On March 13th I came back from vacationing in Costa Rica to a Denmark in lockdown. The virus SARS-CoV-2 was spreading across the world. On June 15th I was among the last in Denmark to be allowed to return to the office after three months of working from home. Three months of intently following the development. How many dead today? How many hospitalized? How many on ventilators? How is Denmark doing compared to other countries? Is R0 less than 1? Is it more? Are we over the worst of it yet? When will it end? Will there be a vaccine?
I am not the only one to have asked myself these questions. We probably all have. Upon returning to the office, I read “How Contagion Works” (DK: I smittens tid. It: Nel contagion) by Paolo Giordano. He puts in writing many of the emotions and thoughts we all have shared. Why must we self-isolate? Why must we suffer deprivation? I recommend this little book if you want a catalyst to reflect upon the pandemic and remember some of the answers to these why-questions.
Paolo Giordano’s book has a chapter on the role of experts and the expectations we have of them. “The most sacred part of science is the truth” he quotes Simone Weil (who I now add to my reading list). In the time of contagion, science has disappointed us, he says. We wanted certainty, but all we got were opinions. We forgot that this is how it always works. That this is the only way it works. That for science doubt is more important than truth. I quote Hugh Walpole: “In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.” But when we are amid a pandemic, when lives are at stakes, are scientists allowed the luxury of errors?
“In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.”
Throughout the history of science, errors have been made. Errors are an important part of science when they are made in good faith. When they are not, they are labelled scientific misconduct. See for example 20 of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last 20 Years. When talking about scientific misconduct in Denmark, Milena Penkowa is usually the first person that comes to mind. When talking about scientific misconduct in the time of contagion, the debate about the effects of hydroxychloroquine comes to mind. Scientific papers have been retracted from both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine due to suspicions of misconduct. These suspicions were based on an investigation by the Guardian and the failure of an independent follow-up peer review. The retracted Lancet paper halted global trials of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19. These trials have now been restarted. But have we lost valuable time?
With these thoughts in mind, I have a new-found appreciation for the peer-review process and the open data movement. I have the deepest respect for the scientists that are working on developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. And I am happy that at least the lives of humans, do not critically depend on my research.
Two years ago I was asked to be a consulting expert on a new documentary about Denmark’s nature. The title was Wild, wonderful Denmark (Vilde, vidunderlige Danmark). When I was a child I would sometimes borrow my dad’s video camera and make small nature documentaries and I had once dreamed of being the next David Attenborough. Participating as a consultant on a big national documentary is probably the closest I will ever get. The first episode aired last Sunday, and to my delight it was the one about forests – the one where I had consulted on the amazingness of wood ants. They even included me in a small behind the scenes clip. About 4 minutes after the first epsiode had ended, the debate and critique of it started on social media. There were many critics but also many fans. The criticism:
Too much dramatic music
Too much slow-motion
Not enough information about the actual status of Danish nature
Visually appealing. Great with slow-motion and close ups
Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) was great
Interesting and easy introduction to nature
Basically it sounded like it boiled down to whether or not you were a nature expert/enthusiast already and whether or not you like that documentaries have a high entertainment-factor. I went through the program again, listening for specific content. In one hour, Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) mentions the change of forests through time (from primary forest, to almost no forest, to new forest), stressing that today’s forest is nowhere near as diversity rich as our old forest used to be. There is less dead wood, less water, less species. He gets around food chains, reintroduction of species, mating and competition. There are close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle, insects wriggling on thorns, speared by red-backed shrikes. There’s a dead fox next to the road. There’s a tree falling in the middle of the forest. To me it seems more real than many other nature documentaries I’ve seen.
Close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle…
One thing that came up though, which I had not myself considered, was the debate about using tame animals. I didn’t know they had. The ants we filmed were definitely not tame, and nothing was staged in those clips. But looking at the final footage it is rather obvious. How else do you get a camera on the back of a golden eagle? How else do you happen to be at the right place at the right time when a fox comes close to a roe deer fawn? It is possible to get the natural shot, but it might require ten years of filming, not too. But…
This blog by UntamedScience on Wildlife film ethics is a good introduction to the important role documentary filmmakers have. They are responsible for showing us nature in a way we will probably never be able to experience it ourselves, they add a story to it. Mostly, we believe this story to be the truth.
Filmmakers have to be honest about how the footage was acquired and ensure no harm comes to the wildlife. Catching a wild golden eagle to put a camera on its’ back would most likely be stressful to the eagle. But is it okay to use a tame eagle? This will be a bird kept by a falconeer and the debate on the ethics of falconeering is even more heated than the debate on using tame animals for wildlife documentaries. Some discussion on the topic of the ethics of falconeering can be found in this blog by Feathered Photography. I’m not sure where I stand on this. I’m generally a trusting person, and believe that the film crew have done their job, with guidance from many experts, not just me. I guess, as with everything in life, we always have to ask our selves “Does this feel wrong or questionable?” If yes, then it probably is. But what is most wrong, stalking and stressing wildlife for a few minutes of footage, or using tame animals to illustrate nature?
if it feels wrong or questionable then it probably is.
Wrapping up, I’m excited to see the next episode on Sunday, which is about the ocean and coastline. There are not (m)any documentaries on Danish nature, and I hope this one will inspire more people to experience it and appreciate it.