I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore; when I moved to Montréal, I never hooked up the cable and my television doesn’t even have an antenna, so I haven’t seen anything I didn’t download (legally) or buy on DVD for quite some time. But I do tend to watch seasons of television on DVD, especially when I’m snuggled in with my wife, and recently we began watching Bones together. Watching the depictions of science and scientsts in this and other series got me thinking about the rage-inducing depictions of same on television and in movies, and here’s a few of my howl-inducing favourites:
- Scientists aren’t usually so socially retarded. Many of the scientists depicted on television (including the main character in Bones, as well as most of her team) are depicted as being social morons who can barely manage to wipe their own behinds when left to their own devices. Having an interest in science apparently turns you into a basement-dwelling dweeb (men) or a retiring wallflower (women), as though you can only like science if you’re suffering from Asperger’s. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve known some scientists with social skills that best resemble those of a paranoid schizophrenic with anger issues, but on the whole scientists are just as human as the rest of us.
- On the other hand, scientists are not that pretty (at least, on average). Again, I’ve known some attractive scientists – both male and female – but come on. I know that Hollywood is responding to what the viewers want, which is usually “attractive flesh”, but scientist are usually shown as jaw-dropping gorgeous (or, to really shake things up, hideously unattractive – see point #1). CSI is particularly bad for this one, Grissom notwithstanding.
- Scientists don’t know everything about everything. The Stargate series, both SG-1 and Atlantis, are great examples of this. The scientific members of the team, Samantha Carter and Rodney McKay respectively, know just about everything it is possible to know. They’re both physicists by training, but in the field they magically acquire deep and broad knowledge about not only all of physics, but also chemistry, engineering, biology, etc., etc. Their range of knowledge is, frankly, ludicrous. If you know anything about modern science, you know that the amount of knowledge has exploded in the last few decades. These days, it’s increasingly hard for people to keep up with their particular corner of their own subfield of their chosen major field. There’s a reason that most of the polymaths that you hear about were active in the early 20th century or earlier…
- Not all scientists are l337 hack3rs. This one really bugs me. Being a scientist does not mean that you can find yourself plunked in front of some random computer with “encrypted data”, pound a few keys furiously, and declare “we’re in!”. Frankly, even most people who work with computers for a living can’t do this. I’ve been programming for 20 years, on and off, but I’ve never cared about security and I know that I wouldn’t be able to decrypt that terrorist hard drive just because you had to save the world.
- While we’re on the subject, computers (and technology) aren’t magic. It turns out that the mere introduction of some computers and a little lab equipment can make absolutely anything happen. I love CSI (or, really, just about any other show ever made) for this: apparently, they can blow up grainy, low-res surveillance photos to arbitrary sizes, pull details out of pixels that don’t exist, and then compare the subject’s toenails to a massive database of toenail clippings in less than half a second before generating a match.
- And another thing: where the hell do they get all that money? Just about every lab I’ve ever seen on TV or in a movie that wasn’t located in someone’s basement (and honestly, a few that were!) is dripping with beautiful, gleaming equipment that would cost millions of dollars in the real world. I wish that they could send a bit of that money our way.
- Science is all about failure and uncertainty. This is a more subtle issue, because I’m not using the words in a pejorative fashion: publish or perish aside, the driving force of science is failure and uncertainty. You try an experiment and don’t get the results you expect, so you find out why. When it turns out that you did the experiment correctly the first time and the results are still inexplicible, you get excited – something new, something you can’t explain! Your model doesn’t match realistic outcomes, so you have an excuse to build a better model. You see nature doing something that nobody expected or that nobody can explain, and it makes your year because now you have something to work on. This is the process of science, in which we chip away at the limits of our own ignorance and push back the darkness. If everything came up roses every time anyone asked a question, science as an enterprise would have been largely wrapped up in or around the 17th or 18th centuries. Yet when you look hard at scientists on TV, most of them do nothing but succeed, and when they don’t immediately have an answer, it’s cast in a negative light. Entire scientific careers can be made out of consistently asking questions to which there as (as yet) no answers, but this fact is lost on television and in the movies. Actually, it’s lost on undergrads as well, but that’s the subject of another post…
- Science is a cooperative, community effort. This is somewhat related to the issue in point number 3, where scientists are depicted as gods of knowledge, standing alone amongst the ignorant plebs. But in reality, scientists are part of a larger community working together on problems of interest. Sure, there are superstars in every field, but even they don’t stand alone: they build on the work of others, who in turn build on their work in a web of knowledgge. There’s a reason that scientists look forward to academic conferences so much; aside from the social element (which is pretty important when most of your closest intellectual colleagues are scattered across the globe), it’s a chance to connect with and immerse yourself in the cutting edge of the work being done in your field. Science isn’t advanced by the loner working in his or her basement anymore, despite what the comic books would have you believe. It’s done by a whole bunch of people, who are greater collectively than they are individually.
Those are just a few of the more egregious problems I see in the depiction of science in popular media these days. I can forgive a lot of them for the mere fact of dramatic necessity, but I worry some times that the images of science put forth are driving the public away from understanding that scientists are people doing a job, as opposed to these semi-magical beings who do things that no normal human could contemplate. The CSI effect is bad enough, but the more that we turn science into an inaccessible, mythical pursuit, the more difficult it is to recruit otherwise talented people to join us.