This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Personal Paradigm Shift

There were a number of really inspiring moments at TAM for me, but the first and possibly greatest was Jennifer Ouellette's presentation on Friday.

Before I get into her presentation it is probably worth contextualizing my own position in the skeptical world. I – if you've been reading much you know this – am an artist. A film-maker specifically. And frankly, my business is rife with woo. Yes, there are plenty of folks who are rational in 'the biz' but we are out-numbered I am certain. Further I am confident that the creatives (my world) are the ones who are more likely to be the woo-mongers. Who in the film industry is more likely to be rational? The technicians. To be fair – thank goodness it's that way. I think it's even Darwinian. If a technician fucks up (and everything technical is ultimately science) it could mean someone gets hurt or even killed or at least money is wasted. But it is contingent upon the creatives to expand their minds – often magically. And while those of us who are rational thinkers are capable of imaginary magical thought, it is not contingent upon success to be able to cross that barrier... I'd even argue that it's beneficial to be prone to avoiding the world of rational thought – though I could argue the other side easily too. I don't really know what proportion of folk at TAM would be connected to the entertainment industry (especially when you discount celebrity skeptics who are often presenters and panellists) but I suspect we are not well represented amongst attendees.

I had never heard of Jennifer Ouellette before Tam. But I expect I will never forget her.

Unfortunately I was a dumbass and neglected for the first time all conference to turn on my audio recorder until well after she'd started. It would happen again.

Ms. Ouellette is the Director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange (SEE), a program of the National Academy of Sciences. It is actually quite a new organization so the focus of her talk was on what SEE does.

SEE's mission is to facilitate a greater connection between real-world science and popular entertainment. Primarily this is done through maintaining a stable of scientists in a wide variety of disciplines who are interested and available to act as consultants to film, television, video-games and in theory other art-forms as applicable. They act as a nexus between the two communities.

The goal of SEE is to improve the way science is portrayed in popular media. Not simply in terms of getting more correct facts and processes out in films and TV, but in how scientists themselves are portrayed. (Not many wear lab-coats and few do it regularly.) They don't have illusions about reforming the art of good story-telling on a show like Fringe, or correcting details like DNA test results taking a few hours on CSI. (Which would regularly make the show dull, dull, dull.) There are a variety of ways in which real science can be used to enrich a story. Most simply, there are any number of times where fact-checking does no harm to the plot of a story. One of the ways they are used most often is as a creative think-tank. Before charting a season of a show, a roomful of appropriately skilled scientists and the show writers can sit down for a free-form discussion to see what possibilities lie in the real science that surrounds the concept of a show. This way the writers can form their ideas from the outset around plot possibilities that are rooted in real science rather than extrapolated from whole-cloth and their own often mistaken ideas of what is possible. But even more than that there is the ability to find teaching opportunities within the bad-science that does make it through. For example on a DVD there could be a featurette on the physics behind space-flight in a movie space-opera.

As a writer and producer this talk excited the hell out of me. It was encouraging and inspiring. When Ms. Ouellette started her discussion by asking "how do we get better science into TV & film?" my side-long response to Paul was "hire more writers like me." Knowing that there is momentum out there to bring more science to our programming makes me feel less like an outlier. In fact her presentation in many ways set the tone of the conference for me. Between Bill Prady, Jennifer Ouellette, the panel on Skepticism and Broadcasting to follow on the next day, as well as my own science-themed film screening the previous night I felt as though the theme of TAM had been about bringing better science to the big and large screens. It wasn't, of course. It just felt that way to me.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe interviewed Ms. Ouellette at TAM, the interview aired last week on the podcast.

I bought Jodie a copy of Jennifer's Buffy book as a present from my trip to TAM.

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