Science: ‘In my expert opinion…’

Finding science experts isn't, well... rocket science. But it does mean doing your homework. 'The temptation is to go with the person who can shoot their mouth off,' observes John Smithson, creative director for London's Darlow Smithson Productions. 'But creating a credible, authoritative documentary requires researching the subject matter thoroughly yourself, identifying a number of appropriate experts to act as behind-the-scenes consultants and on-air communicators, and then running down the best ones for the project.'
October 1, 2005

Finding science experts isn’t, well… rocket science. But it does mean doing your homework. ‘The temptation is to go with the person who can shoot their mouth off,’ observes John Smithson, creative director for London’s Darlow Smithson Productions. ‘But creating a credible, authoritative documentary requires researching the subject matter thoroughly yourself, identifying a number of appropriate experts to act as behind-the-scenes consultants and on-air communicators, and then running down the best ones for the project.’

Sounds simple enough. But where does one start?

Jago Lee, director of documentaries at Tiger Aspect, recently assembled a team of science hosts for the pilot of Men in White. The show, which will air in 2006 as part of a 7 x 1-hour series on Channel 4 in the U.K., challenges a team of three scientists to find solutions to everyday problems, such as using holograms to cure a bad view or making a car unticketable. The hosts operate out of a bachelor-pad-cum-laboratory, where they take on viewer problems sent in on video, build their kits and then swoop out to save the day.

Lee says the prodco began casting for a team of two or three hosts, each in their mid to late 20s, with different skills but a similar sense of humor. ‘With this show, we knew we had two problems,’ he admits. ‘First, we had the problem of finding the individuals, then we had the problem of those individuals getting on and there being a group dynamic. It was a bit like creating a boy band, because they had to look good and they had to perform together.’

Working with the Science Museum in London, the producers called literally hundreds of prospects, finally narrowing the list to about 150. They brought them all in – 20 to 30 per day – and filmed them in Tiger Aspect’s London studio. From those tests, they narrowed the field to 20 and filmed them as duos, trios and in fours.

Not being scientists themselves and not having a science advisor in place for the pilot (although one will be used for the series), the producers pre-researched select topics – such as the birth of the universe and problems with mobiles – and tested their subjects on them. ‘If they could give us a compelling description in their own language, we were impressed,’ says Lee. ‘Interestingly, a lot of people didn’t know the answers. Many set themselves up as scientific experts who probably weren’t as expert as they thought.’

The final trio, he notes, had obvious chemistry. More importantly, they all had real-world experience – one builds robots, one is an engineer, and the last is a journalist. None are what one would call hardcore academics. ‘On this side of the Atlantic, science is really going very, very populist; the level of science mass audiences want is not terribly demanding, so we were looking for people who felt like friends – who looked like people you could talk to in the pub. They’re more worldly, and that worldliness makes them better communicators.’

One-shot wonders
Finding competent hosts with enough charisma to carry a show is one matter. Finding credible guests who can speak to complicated science is another, though just as complicated.

Jay Ingram, co-host and producer of Discovery Canada’s three-year-old Daily Planet science show, says his best advice is to find people actually associated with the story, rather than going to secondary sources. So for a story on climate change, suggests Ingram, find the people who have run the computer models, not the climatologists or activists. ‘You’re going to get a point of view no matter what,’ he says, ‘but, in general, the closer you get to the people who are actually doing the work, the better off you are.’

Ingram also suggests that filmmakers look for people who are published in reputable journals, as it will cut down – though not eliminate – the crackpot factor, since the science was likely reviewed before it was published. However, notes Ingram, ‘I’m beginning to find that the phrase ‘peer reviewed’ is a little vaguer than you might like. Who are your peers? The guy next door?’

Host of the CBC Radio science series Quirks and Quarks from 1979 to 1992, Ingram has the benefit of experience when it comes to casting, but he stresses that filmmakers looking to avoid surprises need to do research. Beyond reading work the expert has published in science journals, look at the expert’s co-authors. Read the bibliography to see who they are quoting – or not quoting. In other words, understand the spin before they’re in front of the camera. ‘The first thing I do now,’ reveals Ingram, ‘is see if there is a name on the list of authors that I don’t recognize. If so, I immediately look to see who he is publishing with, because if I find a super-skeptic among that list, then I know how to interpret the paper.’

Interestingly, Ingram recommends caution when it comes to experts who inundate producers with material when approached. ‘That’s always suspicious. The guys who have been backed into the corner because their views are going against the majority, those people tend to get really desperate; they grasp at straws. And if you give any evidence you’re interested at all, you are their buddy for life. Unfortunately, some of [their outlandish ideas] might be right, but it’s pretty hard to swim against the majority.’

Even if producers are not experts, Ingram says the most obvious warning sign should be the filmmakers’ own content. ‘You may not be well versed in the science, but you certainly know whether or not it’s controversial science. That should be the red flag in and of itself. Where there is controversy, there are bound to be papers published on both sides of the question, and you have to be careful you’re not just selecting from one side.’

With budgets so stretched, there’s understandable worry that the best minds might not come cheap. But there’s little to fear. No one gets rich being an on-call science expert. Most are looking for press, or will work for small honorariums of US$1,000 or less. But there are perks producers can use to attract the best minds. For Men in White, Tiger Aspect is hoping for publishing and ancillary products, which will give its experts some publicity. And then there are the scientists’ own motivations. Notes Ingram, ‘There is an increased… I wouldn’t say pressure – but certainly desire – at universities to have their people in the media because they are in fundraising mode all the time now. I don’t think there is any concrete reward, but it’s appreciated at least at some level.’

Good science vs. good TV
Competent science is not always good TV, and sometimes science has to be sublimated to available visuals. It’s best to discuss editorial policies with guests before shooting begins. ‘We make clear to our experts right from the start that pbs has stringent requirements with respect to their role in producing programming,’ says Jared Lipworth, executive producer for science programs at Thirteen/WNET in New York. ‘Although they can be used on camera, in an advisory capacity, or both, they don’t have any degree of editorial control. Experts who are working in an advisory capacity may be given rough cuts so they can be checked for factual accuracy. On-air experts do not get to see programs before they air.’

Daily Planet will also shoot multiple takes of an interview, if required, to help subjects tune their answers for length and clarity. Says Ingram, ‘You understand the need to draw an audience, but at the same time you want to violate the science as little as possible.’

There are alternatives, if time permits. In the case of Men in White, Tiger Aspect had its experts tackle seven different problems for the pilot, knowing only three or four would be used. ‘If it wasn’t proving to be good TV,’ recalls Lee, ‘then we cut to the next thing pretty quickly.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.