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Science Program Review Assailed

April 30, 1988

In his review of a recent "California Stories" episode, Terry Atkinson was obviously placed in the untenable position of assessing scientific research outside his area of competence ("A Rerun of Research, Theory Presented in KCET's 'Dreams: Theater of the Night,' " April 25).

Inevitably, he made serious errors and gave a wholly misleading impression of the program, suggesting that it was little more than a warmed-over "Nova" that presented no new information.

In fact, most of the research described had not been presented to a wide audience. Specifically, the REM sleep behavior disorder has only recently been identified in humans; Jerry Siegel's work is still in progress; Dr. Rossi's notion of dream evolution has not appeared before; the "red goggles" experiment of Roffwarg and Herman has not been shown on television; and the PET scanning experiments at UC Irvine are so new that the researchers have not yet fully analyzed or published their results.

"Nova" has never done a program on dreams; its last treatment of sleep was in 1975. It would be hard to imagine a more erroneous review.

Television can be a tremendously powerful educational force. Those of us who work in the medium--including reviewers--are temporary custodians of that force, and I believe we have an obligation, at the end of each project, to ask ourselves whether we used it wisely and well. Particularly in science programs, where facts are the currency, I would suggest that a reviewer has no less obligation than a producer to be accurate.

Since it is The Times' practice to entrust the reviewing of science books to specialists like Lee Dembart (who recently reviewed a book on dreaming), perhaps it would be consistent--and more appropriate--if you also asked Mr. Dembart to review science television programs. At least you would relieve non-specialists like Mr. Atkinson of the burden of delivering untutored and potentially damaging opinions on subjects in which they have no expertise or credibility.


Producer, KCET

Los Angeles

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