What has happened to the art of making great documentaries about science? I’m thinking about amazing programs like “The Ascent of Man” by Jacob Bronowski, “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan or even the more recent “Planets” by the BBC? The first two really communicated the history and motivation and spirit of science, and The Planets at least communicated a coherent history of planetary exploration.

I recently bought the History Channel’s series “The Universe”, thinking I might send a copy to my niece’s kids. I didn’t bother, because it was absolutely terrible. The program was a series of flashy images and factoids, many of them simply incorrect. It failed to interview highly prominant scientists who were engagned in space missions. The episode on Venus, for example, didn’t even discuss any of the spacecraft sent to Venus or describe their experiements or interview the men who sent them.

These modern science programs simply fail to communicate the spirit of science. What questions are asked, how are they considered and answered by experiments and discourse, how did people make mistakes and then correct them? They fail to teach the scientific method. They fail to show how real scientists are engaged in a meaningful life that gives them pleasure.

Is it any wonder that so many people today cannot differentiate science from pseudo-science? A program like “The Universe” is not not much different in structure from a quack documentary like “The Secret” or a program about UFOs.

Science is being presented as “Gee whiz! Don’t you wish you were smart like these people?” instead of something that young viewers might actually want to do when they grow up.

PS. If you haven’t seen “The Ascent of Man”, consider renting it and watching it.