Critique of the Classic Science Documentary

A review of Discovery as Invention: A Constructivist Alternative to the Classic Documentary, by Robert Sternberg.

This dissertation consists of two parts: a written thesis and a science documentary, entitled Hopeful Monsters (90 minutes, available here) which presents the attempts of biologist Donald I. Williamson (1922- ) to show that his theory of “hybridogenesis” adds something to accepted theory of Darwinian evolution. At the heart of this theory is a controversy about the evolution of creatures – like butterflies and moths – that have larvae as a stage of their life cycle. Robert Sternberg’s own documentary, Hopeful Monsters, is contrasted to a classic documentary by Nigel Paterson, The Ghost in Your Genes (BBC Horizon, broadcast in 2005). Just as Williamson contests Darwinian orthodoxy, Sternberg contests the hegemony of the classic science documentary, and the view of science that it presents.

Sternberg argues that the classic science documentary underwrites the received view of science as consisting of a set of empirically testable statements, and as being objective, cumulative and universal. To tackle its topic, the dissertation proceeds on a dual pathway: one path is the critique of the medium of the classic science documentary, and the other is the critique of the received view of science. The task is to show both that the classic science documentary is not transparent and neutral with respect to the science it claims merely to put across to its audience, and that science is not as it is shown to be in the classic documentary. The two-pronged dismantling of the science documentary and of science results in a dissertation, which is unusual for its breadth, and for the theories and thinkers that it juxtaposes. Thus we find side by side the likes of Vladímir Propp and Karl Popper, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Thomas Kuhn, Hayden White and Bruno Latour, in an impressive arc encompassing formalist and structuralist narratology, philosophy of science, sociology of science, science and technology studies, theory of film and of the science documentary, and historiography.

The first part of the dissertation focuses on the received view of science, tracing it to Francis Bacon’s “road map” for the science emerging around 1600 and placing observation and experiment at the heart of the scientific method. One of the indications of its persistence is given by physicist Richard Feynman’s declaration “Experiment is the sole judge of scientific knowledge” (quoted, p. 24). That experiment turns out not to be as trustworthy a judge as might be expected is discussed in Chapter 1, first through a historical overview of how it came to occupy pride of place and the various epistemological checks and balances installed in order to safeguard scientists against the ways in which they might be led astray in scientific practices. With Robert Merton taking up the challenge in the 1940s, attention turned to the ethos as well as the epistemology of science, and an addendum to Bacon’s roadmap takes the form of the norms of universalism, disinterestedness, communism and organized skepticism.  This is matched by a rhetoric of objectivity in scientific discourse: for example, the adoption of the passive voice, nominalization (Alan Gross), and other techniques inviting a “virtual witnessing” (Charles Bazerman), for which the scientific paper stands proxy. This rhetoric of objectivity is a strong influence on the classic science documentary, and is “embodied in its narrative structure.” Setting out this narrative structure is the topic of the second chapter.

Chapter 2 analyzes the chosen exemplar of the classic science documentary, The Ghost in Your Genes (2005), in terms of formalist and structuralist narratological theory. In this chapter, Sternberg analyzes the science documentary as argument and as a non-fiction narrative, showing how the structure of the argument falls in line with the received view of science, while the mythic narrative it presents turns out to be amenable to being placed in the same narratological frame of Cinderella.  The film is analyzed and re-analyzed through multiple grids: the parts of an argument according to classical rhetoric, the types of actions and functions in a narrative, according to Propp, the forms of deep relationship and contradiction according to Lévi-Strauss. The mythic narrative and the argument work together to reinforce the idea of science as a detective trail, where the truth will be discovered despite hindrances and obstacles.  Importantly, in this form of science documentary, there is no presentation of actual scientific processes.

The second part of the dissertation presents an alternative to the received view of science, in the form of constructivism, and aims to match this alternative account of science with an alternative form of science documentary.  In Chapter 3, the history of philosophy of science is traced from positivism to post-positivism, from David Hume’s problem of inductivism, to Thomas Kuhn’s bringing attention to all the ways in which actual scientific practice does not fit in with philosophical epistemology. Crucially, this involves attention to the ways in which the social and historical context of experiments determine the interpretation of their results via the familiar steps of the theory-ladenness of observation and the underdetermination of theory by data.  The seeds for radical constructivism are claimed to be laid already by British empiricists such as Berkeley and Hume, and by Vico’s New Science, culminating in Kuhn. With the constructivist view, science is cast not so much as anti-realist, but as something which is actively made, through processes which are highly dependent on the scientific tradition in which they are placed.

Chapter 4 presents the analyzes of the received view of science from the perspective of the sociology of science, beginning with observations of the extent to which Mertonian norms do not flourish in actual science, where particularism is more likely than universalism and secrecy more likely than communism. The central issue here is how controversies in science are dissolved, or how something controversial becomes established as a fact (or not): does this occur through experiment (as both Bacon and Feynman believed) or through other, sociological means. Answers given to this by sociologists including David Bloor, Karin Knorr-Cetina and Latour are presented.  At the core of these views is that science is social, it consists of a series of practical activities, and that what is considered to be a fact is not due to direct link between scientific theory and natural world via experiment, but rather to a number of other social and institutional determinants.

In Chapter 5, Sternberg turns to a discussion of the rhetoric of scientific discourse in papers and documentaries. There is inevitably a gap between the discourse of scientific papers and documentaries and the actual processes of science, since the discourse of science – adhering to specific genres of order and arrangement (standardly: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion), couching science in narrative shapes such as that of the detective trail, and deploying the figural language of metaphor and metonymy – does not correspond with anything in the scientific process.  Clearly scientific discourse is not neutral: it presents science with a logic and seeming rationality that the scientific process does not have, and thereby underwrites the received view. This leads commentators such as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar to propose that the scientific paper is a post-hoc rationalization of the scientific process.  Sternberg argues that because scientific discourse is ideological in this way, the scientific documentary needs to be tackled at the level of discourse.

The final chapters of the dissertation analyze the science documentary made by the author of the dissertation, Hopeful Monsters, as an alternative to the classic science documentary. Chapter 6 analyzes the style of the documentary and the seventh and final chapter analyzes its narrative structure. Sternberg points out that Hopeful Monsters does not try to adopt the objective, expository style; instead its style may be better described as in turn “observational,” “interactive,” or “reflexive”. In its reflexive mode, the film tries to reveal the constructedness and ideological nature of the documentary as a genre; it tries not to build a trusting relation between filmmaker and viewer but rather to undermine trust, to show that believing in what the documentary conveys is not always appropriate. The author claims that in showing that the documentary is a construct, Hopeful Monsters in its reflexive mode also invites the viewer to see that scientific knowledge is made not found (p. 173).

The narrative structure of the film, as described in the seventh chapter, is cyclic rather than linear. While the classic science documentary is largely a metaphoric narrative, Hopeful Monsters is a metonymic narrative, attending to the detail of the scientific process which does not always have an overarching logic. Ultimately, Sternberg argues, Hopeful Monsters presents a view of science as constructivist, in that it shows how choices and judgments about what is a fact and what is not are socially determined, and satirizes the certitudes of the received view.

The dissertation is engaging to read and well argued, and Hopeful Monsters is an intriguing alternative to the classic science documentary.  It succeeds very well in contextualizing the scientific documentary in a rich intellectual setting, drawing on a wide range of commentary and reflection on science and discourse. It offers multi-layered analyzes of the classic and alternative documentary. At the end of the fifth chapter, Sternberg claims that a positivist criticism of Hopeful Monsters would accuse it of self-sabotage, since its reflexivity makes the science more difficult to grasp (pp. 174-175). That kind of criticism would assume that the aim of the science documentary must be didactic. Hopeful Monsters does not offer its audience many of the narrative and rhetorical facilitators of the classic documentary. This enables it on the one hand to fulfill the ideological role of interrogating and undermining the certitudes of that genre, and on the other, it poses the question of who are the implied audiences of science documentary.

Annamaria Carusi PhD
Associate Professor
Philosophy of Medical Science and Technology
Faculty of Health Sciences
Department of Public Health
University of Copenhagen

Primary Sources

Scientific papers, including the work of Donald I. Williamson
Science documentaries, including BBC productions Horizon: The Ghost in Your Genes (2005), Walking with Dinosaurs (1999), Eye on Research: Absolute Zero (1960)
Films and documentaries directed by Kevin MacDonald, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Paul Rotha, and others

Dissertation Information

University of Westminster. 2010. 330 pp. Primary Advisors: Joram ten Brink and Jane Lewis.


Image: Biologist Donald I. Williamson (1922- ). Screenshot (17:08) from Hopeful Monsters, directed by Robert Sternberg (90 mins, 2010).


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