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Docu Dangers: Why Science Documentaries Usually Suck

Donate How we decide what makes a good topic for a skeptical documentary film.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid Podcast #941
June 18, 2024
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Docu Dangers: Why Science Documentaries Usually Suck

Skepticism, as someone once said, is where science literacy intersects with consumer protection. The better we understand the tools to tell what's real from what's not, the more successful we can be in every facet of life. That's what we're about here at Skeptoid.

As you may know, besides this podcast and some other things, we have pursued this kind of outreach through feature documentary films. Our most recent have been Principles of Curiosity (2017), Science Friction (2022), and The UFO Movie THEY Don't Want You to See (2023). Today I want to focus attention on the main problem that I struggle with as an independent filmmaker, and it's something I brought onto myself, because my motivation is to make a positive change in the world through skepticism and providing a knowledge-based alternative to harmful misinformation.

Filmmaking is successful when large audiences embrace a film, and for a documentary to find this kind of success, it has to be on a popular theme that will find a warm welcome among that target demographic including celebrities and social media influencers. The problem is that many areas of harmful misinformation are fashionable. For example, take organic food. Celebrities and influencers all love their organic food, and yet every speck of agricultural knowledge that we have tells us it's worse. Organic food has been so successfully greenwashed by the industry that every hip young person in the important cinema demographic thinks it's their moral duty to embrace and spread what is, in fact, harmful misinformation.

When I think about what movie to make next, I have a Venn diagram that I use. It's two circles with a small area of overlap. The circle on the left contains the important skeptical topics that I can make a difference in the world by advocating; the circle on the right is a list of topics that celebs and influencers in the important demographic will be receptive to. There is almost nothing in that little intersection — a little Eldorado of ideas that have popular support and are backed by good science. There's at least one topic, though, that is in the Eldorado zone; so let's talk about that.

Climate change.

The science behind anthropogenic climate change is beyond solid; it's a fact. Misinformation about it abounds, and the consequences of that misinformation are devastating. So, for my goals, making a film that combats climate change misinformation would be an important objective, worthy of our investment. And importantly, celebs and influencers love attacking climate misinformation and would elevate the film! But why they love it is a different matter. It's often not because they all read IPCC AR6 and came to that conclusion through careful study. In many cases, they love it simply because it's fashionable. They love it because the bad guys are the oil companies, the evil corporations, the capitalists, the profiteers, those who pollute uncaringly. But at the end of the day, the reason doesn't matter. The net result is that I can make a film that accomplishes something important, and the audiences will love it and it will do well and be seen all over the world. We'll have an impact.

There's a precedent for this. In 2016, actor Leonardo DiCaprio led a team of awesome collaborators who produced the film Before the Flood, in which he flew all over the world and showed the effects of climate change. It had impact. As a Hollywood favorite (and rightfully so), Leo has a huge fan base; many of them saw the film because he was in it, and had little prior exposure to the science. In its opening weeks it got more than 60 million views and was the very first film in history to surpass one billion minutes streamed across all platforms. That's impact.

So the value of a topic in the Eldorado zone is undeniable. However very few film producers seek it out, because they're profit driven, not mission driven — and the zone is pretty barren of moneymaking concepts. They care only about ideas that are popular among the celebrity and influencer crowd and have no interest in promoting valid science. Ideas like:

  • Modern agriculture is evil (Food Inc (2008), GMO OMG (2013), Kiss the Ground (2020), Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food (2023))
  • Alternative medicine is better than science based medicine (The Beautiful Truth (2008), A Leaf of Faith (2018), The Business of Disease (2014))
  • New Age spiritualism is the secret to super health and super success (The Secret (2006), Heal (2017))
  • Diet can cure all disease (The Gerson Miracle (2004), The Magic Pill (2017))
  • UFOs are actually alien visitors (Ariel Phenomenon (2022), Moment of Contact (2022))
  • Anything but a vegan diet will kill you (What the Health (2017), The Game Changers (2018))
  • Any chemical in any concentration is poisonous (Toxic Soup (2010), Stink! (2015))

We could go on all day. Heck, anything with Deepak Chopra is instantly a celebrity and influencer favorite. Long an enemy of science, Chopra's New Agey quotes are still reposted to social media practically every minute.

The whole problem of filmmakers favoring anti-scientific content was neatly illustrated in January 2024 when the Wall Street Journal published an article called "These Netflix Documentaries Are Hits. Scientists Hate Them." The article focused on two of these pseudo-documentaries, Cave of Bones and Ancient Apocalypse. Cave of Bones promoted a suggestion made by three anthropologists that the extinct archaic human species Homo naledi buried their dead, made cave art, and used fire — an idea that peer reviewers found unsupported by any evidence, and which found almost zero support from the academic community. It was based largely on the discovery of some 1500 bone fragments scattered in a deep cave in South Africa, representing about 15 individuals, and mixed with bone fragments of other animals. The condition of the bones and whole context of the scene is consistent with predation; some large predator dragged body parts down there and ate them. The show portrayed the suggestion as fact, or at worst, as the leading theory; and made a big deal over what wonderful intelligent creatures these early humans were to have such amazing abstract skills, even though Homo naledi was from the era when protohumans still had very small brains. The film appealed to audiences with its sensational and feel-good claim, despite everything we know telling us it's probably wrong.

Ancient Apocalypse was much worse. It was essentially an infomercial promoting the numerous provably false claims of ancient advanced civilization theorist Graham Hancock, a former journalist with no background in either history or anthropology, and who rejects much of what's known about human history and prehistory, asserting instead that some mystical ancient race of advanced beings is actually responsible for much of human culture. He believes that the advanced race became extinct in some global cataclysm. He also believes Mars had an ancient advanced civilization which was similarly destroyed in a cataclysm. Hancock has zero credibility within any of the relevant scientific communities, yet has become wealthy selling his anti-knowledge in books and TV shows. It is impossible to read anything about Hancock without learning that he is universally considered a crackpot, so that show's producers unquestionably knew that they were producing fiction. They presented it as if Hancock is some brave maverick who dares to ask the questions mainstream scientists won't, because it would threaten their grant gravy train, or something.

The basic problem is summarized in this line I spoke in The UFO Movie: "People forget that TV shows are entertainment. Nobody at the network cares how accurate it is, they only care that you watch."

Although it's pretty easy for us to identify the problem, finding the solution is much more elusive. That Eldorado zone is pretty lonely. There are a number of topics that seem like they might fit, but under scrutiny they don't. Examples would include things like inoffensive nature documentaries, like the Planet Earth series. Celebs and influencers certainly love these, and any science in them is probably sound; but they're not important cases of popular misinformation that need to be corrected. There are scads of documentaries that "raise awareness" of some global injustice, cases of starvation or oppression or genocide or environmental catastrophe; but these are not controversial and there's rarely misinformation needing to be countered, and Skeptoid is not the org best positioned with the core competence to spread that particular word. We want the cases where there's a lot of popular misinformation, and where celebs and influencers will be on our side to help publicize our movie.

What about vaccine science? To a certain degree, that's in the Eldorado zone. It's absolutely important science where disinformation is doing tremendous harm, and there are celebrities behind it. But the social media influencers are pretty split on the science; many of them lean heavily into the conspiracy theory angle on everything.

There are wacky alternative science subcultures, like the ancient astronaut conspiracy theorists, even the Flat Earthers. I'm not sure I'd devote our limited resources to this, since that stuff is so goofy it will probably always remain marginalized without our help. When the 2018 film Behind the Curve came out, which was about Flat Earth culture, it was fun but I doubt it changed any minds. It wasn't so much an educational documentary as it was a groan-inducing lark watching some train-wreck personalities.

What about other medical misinformation not related to vaccines? This is much worse. Celebs and influencers are nearly universally in lockstep in their embrace of unproven or disproven alternative medicine and wellness schemes. Clearly it's an important subject area, bursting with misinformation that needs to be corrected, but such a documentary would be largely unfashionable and would not do well.

And the need to do well — at least reasonably well — is the third corner of a triangle. The first two are the ones that intersect in the Eldorado zone to make a good concept: First, it has to be an important topic where we can have a beneficial impact; second, it has to be a topic that will find acceptance among at least a decent percentage of the influencer-driven demographic; and third, it has to be sufficiently financially viable that we can come back and make another film tomorrow. It's much easier to do any two of the three than it is to do all three of them.

And because studios and film professionals all live in a real world and have to make their money, they usually prioritize that. They make a movie that's going to make money, that's going to be shared and promoted around, and so those other goals — to get out the unpopular message which could have a real positive impact in the world — are the first to get slashed. Make something that's feel-good, that's uncontroversial, and that the celebs all love.

And so, that's my long-winded answer to why science documentaries usually suck, and how and why I make the choices that I make when we're evaluating what film to make next here at Skeptoid Media. When it comes around, if you want to be a part of it, simply join our mailing list for info about our films. The easiest way to do that is to go to the website for the latest one, that's theufo.movie, and there's a place you can put in your email address and we'll keep you posted. That website again is theufo.movie. Let's make the next one a good one!


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Docu Dangers: Why Science Documentaries Usually Suck." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 18 Jun 2024. Web. 18 Jul 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4941>

 

References & Further Reading

Calvario, L. "Before the Flood: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Climate Change Doc Gets Record 60 Million Views." IndieWire. IndieWire Media, LLC, 16 Nov. 2016. Web. 11 Jun. 2024. <https://www.indiewire.com/features/general/before-the-flood-climate-change-documentary-record-60-million-views-1201747088/>

Davis, M. "The Game, Unchanged (Short Version)." RP. Renaissance Periodization, LLC, 3 Jan. 2020. Web. 11 Jun. 2024. <https://rpstrength.com/blogs/articles/game-changers-critique-by-dr-mel-davis-short>

Dibble, F. "With Netflix’s Ancient Apocalypse, Graham Hancock has declared war on archaeologists." The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc., 18 Nov. 2022. Web. 11 Jun. 2024. <https://theconversation.com/with-netflixs-ancient-apocalypse-graham-hancock-has-declared-war-on-archaeologists-194881>

Fazel-Zarandi, M., Hartman-Sigall, J. "A research team’s finding of pre-human burial sites was publicly lauded. Then came the peer reviews." The Daily Princetonian. Princeton University, 18 Jul. 2023. Web. 11 Jun. 2024. <https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2023/07/princeton-ancient-human-relatives-buried-in-south-africa-national-geographic-anthropology-professor-peer-review>

Pomeroy, R. "The Five Most Anti-Science Documentaries on Netflix." RealClearScience. RealClear Media Group, 23 Apr. 2019. Web. 11 Jun. 2024. <https://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2019/04/23/the_five_most_anti-science_documentaries_on_netflix.html>

Woodward, A. "These Netflix Documentaries Are Hits. Scientists Hate Them." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 19 Jan. 2024. Web. 11 Jun. 2024. <https://www.wsj.com/science/netflix-ancient-apocalypse-cave-of-bones-science-documentary-debate-df63f403>

 

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