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Entertainment, Science and the Truth

01/24/2013 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I know: you're going to think I'm a nerd, and that I'm a bit of a curmudgeon, but when I watched Alexander Tsiaras' TEDTalk about his gorgeous video, "Conception to Birth - Visualized," I kept thinking, "Huh?"

Previously, I had seen videos of the dividing embryo, and that is certainly cool. I've seen photos of the fetus in the first trimester, and these are as awe-inspiring and extraordinary as Tsiaras says they are.

Then I came to the section about labor and delivery, where the video shows the fetal head from the perspective of the mother's uterus. As the head rotates within the pelvis, I couldn't help but be struck by an odd thought: it looks like the fetus has an awful lot of room in there.

I know, I know, only an obstetrician would think that way. And it's true, I've always been impressed by how little room the fetus actually has, and how remarkable it is that the fetal head fits through the maternal pelvis with just enough room to spare. But I was struck by how easily the fetal head rotated in the video. "It must be the fact that the maternal pelvis is represented by bones alone," I thought. It would be a tighter fit if all of the tissue were there.

Then, it was time for birth, and the fetus passed through the pelvis, making rotational movements that are surely not consistent with the "cardinal" movements of labor I'm used to.
Lastly, with the head delivered, it appeared that the baby almost swam its way out into the world, with a couple of lithe little kicks of its tiny feet.

"No way!" I thought to myself.

In an effort to figure out what was going on, I went to the literature and searched in the National Library of Medicine to read about Tsiaras' methodology, but it wasn't there.

It took a bit of digging, but I finally realized that the video is an animation. It's a movie, constructed using two-dimensional images taken from medicine, that are colored and annotated and sewn together to create a remarkable, beautiful, and emotional video montage.

This got me thinking about science and education in the United States and around the world.
Tsiaras' TEDTalk has been viewed by more than 1.9 million people -- the overwhelming majority of whom, based on comments left on the site -- believe they are seeing a scientifically valid video about human development.

The reason it matters is that real scientists don't take artistic license.

The other reason it matters is because it's such an amazing video that anything real would fall short -- and this makes it challenging for educators and science teachers to win the attention of students and their parents when the line between science and entertainment is blurred, and entertainment is so much more fun.

Many years ago my daughter had a video game called "The Magic Schoolbus Explores the Human Body." The plot involved the magic school bus getting swallowed and animated scenes of the intestines from the inside were particularly exciting. It was really educational, and in no way plausible, and it was a lot of fun.

What's the difference?

Science is about truth, and when pieces of 'truth' are stitched together, it becomes entertainment.

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