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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24 Responses to Are We There Yet?

  1. Sara T. says:

    On the non-drama, and somewhat sad side, do you and your readers see that CNN dropped their scitech dept?

  2. Seth says:

    This week has given me an idea for an episode, that’s for sure.

    I think a challenge would be to have characters from a wide variety of fields, so that you could bring in a bigger selection of interesting issues. I’m not sure where that really happens.

  3. Clifford says:

    Hi Sara. Yes, it is interesting (and yes, sad) news. Thanks!

    Seth – yes, the variety is one of the points I have in mind. I do know of places where you have people from a wide variety of fields working together. Universities are such examples. They are a most natural dramatic setting, in fact, given their connection to the wider community.



  4. Blake Stacey says:

    I like the structure of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact: a ground-shaking event happens early on, and a whole bunch of scientists from different fields and different countries have to come together to investigate it. Contact could easily have been a season of a TV miniseries instead of a movie.

  5. spyder says:

    Purely speculating of course, but perhaps some of the resistance against bringing forth a dramatic series, focussed on a group of scientific laboratory researchers, is that science, like reality, has a liberal bias. It is relatively easy to envision series that are wrapped around the LHC, the Livermore labs and projects, various bio-tech firms working on GE and/or GMF, nuclear research facilities, and so forth. The problems would come from the antithesis with sponsors and advertisers: does NBC really want people to realize its parent company is part of the world war machine; is it in the best interest of Monsanto to expose itself to accurate criticisms of its agribusiness monopoly; could episode featuring nuclear waste mismanagement be perceived as detrimental to vast swaths of energy companies while being sponsored by the coal industry??????

    It would be a grave travesty if a dramatic science series didn’t provide foundations of accurate science in hopes of maintaining a network’s revenue support. “We’ll bend the outcomes here a little to make sure P&G isn’t implicated in the distribution of phosphates that harm biomes.”

  6. onymous says:

    House is fun, because while it may not be entirely accurate on the medicine (or so I gather; I wouldn’t know), there’s something to it that’s recognizably similar to the scientific process: they formulate a conjecture about why the patient is sick, try some drug that causes a predictable response if they’re right, move on to some new idea when they get some other response to the drug…. There is a sort of theory-formulating and hypothesis-testing going on in every episode that is the closest thing I can think of to real science on TV.

  7. Clifford says:

    Yes… I agree, and mention that in the article. Many X-Files episodes, ironically, were for a while another such good example of the deductive process…

    Still, House is a doctor show. Let’s get a scientist show.



  8. Elliot says:

    Over at CV, Sean challenged the masses to do an elevator pitch for a show involving science. Some interesting responses. But none hits the mark you have set. (not even mine ;)) but I think it is entirely possible to do it and do it right.


  9. Plato says:

    Hmmm… a possible scenario?

    You might loose something in “the drama” what ever the story?

    It’s fictional right, or like “numbers” where you have this mathematician actually bent over, now represents white cloaks and dishevel hair, thinking of “House” here and a prospective patient on the gurney. Scientists diagnose and provide an deductive feature of what is wrong with the patient, while the camera comes into focus on a “meteorite!” How it got here, the friction that it encountered, and the speed with which it’s pulse “has slowed” while cooling. With a hop ski and a jump, coming to rest on the surface of the earth.

    Just throwing it out there:)

  10. Matt says:

    The real trick is the drama, isn’t it? The protagonist needs a goal, a challenge that at first seems insurmountable but by the end of the hour is resolved completely. Does science really work like that? I think you might be delving into the realm of propaganda with this idea.

    I would rather see a show that demonstrates the practical applications of basic research. I can remember watching Bill Maher back when he still had a show on ABC and he commented, “What has science done for me lately.” My jaw dropped. I was stunned by the ignorance. I think the real drama in science is showing how an idea, however small, can become something much larger that society adopts and takes for granted without even realizing where it came from.

  11. Philip H. says:

    Ok, here’s my 2.346 cents – why do we NEED a fictionalized drama? What will science gain from it that we don’t get with, oh I don’t know, PBS and the Discover Channel? Look, I think Big Bang Theory is a huge step forward in portraying scientists – and I hate to say it but I went to school with a lot of folks similar tho those guys. It’s funny, and when it ends, I’ll add it to the DVD collection (once I finish buying the Wets Wing).

    I’m not trying to be crass, but I just think that sometimes, instead of celebrating what makes science unique (and therefore different), we spend a lot of time trying to become “mainstream” or “normal.” and I have to ask why?

  12. Clifford says:

    Philip – I’ve explained this very very many times here. I have to run to set up a conference now, but dig a little through the archives and I am sure you’ll find some of what I’ve said.

    It’s about public education, and it is about getting people more familiar and comfortable with science and scientists – as they should be. Our society, our very democracy, depends upon it.



  13. Philip H. says:

    I don’t disagree with your goal of greater acceptance of science and scientists. I’m just not sure that, with so many avenues through which that goal might be achieved, we should focus on a fictionalized TV drama, and lament not having a good one to hang our hats on.

  14. Clifford says:

    But why do you think I am making it a single “focus”? I discuss a wide range of approaches here. This is but one. Please look around the site.

    Also, why must it be all or nothing in one area or another? To win a battle, you must fight on several fronts and coordinate. Further, to ignore one of the single most powerful means of communicating with the general public -they willingly turn it on in the living rooms every day for several hours- would be kind of silly, don’t you think?



  15. Belizean says:

    “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… It’s really just decoration.”

    Are you sure? After all, there are no TV dramas about bakers, taxidermists, dentists, linguists, druggists, architects, or podiatrists either. The life and death drama of a certain few professions — particular types of medicine, law, law enforcement, and emergency services — form the plot skeleton on which the “soap opera” subplots to which you allude are hung.

    Some might find podiatry to be interesting, but none find it dramatic.

  16. Clifford says:

    Yes, I am sure.


  17. robert says:


    Do you think that the movie ‘a beautiful mind’ did a reasonable job? In the part before Nash’s breakdown, scientists were seen as valued and important to society (that was back in the fifties though), the competition and pressures of the academic life were shown, profound concepts were explained rather better than they are on numb3r5 and the maths on the boards, window panes etc. looked real. I know that ABM has taken flak from several quarters (it air-brushed out many of Nash’s less immediately attractive personality traits; its treatment of schizophrenia could have been more in tune with our times) – even so I think that it did reasonably well. So maybe lives of ‘famous’ scientists still provide a useful vehicle. I know I was inspired by such things when I was a lad. And, of course, there was Doomwatch – do you remember the rats coming out of the toilet and the sexy boffins (and their un-remitting sexism, barely excused by their being a product of the sixties)?

  18. Blake Stacey says:

    The real trick is the drama, isn’t it? The protagonist needs a goal, a challenge that at first seems insurmountable but by the end of the hour is resolved completely. Does science really work like that? I think you might be delving into the realm of propaganda with this idea.

    Why does it have to be resolved within in an hour? TV series with story arcs have been doing rather well lately: 24 and Battlestar Galactica spring to mind. One could introduce a scientific problem, say a mysterious meteor impact or a new disease or what-have-you, in the first episode, and then play out the investigation of it over the next twenty-three episodes. During the course of the investigation, subsidiary conflicts arise: personalities of the scientists clash, romantic intrigues bubble to the surface, and so forth.

    I’m also not too concerned about the tedium of everyday research, and how portraying that might be problematic. For starters, we’re working with the premise that the central scientific problem being attacked is a major one, like a radio signal from extraterrestrial intelligences. Second, the additional conflicts like romantic subplots can take over and drive the action when the characters are waiting for data to be collected. Third, the frustration of day-to-day research can itself be a plot device. Remember the movie The Andromeda Strain (1971)? The deadly pathogen arrives from outer space, and the scientists have to figure out what it is and how to stop it. As they pull one caffeine-fuelled all-nighter after another, their personalities start to rub against one another, and they begin making mistakes.

  19. Clifford says:

    Blake: Exactly! Doesn’t take that much imagination to see how it might work, using even *existing* frameworks.



  20. Clifford says:

    robert:- I think that film had strong points and weak points, but on balance I think of it as a positive. I don’t think that every project has to be perfect… we need many more of them.


  21. Blake Stacey says:

    I guess the “elevator pitch” for my TV series would be, “It’s like House meets 24 meets Contact.” Let’s have your people call my people and we’ll do breakfast.

  22. Rose says:

    How about this recent PhD students graduate and then need to go find jobs in a downturning economy (the dramatic conflict!). Showcasing the defense industry, the slew of government jobs, finance, etc… and the spin doctoring you must come up with at job interviews. We can follow our protagonists through applications, interviews, and catching with their friends who have easy-to-turn-into-a-career degrees such as (random example) journalism.

    By exposing the audience to what functions scientists provide to society – other than lab coat extra in the CSI scene – we can at least cut down on the usual question at parties, “So what do you do at your job?”

  23. Belizean says:

    “Why does it have to be resolved within in an hour? TV series with story arcs have been doing rather well lately: 24 and Battlestar Galactica spring to mind.”

    The problem with your idea, Blake, is that story arcs exist in addition to not in lieu of dramatic resolutions within each episode. So while Jack Bauer hasn’t found the nuclear device set to blow up LA in a particular episode, he did escape from the peril he entered in the last episode, he did engage bad guys in a successful chase and shoot out, and he is now in possession of a hard drive that reveals a new dramatic situation to be resolved in the next episode.

    The other problem is that your show must compete with other shows aired in the same time slot. It’s unlikely that a show devoid of the key dramatic devices that have proven themselves successful in the last 60 years of TV is likely to win this competition. Yes, your show will enjoy critical acclaim, but that’s not what it’s about in show business.

    Your show, suitably budgeted, might work as an on-demand TV offering or a movie, however.

  24. Clifford says:

    Belizean, Reading your comment, the (somewhat misappropriated here) phrase “failure of imagination” springs to mind. Again.