Signal Media Project wants to make TV science more accurate, sell you uranium

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on February 4, 2014

From The News Desk

I should flag up front there are several reasons for me to be keen on the newly launched Signal Media Project. For one thing, co-founder Cyan Banister is a good friend of mine. For another, the non-profit is crowdfunding its launch using an idea we came up with at NSFWCORP. (Imitation is the sincerest form of... ensuring I'll write about you.)

So, Signal Media Project. The idea is simple.

Ever seen a movie or an episode of a TV show where the science is so wrong it makes you want to punch the screen? Ever sat through a documentary resisting the urge to yell “THAT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE?” Signal Media Project wants to reduce your blood pressure by promoting the accurate portrayal of science, technology and history in popular media.

It’s a two-sided process. On one side — pre-production— Signal is building up a bank of experts who will be made available to advise film and TV makers, as well as digital media and print producers. On the other side -- after-the-fact -- Signal will provide viewers and readers with accuracy-checking and context after release/publication. The company’s website will provide a forum for discussion and review of media portrayal of science, and will also publish columns and video discussions to give additional background. Signal’s experts will also be made available to academic and media organizations to offer after-the-fact critiques of science, tech and history programming.

According to Banister, Signal is exploring ways that their analysis and commentary can be integrated into existing sites used to disseminate science and history information. She cites Google search results and the TED website as places where that context would be useful.

Experts so far signed up include science researcher/broadcaster Dr Kiki Sanford, cryptographer Sean Hastings, Randi Educational Foundation president D. J. Grothe, and Dr. Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. Silicon Valley is well represented on the expert list too, with names like Jay Adelson, Barney Pell and Dave McClure.

The inclusion of Grothe and Shermer suggests that Signal won’t be limiting itself to “mainstream science” (also know as “actual science”) but will also turn its attention to what Banister calls “pseudo science.”

Banister confirmed as much when we spoke on the phone earlier today:

When filmmakers come to us they need to have balance. For example, if you make a documentary about, say, nuclear power plants, you’re going to want nuclear scientists but also people [opposed to nuclear power]. Our role is not to pick sides but to give filmmakers access to ‘experts’ and spokespeople on both sides.
That said, when it comes to giving voice to proponents of pseudo science (she specifically mentions astrology as an example), Banister says she hesitates to use the word “experts,” preferring “subject matter advisors.”

“We never want to have someone getting on stage and saying they’re an expert in something that doesn’t add up [scientifically] or that is just whack," she says. "But someone might know everything about say, a particular religion, and that information is valuable to, say, filmmakers.”

Banister is also keen that Signal won’t be as aggressively judgmental as other skeptical organizations.

We don’t want to use the word ‘skeptics’ — even though we are skeptical. That word has been aligned too closely with the atheist movement. For example: when people think about people who don’t vaccinate, they tend to use words like 'idiotic' but actually parents who don’t vaccinate are often highly educated, and certainly cannot be characterized as idiots. They might be making the wrong decisions but they are reading the data and making considered decisions about what’s best for the kids who they love. We want to respect their views even if we don’t agree with them.
Banister’s current focus is recruiting more experts, who are largely unpaid volunteers, ahead of Signal’s official launch. But one of the biggest issues Signal has had with fundraising is that prospective backers struggle with giving to a non-profit. “People ask ‘why can’t this be a for profit? Why can’t I invest?’ We feel it’s important for Signal to be an impartial not for profit.”

Which brings me to that NSFWCORP hangover. Pando readers familiar with my previous venture might remember The Conflict Tower, our crowdfunding and disclosure platform that allowed supporters to buy virtual apartments to support our journalism. Banister was one of the early residents, and asked if I’d mind her “stealing” the idea for Signal.

What Signal’s team has built might actually be cooler than what we came up with, and certainly more on-brand. Elements2014 is a periodic table where every chemical element is available to buy for prices ranging from $500 to $2500. Once an element is sold, the buyers name is displayed publicly and it becomes unavailable to others (note: this exclusivity is limited to the virtual realm. Noone will actually be starved of oxygen or nitrogen.) The total amount, if the entire table is sold, is equal to Signal’s minimum annual budget.

At the time of writing, before the “Elements2014” site has officially launched, Titanium, Iron , Cobalt, Carbon and Oxygen have been sold (Titanium having been snapped up by an excitable McClure).

If you have a hankering to own Ununoctium, and maybe support scientifically accuracy in popular media, now’s your best chance to kill two birds with one credit card.