From Abracadabra to Zombies
Science Channel Catering to Irrationality and Superstition
July 29, 2014. A few months ago I received the following email, inquiring about my interest in helping out a producer of a new television series. The series debuts in the U.S. tonight on the Science Channel and was roundly panned by United Media TV critic Kevin McDonough. I'll get to the critical review in a moment, but first the email:
Dear Mr Carroll,
I hope you are well. I’m a Story Producer at a UK production company called Raw (www.raw.co.uk). We’re an award-winning film and TV production company specialising in documentaries for international broadcasters.
We’re currently making a series called The Unexplained Files about various mysterious happenings and phenomena around the world for the Discovery Network. We are hoping to include a segment on Cell Memory i.e. a recipient of a transplant taking on some features of the donor, be it food preferences, personality or any other element of the donor.
I understand that this is an area that you are interested in and that you have a theory that would explain cell memory?
I was wondering if you might have a few minutes for a chat?
Do let me know if you are interested and we can arrange a time to talk.
Many thanks in advance,
I went to the Raw website and my reaction was similar to the reaction Kevin McDonough had to the first showing in the U.S. of The Unexplained Files on the so-called Science Channel. Here is a copy of my response to Ms. Hartley:
Dear Ms. Hartley,
I would find it difficult to be part of a program that claims "Every year, around the world, extraordinary and unexplainable events are reported by hundreds of unconnected eyewitnesses....These are events that leading scientists can’t explain.... "
If these events are unexplainable, why bother me? I might disagree and try to explain some of them. Cellular memory, on the other hand, is one of those things that doesn't need to be explained because it doesn't happen. So, no, I do not have a "theory" about cellular memory. I am aware that you will have no trouble locating dozens of authorities who will say memories can be transferred to cells from transplanted organs. They are the entertainment you are looking for. These folks will create imaginative speculations about memory that have no basis in fact or scientific knowledge of how memory works. They'll then proceed to use their speculations to "explain" how memories of the experiences of one person can be transferred to another person by transplanting an organ from the first person into the second. Many people love this kind of stuff because they're scientifically illiterate and, like the rest of us, they love a good story.
If you end up claiming in your program that cellular memory is "unexplainable" or "unexplained," then you are not much of a journalist, though from the descriptions I read on the website for your program, the show is more about titillation and entertainment than journalistic inquiry. It's one thing to say that scientists disagree about a topic; it's quite another to put forth people with questionable credentials as scientists or to provide a false symmetry by opposing two views, though one is held by a consensus of qualified scientists and the other by a few outliers or cranks.
Anyway, no thanks.
Dr. Robert T. Carroll
I received a polite response, thanking me for my feedback and wishing me "all the best." I then forgot about Ms. Hartley and The Unexplained Files until I read Mr. McDonough's review of the program in my morning newspaper. I found it refreshing to read a mainstream TV critic who was not timid about referring to a program on the Science Channel as not science or even rational. The review begins without leaving any doubt about what the reviewer thinks of this program posing as science on a channel whose name implies it is for people who want scientific programming:
Can't we leave the Science Channel to science? Must every non-fiction series on TV be devoted to superstition, gullibility and fear? Can't believers in rational thought have one measly channel to call their own? There are dozens of shows searching for ghosts (that no one has found) and a Bigfoot (that doesn't exist). How many UFO hunting shows do we need?
Of course I had to read the entire review and so should you unless you have already realized that the Science Channel is about science in name only. McDonough is not finished:
Why can't the Science Channel stick to principles of rational thought, inquiry, and theories tested by experiment? Alas, reality TV's Age of Unreason has infected this bastion of critical thinking with "The Unexplained Files" (8 p.m.), a series that supposedly takes a "scientific" look at phenomena that "reason cannot explain."
For the past quarter of a century, television viewers have been repeatedly slapped in the brain with "umpteenth iterations" of Unsolved Mysteries.
The Unexplained Files continues the tradition. For many Americans, this tripe is their reality and the only "science" they are exposed to. Fortunately, the viewers of such programs probably aren't running our space program or working on a cure for cancer.
note: Discovery Communications owns 14 U.S. cable and satellite television networks, including Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery, Science, American Heroes Channel, Destination America, Discovery Fit & Health, and Velocity. Discovery also operates a joint venture with OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.