Are We There Yet?

Well, no we are not.

Are we making progress? Sometimes I think we are, and other times I’m not so sure, but what do you think?

I’m talking about that thing I talk about a lot: science and scientists being part of the broader culture. This time on TV. A recent LA Times article by Mary McNamara (one of their television critics) surveys a number of shows on TV in this context and is, on balance, rather positive about where things are compared to where they used to be. I’m inclined to agree (and I should say that I found the article itself rather valuable as a quick survey – I don’t keep up with all the TV produced out there, and found myself surprised here and there). She also quotes conversations with Jennifer Ouellette (of Cocktail Party Physics) and yours truly on the issue, (mentions the recently established Science and Entertainment Exchange I blogged about two weeks ago), and overall produced a pretty good article. (The full article is here.)

I’m still on the fence about all this, though. Once you scratch the surface a bit, I don’t think there is yet a single example of what I think is possible, and what I think should be fairly routine before we declare that the larger culture has truly embraced science and scientists. Some bits of what I said (in this context):

Some of her peers are not so sure. Like Ouellette, Clifford Johnson, a USC physicist and science blogger […], is happy that science has a higher profile on television. He just wishes it was a more flattering, or even accurate one. Science and scientists are still played as novelty at best and weirdly menacing at worst.

“There is a problematic image that scientists are somehow otherworldly,” he says, pointing to the characters in “Big Bang,” “Numb3rs” and “Fringe.” “They’re always socially awkward, always talking in a language we don’t understand.”

Johnson, who has worked as a consultant on science-centered shows for Discovery and History, is encouraged more by shows like “CSI” and “House,” which showcase the deductive process, warts and all — House is brilliant, but he is never right the first time. Johnson hopes for a day when science will be just a “random career. People are scared of science because of how it is portrayed in popular culture. We need to be talking about science the same way we talk about Brad and Angelina or art or global politics. It’s just another subject.”

I do think (as I have explained here before) that it is possible to have a “career show” about scientists, and make it exciting, dramatic, and compelling as a weekly piece of TV. I coined the term “career show” to mean a show where there is an ensemble cast of characters, part of our community, doing their job and career and living their lives with all the challenges – personal and professional – that make drama so interesting. Episodes can focus on different sets of characters at a time, as well as moving forward a big arc that affects everyone at the same time. There are cop shows like this (NYPD Blue, etc), medical shows (ER, etc), lawyer shows (LA Law, etc), detective shows, and so forth. No scientist shows. Why not? People usually mention CSI at this point, and I am pleased that it exists and that it is a success and that there’s labs and swabs and goggles and white coats (‘cos, you know, we all wear them, right?). But it is basically a cop show at the core. Same for Numb3rs. Nice job, some progress there too, but it’s still a cop show. Let’s not give up so easily.

Is there some fundamental reason why there is no ER for scientists (which you could give the not-serious title “SR” – Seminar Room)? Something about science or scientists that rules it out of being a success? People usually raise a bunch of bogus reasons for why there is no scientist “career show”, which I utterly reject. These go along the lines of (a) nobody will understand the science, and (b) there are no life and death situations so nobody cares…. This is all just the results of not having thought things through. Watch those other career shows a bit more carefully, and listen to the water cooler chatter to learn what people really care about when they watch those shows. Ask yourself just how much people really understand of the medicinal babble that is yelled out when some emergency situation occurs in ER (yet another amazing disaster in that hospital’s catchment area). It’s really just decoration. And are people really watching these shows for the life and death situations? Not really. They are watching for the personal challenges, the connections between people, the love of career, the hate of career, the friendships, the love, the hatred, the sex, the jealously, the passion, the despair, the rivalries, the triumphs, and much more. There’s an awful lot of that in science careers too, and a lot more. Scientists are human beings, you see. (Stop the press!) We have the same loves, cares, frailties and strengths as everyone else. That is what people tune in to see: Humanity.

And while people are tuning in to see all that wonderful messy human stuff (right alongside the politics, the fraud, the fights for priority, struggles for funding, worry about where your livelihood is going to come from – choices between following a poorly paid passion vs a more lucrative), with good writing by people who understand what science is – and what it isn’t – they can learn about what we do and how we do what we do, and why: Not putting endless streams of incomprehensible gee-wiz facts in the mouths of the actors, but deduction and inference, process of elimination, creatively dreaming of ideas and creatively testing of ideas. And you can connect some of those to the general issues of the day if that helps – global warming, stem cell research, alternative energy research, cloning, epidemics, weather, natural disasters, pollution, etc, etc. You know, the whole “ripped from the headlines” thing. It is not hard to relate drama about science and scientists to major issues that people care about, actually.

I wish someone would give it a try. Some of us would help try to make it a success.


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