In defence of accuracy (Science on TV).

I have to admit it:  I’m a tab collector.  Despite my best intentions, and productivity be damned, I inevitably find myself surfing my RSS feeds, popping open new tabs for interesting looking stories, and then winding up doing something else and forgetting about the tabs until I wonder why Firefox takes twenty minutes to come to the foreground.  Which is why I just got around to reading Jennifer Ouellette’s fantastic post about science on prime-time television, and also explains why I’m just getting around to forming my thoughts on her argument.

I urge you to read her post first – she’s the kind of writer I wish I could be, and reading her material is a treat of itself – but if you can’t spare the time, she summed things up in a comment near the bottom:

Stripped of excess verbiage above, my argument is this:

1. TV is quite possibly the most powerful communication medium in modern American society.
2. Anyone who is interested in broad communication to the general public ignores TV at their peril.
3. There is an unprecedented demand for science-themed shows right now, and hence a corresponding need for scientists to serve as technical consultants or participate in other efforts to better acquaint Hollywood with what “real” science looks like.
4. This is made more difficult by an enormous cultural gap between the two worlds: there is fear and distrust of science in Hollywood, and often open disdain by scientists towards mainstream TV, which writers and producers naturally find alienating and irksome.
5. We need more exchanges between the two worlds, and a shift in attitude on both sides, or we will lose an excellent opportunity.

This argument, alone, is one that I find convincing.  I’m happy that science is finding a place in the schedules of prime-time programming, though I won’t be too terribly surprised if we’re back to nothing but Survivor-clones when the networks over-use the “science show” idea and the public’s fancy shifts again.  Yet along the way to making this argument stick, Jennifer ends up saying two things that bother me somewhat, and I wish to address those points with my own thoughts.

First, she suggests that accuracy is less important than the popularization of science itself (reminiscent of the “framing” arguments which have stirred up so much trouble in the sciblogosphere):

True story: a year ago, I met one of the writers for Bones at Grae’s birthday party. He was initially pleased to find that I really was a fan of the show, and not just being polite. (I knew all the characters and plot twists — a dead giveaway.) But when I mentioned I was a science writer, he suddenly became guarded and defensive: “Yeah, yeah, I know, we take liberties with the science, DNA test results never come back that fast….” I reassured him that I wasn’t one of those sorts who compulsively nitpick the writers to death, and he relaxed a little. But the exchange saddened me a little. Here was this very smart, really nice guy who loves his work and finds the scientific elements fascinating. Yet his personal encounters with actual scientists have been unilaterally negative and alienating — so much so, that he physically recoiled upon first learning about my science writing credentials. That has to change, or the cultural gap will just continue to widen.

I sympathize with the writer who has run into prickly scientists.  Yet I would maintain that a higher level of accuracy is necessary on science-based dramas, for reasons both practical and philosophical.  Practically, a lack of accuracy leads to things like the by-now-well-known CSI effect, where people have come to expect things of forensic science that are simply not feasible or practical (like the seemingly 8-second DNA analysis and database search that they routinely employ on that show).  Responses to this problem typically fall into the “poetic license” category or employ the “sure, but we need to focus on communication over accuracy” argument as Jennifer obliquely makes in the quoted section above, but these responses ignore the real problems that a public misperception of what science can do may lead to (as a prosecutor frustrated by a jury demanding DNA evidence for a simply break-and-enter might attest to), and they also ignore the fact that it is possible to do both accuracy and entertainment.  There are shows that are true to the science;  as Jennifer notes, The Big Bang Theory has a realistic image of the science and the environment of science itself, and Numb3rs is great for focusing on real mathematics.  Writers of science-y shows might do well to learn from Law & Order, which (as I have been told by people involved in law enforcement) presents the best depiction of the real process of justice that is on television, even if it glosses over the more repetitive aspects.

The related philosophical problem with Jennifer’s statement above extends past the purely practical problem of the CSI effect and into the “science is magic” problem.  Jennifer criticizes Fringe for flirting with the “science is magic” viewpoint, but doesn’t really take this to its logical conclusion even as she notes the most important part when she says:

Uh, no. That is not what science is about; it’s what science fiction is about. I love both, but let’s not confuse the two.

She’s right: that’s not what science is about.  But when shows like CSI or Bones play fast and loose with the process of science and how the world actually works, they actually contribute to the problem not because they are science fiction, but because they’re not science fiction.  Science fiction is actually easier, because people can clearly distinguish between science fiction and real science.  When the Doctor says that he is going to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”, or when someone’s pattern is stuck in a transporter buffer on Star Trek, most people can easily realize that science as we know it does not allows us to do these things.  If NASA could suddenly achieve faster-than-light travel, people would be rightly shocked!  But though viewers can readily distinguish science from science fiction, they likely have a harder time distinguishing science on television from science in reality.  When the television presents a contemporary drama with science as an important element, the portrayal of science in that show can become the only exposure that people have to the science in question, and thus shapes their view of what science can actually do.  I don’t mean this in a pomo, constructivist-reality sort of way, but in a much more real and troubling this may be the only time that these viewers are ever going to see how this works way.  As Jennifer notes, television is one of the most important mediums of communication in our society today, and the chance that people see a show like Bones is a lot greater than the chance that they sit through a documentary on forensic anthropology on the Discovery channel.  Given that, how can we not hold these dramas to a higher standard?  Jennifer says that we shouldn’t:

Many scientists I encounter seem to incorrectly think that the scientific details are all that matter. While those are important for lending verisimilitude — particularly for procedural dramas like C.S.I., Bones, or House — network television isn’t an educational vehicle. Hollywood’s purpose is not to teach viewers about science, and TV shows are not documentaries, and should not be held to the same exacting standards — although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, provided both sides are willing to compromise a little. Good television is ultimately about igniting the imagination with a truly kick ass story. If we can enhance the appreciation of science (and by extension, scientists) in the bargain, so much the better, but that is not the industry objective.

But this paragraph relies on an argument that goes like this:

If we create television shows that employ “lies to children” but spark people’s imaginations, they will go out and learn the real story, and we will have a more educated public.

It is this argument that I reject as unlikely and even dangerous.  Sure, some small proportion of people may go on to have great careers in science or even just learn more in science because of some great drama they watched on television, but the vast majority of people will go no further than their TiVo.  If this is to be their only exposure to these concepts, what do we expect to happen when they are on a jury, or on a school board voting about science eduction, or voting for presidents and prime ministers who will shape science and education policy?  Jennifer is right in that the networks don’t care about this sort of thing, but to suggest that scientists should just give up and go along with it simply to get air-time is, to my mind, irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating.

The second issue that I have with her argument revolves around the depiction of scientists themselves.  Let’s see what she has to say:

Monday night was the season premiere of last year’s breakout sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which proved to be something of a lightning rod for controversy when it debuted last year, at least within the physics community. (My own take in Symmetry magazine can be found here.) Normally, scientists content themselves with nitpicking various aspects of the science in movies and TV shows, but in this case, the science is largely correct, thanks to the efforts of technical consultant David Saltzberg, a physicist at UCLA. So most of the complaints about TBBT have been of the “negative stereotype” variety.

As I’ve said before, such criticisms might have an element of truth but they are entirely missing the point: these characters appeal to viewers. They are likable just the way they are, and that is a Good Thing for Physics. If the goal is to make physicists feel good about themselves, then okay, maybe this isn’t the best approach. But if the goal is make physics and physicists more palatable to the general public and win their hearts and minds, these characters are fantastic ambassadors. I vote for the latter.

Actually, I’ve used this quote only as a starting point, because I agree with the substance of her argument above (and the argument she advances in a post she links to here) about scientists taking their portrayals too seriously;  no comedy (and few dramas, for that matter), get very far depicting characters who are entirely realistic.  But my problem isn’t with “negative” stereotypes, but rather “positive” ones.  I’ve talked about this before, but shows like The Big Bang Theory, CSI, Bones, Numb3rs, and so on all depict scientists unrealistically as incredibly brilliant people who know just about everything and rarely make mistakes.  This contirbutes to the “science as magic” problem by showing us “scientists as magicians”.  Here we are effectively told that the only people who do science are super-geniuses with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything in their field and in some cases of things way outside it, who can whip up science in a second and come up with answers to just about any problem.  Even one of my favourite characters, Charlie Epps from Numb3rs is guilty of this:  though the methods he uses are real and the techniques are sound, he does the work of a dozen people!  Any practicing scientist knows that science is a team game now because it’s impossible to be a polymath any more;  the days of a single person contributing to physics, chemistry, and biology before lunch and rounding things off with a few contributions to mathematics before tea are gone, and it’s increasingly difficult for people to keep up with the tiny corners of the scientific literature that they inhabit themselves.

Yet as intimidating as these characters are to someone like me, who is a scientist and who actually works at this sort of thing, imagine what they look like to someone sitting on their couch at home.  How can we expect to attract people to science if we present nothing but these images of super-people at the lab bench?  Again, we can look back to Bones.  The lead character, Temperance Brennan, is a genius anthropologist, but her assistant is even worse:  a child prodigy, a genius with an IQ of 160+ and packing a “photographic memory” (grrr), yet he always seems to be stumbling behind Brennan (at least in the first season, which is all that I’ve watched so far).  If someone like him can’t keep up with the lead character, how can anyone in the audience picture themselves being motivated to become scientists themselves or even spend any time learning more about science?  Characters like this present such an incredibly high barrier to entry that it seems futile to even try!

Again, the common response to my objections about this is that people either know the difference between fictional depictions of scientists and real scientists, or that the shows will “spark their imagination”, and they’ll flock to the lab for the drama and stay for the science.  And sure, enrollments in forensic science classes surged after CSI became popular.  But if you ask a person on the street if they could see themselves learning anything about the science of physics, or mathematics, or chemistry, or biology, you’ll most often get a self-deprecating laugh and refusal, or a blank stare.  And this is how we’re going to create greater appreciation of science, by portraying scientists as super-men and women who are something Other?  These are the ambassadors that Jennifer speaks of?  It does us no good to win the hearts and minds of people if we’re winning them with the scientific equivalent of demi-gods.[1]

Actually, this is something that I’m sure many other academics and practicing scientists have run into:  mentioning science, or physics, or – God help you – math to someone who isn’t a science person turns your occupation into something untouchable, something to be placed on a pedestal and admired from afar, despite your best efforts to have a normal conversation with the person in question.  And I submit to you that the depictions of scientists on television are a contributing factor for this problem, and that these depictions are something that scientists should be concerned about.  I’m all for the need to show heroes on television, but maybe we could take Numb3rs and cross it with the old Mission: Impossible to get a show where a team of fairly bright people come together to solve hard crimes with some cool math, instead of a show where a single untouchable genius saves the day every damn time.

My word count is telling me that I’ve ranted on for far too long, and my body is telling me that it is time to go to bed, so I’ll leave it here for now.  I’ll just close with this:  instead of satisfying ourselves with what we see on television, perhaps we as scientists, should try even harder to push realistic images of science and scientists out onto the airwaves.  I think that society might thank us, in the long run.


Back to post [1] I think that Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles may have said something similar in recent months, but for the life of me I cannot find the relevant posts right now.


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