I spoke with Dr. Aled Edwards, science advisor for the Canadian sci-fi show ReGenesis, for the Blogcritics article TV Show ReGenesis Generates Interest in Science, which incorporates information from a public forum, too.
But for more of what Dr. Edwards had to say, here’s the transcript of our talk:
DK: What has been your involvement with ReGenesis?
AE: I’m the director of a genome project, a large biology project funded by Canada, Sweden, the Wellcome Trust, and a pharmaceutical company. Our mandate, and the reason we get funded, is to place fundamental information about people into the public domain with no patents. So the project is really about making information freely available. Because we do it on such a large scale, we delve into the policy realm in which we’re – I wouldn’t say combating, but there’s always a tension around should you patent something and make money off it or it is better to be free. We fall into the “it should be free” camp.
Because of the policy ramifications, I spend a bit of my time doing public outreach, because to understand the complexities of whether information should be kept proprietary or free or the value of the information or why Canadian taxpayers pay me to do it, people need to at least be familiar with the words. So I spend a lot of my time doing public outreach.
But you don’t normally talk to the majority of Canadians because they just tune out when they hear the word science. So I figured I’d bait and switch. Get them watching TV and before they knew it, they might even learn something. That’s why I did it. So I helped the guys do their stories on the precondition that they stick to as much reality as possible.
None of these scientific programs are ultimately the truth, because we have boring jobs. I sit on my ass all day in front of the computer. The action takes place in the head and you don’t see anything. There’s no shooting and stuff. But it’s fun for people to start to realize what we do, and ReGenesis is the most accurate scientific drama out there, no holds barred, for sure.
Well not only accurate in the science but accurate in the way the people act. If an experiment takes five hours, the writers aren’t allowed to take a shortcut and say it took one hour.
That’s got to be hard on them.
They tell me it’s an incredibly difficult job. The writers tell me, because they’re not scientists, it’s the most difficult job they’ve ever had, because the constraints of the scientific facts definitely affect the kinds of stories they can write. A lot of television writing is formulaic, and it’s so easy to fall back into the trite stories that you know people will watch, you know people will like. This is a much greater challenge, but it’s a much nobler challenge, I think.
Why do you think it’s important that fictional TV gets the science right?
It’s all part and parcel of getting the public familiar with science, familiar with the scientific method, familiar with uncertainty.
I hold up global warming as the biggest failure to communicate in the history of mankind. It was pretty darn clear with high probability 30 years ago that this was happening. There were certainly uncertainties in the scientific community about the rate at which it was happening, but as time went on, it became more and more certain. And it took Al Gore, right?
We’d known about it, but we were ineffective communicators as a scientific community, or the media didn’t have the appropriately receptive ears. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t interpret uncertainty. They thought uncertainty, therefore nobody agrees. It wasn’t uncertain that it was happening, sure it was uncertain the extent to which it was happening, the degree of some of the downstream effects – is the earth going to rise by a degree or a degree and a half, is the ice going to melt in 2030 or 2080? That’s uncertain. But the fact that it was happening was not uncertain, or that man was doing it.
We really did a shitty job of communicating, and part of that is educating ourselves as a scientific community in how to communicate, part of it is educating the media on how to listen to scientists, because we always use waffle-y words. “Suggest.””It suggests that….” We don’t want to be caught dead saying “it is,” because until it’s absolutely proven we won’t say that. “The data suggests that the earth is warming and that man is the cause.” And the media will go, “uh oh, ‘suggest,’ that means they can’t be sure, that means it’s uncertain, that means it may not be happening.”
We did 20 years of that. In large part because it was a community that doesn’t use the same words, a community that has challenges speaking with one another, and so public awareness is a darned important part of any scientist’s job.
And yet on TV, on CSI, no one ever gets it wrong. It’s great that it’s increasing awareness for science, but, I don’t know if it’s an urban myth, but juries are now expecting certainty.
I’ve heard that, that there’s a CSI effect on juries.
I don’t know if it’s true or not because I haven’t looked into it …
[Laughs] So as a scientist, you can’t say for certain.
Exactly. And if it is true, you can understand why. They always get it right on TV. [In real life,] the policemen come and give their testimony and there’s a little bit of uncertainty and whoa, why can’t you get it right? That’s a minor issue. That ain’t global warming, death of the earth kind of story, but it’s indicative of the larger issue of the world in which we live.
So I’ve taken it upon myself to do a small part and try to reach a community out there and show that science is risks. We don’t know the answers. Everything we think is a hypothesis that we have to prove.
And the writers, I spend a lot of time changing the words in those scripts. David, the lead character, will say “I know the answer.” Well, we never say that. So we changed that script to “My hypothesis is…” or something like that. The writers don’t like it because it sounds so waffle-y, but that’s how we talk.
So do you get final say? Do they always listen to you?
I miss some stuff because I’m busy, but for the most part I do have final say. If I say “it cannot happen like that,” the guys will change it, to their credit.
Do you find it difficult to watch other television programs like CSI or House, then, because of the dramatic license they take?
I don’t watch those shows. I don’t watch much TV at all. They’re kind of neat … well, let me put it another way. When I watch those shows, I turn off my scientific brain. I say I’m watching mindless entertainment here. Because if I put on my scientific brain, I’d get upset. So I just watch it and think this is not science, this is not medicine, this is just television and I’m going to watch it with my brain off and sit with the kids and talk about their day while the TV is on.
That sounds like a good coping mechanism.
Well, the House thing. The guy always gets it right. There’s not a human on the planet …. It’s almost like watching a cartoon, where Batman or Superman or House is the same. When I watch Superman, I don’t get upset: “Hey, men can’t fly!” You obviously treat it in the light in which you want to.
Do you think TV can be effective in making people think about scientific issues that should get attention?
I don’t think so. I mean, it’s not going to be a panacea, that’s for sure. There definitely has to be downstream work, that’s for sure. The use of what we did in Vancouver — I don’t know, you’d be better to comment than I — one could have watched, for example, the use of predictive genomes to guess what a person’s behaviour was going to be like, it’s one thing watching it on TV, it’s another thing sitting around an evening with a coffee or a couple of beers talking about it.
That would be a typical conversation for us scientists in the evening. When you go out, apart from how the Blue Jays are doing, if we were to talk about science that’s the kind of stuff we talk about, “what do you think?” Because there certainly is no answer but it’s fun to talk about. Unfortunately for the public’s perspective, unfortunately for them, this will be the reality in three years, so you can either not ignore it, or have it slam into your face in three years.
Because I can promise you, you’re going to have your DNA sequenced before you’re dead. Just think about that. There’s your genetic code, and people can look at it and make predictions about you. It’s going to be weird, but it’s going to be true.
No. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish in these follow-on events, is to make people see this isn’t like a TV show that’s science fiction, this is science reality, and let’s just talk about what it means. And you saw what happens.
I had a great time, because I walked around the tables. In Hamilton, the public to scientist ratio was better, in my opinion. One or two scientists per table, and the rest members of the community, and oh, the conversations were fantastic. “Did you know the smallpox genome was freely available?” You should have seen their faces when they were told that. I think if we can organize these follow-on fora, that would be fun. But you know, we went to Vancouver and a hundred people came. Well, that’s not that many. So I don’t know if there is a better way.
Jay Ingram was saying, is documentary better? I don’t know if it was in Vancouver or Hamilton he was quoted as saying people are always coming up to him and saying “oh, Daily Planet, I love it.” Then when he asks them “what show did you like best,” they blank. They don’t remember any of the details, they’re just sort of in and out.
He said that in Vancouver; he said people aren’t learning facts, they’re learning an appreciation.
Isn’t that stunning?
It is. That surprised me.
I’m hoping that in a discussion format like we had that evening, people will remember stuff now because they’ve actually thought about it, and chatted about it, and heard other people’s opinions, and that is a much better way to learn than listening to a fact or watching it mindlessly on the TV.
What else do you do for outreach? Do you do these forums frequently, or are there other components?
We’ve only done two and they were pilot projects, so we’re really looking for feedback from people like you who went. I mean, if we did these in various places would people like them? And one could even film it, and people could hear debates on TV. It’s kind of neat because it’s not scientists talking, it’s scientists arguing with each other, which is the natural course of science. When you take things where you don’t know the answer, you debate. So anyway, we might do that. I speak often to high schools and speak everywhere I can in public fora. I’m speaking at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research evening session. But you know, it’s only a certain type of person who’s going to come and listen to a scientist come and talk in the evening.
Yeah, I felt like a big nerd for wanting to go to the forum, but the room was full so it felt great.
And the Vancouver session, for example, that’s much less nerdy than if you go to the evening sessions, where the average age of the audience is 85.
Not quite reaching the young folk there.
Exactly right, and it’s the young folk whose lives are going to be most affected by this stuff. So that’s why the TV thing, in Hamilton and Vancouver we used the draw of television and personalities to bring people there and then talk science and they realize man, that’s kind of fun. That’s why we were trying to link the art and the science together, because they’re both about creativity and they’re both about using your brain.
So you did have fun? It’s important for me to know that.
I did, I had a lot of fun, I’m a bit of a science nerd.
Were there other community people at your table or were they mostly scientists?
There were other community people. Most of them seemed to be students or people who had a science background though. I was there for the TV side of it – I run a website to promote Canadian television – so I was there for the ReGenesis side of it, but I seemed to be the only one I talked to who was there because of the TV part of it. There were a lot of people associated with Genome BC.
We asked them to make sure there was one scientist at each table, and then all the scientists came because of the TV. It’s kind of cool, you know, we never meet actors and producers and directors.
It makes it sexy.
Exactly right, so that’s what brought the scientists out, let me tell you. But like I said, in Hamilton the ratio was much better. We had about 300 people there, about 50-70 scientists and the rest were people in the public. I told you I roamed around, and the conversations were far reaching and really interesting.
I found the discussion fascinating, things I wouldn’t have thought of. I watched the clips with my own perspective and then got to hear other people’s and think, oh, yeah, I can see that too.
That’s exactly the point.
See, I learned.