Is science in popular media damaging to academic science?

Rebecca Andrews

Enhance. Enhance. Enhance it some more!

…say the impossibly beautiful characters in white lab coats while poring over some grainy CCTV footage. An instruction to “increase the resolution” yields a perfect image from a reflection in someone’s eyeball. From CCTV footage. (I’m not kidding, this actually happened on an episode of CSI: NY)

There’s also a scene in the latest Star Trek movie where the Starship Enterprise spectacularly crashes due to Earth’s sudden gravity, which can be proved illogical using some fairly simple physics.

TV and films are undoubtedly the worst culprits for representing something actually contained within a scientific discipline as just plain wrong. There are countless examples of this (admittedly of varying severity) in the countless episodes and films that are churned out into the public consciousness every year. And on a ‘scientific’ show like any of the CSI franchise, an audience’s attitude could well be “well, they wouldn’t get the science wrong on a science show!”

The “fiction” part of science-fiction should of course always be borne in mind – artistic licenceartistic licence can be invoked to move the plot along, whatever the cost. But if the audience comes away with false ideas about what is being or could be achieved, is that not damaging to the perception of science as a whole? The so called ‘CSI effect’ has meant that juries in America place too much importance on forensic evidence, and have higher expectations for what it can do.

However, I think we assume a large amount of naivety in the audience here – while watching a TV show like CSI or a film like Star Trek, no one other than the most pedantic scientist is going to be looking for errors. Any high-tech or futuristic content is assumed (if thought about at all) to either be based on actual science, or is so outrageous that it clearly isn’t possible; in which case all is forgiven in the name of suspension of disbelief.

So while an infinitely slow-moving laser or an infinitely resolvable CCTV image may rile up scientists no end, most people dismiss it in order to keep watching these plucky lab geeks catch their next serial killer.

CSI

So let’s look at a slightly more rigorous format of displaying science to the public: documentaries and other educational TV programmes. Television is arguably one of the best ways of educating the public at large, so how does it fare against fiction?

The most obvious example of an educational science show to choose is perhaps Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ and its later spin-offs. The first series attracted over 6 million viewers, and many people (myself included) can at least partially credit his programmes, and others like them, for getting them excited about science and astronomy in particular. I will go out on a limb and say that his shows probably didn’t contain any glaring scientific errors (although I’m sure someone will correct me), and on the whole did a great deal to educate and interest the general BBC-viewing public.

But Brian Cox has long been accused of ‘dumbing down’ the science to the point where it is, at worst, just plain wrong. A video on the University of Nottingham’s ‘Sixty Symbols’ YouTube channel (found here) discusses a misleading sentence in his televised lecture on quantum theory. But, as is discussed in the video, he got the general message across, and only the most pedantic scientists even picked up on his choice of wording.

Whatever your opinions on Brian Cox, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t done his bit for educating the public.

And what about other TV programmes? ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ is another obviously educational programme, whereas ‘Braniac’ and its American counterpart ‘Mythbusters’ are slightly more roguish and playful. And it’s in looking at these that we find the real problem that scientists have with their discipline being represented in popular media – lack of rigour. The ‘Mythbusters’ team are constantly performing experiments, jumping up and down, and excitedly claiming “this is real science, folks!

Except it’s not. ‘Real Science’ quotes prior research, involves lots of reading, and is peer-reviewed and made to jump through publishing hoops before anyone can see it. At no point does ‘Real Science’ blow something up just to see what would happen (at least without having a good idea of what would happen first).

But it’s exciting, and relatable, and gives the viewers a feeling of “anyone could do this!” And that’s the trade-off that shows of that kind have to make.

WeekScienceThere are many other ways of simplifying science and presenting it in bite-size chunks. This is really well illustrated in the hugely popular ‘I F***ing Love Science’ Facebook page which has over 1.85 million viewers, and the ‘This Week In Science’ images which regularly make the rounds on sites like Facebook and reddit. Both of these attempt to showcase recent scientific breakthroughs in short and snappy articles, or with just a picture and a single sentence. Seeing “prostate cancer could be ‘switched off’” next to a picture of a man in a white coat may well be misleading, and maybe inevitably so, but these social media quips do keep people up to date with the latest in science, and may well spur them on to finding a longer article to explain it better.

And what’s the alternative to this headline-grabbing, ‘click-bait’ approach in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world of the internet? Somehow I doubt that posting a link to a scientific paper is likely to spark quite as much excitement.

With all this excitement in the air, I’d like to showcase a webcomic that gets trotted out (by some quite condescending scientists) when spectacular scientific breakthroughs happen and some member of the public gets a bit more animated than usual.

This highlights the issue of lack of rigour again, and a feeling that ‘proper science’ shouldn’t be all about the fun parts.

But hang on a second. Are we really lamenting the fact that the general public don’t find the minutiae, the self-labelled “boring bits” of what is essentially just another day job, exciting enough? Surely we would say the same for lawyers, doctors, teachers or politicians? We can’t expect non-scientists to enjoy the boring bits of science – if they did, they’d be called scientists.

This interest about the cool and exciting bits of science is exactly what we need to persuade more people to take up the sciences at A-level and degree level, which can only help academic science as a whole. It seems to have worked so far: recent data shows that more students than ever are going into the sciences (from a Guardian article here)

Another thing that could be said for the recent trend of science coming into the public domain through popular media is that is has done something towards changing the stereotype of ‘scientist’. To generalise hopelessly, it has gone from requiring a mass of crazy white hair and a blackboard, through the CSI lab technicians with perfectly coiffed hair, to a more normal, relatable figure. The control room pictures which emerged after Curiosity’s Mars landing and Philae’s comet landing have most certainly helped to push towards a view that scientists are normal people, usually doing awesome stuff – many comments were made about Bobak Ferdowski’s punky Mohawk, and of course Dr Matt Taylor and his questionable shirt choices are a long way from the old stereotypes.

Maybe it’s just my dislike of the show, but the ever-popular The Big Bang Theory doesn’t help the effort to dispel a harmful stereotype. Yes, it has brought a science-based show into topical culture, and yes it is a sitcom where the majority of characters are scientists. But it has only cemented the ‘geek’ stereotype which, as much as it shouldn’t, will push children away from taking science, especially physics. The jokes in the show are at the expense of these nerdy scientist characters – we are expected to laugh at them, not with them.

On the whole, although having outlandish sci-fi technology isn’t particularly hindering to mainstream science, any damage it has done can be easily mitigated by persuading people that science is not some immensely complex and highly demanding elite clique, and by persuading more young people to go into the sciences. Science is, and should be, accessible to all, so any effort to get people excited about it (however fictional the setting) is just an excellent thing to do.

Is science in popular media damaging to academic science?

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