Scientists and Long-Form Television: Lessons from Richard Alley’s PBS Documentary

Geologist Richard Alley and writer/director Geoff Haines-Stiles offer insights into their collaboration for a PBS “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” documentary series.

Scientists and television.

Their relationship — the ups and the downs — are a key to public understanding of our changing climate. Sometimes, things don’t go particularly well, through a fault of neither the scientist(s) nor the journalist(s) involved. It can happen simply because both are doing their jobs, and even doing them well and conscientiously.

Sometimes the science/journalism/public outreach nexus meets the needs of neither the science community nor of the media. And in those instances, it seldom serves the interests of the public. At other times, the nexus can work very smoothly, and from these, lessons might be learned both for the science community and for the media for going forward.

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Alley filming at Franz-Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

With those thoughts in mind, The Yale Forum interviewed Penn State geologist and IPCC member Richard B. Alley, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and writer/director Geoff Haines-Stiles, principals in the recently broadcast PBS documentary “Earth: The Operators’ Manual.”

Following is a lightly edited transcript of that April 12 three-way Skype interview, conducted one day after the initial airing on many PBS stations of the first of what is expected to be a three-part series:

ALLEY: “I’ll try to keep it short as opposed to my usual professorial style,” Penn State geology professor Richard Alley said after being asked some of the potential “lessons learned” he would share with colleagues in the climate science community.

Some of this has been really fun, working with world-class people. The ability to go to world-class places, you know bungee-jumping and going down a crevasse and helicoptering down the moraine. That was fun, let’s be perfectly honest.

It’s also important to point out that it is a big time-sink, and you have to recognize that there will come a day that there’s a meeting that you’re not going to go to. Or you’re going to go, and you’re not going to have a talk, because you were working on something else.

We spend so much of our effort in science being friends with our colleagues, because we work all the time. An effort like this? It’s shifting who you’re working with and what you’re doing so that in some cases you may not have the latest paper that your colleagues are discussing, and that can be a jolt.

Goes with Territory: ‘Highly Disrespectful’ Reactions

Also, in the modern world, some fraction of the communications you get from the public are going to be highly disrespectful. So you have to know that if you get out at the level that people notice, some fraction of the interactions … there are just some fraction of the people that are mad, and they send e-mails that are really sort of amazing.

Now my experience, and this is kind of interesting, is that I have answered some of these. And that usually significantly changes the discussion. Somebody says “You lying, stinking, dirty, lousy …, you’re trying to take away my pickup truck.” You send back, and you say “no,” and they say oh my goodness, there’s a human being at the end of that e-mail.

These are people that are mad, for whatever reason.

HAINES-STILES: The lessons for filmmakers?

I think you have to do a casting call, because not everybody’s work is equal. Every scientist who goes into a life in research thinks that whatever they do is world-shattering. But not all of them have the ability to discuss their work in ways that are accessible to a broad audience.

It’s been particularly gratifying to get initial reactions that Richard is discussing things in ways that are accessible to regular folks.

“Weather Jack” Williams, for instance, [former USA Today meteorologist and author of American Meteorological Society reports and books on meteorology] noted that Richard is the kind of guy you want to sit down and have a beer with.

To have that said about a fairly straightforward and serious gutsy statement of key climate science — still making it accessible and without feeling you have to have a PhD to understand what’s going on — not everybody has that.

YALE FORUM:  In addition to the broadcast series, Norton has just published Dr. Alley’s companion book by the same title, Earth: The Operators’ Manual [Alley likes to emphasize that the word 'operators' in the TV series and book title is plural, emphasizing his point that the energy and climate challenges are everyone's problem, a shared burden.] Are there key scientific points from the book that simply don’t make it in to the TV series because of the time and other constraints of that medium?

ALLEY: I don’t think so. I think Geoff and his colleagues really made sure that we nailed the big messages. What the book really does is allow the nuance and documentation that are not possible in two hours of TV or three, or whatever you end up with.

HAINES-STILES:  The book is really an essential component of the overall effort, because it allows Richard to give additional intellectual heft with 140 pages of notes at the end.

What is in the show is backed-up in the additional depth provided by the book and the notes.

ALLEY: The idea of the broadcast series actually came first, and then the book. But most of the book was framed-out, so when we went to filming, we had the intellectual structure of the TV documentary as a result of the research and writing for the book.

HAINES-STILES:  Some things Richard brought to the table, like the Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln references dealing with sustainability and other related issues. And some things we brought, like the U.S. military’s research on the atmosphere and how it has enriched our understanding of climate change, and about the military’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, what Richard refers to in the book as the military’s “carbon boot print.” That all allowed us to make some of the climate science a little bit more acceptable to those who might be [otherwise less receptive]. Those inclusions all came out of the iterative process involved in producing the series.

The fun of some of these projects — serious television analogous to writing a book — is that iterative process between the filmmakers and the intellectual proponents behind the idea for the projects.

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Waliting for the Hells Gate lighting and steam to make sustained scientific remarks effective TV.

ALLEY: I’ve had a policymaker once tell me that my views on global warming “are based on a hockey stick, and it’s broken.” I said no, it’s based on physics, and a lot of it was worked out by the Air Force. The policymaker hadn’t heard that. And that actually does change some things.

In addition, Geoff and his colleagues were phenomenal in wanting to make sure that the science that is in the documentary is right. Of course, if we had had four hours, then I’d have put in a lot more science.

But in point of fact, what we got in, we never, never, never hit an instance that he said “No, you can’t get the science right, because we’ve got to dumb it down for people.” He just doesn’t do that.

YALE FORUM: But with a visual medium like television, you clearly need to have outstanding images and visuals. Surely there must have been some instances in which you just couldn’t get suitable images to go along with a message that Richard wanted to communicate?

HAINES-STILES: There’s a cliché — “If you can’t find a way, make a way.” An example was when we were filming in New Zealand at an extremely beautiful site called Hells Gate. We’d already talked about wanting a discussion on volcanic contributions to carbon dioxide and about Earth’s atmosphere, and doing that somewhere along the way.

When we were there at Hells Gate, we said, “Well, this is pretty good. So let’s try to do something.”

We spent a couple of uncomfortable hours in different locations trying to get the Sun right, trying to get the steam right in the background, and all the way refining Richard’s speak-to-camera piece, which was based on what he had talked about beforehand, but it had a fair amount of ad libbing in there as well. So we kind of fine-tuned the ad lib as we went from place to place.

But with the Sun setting we had about 10 minutes left to do it, and Richard comes out with a three-minute sustained explanation to camera of how we know for sure that it is humans emitting carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels, and that that contributes CO2 to the atmosphere. And that’s in the program.

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Approaching, carefully, a crevasse.

Making ‘Sustained Scientific Argument’ Acceptable TV

It was a sustained to-camera logical argument, but we knew that for the broadcast audience, we would have to add things to that. And so, we did indeed have some fairly elaborate graphics that took a long time to pull together. We added a couple of graphs and took a couple of graphs out to try to show the fossil fuels combustion/atmospheric CO2 relationship. And it became an acceptable piece of broadcast television by the addition of those graphics. But I think it’s also a tour de force of scientific argument that was unique. And I think it comes out of Richard’s passion for delivering it, matching up with the production techniques that make it acceptable as television.

ALLEY: Some of my colleagues this morning [April 12] were saying, “Wow, you got some good stuff in there. You even got carbon 12, 13, and 14.”

HAINES-STILES: An important part of the full communications package is that part of the website has been goosed-up by providing slices and dices of the program into various segments. Initially, we had expected the segments might be most useful for educators in colleges and high schools, but we now recognize that they can be useful also for Rotary Clubs and business and civic groups. CO2 and the Ice Core Record, and the Pentagon and climate change, these are unique components that various audiences can find informative.

In addition, the website now provides easy access to annotated scripts taking Richard’s words and providing links to glossary definitions and links to places or excerpts in the book. It provides backup for teachers and others wanting to go beyond what they saw in the TV documentary itself. We’re hoping that with those resources, people will come back to the site repeatedly, so their exposure to the information in the documentary won’t be just a one-time thing.

YALE FORUM: It’s interesting, Dr. Alley, that you felt compelled, very early in both the TV documentary and in the book, to point out your party registration as a Republican and your somewhat “right of center” political philosophy, and to mention that you regularly attend a mainstream church. What is the background on your feeling a need to make those points?

ALLEY:  We discussed this a whole lot. I don’t like to wave flags, and I don’t usually wear that on my sleeve. But this issue has become so strongly political. In my experience, if I open my mouth and say there is interaction between radiation in the atmosphere and certain gases at these wave lengths, and it has these strengths, there are a reasonable number of people who look at me and say “You’re one of those darned liberals, and you’re trying to take away my pickup truck.”

Climate Science ‘Not Red or Blue …’

But this is not a political statement, we all know that, in any way, shape or form. I think by making this clear — I go to church, and I am registered as a Republican, that’s true — this at least says, “Now wait a minute. You can’t accuse me of playing politics here, because what you think about my playing politics is not going to work. Now let’s have a discussion and see where we can go.”

Had this not become so politicized, I would not have wanted to discuss my religion or my political registration. But because it’s so political, I think it’s important to say that the interaction between radiation and gases in the air is not red or blue. It’s not Republican or Democrat, or libertarian or anything else. It’s physics.

YALE FORUM: Do you think other climate scientists discussing these issues in public forums also should disclose their political connections?

ALLEY: I would hope that we could get to the point that we can put the science out with no party affiliations. I would hope that is something that doesn’t have to be done by anyone on any side.

But because this moment in communication has become so strongly political, you have a very large number of people on one side of the aisle and a few people on the other side of the aisle who are taking positions that are linked to the politics and not just to the science.

I think it was important at this moment to do it. But ultimately, I believe we have to get to the point that people see a need for them to learn their climate science from scientists who are not selling anything.

YALE FORUM: And a final question about the editorial production itself. Your work on the documentary and on the website and other outreach and educational activities is funded through a three-year $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Were it funded by a corporate interest, it might be viewed as little more than an “infomercial.” So does that NSF funding in effect make the broadcast an infomercial?

HAINES-STILES: NSF has had absolutely nothing to do with the editorial approach of this program, one way or the other. They haven’t said include this or don’t include this. They are completely hands-off, and the disclaimer at bottom of the website is exactly correct: contents entirely the responsibility of Richard and ourselves as the producers.

ALLEY: Some of the early book reviews said I had ended with “a rousing call to action in the book.” And I don’t. It does not say you should accept this policy. In fact, we end up saying each nation, each individual, has to make their own choices. It’s absolutely explicit that we don’t tell anybody what to do.

We do say if you do this, it will lead to certain kinds of problems, such as sea level rise, with very high levels of scientific confidence. And if you were to decide to do something else, here are the options that are available to you.

But we don’t come out and say “Thou shalt build X. We end by saying that each individual must make their own choices for what’s right for them.

I think infomercials usually end up saying “Buy this product.” We don’t say that.

HAINES-STILES: We are the ones responsible, for better or worse, for the contents of this broadcast.

We do feel that the documentary makes clear the connection between energy security, energy independence, and energy conservation and a warming atmosphere. We hope that recognition eventually will spin off to all sorts of life, and we hope that broader recognition eventually will lead to a broader and more balanced understanding of climate and energy.

Editor’s Note: Images with this feature courtesy of Geoff Haines-Stiles and his company, Passport to Knowledge.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail:
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One Response to Scientists and Long-Form Television: Lessons from Richard Alley’s PBS Documentary

  1. Bob Miller says:

    I have read several books on Climate Change, including “Storms of my Grandchildren” by Dr James Hansen.
    “earth The Operators’ Manual” is also right up there with the best. It is quite readable, but not as “scary” as some, so does not tend to frighten those who are not firm believers of the catastrophe to come. Definitely worth the $32.50 CAN price.