Well, it turns out he has a few other fans and he finally got enough critical mass that he's getting a television show starting this weekend. We're going to endorse any science program that isn't alleging there are aliens living in the ocean or ghosts ... well ... everywhere, but it's even more exciting because he's not a top-down scientist, like some lecture-happy big science personalities, he is very much a bottom-up guy who cares about science outreach and educating people. He's been blogging about science since 1998, before the term 'blog' even existed, but debunking silliness well before that and is a true pioneer in science 2.0.
So rather than just mention the new show I asked this legendary science outreach veteran a few questions about science outreach, skepticism and "Bad Universe".
Science 2.0: You've been debunking myths and educating people about science for 17 years now. Has debunking worked or do people still believe in Moon Hoaxes and eggs standing up on the first day of spring?
Phil Plait: There will always be people who believe in something silly; after all, there are still people who think the Earth is flat, and others who earnestly believe the Sun revolves around us! However, I've noticed over the years when I give my Bad Astronomy talk - where I balance eggs on end as a prelude to talking about the cause of the seasons - that fewer and fewer people have heard of the egg-balancing myth. Could that be due to my efforts? As much as I'd like to believe that, I doubt it; it seems more likely that some urban legends just die away on their own. And while the number of Moon hoax believers is waning, there are still active ones out there. They are impervious to logic and evidence, and choose their own reality or lack thereof. I've pretty much said my piece about it, and there's not much more ground to cover there.
And, of course, there will always be The Next Thing. Right now that's the 2012 nonsense, and when December 21, 2012 comes and goes, what will be next?
Science 2.0: Asteroids clobbering the planet deserves a treatment people can't get from Michael Bay movies. Did you get to pick the topics for the 3 episodes or did the network have things in mind based on their audience?
Phil Plait: Well, no one deserves a Michael Bay movie! In fact, I worked closely with the production company on creating the episodes. They chose the three topics (based on my book "Death from the Skies!"), but it was a very collaborative process.
The three we did would've been my choices anyway. Still and all, I'd love to tackle a show about the end of the Universe. To my knowledge it's not been done carefully, and certainly not recently with current knowledge of cosmology. It might be a creepy episode, but a lot of fun to do!
Science 2.0: You're one of the foremost skeptics in the world but Discovery Channel was once so pop science they could have co-branded The Shroud of Turin. Is the show a way for you to educate a broader audience or does Discovery now want to reach out to a more scientific demographic?
Phil Plait: I can't speak for the network, since Their Ways Are Mysterious. But they do a lot of really solid science on Discovery Channel, and they were my top choice for the network to air the show. "Mythbusters" wasn't ever declared to be a science show, but it showcases the scientific method beautifully and in a hugely fun way.
As for me, I can reach more people doing one episode of a TV show than I could in a solid month's worth of blogs, and those are folks who have never heard of my blog before! So I'm really excited about reaching a whole new audience of people who may not even know they love astronomy and science ... yet.
Science 2.0: The 2012 end-of-the-world people are pulling out all of the stops. I recently saw a History Channel program which combined Hopi Indians, Hindus and Nostradamus with the Mayans, kind of like a Justice League for pseudoscience believers. I need to buy a car so should I pay cash or get a loan I will never have to pay off?
Phil Plait: What, you mean that show didn't include a UFO delivering Hitler's ghost via black hole through the Bermuda Triangle? Yeah, a lot of programming on some channels doesn't even come within a glancing blow of reality. One of the rock-solid foundations of "Bad Universe" was that it must be based on science, and if we aren't sure about something we say so. If it's speculative, we say so. If the results are ambiguous, we say so! We're even careful to say when we're basing things on the best scientific evidence we have *right now*. If it seems likely that new results may change what we think, well, we say so. That's science. That's reality.
As for 2012, feh. It's a load of nonsense, and I don't like how some people have cashed in on it. It's based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar, and gets worse from there. There's no galactic alignment, no Planet X that'll wipe out life on Earth, no expected super-solar storms to reach out and fry us where we stand. It's all a big load, and if you don't pay your mortgage that month, well, caveat emptor. Or more realistically, "empty".
I also asked what a lot of you are probably thinking - what response does it take for a new show like this to go from a mini-series to a real series? Phil didn't know so, being a scientist, didn't want to comment, and the VP of Communications at Discovery Channel replied "it depends" and "In terms of science programming, we are hugely committed" which isn't much of an answer but Discovery funds an entire Science Channel and has had a Science 2.0 writer host a show there so we get that they care and we'll give them a break on not wanting to disclose competitive information on the Internet.
They also killed me for Shark Week and I don't want to make enemies by asking too many questions, lest they change me from chum to actual 'chum'.
So since we don't know what kind of Neilsen ratings it takes to get this as a full-time gig, let's just go ahead and get him a bigger viewership than the last Super Bowl and those things will take care of themselves. Phil Plait’s "Bad Universe" premieres this Sunday night August 29, at 10:00 p.m. (eastern) on the Discovery Channel - and here is a preview!
And you can follow Phil on his site, on Facebook and on Twitter.
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