Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Fluffification of Science Programming

Contradicting the theory that there are no second acts in American life, mid-nineties kids show presenter Bill Nye of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" has been much in the news of late as a symbol of Science. He was one of the figureheads for the March for Science (which sought to do for science whatever it was that the Women's March did for women), and he has a new show being made by Netflix entitled "Bill Nye Saves The World" in which he tackles tough topics like overpopulation and the sexual orientation of ice cream cones via panel discussions and music videos.

His original show was on back when I was in high school, an older demographic than it was aimed at. I never saw it, though I think my dad watched a few episodes out of curiosity. Dad was a planetarium lecturer and dedicated his career to science education, both for kids and adults, so he had a strong interest in science popularizers and how they went about their work. As I recall, his reaction was that the Bill Nye show was pretty fluffy but with Nye so much in the news and my own lack of experience with the show, I thought I'd look up an episode and see what it was like. Here's the Bill Nye episode on simple machines. It starts out with a roller coaster, then goes on to discuss levers, wheels, ramps, and pulleys.

Watching this over lunch, it struck me that it encapsulates a lot of what annoyed me in the transformation of PBS edu-tainment programming in the 90s. We get a lot of the quick cutting, a lot of attention getting visuals, and it's heavier on the entertainment than the explanations. For instance, in talking about using machines to make motion easier, we have Bill Nye get rammed through the ceiling with a fork lift, but they don't actually take the opportunity to show that a forklift is actually powered by a pulley, even though that's one of the simple machines they're talking about. There's a skit about a brute force moving company which a couple of body builders who move everything straight from place to place by hand, versus a moving company run by kids using simple machines to lift things, but even though it would be really easy to show multiplication of force by demonstrating how a lever or pulley system could allow a kid to lift as much as a body builder. I guess if this got kids excited about science, that's good, but I found the content pretty thin.

To try to make a fair comparison, I looked up one of the shows that I remember watching back when I was a kid, the PBS show Newton's Apple. Whole not exclusively a show for kids, it aired on Saturday or Sunday mornings on our station, so I recall watching it pretty regularly. The format was that people would write in with a science question, and the host would then do a segment where he consulted with experts and showed how the thing in question worked. There aren't a ton of segments online, it seems, but here's one on roller coasters which gives the flavor pretty well.

Not super deep, but (perhaps because it's familiar) I found it less cringe inducing to watch, and it does include some basic "hey, let's measure this" elements like riding the roller coaster holding the accelerometer and seeing how many Gs you pull. It also sticks with a basic "let's talk to some experts who explain this and then try experiencing it ourselves" format, rather than all the visual gags and quick cuts.

Perhaps I'm in full aging "get off my lawn!" mode about the quick-cut, gag-filled edutainment style, but I tend to think that even a modern audience is willing to sit through pretty straight forward visual exposition when it provides actual content. Witness the enduring popularity of nature specials and also of shows like How It's Made, an addicting watch if there ever was one.


Jeff Stivers said...

This reminds me of how Steve Jobs hated any type of power point presentation. If you had an idea but could not explain it to him without props, he wouldn't hear it.

Foxfier said...

Good Eats is awesome, too-- although a biiiit skittish about some Aztec religious practices-- and I can almost remember another show that was good....I THINK it was "3-2-1 Contact." Had mini-shows inside of the show, including a math based detective drama. "1, 1, 2, 3, 5-- EUREKA!" (Guy did a wall in Fibonacci sequeuence, with a border line, and the guy who'd stolen the thing under a specific block replaced it with the wrong color. I was...nine?.. but it was pretty good, second only to watching MYSTERY!)

Foxfier said...

K, looks like "Mathnet" is what I was remembering.