Science popularisation through television documentary: A study of the work of British wildlife filmmaker David Attenborough, Bienvenido León


In the current television panorama, effective audiovisual communication of scientific contents is one of the most difficult jobs television producers and writers can have, as they must face both intrinsic difficulties of science communication and those of the medium. This might be one of the reasons why, in many countries, science popularisation does not come to programming schedules very often, in spite of the increasingly important role that science is playing in contemporary society.

To turn science into good television, it must jump that considerable gap which stands between science and common knowledge. Science attempts to settle a conjoint of systematic ideas, with a logical structure; whereas, very often, common knowledge is non-systematic and based on statements which avoid pure logical rationality. Therefore, when science attempts to reach large audiences, it is necessary to overcome the distance between both types of knowledge, by means of a task of drawing together, which can be achieved either by scientists or professional communicators.

From the very nucleus of this kind of communication some questions come out, on the nature of popularisation messages, such as: what are the specific characteristics of this kind of discourse?, is it just a simplified scientific message or, on the contrary, does it belong to a different category, with its own definite characteristics? Besides these questions, some others can be raised, on how effective mass media can be used to popularise science. Mass media tend to approach particular kind of issues that will raise immediate public attention, laying stress on some aspects which can make headlines. But, very often, such criteria do not coincide with those that make an issue remarkable from the scientific point of view. On the other hand, some scientists think mass media are not the right platform to spread the knowledge they produce, since there is a fundamental incompatibility between the systematic, profound nature of their work, and the immediate activity of the media – often based on haste.

In addition, cinema and television seem to impose another relevant limitation, since their storytelling style tends to separate them from the procedures commonly used in scientific communication, as they try to achieve its characteristic verisimilitude. Narrative structures used in television are mainly of a poetic and dramatic kind. This medium does not communicate intellectual, theoretical or technical knowledge in a detailed logically structured way. On the contrary, it tries to build interesting discourses, to be able to attract viewers’ attention through practical interest and emotional appeal.

In spite of such difficulties, some examples of television programmes can be found, which succeed in establishing an effective link between scientific issues and the viewer’s interest, by means of communicating science in an interesting and understandable manner. Among them, documentary film has proved to be an especially useful genre, and the work of a few documentary filmmakers sparkles in the brief history of world television. Some of them have raised unanimous recognition from both the public and their colleagues, since they have managed to build discourses which are interesting and rigorous at the same time.

This paper aims to identify some of the key points to develop effective popularisation messages through television documentary film, within the context of its argumentation system. From this particular perspective, we look into the work of British writer and presenter David Attenborough, who is considered to be one of the greatest popularisers of our time. His main television series offer an excellent case of study to try to identify some relevant techniques, which can help in the process of making biological contents interesting and accessible to the general public. Attenborough’s reflection on his own work is included where appropriate.

David Attenborough began his wildlife filmmaking career in 1954, when he produced the first part of his ten-year running series Zooquest. After a period devoted to several management positions at the BBC, in 1972 he decided to go back to wildlife filmmaking. Since then, he has written and presented some of the most remarkable wildlife television series ever produced, specially four mega series, which are analysed in this study. Life on Earth (1979) was a huge success, breaking audience records and becoming a model imitated ever since.[1] The extent of the issue covered -the whole evolution of life on our planet-, together with the generous human and economic resources employed, turned this series into the most ambitious popularisation television programme about nature ever produced before. Big audience ratings, international sales success and general recognition were also achieved by the subsequent big scale series written and presented by David Attenborough: The Living Planet (1984), The Trials of Life (1990) and The Private Life of Plants (1995).

Generally speaking, a considerable amount of resources is required to produce a wildlife film. Therefore, availability of a generous budget becomes a very important factor to its communication effectiveness. The films analysed in this paper were produced with exceptionally extensive resources. That is why they are an excellent case of study, since the narrative structures conceived by the author came into the programs with almost no limitation imposed by budgetary considerations. These films provide a unique opportunity to identify popularisation techniques, in search for some narrative principles which can help to communicate scientific contents to the public, in an interesting and understandable way. In the process of analysing these communication structures, some key issues will be raised about the nature of audiovisual popularisation, as well as on its defining characteristics.

We distinguish three different types of resources, which are labelled as narrative, dramatic and argumentation techniques. The first two categories aim to achieve expository interest, whereas the last one attempts to rationalise the discourse. Among the narrative techniques, several ways of simplification appear, ranging from establishing the story line of the film to eliminating scientific controversies. Another important narrative resource is anthropomorphism, which is often criticised by scientists and filmmakers but can be a useful instrument if employed in a careful manner. Among dramatic techniques, story building is an especially relevant device to hold the viewer’s attention, as well as to create conflict and suspense.

Argumentation techniques are identified by means of a new approach to the same issues, on the light of classic and contemporary rhetoric. These resources are related to one of the three main elements of any communication process: the speaker, the audience and the discourse itself. Two basic dimensions are involved in the credibility of the speaker: character and competence. The viewer’s attitude to the discourse can be improved if the speaker establishes an effective community of interests with the audience. Finally, within argumentation through the discourse itself, some rhetoric figures can be very useful.

This study stands at the beginning of a well fertilised but rarely cultivated ground. It is well fertilised since a rich poetic and rhetoric tradition, originated in the Greek and Roman classic antiquity, remains underneath. But it is rarely cultivated since rhetoric research about communication has rarely focused on science popularisation techniques.

Approaching the viewer’s interest

         In principle, both scientific and common knowledge try to achieve a true understanding of the world. But science is based on certainty, whereas common knowledge is often based on opinions or beliefs. Although certainty does not necessarily mean truth, this nuclear distinction shows a considerable intrinsic distance between one and the other, which has been perceived by many authors. Aristotle, originating a tradition which continues until now, pointed out that scientific discourse, which is valuable in a teaching situation, is not meaningful to some audiences and, in that case, arguments must use ordinary concepts which ordinary people can understand.[2]

The history of science popularisation shows that, very often, discourses have not even tried to explain the true meaning of scientific discoveries, but the practical consequences of that information to everyday life.[3] But scientific knowledge is not necessarily practical or useful and, to many scientists, it is more important to propose new questions than to offer practical solutions.

Taking this into account, it is not surprising that discourses about any scientific issue, which are addressed to a lay audience, tend to use narrative structures that create an effective connection with those understanding methods which are familiar to most people. As Silverstone points out, the fact that television is aimed to everyday experience turns its relationship with science into a difficult one. And, from his perspective, popularisation messages try to create a link between specialised and general, oral and written, empirical and phenomenological discourse; in short, between science and common sense.[4]

In general, television tries to reach the audience’s interest by means of relating the issues covered to everyday experience. Any topic can be interesting as long as the viewer can see it is related to his or her life. According to Warren, any human being is firstly interested in himself and afterwards in whatever is close to him, either physically or mentally: his job, health, family, etc.[5]

From that perspective, wildlife does not seem to provide good raw material for interesting television programmes. Nevertheless, audience ratings show that nature films are very popular in many countries. In some cases, they lead the ranking of non-fiction television programmes.[6] This apparent contradiction can be explained by several ways. According to David Attenborough, nature films are popular because of a number of reasons. Firstly, they speak about living things, like us; secondly, they deal with the real world, which is always surprising and beautiful; and finally, they have substance.[7] But wildlife filmmakers, as well as other popularisers, know they must reinforce that initial generic interest, explaining questions in the light of everyday experience. Attenborough’s films include some excellent examples of how this approach can be done, some of which are analysed in this paper.

In addition to proximity, there is another factor of interest which is used in many television programmes, including science documentaries: the reference to unusual facts. Although science does not aim to look for extraordinary facts, popularisers often try to entertain their audiences by including anomalous elements. This trend has been regarded as an unacceptable tool, since it places science television on the verge of sensationalism. Some scientists think that since science is a serious matter, popularisation should not be superficial or jocular. But, on the other hand, some popularisers argue that there is a certain kind of “sensationalism” that can be regarded as a “positive fruitful ingredient to spread science”.[8]

Some Attenborough’s films have been criticised for looking for surprising elements rather than information or education.[9] David Attenborough thinks that including examples of strange behaviour does not invalidate the scientific content of a programme and, therefore, it is a perfectly legitimate tool:

If something is unusual it will be interesting. And I have nothing against something being interesting. Where it comes to be dangerous is when you introduce an element because of being strange, without relating it to the central idea of the topic you are talking about, or when you just put in some outstanding things, without a solid theoretical structure being present.[10]

As some theoreticians have pointed out, besides proximity and rareness, other factors help to catch and hold the viewer’s attention in any television or, in general, any journalistic discourse. However, since they are not especially useful in science popularisation, we will avoid going into them, to concentrate on the resources used in the process of approaching scientific contents to the area of interest of the viewer. We begin with narrative techniques, which include simplification and anthropomorphism.


There is no doubt that popularisation relies on simplification. Popularisers simplify science because they think it is the only way to make it affordable to lay audiences. In addition, as Nelkin has pointed out, simplification is also related to the influence of television and its peculiar way of information, based on brief flashes of content, which do not allow for in depth explanation.[11]

Documentary films present a simplified picture of the world in several ways. First of all, television is not the best medium to deliver large amounts of information. According to Attenborough, people do not get many ideas from a television programme, so the number of questions a populariser can talk about in a film is very limited, and the main or the two main ideas must be stated very clearly.[12]

Any film needs a story line, or sequence of ideas, to hold the viewer’s attention and lead them to the end. At an early stage in the production process, Attenborough decides the story line for every film. And this decision will totally affect the content of the film, since any information which does not fit perfectly in that sequence of ideas will probably be left aside. According to Langley, this sequence of ideas is the most important contribution of Attenborough to any of his series, and this is where his permanent success as a populariser relies.[13]       This initial simplification plays a very important role in the process of presenting science to the public. Although it seems necessary to establish a story line, sometimes it can lead the film towards subaltern elements of the subject, leaving the nuclear information aside. Therefore, the ability to find a good story line, from a narrative and scientific point of view, will determinate the popularising effectiveness of a documentary film.

Very often, to simplify science is not an easy task. Some scientists think simplification inevitably means distortion of reality. On the contrary, some others consider it is possible to offer a true explanation of scientific issues in relatively simple terms. Obviously, some topics are easier than others to simplify. Attenborough thinks that, within natural history, “any concept can be explained in simple terms, since we deal with questions that people can see and get to know; and we talk about facts and emotions that people can easily understand”.[14] But, apart from the intrinsic complexity of the issues, his films show a great deal of simplification, by means of a clear discourse which translates complex concepts into something very simple and affordable, leaving technical language aside.

Sometimes simplification means reduction of dimensions to a smaller scale, where human beings feel comfortable. In general, documentary films make an obvious reduction of time scale, by means of ellipsis. But other forms of reduction are more specifically used to make reality easier to understand. A brilliant example is used in the first episode of Attenborough’s Life of Earth, where he compares the whole history of life on our planet to a one-year calendar, in which man would not have appeared until December 31st.

In principle, there is no objection to these forms of simplification. But popularisers always face the danger of oversimplifying an issue to the point where they offer a false explanation, just because it is easy to understand. In Attenborough’s words:

You have to be aware against oversimplification. If an explanation is not precise enough it can create a false sense of understanding. You can simplify things and translate them into normal terms that you think people are going to understand, but in fact, they do not. For example, in Physics of particles, I am sure people think particles are like ping pong balls, and we know they are not; it is simple metaphor. And so, you have to know how far can you go in simplification.


Popularisers have often attributed human forms and attitudes to other beings which, in fact, do not have them. This technique is based on the assumption that human beings can understand more easily what is related to other human beings. In general, scientists disapprove of anthropomorphism, because they think it can lead to a false understanding of the world. However, the strength of some scientific concepts is due to the fact that they are anthropomorphic projections of the human world.

Among zoologists, anthropomorphism is generally considered to be a capital sin. Nevertheless, as British zoologist Colin Tudge points out, this consideration is partly due to the fact that behaviourism has dominated animal psychology for most of the 20th century. And, according to that theory, animal thoughts and emotions should be left aside, since they cannot be measured. But nowadays many scientists openly talk about animal “thought”, and they discuss “stress”, “happiness”, “depression” and “boredom” in animals. According to Tudge, the similarities between human and animal behaviour should make us think that a certain degree of anthropomorphism can be a revealing instrument, as long as it is used correctly.[15]

David Attenborough thinks the attribution of human reactions to animals should be totally avoided in a film, because it is “the greatest perversion of a zoologist”.[16] Although the study of his works shows that proper anthropomorphism is very rarely used, some examples can be found where slight touches of humanisation help the filmmaker to represent animal life to the viewer. Some cases are just careful comparisons, which are not properly anthropomorphic, since animals are not characterised with human attitudes or forms. But sometimes the narrator refers to animals or plants using concepts which are clearly anthropomorphic, such as “parent responsibility”, “motherhood courage”, ”satisfied customer” or -in a humorous mood- “a discussion between a couple of squids”.[17]

Sometimes humanisation of animal behaviour is not in the narration, but in the music. The closing sequence of one the episodes of The Trials of Life shows a couple of royal albatross just before the mating season. As the birds rub their beaks, the commentary explains briefly that this couple have been together for several years. At the same time, the music establishes a romantic mood, which transmits the idea of a love relationship.[18]

The above-mentioned examples have the ability of representing animal behaviour in a very vivid way. There is certainly some distortion of reality, since they suggest that animal behaviour is based on free decisions, instead of biological needs. Anyway, it could be considered as an acceptable alteration, since the audience is not likely to understand the sequence literally, but in a metaphoric sense.

According to Taranzo, anthropomorphism is present in every communication process, since there is a general trend of the language towards the attribution of human characteristics to the rest of the world.[19] Within science popularisation, it can be a useful devise, but it must be used carefully or, otherwise, the discourse will not be scientifically rigorous. Popularisers should draw the line just before the point where they think the audience will be misled.


         Human capability to tell and understand stories has always been perceived. According to McIntyre, man is essentially an animal who tells stories, and this applies to his actions and his fictions.[20] Representation by means of a story is suitable for those statements which try to present a “quick essential totality”, instead of showing all the details of the reality in a “mechanical exhaustive way”, which is more appropriate to science and history.  But representation by means of stories is not only used in fiction but also in non-fiction narratives.

The early years of cinematography were dominated by non-fiction films. On those days, most documentaries were structured on the basis of a simple thematic association of ideas. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was the first documentary film to use a dramatic structure, in which a character faces a conflict and takes it to a resolution. Before Nanook this kind of structure was only used in fiction films but since then, many other documentaries have followed that pattern.

Dramatic structure distinguishes simple chronology or sequence of facts from narrative, which needs unity of action. The concept of unity is one of the main requirements in the classical dramatic tradition originated by Aristotle, who points out that fables must imitate a complete action, which means they must have a beginning, a middle and an end.[21]

Natural history films, as well as other science popularisation documentaries, are typically organised following a “story-line”, or sequential arrangement of the information, that sometimes turns into a story in the dramatic sense. According to Boswall, the purpose of the story line in a nature film is the transformation of some scientific information into an artistic announcement with unity and variety, which helps to hold the viewer’s interest. Unity is usually more difficult to achieve, since science follows facts and therefore it constantly ramifies its reasoning.[22]

David Attenborough thinks natural history films must tell stories whenever it is possible:

The best programs are like stories; they all have a narration in which you want to see what is next. And this works for a detective novel and for a science programme. Science is interesting because it raises a question and the viewer wants to see what is the sequence of facts that finally will take him to the answer, and this will take him to another question. But the search for a story line must not be taken to the extreme of distorting the truth.[23]

Attenborough works with several types of story lines on three different levels, some of which are closer to dramatic structures. Firstly, some series tell a story as a whole; e.g. the evolution of life on Earth. Some others, however, do not tell a complete story in a dramatic sense, but follows a logical arrangement of ideas related to the topic; e.g., wildlife in different habitats. Secondly, all the episodes tell the story of the presenter -Attenborough himself- travelling around the world to discover some of the wonders of nature. In some cases, the narrative thread is stronger; e.g., in the film “Sweet water” of The Living Planet, the presenter follows the course of river Amazon from beginning to end. And, thirdly, some sequences are organised as highly dramatic stories with a beginning, middle and end, where a central character faces a conflict which, finally, comes to a solution.

In order to tell a story, animals and plants are often presented as characters that have aims, and try to solve the conflicts they face. As we have mentioned earlier, such a consideration often suggests that animal and plant behaviour is based on free decisions, instead of instinct. Some theoreticians see several ethical implications in this type of characterisation. Silverstone criticises the fact that television documentaries tend to look for characters that can be heroes or villains, in order to fit in the categories the viewer is used to.[24]
Some of Attenborough’s characters are adorned with positive values, such as intelligence, charm and talent, while some others seem to have the opposite negative characteristics. Sometimes, even more openly, the narrator talks about “killer plants”, a plant that “rewards its employees” and a “pirate” bird, just to give a few examples.[25] Nevertheless, this type of characterisation does not seem to refer to moral categories. It is just an attempt to clarify the way actions take place. Attenborough explains it this way: “When I say a bird is a pirate, I am not trying to say that this action is morally wrong. I am only trying to clarify to the viewer how the action takes place”.[26]

Apart from any moral implication, conflict is an essential element to hold the viewers interest, not only in wildlife films but also in any other type of documentary.
Some scientific issues do not offer many opportunities for conflict. However, quite often a conflict can be found in the scientific research process. But nature is full of conflicts, and this seems one of the reasons why it provides a good raw material for films. Usually, wildlife films show three different kinds of conflicts: individual vs. environment, predator vs. prey, and individual vs. another individual of the same species.

When a story is told by means of one or more characters facing a conflict, another very useful narrative resource can be used: suspense. According to the master of this technique, Alfred Hitchcock, suspense is the most powerful instrument the filmmaker has to hold viewers’ attention.[27] Suspense is a doubt that appears in the viewer on whether a character will be able to achieve their aim. Therefore it must be based on advancing some information about the character’s objective, so that a situation of uncertainty can be created.

David Attenborough thinks suspense is an important element, which he deliberately tries to find during the research process, before writing the script of a programme.[28] His films show many situations of suspense, especially those related to animal fights. Very often, music plays a very important role in those situations, since it reinforces the sense on uncertainty.

In general, wildlife film making industry agrees that storytelling is one of the most important factors to the success of a programme. Some professionals suggest that wildlife films should use more dramatic techniques.[29] However, highly dramatic documentaries can provoke a negative reaction from the audience. If the story is told in a way which is very close to a fictional discourse, the lack of verisimilitude could show up, and the audience might be stopped by the artifice of the film rather that being directed to the real world it resembles.


         The process of communicating scientific contents to a lay audience can be analysed in the light of rhetoric, which can provide a new perspective on the mechanisms of popularisation. According to Reyes “science demonstrates and addresses to educated knowledgeable spirits. Rhetoric persuades and addresses to everybody”.[30] Therefore, this discipline can provide a unique instrument to study how the viewer is rationally persuaded about the interest and truth of the discourse.

As Perelman points out, when a scientist speaks to a group of specialists in the same field of knowledge, he usually assumes there is a previous intellectual community which allows him to get into the subject straightaway.[31] On the contrary, when a populariser addresses to the “public”, a community of interest must be created between the speaker and the audience, so that an effective communication process can be established. And this is where argumentation becomes an essential instrument to analyse how the speaker tries to convince his audience.

The classical rhetoric model distinguishes three different ways of argumentation, related to the speaker, the audience and the discourse itself. An exhaustive analysis of argumentation techniques used within science popularisation, or even within Attenborough’s works, would surpass the scope of this paper. Therefore, we will only emphasise a few representative examples of every category.

The speaker of any discourse must try to look honourable, in order to deserve the audience’s reliance. According to Aristotle, speakers are reliable because of three reasons: prudence (phronesis), virtue (arete) and benevolence (eunoia).[32] Within the same tradition, a modern author, Reinard, distinguishes two basic dimensions in the speaker’s credibility: character and competence. Character is the degree to which the speaker is perceived as reliable, since it is safe to trust people with a good reputation. Competence -the most important of the two basic dimensions- is the degree to which the speaker is considered to be knowledgeable or expert in the subject.[33]

The narrator-presenter plays a very important role in television documentary since his voice and statements to camera are the backbone in the structure of the programme. The narrator must have an initial credibility due to his moral reputation (character) and knowledge of the subject (competence). But both basic dimensions can be reinforced in the programme.         First of all, we must keep in mind that documentaries have no references to scientific sources or footnotes, which seems to reinforce the presenter’s competence. In some way he creates the impression of having discovered the scientific facts he is talking about. In addition, the way the presenter appears on the screen can help -or damage- his credibility.

David Attenborough has a very personal style of presenting and narrating, in which enthusiasm is the most remarkable characteristic. His education in zoology helps his image as a knowledgeable host. Besides, his statements to camera, from the place where events take place, help to reinforce the impression of competence, since he plays the role of a witness who talks about what he sees. Sometimes, he even predicts the behaviour of the animals and plants he is talking about.

The first one of Attenborough’s mega series, Life on Earth, created a new format for natural history documentaries, in which the presenter moves around the world, to show different examples of wildlife.  He can begin a sequence in a European forest and, a few seconds later; appear in the middle of an American desert. In 1979, when the series was broadcasted, this was one of the most surprising elements. Attenborough thinks, in some way, the presenter was seen as a mythological figure who can “jump”, within a few seconds, from one continent to the other.[34]

The second category of argumentation includes several resources which aim to establish a good disposition of the audience towards the discourse. The message must be appropriate to the audience, and this becomes one of the keys elements to the effectiveness of any popularisation discourse. David Attenborough follows the criterion of “telling stories and presenting facts the way I would like to hear them if I knew nothing about that subject”.[35]

But the audience is not only convinced through intellectual acceptance of a thesis, since some affective aspects are also included in its approach to the discourse. When the speaker is only using intellectual arguments, boredom can appear. And that is why he must try to establish an emotional link with the audience, arousing emotion and using humour. In documentaries, music often plays a very important role on the emotional side of the discourse, whereas humour is usually present in the commentary. Attenborough’s films include a good deal of emotional and humorous sequences.

As far as argumentation through the discourse itself is concerned, some rhetoric figures are especially useful within science popularisation. Attenborough’s films are often based on a rhetoric operation called expolitio, consisting in polishing a central thought by formulating secondary ideas related to the main one. For example, the episode “ Building houses” of The Trials of Life starts with the formulation of the central thought of the film: “animals look for protection in houses”. From then on, several secondary ideas help to clarify the meaning of the main one: “some houses are excavated, others are stolen”, “some animals build real cities”, “houses are built using different materials”, etc.

Another important figure is evidentia, a rhetoric operation based on a vivid detailed description of the object, which tries to situate the audience in a similar position to that of an eyewitness. A good example can be seen in a sequence of Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants, where he talks about the age of the oldest tree in the world, while he examines the rings on a cut of its trunk:

This is a section of the trunk one of these trees. The last ring represents the year when it died: 1958. We count 100 rings inwards…1858 (…) Around here is the ring developed when Columbus arrived to this continent. The tree was on its youth when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt (…) It is more than 4.000 years old.[36]

Some theoreticians of science communication have criticised this type of approach. Nelkin thinks some journalists include too many details in order to create an illusion of certainty and show they dominate the subject.[37] Anyway, sometimes using an evidentia does not imply to deceive the audience. On the contrary, as Attenborough’s films show, it can help the viewer to understand the meaning of some scientific concepts.

Metaphors and comparisons are also powerful devices to popularise science, since they help to establish a link between two objects, one of which is unknown to the audience. Very often, comparisons and metaphors connect science to everyday life. As we have mentioned earlier in this paper, Attenborough often compares wildlife to human experience. To mention just a few more examples, he speaks about iguanas that let themselves fall on the rocks “as an exhausted swimmer would do after a long crossing”; or an orchid that subjugates a bee to “sexual deceit, imprisonment and hard labour”.[38]


Popularisation is an attempt to reduce the distance standing between science and everyday knowledge. To overcome that distance it is necessary to build a new special discourse, in which scientific knowledge is subjugated to a process of transformation to the audience’s way of understanding. Since, in principle, science is not located within the area of interest of most people, it has to be approached to the public’s interest. Communication effectiveness achieved by some popularisers -Attenborough being an outstanding example-, leans on several techniques or resources which help in the process of making the message interesting and easy to understand. Obviously, these techniques are not the only key to communication effectiveness, but they can help in the process when they are properly used.

In their attempt to bring science to the public, popularisers constantly face the danger of distorting the truth. Nevertheless, as good popularisers prove, it is possible to reach a balance between scientific rigour and journalistic interest. One of the keys to this balance is to simplify the issues to the point where the audience will understand, without oversimplifying them. Although some scientific subjects are easier to simplify than others, the capability of the populariser plays an important role in the process.

Dramatic structures can work very well in popularising documentaries, although they tend to avoid the multiple ramifications of scientific knowledge, in order to create a unitary artistic discourse. The reduction of scientific facts to an artistic message can easily turn science into an attractive but false discourse. However, using dramatic techniques does not necessarily mean distortion of reality. Filmmakers are free to identify elements of the world which work well in drama. And, fortunately, science is full of stories, conflicts and suspense. This search should not be pushed to the end of transforming the real elements of life, so that they can make better stories, because here is where the lack of scientific rigor begins.

The effectiveness of popularising documentary does not only depend on its intellectual capability to communicate facts, since it is also accepted or rejected by the audience depending on the emotional values it transmits. For that reason, popularising documentaries must use several resources which try to create a positive attitude in the audience towards the discourse. And this means that the speaker must establish an effective community of interest with the audience, a process where several rhetoric operations can be helpful.

It is worth taking into account that effective popularisation on television requires a special kind of discourse, which is not just a simplified scientific message but a different one, with its own characteristics, values and difficulties. Documentary can be effective to popularise science, as long as filmmakers know the mechanisms and difficulties implied in the construction of a program which must be, at the same time, rigorous and interesting for the public.

[1] Some of the episodes were watched by more than 15 million people in the UK. The series was sold to over 100 countries for an estimated audience of over 500 million worldwide. C. Parsons, True to Nature (London: Patrick Stephens, 1982), 7, 349.

[2] Aristotle, Rhetoric I, 1355 a.

[3] For example, see Daniel Raichvarg y Jean Jacques, Savants et ignorants: Une histoire de la vulgarisation des sciences (Paris: Seuil, 1991).

[4] Roger Silverstone, “The Agonistic Narratives of Television Science”,  in John Corner (ed.), Documentary and the Mass Media (London: Edward Arnold, 1986), 81.

[5] Karl Warren, Modern News Reporting (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1959), 18.

[6] See “Watching Wildlife”, in TV World  (July-August, 1995), 15-18.

[7] Interview with Attenborough, London, March 7th, 1997.

[8] Manuel Calvo Hernando, Periodismo científico (Madrid, Paraninfo, 1977), 192.

[9] For example, see James Saynor “Wild and Wooly” in The Listener (11 October, 1990), 42.

[10] Interview with Attenborough, London, 14 July, 1994.

[11] Dorothy Nelkin,  La ciencia en el escaparate (Madrid, Fundesco, 1990), 117.

[12] Interview with Attenborough,, London, 14 July, 1994.

[13] Andrew Langley, The making of The Living Planet (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1985), 23.

[14] Interview with Attenborough, London 7 March, 1997.

[15] Collin Tudge, “Putting the God in Cod”, in The Independent on Sunday (31 July, 1994), 19.

[16] Interview with Attenborough, London, 14 July, 1994.

[17] All the examples mentioned are taken from the series The Trials of Life (episode II, sequence 1; episode VII, sequence VII; and episode X, sequence 23). Some similar examples can be found in the other series.

[18] The Trials of Life, episode XII, sequence 21.

[19] Gloria Taranzo, El estilo y sus secretos (Pamplona, Eunsa, 1968), 238.

[20] Alasdair McIntyre, Tras la virtud (Barcelona, Crítica, 1983), 266.

[21] Aristotle, Poetic, 1450 b.

[22] Jeffery Boswall, “Storylines and links for biological moving imaging”, unpublished lecture, University of Derby, 1994.

[23] Interview with Attenborough, London, 14 July, 1994.

[24] Roger Silverstone, Framing Science: the Making of a BBC Documentary (London, BFI, 1985), 170.

[25] The private Life of Plants, episode IV, sequence 17; Id., episode III, sequence 17; The Trials of Life, episode III, sequence 26.

[26] Interview with Attenborough, London, 7 March, 1997.

[27] François Truffaut, El cine según Hitchcock, (Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1974) 59-60.

[28] Interview with Attenborough, London, 7 March, 1997.

[29] This is one of the conclusions of the discussion panel “The future of the industry”, held at the 1998 Jackson Hole International Wildlife Film Festival (Unpublished).

[30] Alfonso Reyes, “Aristóteles o la teoría de la persuasión” in Obras completas  (México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1961), vol. XIII, 375)

[31] Chaïm Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, Tratado de la argumentaciónla nueva retórica (Madrid, Gredos, 1989) 52-55.

[32] Aristotle, Rhetoric II, 1378 a.

[33] John Reinard, Foundations of Argument: Effective Communication for Critical Thinking (Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991), 353-354.

[34] Interview with Attenborough, London, 14 July, 1994.

[35] Id.

[36] The Private Life of Plants, episode II, sequence 23.

[37] Dorothy Nelkin, La ciencia en el escaparate (Madrid, Fundesco, 1990), 123.

[38] Life on Earth, episode VI, sequence 2; The Private Life of Plants, episode III, sequence 26.


This paper was presented at the 5th International Conference of Science and Technology, 17-19 September, 1998, Berlin.