- Science on American Television: A History by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette
This review originally misidentified the gender of the book's author. The online versions of the article have been updated.
A number of books have been written about the depictions of scientists and engineers in cinema, but few book-length analyses on televised science exist. Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette’s Science on American Television: A History fills this gap. Those who work with scientists and engineers know that they are generally displeased about the state of science education in the United States, but they are particularly aggrieved by the inaccuracies and inanities of televised science. Those who work with journalists and television producers know that they struggle to find scientists who are also good TV personalities and who know how to tell a good story. Both groups are happy to point the finger at the other for the paucity of quality science programming on TV. LaFollette’s book provides a historical view of this conflict, beginning with the rise of television during the postwar era and extending to the 1990s. Science on American Television convincingly argues that the cultural beliefs of both television producers and scientists led to programming that “continually undermined the process of creating the [End Page 999] best possible programs and discouraged future popularization ventures” (p. 215).
The book provides a good balance between generalizing about larger historical movements in science programming, on the one hand, and deeply examining particular cases on the other. For example, LaFollette covers the didactic programming of the American postwar era, the fictionalizing of science narratives during the cold war, the waxing and waning of children’s scientific programming, and the rise of the science documentary in the 1970s. But she also examines specific case studies, such as the development of the shows Cosmos and Smithsonian World, and provides portraits of a number of “science popularizers,” ranging from Lynn Poole to Carl Sagan and Bill Nye. Throughout, LaFollette emphasizes the “contentious negotiations” among scientists, scientific institutions, popularizers, and “television people.”
Although LaFollette leaves her own biases largely implicit, she clearly is troubled by the ways in which television oversimplifies and commercializes science. She blames media producers who are too beholden to audience shares and not enough to the public good. At the same time, however, she challenges hackneyed critiques of “the media,” nicking scientists for being too naïve about the business of media production and the necessities of producing captivating content. Above all, argues LaFollette, public science and engineering institutions should be held accountable for their refusal to financially support meaningful science programming; institutions like the Smithsonian “hemmed, hawed, and hesitated” about whether to fully commit to televised communication, and now we must “mourn the failure to try” (p. 220).
If there is one critique of the book to be made, it is that it lacks an introduction. Its organizational structure is not immediately transparent—early chapters seem to proceed chronologically, while others are organized by theme, such as the role of gender in science and television. An introduction would also have answered methodological questions, such as why La-Follette chose to focus so much attention on the Smithsonian Institution, whose case study forms an implicit (and fascinating) backbone to the book. Because this framework is missing, individual chapters occasionally read more like a series of articles than articulations of a larger argument. However, each chapter is worth reading, and the fact that chapters can stand alone may make the book useful to instructors interested in assigning excerpts rather than the whole text. The book would work well in a science communication course, an STS course that features a media studies module, or, conversely, a media studies course with a science and technology unit. It is also an enjoyable read, and one that belongs on every STS scholar’s bookshelf.
Above all, this book stands as an excellent treatise on the challenges that science popularizers face. The éminences grises of science and technology [End Page 1000] periodically bemoan the lack of science literacy in the United...