Monday, January 17, 2011

PBS falls short on the Haiti earthquake anniversary

Two of my favorite PBS programs had shows about Haiti one year after the disastrous earthquake.

I found both of them to be wanting.

The Frontline program Battle for Haiti spent the whole hour discussing criminals and gang members who escaped from prison at the time of the quake, and have since come to rule and terrorize neighborhoods and tent villages. I don't doubt that this is a serious problem, but I had a hard time believing that this was the only issue that should be focused on in discussing the country's recovery efforts. It seemed a somewhat Willy Horton-ish portrayal of an entire country. But you can stream the program using the link above, and judge for yourself.

The Nova program  - Deadliest Earthquakes - was about the science of large quakes, such as those that occurred in Haiti and Chile during 2010. This is basically a re-hash of the type of the type of earthquake program Nova does about once a decade, reporting on a recent disastrous earthquake that heroic scientists (working "around the clock" to stave off future disasters), and the hope for a way to predict future quakes.  After the usual skepticism about quake predictability (which is well justified by the history of that effort), a new possible magic bullet for prediction - the slow quake - is offered up.  I watched this film with the thought of showing it in my geophysics course this semester, and I probably will, but the visualizations of plate movements, fault motions, and seismic waves are awful and inscrutable.  The old fashioned cartoon style animations were great, but now we have nondescript and indecipherable wire mesh visuals which hardly show anything, in my opinion. But again, you can stream the show and judge for yourself.

If you'd like to see a fascinating PBS program that deals with the intersection of science, ambition, and public policy, look for Dinosaur Wars, the American Experience show about the epic slugfest between dinsoaur hunters OC Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope during the latter half of the 19th century.

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