The Media Biases Towards Fear - A&E Edition

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In search of more television that our kids can enjoy and we can appreciate, especially now that we’ve gone through the available episodes of Mythbusters a few dozen times, I’ve been looking around for a few more science shows. PBS’s NOVA has a decent presence on YouTube, but some of the episodes are too high level for the kids. Add to this the fact that Vivian is still pretty sensitive when it comes to movies, or anything new, and we really have to tread carefully.

Recently, I stumbled upon an A&E series called, simply, The Universe. I decided to give it a look, in spite of the fact that some of the descriptions didn’t really fill me with hope. Here’s a typical example:

Jupiter: The Giant Planet

Half a billion miles from earth exists a mini solar system of over 60 moons rotating around a powerful planet of gas. It’s flowing colors and spots hold strange beauty, but contain violent storms and jet streams. Could this big, bright ball of turbulent weather have been the star of Bethlehem? Could one of its moons harbor life beneath its icy crust? Jupiter, the giant planet, is the king of many questions concerning our solar system and could possibly hold the answers.

Jupiter as the star of Bethlehem. Right.

Or this:

Alien Galaxies

To know our place in the universe take a look far, far away to the realm of Alien Galaxies. Our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions in the universe. The Milky Way consists of more than a billion stars, our sun being only one of them. Take a view of the universe through the Hubble Space telescope and go back almost all the way to the Big Bang. Cutting-edge computer graphics are used to bring the universe down to earth to show what life would be like on other planets, and to imagine what life forms might evolve in alien atmospheres.

Riiiiight.

Well, anyway, I decided to give this series a chance and I purchased an episode off of ITunes called The Day the Moon was Gone. And within ten minutes, I was alternately laughing uproariously, or shouting at the TV set. Though, in retrospect, I probably should have realized that this was going to happen when going in. Why? Here’s the description of the episode, again courtesy of iTunes:

Without the moon, Earth would be a very different and desolate place today—four hours of sunlight with pitch-black nights, steady 100-mph winds spawning giant hurricanes that last for months, and virtually no complex life forms, much less humans. Safe to say, we probably owe our very existence to the moon. But what if it suddenly disappeared?

“What if (the moon) suddenly disappeared?” Yeah, you read that right. And the episode leads off with this too. What if the Moon, without warning, and in an instant, vanished from our sky? Well, scientists say, its position relative to the Earth would be critical, as the moon-tide would suddenly revert to the sun-tide, and the ocean waters would slosh all over the place, killing untold millions of people on our coasts with the resulting tidal waves (all lovingly presented in computer animation) and literally wiping Florida off the map. Yes, let’s engage seriously in this possibility that conforms to absolutely no law of physics.

You know what’s more likely to happen than the moon suddenly vanishing from the sky without even a loud “pop!” I’ll tell you: it’s more likely that a rogue black hole could enter our solar system, mess with our gravitational relationships, and send the moon crashing into the Earth. I’m not kidding you: this is actually remotely possible and the other thing isn’t. This was possibly the dumbest academic question that I’d ever heard speculated about, and all narrated by an individual who took lessons from the Lorne Greene School of Doooooom!

The episode got moderately interesting when we ditched the dumb premise and started talking about what the Earth would be like if the Moon had never formed. Then the speculations started to mean something, and seemed moderately rooted in real science. But again the episode continually went for the eerie, the shocking or the gloomy, as though it was desperately trying to hold onto an audience that might channel surf away at any moment.

Mind you, I’m not surprised to see the channel that hosts this tabloid astronomy program: A&E. And once again, I shake my head at how the mighty have fallen. A channel that nominally advertises the highbrow Arts along with its Entertainment has long since given up its esoteric goals for the crass pandering of Growing Up Gotti. And I’m told that the History Channel is even worse, delving into paranormal claptrap in order to try and hold its audience. Fortunately, while the Discovery Channel likes its fair share of science that blows up, it doesn’t try to talk down to us. Neither does PBS, though there have been slip-ups. I remember a science episode where they talked about the overdue flip in Earth’s magnetic poles; the trailers were full of doom and gloom music with the announcer intoning “are we due… for a FLIP?” And, it turns out we are. And what’s to happen when our magnetic poles flip? In the words of a scientist on the program, “a statistically significant increase in cancer rates over a few thousand years, and auroras to die for.”

PBS was overselling things, just a little.

If I could ask for a refund on my episode of The Universe, I might do so, though I have to admit that the episode did keep me entertained in a “my God, how could they be so stupid?” sort of way. Still, this is one series I’ll take great pleasure in moving to my Macbook Air’s waste basket and clicking “Empty”.

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