in the - in many other ways exemplary - film Star Wars. If such things were done with a modicum of care, they might even improve the plot; certainly, they might help convey a little science to a mass audience.

There’s a great deal of pseudoscience for the gullible on TV, a fair amount of medicine and technology, but hardly any science, especially on the big commercial networks, whose executives tend to think that science programming means ratings declines and lost profits, and nothing else matters. There are network employees with the title ‘Science Correspondent’, and an occasional news feature said to be devoted to science. But we almost never hear any science from them, just medicine and technology. In all the networks, I doubt if there’s a single employee whose job it is to read each week’s issue of Nature or Science to see if anything newsworthy has been discovered. When the Nobel Prizes in science are announced each fall, there’s a superb news ‘hook’ for science: a chance to explain what the prizes were given for. But, almost always, all we hear is something like ‘... may one day lead to a cure for cancer. Today in Belgrade...’

How much science is there on the radio or television talk shows, or on those dreary Sunday morning programmes in which middle-aged white people sit around agreeing with each other? When is the last time you heard an intelligent comment on science by a President of the United States? Why in all America is there no TV drama that has as its hero someone devoted to figuring out how the Universe works? When a highly publicized murder trial has everyone casually mentioning DNA testing, where are the prime-time network specials devoted to nucleic acids and heredity? I can’t even recall seeing an accurate and comprehensible description on television of how television works.

By far the most effective means of raising interest in science is television. But this enormously powerful medium is doing close to nothing to convey the joys and methods of science, while its ‘mad scientist’ engine continues to huff and puff away.

In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the ‘information superhighway’ was; 42 per cent didn’t know where Japan is; and 38 per cent were ignorant of the term ‘holocaust’. But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbit and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99 per cent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a boy. The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.

Surveys in Canada and the United States in the same period show that television viewers wish there were more science programming. In North America, often there’s a good science programme in the ‘Nova’ series of the Public Broadcasting System, and occasionally on the Discovery or Learning Channels, or the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Bill Nye’s ‘The Science Guy’ programmes for young children on PBS are fast-paced, feature arresting graphics, range over many realms of science, and sometimes even illuminate the process of discovery. But the depth of public interest in science engrossingly and accurately presented - to say nothing of the immense good that would result from better public understanding of science - is not yet reflected in network programming.

How could we put more science on television? Here are some possibilities:

• The wonders and methods of science routinely presented on news and talk programmes. There’s real human drama in the process of discovery.

• A series called ‘Solved Mysteries’, in which tremulous speculations have rational resolutions, including puzzling cases in forensic medicine and epidemiology.

• ‘Ring My Bells Again’ - a series in which we relive the media and the public falling hook, line and sinker for a coordinated government lie. The first two episodes might be the Bay of Tonkin ‘incident’ and the systematic irradiation of unsuspecting and unprotected American civilians and military personnel in the alleged requirements of ‘national defence’ following 1945.

• A separate series on fundamental misunderstandings and mistakes made by famous scientists, national leaders and religious figures.

• Regular exposes of pernicious pseudoscience, and audience-participation ‘how-to’ programmes: how to bend spoons, read minds, appear to foretell the future, perform psychic surgery, do cold reads, and press the TV viewers’ personal buttons. How we’re bamboozled: learn by doing.

• A state-of-the-art computer graphics facility to prepare in advance scientific visuals for a wide range of news contingencies.

• A set of inexpensive televised debates, each perhaps an hour long, with a computer graphics budget for each side provided by the producers, rigorous standards of evidence required by the moderator, and the widest range of topics broached. They could address issues where the scientific evidence is overwhelming, as on the matter of the shape of the Earth; controversial matters where the answer is less clear, such as the survival of one’s personality after death, or abortion, or animal rights, or genetic engineering; or any of the presumptive pseudosciences mentioned in this book.

There is a pressing national need for more public knowledge of science. Television cannot provide it all by itself. But if we want to make short-term improvements in the understanding of science, television is the place to start.