Pop Science in Die Zeit and Spike TV

For today, I’m going to let I Postdoc, therefore I am voice my complaints for me:

What bothers me, is that both journalists and the public seem to be so much more interested in, ahem, improbable science than in the usual garden variety.

Via Doug Natelson, who adds,

It is a shame that sometimes the media can’t tell the difference between good science or engineering and crackpottery. On a plane last week I had someone (who realized I was a physicist from my reading material) ask me about the guy who can get hydrogen from seawater by hitting it with microwaves. Kind of cool, yes. Source of energy? Of course not — it takes more microwave power to break the water into hydrogen and oxygen than you can get back by burning the resulting hydrogen. It’s called thermodynamics.


There go my plans for funding my all-consuming chocolate habit by selling the secret of seawater power to Big Oil so that the industry could suppress it. . . .

At this point, I should also mention the depressing and macabre quote of the day, which comes from Prof. Clifford Johnson, string theorist at USC. He describes what happened to the guest appearance he made on Spike TV’s show MANswers. While the whole post is quite worth reading, I’ll quote just a tiny bit:

On a segment where I was talking about why vending machines topple over so easily, I said (with the aid of diagrams, discussion of center of mass, and a scale model, etc) that it was because it is top-heavy. At this point they randomly cut to a woman with large breasts.

In her note about Die Zeit, the condensed-matter physics postdoc by the ‘nym of Schlupp speculates gloomily that the tendency to emphasize crackpottery might “just reflect the readers’ interest,” a possibility which she (and I) find troublesome. However, tales like Clifford Johnson’s experience with MANswers remind us that the people who truck the pop science to our television screens and magazine pages don’t necessarily have the same priorities that scientists do. Prof. Johnson is optimistic:

I’d say that there are more and more good program makers out there who want to work with scientists to make better and better science shows. Every now and again there’ll be setbacks like this, but I think that the gradient is positive. I for one will keep trying, as I think that the overall gain is of high value.

Since plenty of opportunities for pessimism will come along soon, I think I’ll end this particular link-and-quote-fest on that note.

2 thoughts on “Pop Science in Die Zeit and Spike TV”

  1. “At this point they randomly cut to a woman with large breasts.”

    It’s Spike TV, for Pete’s sake! It’s the soft porn network for men. (And, yes, I include their wrestling league in that statement.)

    Speaking of the wrestling, though, maybe at least a little bit of science is seeping in. When I went to a local pizza place for a late-night meal recently, they were showing Spike’s TNA wrestling or whatever they call it. And one guy took out another one with a ladder — not by swinging it, but by using the ropes as a fulcrum, pulling down from outside the ring to smack the guy’s face on the inside of the right. So, you know… that’s a little bit scientific, I guess.

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