Academic Lessons from P. Z. Myers and Expelled?

Posted by at 5:12PM

The fact that the creationist “documentary” Expelled used more than questionable interview tactics to try to interview Eugenie Scott, P. Z. Myers, Michael Shermer, Hector Avalos, and Richard Dawkin has been circulating around the internet for a couple of months.
By representing themselves as another movie production company (Rampant Film) which was producing a documentary called Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion, Expelled producers (Premise) were able to obtain a couple of interviews with scientists like P.Z. Myers.
Expelled was able to use the interviews because the scientists had signed a release which states the footage can be used for “the feature length documentary tentatively entitled Crossroads (the ‘Documentary’) and/or any other production.”
The questionable interview tactics of Expelled, reflect those used in Borat andthe Ali G Show. These tactics seem to be a more and more prevalent tactic for either groups interviewing someone they think are controversial, or “spoof interviews” a la the Daily Show.
As a grad student who hopes to go on to research and teach in a university, this has made me think about what I want to do if I’m ever asked to be interviewed, to help members of the press, to go on a show (radio, tv, or otherwise), or to participate in a documentary. While the odds of appearing in a film are pretty low, it might be easy get suckered into participating in a podcast, interview for a newspaper, journal, etc. with a group you object to or know will misrepresent your work. This is particularly difficult to avoid if they use the tactic that the Premise production team did, and set up shell identities (including fake webpages).
While academics want their viewpoints disseminated and are often willing to participate in documentaries, be interviewed for articles and news stories, and help journalists, maybe, they also need to start thinking about how to protect themselves from this kind of exploitation.
For starters, scholars need to closely look at the release forms they sign and decide if the standard “any other production” is ok with them. Maybe a modification, in which they need to give permission for each new use of their interview is something some scholars should start considering adding to the release forms. Maybe even crossing out the phrase (and initialing and dating it) is as far as they want to go (also making a photocopy of the document).
Another tool that universities could develop is a contract that faculty members can use which production companies will need to sign if they want to interview the faculty member.
The contract could contain provisions (translated into legalese) which state:
– the production company is not misrepresenting itself to the scholar
– the production company is not misrepresenting the film to the scholar
– if the scholar is participating without being paid, that the film is not a for profit enterprise (aka Borat)
– the production company will pay some sort of compensation if it has misrepresented itself or the film to the scholar
– the production company will pay for the legal fees of the scholar to enforce this contract
Not being interview is a chance that scholars will take, if they adopt this kind of tactic, but given the fact that “spoof interviews” and misrepresentations are occurring, maybe not being interviewed by someone sketchy is a good thing. Each scholar needs to gauge their own preferences. On the other hand, your area of study can dictate the types of interviews you get asked to do.
If a production company refuses to change the “any other production” language or sign the interview contract, scholars need to make sure they know who they are dealing with, particularly famous and/or controversial scholars.
As for myself, I’m only a grad student, but I’ve already been volunteered once by the university institute to talk to, and help, a member of the press under the mistaken assumption that I did research in a particular area. The poor researcher got a, “I study a completely unrelated area, and I’m not sure who studies this, but I think X does…” from me.
The experience got me thinking about this whole thing in the first place, particularly as I had just read about P.Z. Myer’s expulsion from Expelled.

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One Response to “Academic Lessons from P. Z. Myers and Expelled?”

  1. Jason says:

    Great article Evilbunny2. These are really important things for scholars to consider to avoid having their views misaligned and misattributed.
    I’ve written further thoughts on the movie here. http://www.jasonshen.com/post/32965962

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