Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Science and Pop Culture

This past weekend at Comic-Con 2008 in San Diego I saw the presentations for three popular sci-fi shows I enjoy very much--Heroes, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica--and they got me thinking about how science is portrayed in popular culture. The three shows are very different in their approaches.

In Heroes, scientists pontificate about Science with a capital S, but actually there is no science in the show at all. The men in white lab coats are just wizards: the good wizards invent miraculous potions or devices, while the bad ones abduct and torture for their so-called "experiments." In Heroes, science is about defying nature and doing amazing things: it is magic dressed up in modern clothing.

In Lost, by contrast, scientists are simply mysterious. Nobody understands why the "scientists" do anything they do. Indeed, trying to figure out what they might be up to is all part of the fun of the show. The men in white lab coats speak cryptically, spinning riddles instead of providing answers. In Lost, science is not about defying nature or doing amazing things, but rather it is a frightening reminder of just how little we truly understand about the universe.

Lastly there is Battlestar Galactica, which curiously has the most traditional science-fiction setting but the least mention of science. The lone scientist is Dr. Baltar, a man overcome by vivid hallucinations who soon abandons science altogether. Even the robots on this show are not logical. Far more fantastic premises are routinely asserted in the other two shows, yet only in Battlestar Galactica do certain events occur which may well be meant to defy scientific explanation altogether, i.e. miracles.

Perhaps because of this, I feel Battlestar Galactica offers the most subtle commentary on science in popular culture. Science is not something astounding and apart from everyday life, but so much a part of it that we barely see it. Science is not to be feared nor worshiped: it simply is. And the great questions remain so far beyond our understanding that they fall into a different category altogether.

19 comments:

Raised By Republicans said...

I curious about your assesment of science as portrayed in other pop culture examples: Star Trek (old and newer versions), Star Wars, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Asimov's Robot series.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Quickly, I'd say Star Trek is firmly in the "magic" school of representing science and technology (e.g., someone reverses the polarity of the neutron flow and--presto--the ship is saved!) although once in a while they do have a more "serious" episode dealing with the morality of science and medicine.

There is plenty of technology but no science in Star Wars. Lucas' ill-advised attempt in Episode 1 to introduce "midichlorians" to explain The Force was a famous flop. Lucas uses the paranormal--telepathy and telekinesis--and gives it a mystical rather than scientific basis. This is techno-fantasy.

Asimov represents some aspects of science well in his series. In the Foundation series, "Psycho-history" is an attempt to make the soft sciences harder, and in so doing he shows the strengths and weaknesses of the method. He also represents telepathy and telekinesis, but it has a physical rather than metaphysical basis. The Robots series shows some science in terms of deductive reasoning, a la Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I would probably say that X-Files has one of the best representations of science. The procedural crime drams are all right, but quite limited.

In popular culture, the biggest problem is that scientists are portrayed as being more powerful than they are. Much of what is credited as "science" in pop culture is actually engineering, medicine, or technology. Pop culture makes no distinction between theorists and experimentalists--as though integration and titration were the same skill--and indeed, popular culture often blurs most of science together. In many portrayals, experts in genetics also miraculously understand the cutting edge of theoretical physics, and also somehow have learned to be masterful electrical engineers and forensic chemists. The truth of course is that Einstein could not have experimented his way out of a paper bag, and he knew little of science--even of physics--outside his narrow area of expertise.

USwest said...

This is interesting. I never really thought much about this. But what about medical dramas like HOUSE? I've only seen it a couple of times. But I'd say that that is also science as mystery, where Dr. House magically comes up with answers to bizarre medical cases.

What gets me in all the crime dramas, as Dr S. indicates, is that there isn't a process or apparent scientific method. It's is "wow", we had an epiphany and suddenly the mystery is solved in 45 minutes with 5 commerical breaks.

Dr. Strangelove said...

In most crime dramas, the focus is on the clever ways that they collect evidence. The analysis done back at the laboratory is usually just portrayed as a colorful video montage of prescribed technical procedures. This is all in good fun of course--these shows are about detective work, not science.

While it might be refreshing to see a cramped, underfunded laboratory stacked with old papers and aging equipment... I suppose real-world technical work just does not make for good drama.

The Law Talking Guy said...

CSI (the original) is terrific because it shows a number of things. First, its message is that science means objective analysis of evidence. Second, it preaches that science is the way to truth. Third, it shows women being scientists. Most science shows show scientists as eggheads or semi-autistic. Despite the colorful montages (you can't make science visually interesting easily), the original CSI is, or was, terrific in that regard.

Pombat said...

"In many portrayals, experts in genetics also miraculously understand the cutting edge of theoretical physics, and also somehow have learned to be masterful electrical engineers and forensic chemists." - Dr.S

This irritates me no end! Especially in that maths-crime one, um, Numbers: whilst I like the fact that they're sort of making maths 'cool', and the mathematician isn't a skinny nervous bespectacled nerd with the social skills of a sharp-cornered coffee table; there is absolutely no way he would have the in depth knowledge of that many fields of mathematics, and step between them with such ease. If he did, he'd be accidentally getting Nobel Prizes and solving unproved theorems on at least a fortnightly basis!

LTG raises a good point about CSI giving good messages about science - I'd never really thought about it that way, being in the rolling-of-eyes "there's no way they'd have all that kit" and scoffing at them managing to do things like get a picture of a suspect from the CCTV recording of the reflection in a sleepwalker's eye camp...

I do often wish that science was portrayed a bit more accurately though, and often get irritated with the scientist being the nerd/evil guy/one who gets killed first in films, but I suppose the accuracy point at least is an issue for most professions when it comes to dramatisation: medics I've known can't stand most medical shows because they're so way off, and I'm guessing legal shows have the same inaccuracies when watched through LTG's eyes for example (whereas I've never been in a courtroom, so it's all believable to me!).

Raised By Republicans said...

"skinny nervous bespectacled nerd"

Bell Curve isn't like that. He's like way cool. He's not really that nervous very often. I'm pretty sure he only needs his glasses some of the time and skinny is relative.

Anonymous said...

I think one subtext of Battlestar Galactica might be that engineering is fun(another possible subtext is that women are superior fighter pilots. ;o))

There's a great episode where they build a new jet out of recycled parts, and it's presented as a kind of game by the chief petty officer. It reminded me of how Richard Feynman was apparently quite the practical joker on the Manhattan Project.

I would argue that Baltar is a meditation on the charismatic religious figure (Joseph Smith comes to mind) rather than as symbol of science.

As for CSI, the other things I like about women in that show is that (a) most of the women scientists have social lives (though in kind of stereotypical TV ways) and (b) a working mother gets promoted. I loved Scully as a high school kid, but she's a bit of a nun, no?

-Seventh Sister

Raised By Republicans said...

"I loved Scully as a high school kid, but she's a bit of a nun, no?"

They cast against type on that one I hear.

Dr. Strangelove said...

7th Sister: I agree that Baltar is a religious figure rather than a symbol of science. Well put. I was trying to explain that there was no science in BG--not really--and I was trying to explain why Baltar didn't count. But you said it better.

Regarding CSI, however, I do not equate laboratory procedures with the scientific method. The people who designed the laboratory procedures were scientists, those who apply these procedures are experts, but not really scientific researchers.

History Buff said...

I think when it comes to accuracy and Hollywood, just about everything falls short. Some historical dramatizations are so bad they are completely ridiculous (A Knghts Tale.)

As far as the three shows listed in the original post, Lost and Battle Star Galactica are my favorite shows. I never thought a whole lot about the science in Lost other than it seems to be some kind of weird psycology experiment to see how people react under extreme conditions.

Battle Star Gallactica is a religious drama. The whole point seems to be who will find the promised land first. (I have only seen the first three seasons on DVD) And it pits two different theology systems against each other: the human polytheists (interestingly with a Greek/Roman Pantheon) and the monotheist Cylons. Makes me wonder if monotheists on Earth are supposed to be decended from Cylons.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I can think of at least three women I know who expressed a sincere desire to go into forensic science as a result of CSI. Only one actually took steps in that direction, but that's still a pretty impressive result from a TV show.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Oh, Pombat, all legal shows suck ass. There's no getting around it. Law and Order was by far the best one in terms of making courtrooms somewhat realistic.

The Law Talking Guy said...

BSG is wonderful because it plays with religion and politics so much. And it plays against type constantly. The enemy cylons are the familiar monotheists, not the humans. The humans become terrorists at one point, not the cylons. And so forth.

But let's not forget that BSG is overlayed over adolescent fantasies about really, really beautiful people.

Anonymous said...

I agree with LTG's erudite comment about legal shows. Even with Law and Order, the 45 minutes of interesting stuff would, in real life, be 45 minutes of interesting stuff nestled within 10 weeks of discovery motions and drudge work.

As for BSG, they seem to frequently play against type about gender. Many (if not most) of the women seem to be "shoot first, ask questions later" types, while the guys are frequently the ones sitting around being upset or musing about the meaning of an event.

-Seventh Sister

The Law Talking Guy said...

I remember one Supreme Court show where they took witnesses in the courtroom. It made my head almost explode.

Pombat said...

See, again, I'd have no problem with that. Witnesses in the Supreme Court? It's a court, so sure, why not!? Simple lack of knowledge on my part (and the majority of the watching public) means that they can get away with it. Legal question though - can you sue a show for almost making your head explode? ;-p

And on a serious note, one that bugs me, both in legal shows and real life, is how few people actually understand statistics. You tell someone (e.g. a jury) that there's a one in a million chance that this person matches this evidence (fingerprint or whatever), and everyone goes ohhhh, one in a million, it MUST be him! Whereas they should actually be thinking hmmm, one in a million means that in a country of 300 million (US is 300mil now?), there's a one in 300 chance it's him, i.e. there's another 299 matches out there...

Dr. Strangelove said...

As they say, 83% of all statistics are made up :-)