Quality control in science and history television

As you might imagine I enjoy watching science programing on TV, Nova, Nature etc. on PBS, and the commercial channels like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. But you really have to take this stuff with a rather sizable grain of salt, especially the commercial channels which seem to have absolutely no quality control at all. The following are a few of examples that managed to aggravate me to the point of blogging on the subject.

First I have two examples from a single program that aired on the Discovery Channel called “Dinosaurs: Return To Life?”. The program was basically speculation on whether or not it might be possible to do what was done in the fictional story Jurassic Park, that is bring dinosaurs (or something similar to them) back to life.

The first noticeable gaffe, and the lesser of two, was that twice while the narrator was talking about all the new dinosaur/bird fossils that have been discovered in China recently, the image shown was not of any of these new fossils but instead was of the iconic Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx which was found in Germany in 1877.

A relatively minor error to be sure but it is still enough to get the goat of science freak like myself.

The second and more egregious mistake came when there was a discussion of developmental Hox genes. As an example they discussed how Hox genes control the development of different parts of larval butterflies (caterpillars). During this discussion what appeared first on the screen was a nice picture of a collection of various butterflies followed by this (below), apparently to represent the caterpillars being referred to:


For those who haven’t taken a few zoology classes or committed the names of the Burgess Shale fauna to memory what you are looking at is a split screen image with a picture of a fossil from the Burgess Shale known as Aysheaia above, and a picture of a living animal known as an onychophoran (or commonly “velvet worms”). Aysheaia btw, is thought to be a fossil of an early onychophoran.

Now it is true that onychophorans might look somewhat caterpillar-like but they are far, far, from being caterpillars. Not only are they not insect larva, they’re not insects. Not only are they not insects but they are not even arthropods. In fact they belong to a completely different Phylum of animals, oddly enough the Phylum Onychophora. They would have been closer if they have put up a picture of a crab larva while they were talking about caterpillars. That at least would have been an animal from the same Phylum.

Enough you say? You think this is all just geeky nit-picking? Phylum-shmylum? OK, how about this…

The History Channel has an ongoing series called Ancient Discoveries, an episode of which I happened upon the other day. It was of particular interest to me because it was on giant Chinese ships built during the 1400’s. Why are giant old Chinese ships interesting to me? Two words: Noah’s Ark. You see the fact that the Chinese built some rather large wooden vessels sometimes comes up in discussions of the feasibility of the Biblical Ark story (follow this link for an example). But all this is besides the point.

In the second half of the program the action focused on some guy and his “team” searching for wreckage of one of these giant Chinese ships on the west coast of North America, Oregon to be specific. The gentleman is then shown walking around a dune field with a pair of dowsing rods in his hand!



The narrator uncritically tells the viewers of how successful the guy has been at finding gold, oil and all sorts of goodies with his “divining technique”. Folks, this is voodoo, plain and simple. They might just as well have gutted a chicken right there and read its entrails for clues as to the whereabouts of the supposed shipwreck.

After drilling into the sand for a day and half they came up with little more than some tiny bits of wood (driftwood most likely) which they hailed as being part of the ships keel, but when they sank a second hole in an attempt to get a dateable sample (for carbon 14 dating) they were unable to locate any further pieces. Why I was shocked, shocked I say, that they were coming up empty, and laughably, so were they. One of the “team” expressed confusion as no fewer than three of them had all gotten the same “readings” from their voodoo wires. Why, how could that be?

Huh, maybe because magic doesn’t work?

So anyway, watch it for fun but remember they aren’t exactly peer reviewing this stuff.


2 thoughts on “Quality control in science and history television

  1. Troy, I’m glad someone else has noticed this.
    I’ve been often enough (several times a week, at least) bothered by misstatements and occasionally flat-out *wrong* scientific information given by some of these programs.
    One expects (and I’m afraid the public expects) that venues like the Discovery and History channels can be trusted to hand out at least *correct* scientific information, but I’m afraid that they are still “commercial” programs, using great imagery and fascinating concepts, to make money.
    It’s a pity, and I’m glad you’re pointing it out.
    If you continue watching, and if other watchers who are specialists in various scientific fields are watching, I fear you will see more of this sort of unfortunate misinformation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s