Silicon valley

A too-critical critic?

If I got paid to do reviews of books, movies, websites, and products I definitely could turn it into a full-time job. Almost every day something turns up in my inbox telling me about a new website or product that someone wants me to take a look at and plug here. I end up deleting most of them (sometimes wondering why some of these people think I’m fit to review websites about herbal remedies and other such things), but a few are interesting enough that I do want to take a look. Some things I know I’m going to like before I even receive the materials, others I end up being pleasantly surprised by, but I have received a few things that have made it difficult to find any positive words about. These can be the most difficult reviews to write of all, not because I’m afraid of making negative comments, but rather because I want to make sure that those comments are on the mark and not just snarky dismissiveness.

I’ve been thinking a bit about what I expect of science-themed media since the whole Sizzle kerfuffle blew up earlier this week and I received an episode of Jurassic Fight Club. Let’s start with Sizzle. As much as I was looking forward to it I didn’t like it, and the reaction of some of the people who did irked me a bit. I tried to explain why I didn’t think the film worked but as we moved into meta territory things heated up and it was asserted that those who didn’t like the film were too “literal-minded.” I still disagree with the sentiment but I can understand where it comes from; I just made similar comments myself about people who were critical of The Dark Knight. What a reviewer expects of a film or a book and what they hold in high regard certainly make a difference, and while writing reviews of things I didn’t like I want to try to keep my own expectations in mind.

Admittedly I have not always been the best at keeping things in perspective when it comes to science media; it’s all-too-easy to fire off a snarky comment without even seeing the finished product. Given the quality (or general lack of quality) that I’ve seen on many History, Discovery, and National Geographic Channel programs I almost entirely dismissed Jurassic Fight Club as another sensationalist piece of junk. Fortunately for me someone from the promotional team sent me a copy of the first episode and I got to see it for myself; it was much better than I had assumed and I should not have written it off so quickly. Here I am, someone who has contributed vanishingly little to helping people understand science, criticizing the efforts of people who have worked hard for years to tell people about science in a compelling way. I’m not going to close my critical eye and become such a relativist that “everything is good in it’s own way,” but I fear that I have sometimes let complaints over superficial points substitute for more deeply-considered criticism.

In considering my own critical shortcomings I’m reminded of something Matt Wedel once wrote about the overflow of cgi dinosaurs that rampage across the television screen almost continuously. While I will generally watch anything featuring a dinosaur or other prehistoric creature Matt is right in pointing out that older, outdated reconstructions are often favorites while new efforts are ripped to shreds. I’ve done a fair bit of that myself, and while I still intend on pointing out naked dromeosaurs that are holding their hands wrong every now and then it still is pretty cool that people have spent so much time, money, and effort to bring extinct animals back to life.

Art and paleontology have been closely associated from the very beginning, and while the quality of the work that results from the intersection of the two may vary it’s still hard not to enjoy watching cgi dinosaurs run around. Take Jurassic Park III as a particularly non-educational example. It’s a terrible b-movie and the aspiring-paleontologist side of me could come up with a laundry list of complaints (to say nothing of the plot), but at the end of the day I still watch it more often than most movies because the little kid part of me still likes seeing dinosaurs stomp around and imagine what they were like in life.

When I was a dinosaur-obsessed kid (as opposed to the dinosaur-obsessed adult) scientific accuracy didn’t matter. Dinosaurs were everywhere, on television, in movies, in toystores, on the pages of comic books, in museums, and in the library. I was enough of a nerd to like some of the documentaries best but the countless hours I spent playing with odd-shaped “Brontosaurus” and watching tail-dragging Allosaurus were more important in terms of feeding my interest than in delivering the most up-to-date science. They may have been “wrong” but they were still dinosaurs which inspired me to read every book I could find about them (I even got in trouble for “reading too high level” by my elementary school librarian).

Should we strive for accuracy? Absolutely, but when you think about how many issues are still hotly debated and how quickly science can change we shouldn’t get too worked up about minor details. These programs are not for us, the people who already know the material. They are for the people who don’t know, who are unaware of what has been discovered, and if a show can both entertain and educate without confining sauropods to swamps or showing cavemen with dinosaurs, then things probably aren’t all that bad.

Sometimes I think I’m too cranky for 25. The easy posts are the ones where I can whine about the public not understanding science, about what I think was wrong about this documentary or that book, or about the latest creationist nonsense. The more difficult ones involve actually contributing something positive, making my own effort to make sense of what might be otherwise held behind the wall of journal subscriptions and technical language. Others are trying to do the same in a ways that are much more far-reaching and significant, and while I may quibble over minor errors I should keep it in mind that they are just that and try to focus on the big picture.

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