Charles Darwin watches television

And he is dismayed at the absence of science. Charles Darwin’s blog reviews a week’s worth of programming, and finds a near total lack of any kind of science. The one exception, sort of, are the police procedurals.

Not a single factual science programme on any of the channels available to everyone who has a television. However in the dramatic presentations it is clear what science is for: it is to help the police elucidate which American has killed which other American. It is also clear who becomes a scientist: people of eccentric appearance and manner with peculiarly arranged hair. They inhabit extremely modern, uncluttered and strangely lit laboratories, there is usually only one of them and he or she possesses an extraordinary range of scientific specialities and skills. They are sessile, but propel themselves on chairs which swivel and have small wheels, often making verbal ejaculations as they do.

It’s a growing genre, I fear: there are all these shows like Bones and the multitude of CSI spinoffs that portray this utterly bogus version of science as an enterprise that is all exceptionally well-funded, laden with glittering chrome and well-coifed and made up people, and everything is directly results-driven: like Chuck says, it’s all about catching the bad guy. It’s also very magical, that the wizards of the crime lab push a few buttons and get The Answer with impossible speed, and everyone bows down and accepts the authority of these faux scientists.

It’s a peeve of mine, too, so I’m pleased to see that Darwin and I share an opinion.

The question now is about how to get Hollywood and the television industry to portray science both accurately and as an intrinsically interesting process. Too often the media veer between two equally false portrayals: it’s either 1) a talking head reciting formulas at a camera, or 2) that boring science stuff is jettisoned for soap operas and crime set in a lab. At least the nature programs come a little closer to the idea, but even there they rarely couple the charismatic animals behaving wildly with the science that the observers are trying to work out.


  1. says

    Here in Canada, I get my fix through PBS and TVO, but other than those two channels they could blow up the rest and I would never miss it…except Leaf games.

  2. says

    There’s really not much on the “Big 3” to speak of, but I do enjoy “Numbers” on CBS Friday. It’s mostly math-based, with some science, usually physics, thrown in. Lately, there is more enivonmental issues as a side bar, they’re making the main character’s home more green. It’s based at “CalSci” University, a knock-off of CalTech. Yeah, like most crime shows using science (or math) things are a little idealistic and move way faster than real-life, but I find it pretty interesting. There was an interview with the creators a couple months ago on NPR’s Science Friday. Fascinating.

  3. Brandon P. says

    He should fly over to America. For all the jokes made at the expense of the average American’s science education, science gets much more coverage over there than in Britain. I mean, we have an entire channel (Discovery) dedicated to science, for chrissakes!

  4. Northcoast Atheist says

    Does anyone else remember Julius Sumner Miller? He had a show, live, in glorious black-and-white, that was about physics. He was one part scientist and three parts showman and made physics come alive! We watched with our little daughter. She loved the static electricity experiments, I loved the experiments where the results were counter intuitive. Sunday afternoons used to be such fun when television was young.

  5. Janine ID says

    Maybe we can import something from the BBC? What about MythBusters? Doesn’t that count as practical science?

    Posted by: David Lee

    Funny. On the latest episode of CSI, Adam and Jamie make a brief appearance. They are seen outside the window of a lab, wearing white lab coats and holding clipboards. They say nothing but at one point, they give the thumbs up.

    It must have been odd for people who never seen Mythbusters. Who are these strange looking men and what are they doing?

  6. says

    My greatest current pet peeve is CSI: Miami, but it’s not so much for the perversion of science.

    The thing is, they show the outside of the CSI HQ from time to time, and you clearly see it’s got a whole ton of windows. Then, they cut to an interior scene, and the building is practically freakin’ pitch black inside. In fact, it’s a miracle they’re not running into one another.

    Then again, I suppose this goes a long way in explaining why David Carusso is always squinting.

  7. says

    One of my peeves about these shows is the fact that often, low-res pictures (from a phone, usually) are blown up to huge proportions, detailed enough to count the hairs on a flea. If that were possible, there’d be no more need for microscopes or telescopes; anyone could take a picture of anything with their phone and just magnify all the way up to to the molecular level, or to the surface of other planets.

    And they’re using it to read license plates!

  8. says

    Part of the problem may be that literature is largely void of interesting characters whose principal trait is being rational. Other than Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock, it’s difficult to come up with many others. Maybe in Sagan’s “Contact,” and a few other examples, but James Bond is much better box-office material.

  9. Sastra says

    Ironically, when the show CSI first came out, skeptic and humanist groups were hailing it as a kind of breakthrough, and urging people to watch it. The argument was that CSI was showcasing science in a positive light by portraying forensic scientists as honest seekers of truth and placing emphasis on the process of examining empirical evidence in order to arrive at a conclusion. At the time, the over-simplification and glamorization was thought to be an acceptable trade-off for the absence of psychics and cops who go by their reliable “gut instincts.

  10. says

    Well, Hollywood is in the entertainment business, not the education business, of course. Watching a Hollywood movie or TV show for accurate science is like watching one for accurate history or politics or solutions to your love life: stupid. Still, I agree it would be nice to have more pro-science films out there, to counter the anti-intellectual tide that’s sweeping America right now.

    Speaking of inaccurate movies, has anyone heard anything about the supposed federal injunction slapped on Expelled in the wake of the Yoko suit? Ed Brayton has reported on it, but for some reason he doesn’t link to a story or source, so I was wondering if any confirming/disconfirming information were out there.

  11. Carlie says

    Brandon, have you watched Discovery Channel lately? They may have started out with the goal of showing science, but they quickly realized they could make more money off of pseudoscience and reality tv. They still do more science than the average channel, but most of it is buried under sensationalism and (at times) huge errors.

  12. says

    The question now is about how to get Hollywood and the television industry to portray science both accurately and as an intrinsically interesting process.

    Can’t happen, not on a mass level enough for the Big Three anyway. The average person doesn’t know enough science to understand it, and if you get into the guts of the science you are going to start offending the sensibilities of those who wish it were otherwise. Keep in mind we are talking about a culture where a show called “Sportsnight” died because, according to TVGuide, you had to actually pay attention to all of it to get the jokes. We are also talking about a culture where “elite” and “intellectual” are perjoratives. The public doesn’t WANT the scientists to be the good guys. They want them to be crazy, and goofy-looking, and of course, wrong.

  13. Lynnai says

    I wish the backing science in the crime shows was better, yes it is mental pablum, entertainment ment to turn your brain down to its most minimal setting, but I know it sure shatters my suspention of disbelief when they make blatantly false statemtns in the feild I do know something about. The credulity of the average puchasing public leads me to believe that these statements might be taken to heart by a dangerous few. Not that gems have a particularly imoprtant role in the world but I like them more then some people.

    So if anybody cares, pearls can easily be crusehd by large pairs of pliers, natural emerald is fragile enough you can practically spread it on toast, and there is NO lab test to definitively tell man made diamond from natural. For a lot of gems the cheap immitations are actually harder then the orriginal stone and distructive testing is almost allways very stupid.

    Pardon me for ranting… point being I can only imagine how bad those shows are for any other field of even semi-sceince you’d care to mention.

  14. Tosser says

    An equally bad case is the History Channel, which shows lots of UFO specials in addition to shows about loggers and one called “Gangland,” which is at least informational even if the subject matter isn’t all that important, historically speaking.

  15. Bob L says

    The History Channel has at lest The Universe series. On the hand they spew out crap like UFO Hunters were pretend pseudo science is real science by pulling all kinds of red herring experiments and then running away from making any conclusions.

  16. says

    Funny you should write this, PZ.

    A minute ago, I finished my third draft of a research proposal that I’ve been working on for the better part of the past three months. I’ve been spending almost every waking hour on this for the past week. I needed to have it finished by the end of the day tomorrow, so I’m actually coming in a bit early. It will be reviewed this week and then be torn to shreds (most likely) on Friday afternoon, requiring yet another round of revisions before getting approved. After all that, I’ll have the privilege of writing a full, formal proposal for submission sometime in the next three months or so.

    As a result of working on this, I am not particularly well made-up. In fact, I was up at 4:15 AM this morning to work on this. I haven’t so much as showered today. I look anything but glamorous. I have a case of two-day stubble and chrome red eyeballs. Just to get to this point has required a year of reviewing other people’s research.

    Unless the cospeciation of wood-degrading fungi and an ill-defined family of insects becomes of interest to big business or homeland security, I will never drive a Mercedes like the TV drama “scientists.” In fact, if I’m lucky I’ll make half as much as I did as a headhunter recruiting software engineers for vital high-tech concerns like

    There’s no glittery chrome in my world. I sometimes have to use my own money to buy the necessities for my research, not to mention books and the like. There are a lot more science people in my position, I’m sure, than there are like those portrayed on TV. At the moment, I can assure any and all readers that there is nothing sexy about my appearance most of the time nor about my lifestyle most of the time. I haven’t even had a real vacation since 2001!

    This is “big science,” folks. If you want to be a rock star, don’t become a scientist. Rock star scientists are a tiny, tiny minority. There might be three or four in a generation. You never hear about us little, unshaven guys who do the grunt work, who sweat a lot and get wet a lot and almost never get enough sleep and do it out of the sheer love of finding out something that nobody has before — and then hoping that everyone else can benefit from it for free!

  17. Colugo says

    Bones at least sometimes shows multiple interpretations of the same evidence. Bones’ worst flaw is the ridiculously lavish forensic anthropology lab, including the fantasy hologram technology. (Haven’t watched it recently because it conflicts with How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory.)

    Anyone remember the name of that late 90s science fiction series that featured a bioanthropology lab? It’s on the tip of my tongue.

  18. Quiet Desperation says

    Brandon, have you watched Discovery Channel lately?

    Yeah, but Dirty Jobs down utterly own. :-)

    Discovery has just split. They also own The Science Channel which has much more solid science content. Last show I saw was Savage Sun with stuff about the findings of the SOHO probe.

    And there’s still lots of “natural world” programming. Honestly, there’s only so much in cosmology and particle physics that’s accessible to the general public anyway.

    I wish How It’s Made was a higher rated show. People might have more of an appreciation for what it takes to get things done and built, and maybe they’d stop voting like people who think everything will be granted to them by either magical sky gods (religion) or magical G-elves (government).

  19. Jams says

    “Part of the problem may be that literature is largely void of interesting characters whose principal trait is being rational” – PatrickHenry

    I don’t think I agree with this assessment. From Oedipus Rex to Dora The Explorer, literature is filled with characters who are defined by their rationality, or more often, by their quest to find rational solutions.

    A detective story is defined primarily as a quest to uncover rational answers to seemingly irrational problems. I don’t just mean stories that draw on the private eye archtype, but any story where a protagonist is trying to solve a problem or answer a question. Detective stories are always rational stories and may be the most common type of modern story.

    Maybe the problem with modern portrayals of scientists, isn’t a lack of rationality, but a lack of scientific method which requires more than simple rationality.

  20. says

    The inescapable fact is that for the majority of the public the practice of actual science is extremely boring. Making science shows more accurate would simply make them unwatchable for a mass audience. The “science” that sells is merely magic, just as science fiction isn’t fiction about science (although there is such a thing), but something akin to traditional wonder narratives like the ancient Indian puranas or Greek myths.

    I don’t know how to get around these inconvenient facts, but I think people for whom science is fascinating need to recognize them.

  21. Anon says

    We need a new Mister Rogers, visiting scientists in their labs. It has been my experience that scientists, once you get them talking, are passionate about their own work. Mister Rogers never tried to hype, but showed an appreciation for everything from how crayons are made to the sound of the word “umbrella”, and did it to an audience too young to already be jaded.

    As the twig is bent, so grows the tree; a much simpler show aimed at a younger audience might change the commercial landscape later on.

  22. jimBOB says

    Television dramas are about emotions rather than ideas. It’s a kind of (dare I say it) Darwinian thing – the shows that survive are the ones that do the best job of pushing emotional buttons. Not surprising there’s little rationality on view.

    However, over on PBS, Nova often does some interesting science stories. There was a particularly good one about the discovery of four-winged dinosaur fossils and the debate about what this means to our ideas about the descent of birds. One cool part showed a group of scientists who’d built their best guess of a model for the four-winged creature and they were testing flight configurations in a wind tunnel. Fun, dramatic and full of actual science.

  23. phil says

    To leap to the defence of the UK, I’ve got to point out that this week we have The Sky at Night (special), where Patrick Moore (who is still, improbably, not dead) ‘talks to cosmologists about what we know about the universe and what we just don’t know’, Child of Our Time (following a group of kids born in 2000) ‘Now eight, the kids are struggling to make sense of gender roles’, and (OK, not too sure about this one…) ‘Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives’, a ‘Documentary which follows the singer of US rock band Eels, Mark Everett, as he travels across America to learn about the father he never knew – quantum physicist Hugh Everett III’.

    I never knew that about the Eels…

    I’ve recently discovered, however, that radio is far, far better for science. Take a look at the radio listings for science progs and you’ve got stuff on language acquisition, the bystander effect, the ubiquity of numbers, and the World Service has a weekly science update, ‘Science in Action’.

    PS I am not paid by the BBC :-p

  24. says

    Okay, my family doesn’t watch any of the CSI shows, but we do watch “The Big Bang Theory” and “Bones”. The characters might not have the best social skills but they appear smart and knowledgeable, as well as kind and good. Not bad combinations. We also like “Doctor Who”, “MI-5, aka Spooks”, and “Stargate Atlantis”. At least on Stargate Atlantis, although it’s SciFi it takes place in present day and one of the lead characters is a physicist, Dr. Rodney McKay. He typically solves the biggest problems using science. Even “Stargate SG1” had a scientist, Samantha Carter, who was “very quick” in solving science problems. And, my kids are big fans of “Mythbusters”, “Smash Lab” and “How It’s Made”. So, check out the SciFi and BBC America channels for some good non-documentary science programming.

  25. says

    Seems like, when I was a kid, there was always *some* kinda cool nonfiction series running on PBS: PZ showed us a bit of Brownowski’s Civilization, plus I particularly remember Cosmos, The Age of Uncertainty, The Story of English, Life on Earth. What ever happened to those shows?

  26. Bill Dauphin says

    This is a topic I generally have a lot to say about (typically I defend TV as an artform against the nattering nabobs of “vast wasteland” criticism), but this morning I don’t have the energy to inveigh at length… so:

    1. House, MD… ’nuff said.

    2. I’ve never watched any of the CSI shows, but my family watches all flavors of Law & Order nearly obsessively. I don’t know enough about real forensic science to know to what extent they get the technical details right, but in those shows the forensics folks are portrayed as relatively ordinary, though smart, people working in plausibly equipped (and lit) offices and labs to get whatever information they can out of whatever little bit of evidence they have. Seems pretty respectful of reason and the scientific method to me.

    3. The great Theodore Sturgeon said “90 percent of everything is crap.” That’s as true at your local bookstore or movie theater as it is on your TV; the difference is you don’t get to see all of the crap at the bookstore as easily as sitting on your couch flipping through the channels.

    Off to Sunday brunch now…

  27. Adrian says

    Thinking of popular shows with scientific characters in a somewhat positive/realistic light, has anyone watched “ReGenesis”? It’s one of my favourite shows on now and while it certainly isn’t strictly concerned with reality, it is night and day compared to the magical fairy-world of CSI.

    And of course WayBeyondSoccerMom mentioned some good and popular shows that have genuine science content.

  28. Sastra says

    For the general public, pseudoscience is usually more attractive than science itself because it taps into the emotional centers of the brain better. In pseudoscience:

    1.) The real story is you. Astronomy is about planets and stars. Astrology, on the other hand, is about how the planets and stars are either trying to tell you something about your life, or reflect and illuminate your person. It’s all a social narrative. Just as people have a hard time figuring out how there’s any meaning in a universe which isn’t a story about them and God, they have a hard time seeing any meaning in a universe which isn’t a story about them and their amazing subjective interconnections to the universe.

    Objectivity is boring. What’s in it for me?

    2.) Pseudoscience lets you be the maverick, the person in the know, the little guy who gets it right when the arrogant elitist scientists don’t get it. You’re special, clued in to secrets and open to the kind of deep wisdom you find through searching with your heart and your guts, as well as your reason. Look what you can figure out! Aliens built the pyramids! Guess you pulled one over on the educated, and found out what “they” don’t know — or maybe they don’t want you to know.

    Of course, that also describes religion.

  29. negentropyeater says

    The question now is about how to get Hollywood and the television industry to portray science both accurately and as an intrinsically interesting process.

    I think Hollywood is about the worst place on earth you can think of to produce this kind of things. It’s sad but they are so focalised on the mega-bucks business that everything else just gets no attention. Plus, have you ever asked yourself how many business executives and screen writers in hollywood are science litterate ? Believe me, I’ve met many in my carreer, Ben Stein is a luminary !
    No, I think independent film productions is most probably your best bet.
    Also, here in continental Europe I get a demi dozen documentary channels over satellite (Astra). One general rule, over time, what has been comming from the states (mainly transmitted via discovery channel and national geographic) has been consistently reducing in quality, whereas what is being produced in Europe (mainly from Britain, France and Germany, via BBC, Planete, Documania, Arte) has been relatively stable.
    It would be fairly easy to extract from all these channels the best content and make an excellent science channel without having to produce any new programming. It’s all available out there.
    The only problem is that the directors of programming, and the channel directors have not the vaguest idea of how package and market it.
    If we could rethink the concept of a proper science channel and show the business benefits for the satellite or cable operators, I’m quite certain that this could be solved.
    Because there’s loads of good content available out there !

  30. says

    I don’t think this is a problem entirely unique to Hollywood/TVland. Often in a magazine article about a new scientific breakthrough, the pictures show a scientist in a clean white lab coat, standing in front of a neat, spotless lab bench. I have to wonder — where do they *get* these labs? Is there some lab that just houses neatly stacked boxes and clean Erlenmeyer flasks arranged on shiny black benches, where science is never conducted and whose sole use is for photography?

  31. says

    Tikistitch: the Life on Earth series was such a worldwide success that the BBC is planning to cut staff at the Natural History Unit which was responsible for the fantastic filming which David Attenborough so ably fronted and narrated.

    Phil: yup, Radio 4 does daily science really well at 9pm each evening, In Our Time (Tuesday 9am) often covers weighty science issues in real depth and R4’s documentary specials often pick up science issues. Radio 5 Live has a ‘naked scientist’ on for half an hour once a week in the early hours. BBC Radio is good, but science on BBC TV is patchy. When they do it well and pour the cash in (life on earth) it’s triffic.

  32. Paper says

    @25 – I was wondering if I was the only person watching Big Bang Theory – It’s not exactly High Art, but it’s witty, with good characters and portrays a version of science that’s at least a little closer to what I studied than some blinged-out CSI lab.

  33. Cathy says

    I agree with a previous poster that NUMB3RS (CBS) is enjoyable and includes math and science in a favorable light. I would say that, it not only shows math and science to be USEFUL (in figuring out “which American has killed which other American”), but it also shows the beauty and mystery and “numinousity” of math/science, especially in the character Dr. Larry Fleinhardt. Not only that, the mathematicians and scientists are played by some rather ordinary-attractive to downright sexy-attractive actors. In the last episode Dr. Fleinhardt defended science to a ranting religious cultist. When she threw something about Hitler using science he was beside himself with irritation and said something like, “What? You mean I have to choose between Hitler’s science and your religion?” Later on, when he had calmed down, he expressed an Einsteinian-spiritual view of science.

    Someone also mentioned House, the show about an unpleasant but brilliant (atheist) doctor. I’d like to give a nod to Psych, which is light comedy and neither realistic nor deep. But the main character has been forced by circumstances to pretend to be a psychic, which the Santa Barbara police department and everyone else apparently (but reluctantly) believes and goes along with–but he really just uses evidence and reason to solve crimes. I think it’s totally funny, but anyone viewing it should be informed by the setup of the situation, found in the first episode. The fact that the detective agency name, Psych, informs everyone that they’re being had just makes it funnier.

  34. Lynnai says

    Does anybody remember Bonnections with James Burke? I think it would be really neat to see a biological version of that, either showing connections of evolution or laterally showing interconnectedness of apparently seperate ecosystems. Would go over like a lead ballon with the American networks but the BBC I think could nail it.

  35. DLC says

    True. the CSI series’ “science” has little to do with
    how a real evidence recovery and analysis unit works.
    I could expound on that topic for several pages, but most of the other comments have already done so in depth.
    The original CSI series set in Las Vegas is a drama with quirky plots and unusual characters. I can ignore the glaring scientific errors or gloss-overs if the story is otherwise worth watching. I’ll also note that the show is not popular with prosecuting attorneys, who have noted a “CSI Syndrome” in criminal trials, where the juries seem to expect some scientist to take the stand and prove conclusively that the suspect did the crime.
    Reality doesn’t work that way.
    If you want some more reality-based criminal investigation television, try Investigation Discovery (poor initials ID…) Or, for some decent “hard science” television, try
    the Science Channel. you won’t find quality science TV outside of PBS. Too bad. We need more.

  36. AK47 says

    My five-year-old son can’t get enough of MythBusters, and he thinks science is extremely cool.

    roobhoofd @ #8: I feel your pain! The scene is always something like this: a technician is at a computer and everyone is looking at the screen, where we see a blurry image that includes an important clue. After a few minutes of hand-wringing, the protagonist finally says to the technician, “OK, now ENHANCE.” Motivated by this excellent piece of advice, the technician pushes the “enhance” button on the keyboard. Sure enough, it works!

  37. says

    Tikistitch: the Life on Earth series was such a worldwide success that the BBC is planning to cut staff at the Natural History Unit which was responsible for the fantastic filming which David Attenborough so ably fronted and narrated.

    *sigh* I suppose if the Conservatives take the government next time (I’ve heard that’s how things are trending), we’ll get to see more of that kind of stuff. It’s a shame as BBC America’s news program is currently the only news broadcast I can bear to listen to.

  38. Ian H Spedding FCD says

    When I watched CSI back in the UK, for a while it was followed by a documentary called The Real CSI which followed the day-to-day work of the real crime scene investigators in LA.

    It was fascinating, seeing the contrasts.

    In real life, there were no improbably handsome or beautiful staff, although there were some very interesting people. They didn’t drive metallic grey Hummers with tinted windows – which are cool, if absurdly expensive – just very ordinary cars or SUVs. Their offices were just that – drab, cluttered and lit by standard overhead fluorescents – not strangely-lit expanses of glass and chrome which must be hellish to keep clean and polished. They admitted to drooling over all the expensive gadgets with which the TV show labs are equipped; their own stuff is more limited and much of it has seen better days.

    And in real-life investigations it took a lot longer than fifty minutes to solve the case – if they were able to solve it at all – and that was assuming they were able to recover any usable forensic evidence from a crime scene. A lot of the time there was no single, crucial hair waiting to be spotted by an eagle-eyed investigator with the help of their trusty flashlight.

    That said, the CSI shows do present science – or, more specifically, forensic science – in a favorable, if improbable, light. As for the prosecutor’s problem of juries having exaggerated expectations, is that really such a problem in the long-run? Forcing lawyers and real CSIs to explain to ordinary jurors what forensic science can really do – or not do – is a good discipline. It should help to keep things honest given that there have been some bad miscarriages of justice caused by undue weight being given to the testimony of experts.

  39. says

    tikistitch#38, is there any good reason to think a Conservative government would make the BBC produce more or better science programmes? (For instance, is there any reason to expect them to give the BBC more funding?) So far as my unreliable memory goes, the last Conservative government and the BBC didn’t get on very well together…

  40. Longtime Lurker says

    I’d say our greatest hope for good science programming is Neil Degrasse Tyson. He’s a good-looking guy, has the voice of a gifted orator, and he conveys a sense of warmth and good humor, as well as passion for his field. I don’t know what kind of ratings he gets on the T.V. machine, but he has “star” potential.

    As far as CSI-type portrayals of holographic crime labs, flame me if you will, but “Star Wars” type “science fantasy” has done a lot to infantilize SF (and no, I am not David Brin!).

    Sad and appalling note-I read recently that, as a member of a think tank, Larry Niven advocated (don’t know if it was satirical or not) distributing leaflets in Spanish claiming that ER’s were killing indigents to harvest organs, thus keeping down medical costs incurred by uninsured immigrants.

  41. Eric says


    We need a new Mister Rogers, visiting scientists in their labs. It has been my experience that scientists, once you get them talking, are passionate about their own work. Mister Rogers never tried to hype, but showed an appreciation for everything from how crayons are made to the sound of the word “umbrella”, and did it to an audience too young to already be jaded.

    Oh wow, now I totally want to go grab a video camera and start heading out to local science labs. Maybe as a video blog…

  42. cynthax says

    I watch the CSIs, all L&Os, Bones, House, all that crap. I watch them for entertainment, but there are a couple of things I’ve been able to learn from them. To me, the problem is analogous to the whole hype over how violence on TV and videogames makes kids violent. Lots of things on TV are exaggerated and glamourized. Cops are not superheroes, lawyers don’t speak beautifully with no pauses or hesitations, university classrooms are not all tiered, etc. I for one enjoy seeing the scientists looking good and working in cool labs. We can still dream and wish it were like that, can’t we? If anything, it gives science some publicity and gets people to know about things they would never have heard of otherwise. I know many people who chose their jobs because of characters in movies or TV that inspired them, and these same people can look back and see that the thing that inspired them doesn’t make much sense in real life. But it still was an inspiration.
    Of course, in an ideal world, people would watch all that with a critical eye and learn to identify what makes sense and what doesn’t, conclude that most of it doesn’t, and discuss it or look for real-life information.
    All in all, I still think it’s good entertainment and waaaay better than “reality” shows!

  43. says

    Now, this may actually get me stabbed here, but I think one of the shows that really spurred my interest in science was…

    Gads! You are all going to hate me…

    It was MacGyver.

    I think that I was always fascinated by the actual application of science in everyday life. And, though MacGyver was always considerably hokey, there was always something about it that would make me feel that there is much more to this world around us than most realize.

  44. Mike from Ottawa says

    2. I’ve never watched any of the CSI shows, but my family watches all flavors of Law & Order nearly obsessively.

    Law & Order (the original) doesn’t give you much cringe-inducing ‘science’ because it is too busy inducing cringes in lawyers with it courtroom scenes. Examples: no lawyer but a hopeless incompetent ever lets his own witness’s criminal record or a deal for testimony come out in cross-examination but always brings it out in examination-in-chief. These aren’t just a crappy depiction of actual practice but are such shopworn clichés they are to drama what farts are to comedy.

    The CSI’s have a more baleful influence, though, as they’re giving jurors the idea that forensic evidence should normally be crystal clear and conclusive like it is in the shows, which is seldom the case in reality.

    For a TV show, albeit not a drama, that does give you a good look at the forensic scientists, there’s ‘Exhibit A’ (might have a different name in the US), hosted by Graham Greene where the cases are real and the forensic folk are the actual people who worked on the case, in their actual labs. Oddly enough, these are usually crowded and brightly lit.

    BTW, my suspicion is that darkly lit dramas these days owe as much to accountants as to a desire for effect. Low light makes the sets easier and cheaper since the darkness hides a world of kludge.

  45. says

    I absolutely love ‘The Big Bang theory’ (bizarrely enough, I understand just enough to understand what they’re going on about), I avoid the CSI shows mostly because the lab workers rarely (if ever) get involved w/the actual ‘perps’, & I stopped watching NUMB3Rs mostly because
    A. The 1 episode in which Fleinhardt was flummoxed was a psychic fraud,
    B. They’ve started shooting Fleinhardt in these gauzy pan shots that are better suited for action sequences,
    C. It seems that the main character knows EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING (it’s bordering on the absurd @ points).
    I think House rocks the house (pun intended).
    I like Bones, but I agree w/the other poster – they’ve got far too many ‘bells & whistles’ to make it realistic.

  46. Alligator says

    The “CSI effect” is a problem for defendants as well as prosecutors because the jury expects that a truly innocent defendant will be able to present exculpatory forensic evidence.
    The CSI effect highlights the true problem with forensic science: it isn’t science (except when it involves DNA analysis). Most of forensics relies on individuality, the assumption that no two objects, humans or portions thereof are exactly alike. But what scientific principle prevents two people from having identical print patterns on upper part of their left thumbs?
    Additionally, there are no standards for most forensic techniques. For example, whether two fingerprints “match” depends solely on the judgment of the print examiner, who chooses which print points to compare and how many points must correspond to constitute a match. Base rate research does not exist, so examiners make up base rates, or assume base rates made up by someone else. Error rates are unknown because examiners rarely undergo proficiency testing.
    Finally, forensic science rejects the skepticism, instead claiming that its techniques are infallible and that its identifications are scientific facts. But this is to be expected: scientific uncertainty sounds an awful lot like a reasonable doubt.

  47. Bill Dauphin says

    OT, but for a dose of reassurance about “the kids these days,” even in demon-haunted Texas, check out this video.

    Key Evil Atheist Pullquote: “This isn’t some kinda’ magic; it’s physics, and you just did it!”

  48. bernarda says

    It is no use to be too critical of programs like “Bones” and “Dr. House”. They are for entertainment, and they do have the virtue of presenting atheists in a positive manner. In both shows the hero has openly mocked the superstitious beliefs of their partners and they always come out on top. What more can you ask for? At least in the television industry.

    Of course it would also be great to have a daily program like the French state channel, “C’est pas sorcier”(It’s not magic), which is directed at young people and explains all sorts of science in diverse fields.

    A daily program that has already done 400. An example.

  49. says

    g @ 40: Reading conservative blogs in the UK (it’s dirty work, bit someone’s gotta do it) many Conservatives blame the BBC for maintaining a left liberal conspiracy which protected the failings of the Labour government and failed to give the conservatives critique a voice. The more rightwingers want the BBC’s budget pretty savagely cut, and were that to happen the high-cost stuff like natural history would suffer further.

    British Conservatives aren’t as conservative as US conservatives.

  50. thais says

    I don’t know about TV shows, but there is a made-for-TV movie that is excellent. It’s called And the band played on and it portrays the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. The science in it is very accurate, the characters are realistic and have to deal with all the constraints represented by budget, politics, ego. Plus it’s a very touching, sad story.

  51. says

    OK. I have to put my 2 cents in here. I am an actor with years of interest in science, and I think some things need pointing out.

    1.Quit blaming Hollywood. Blaming Hollywood for entertaining escapist movies and T.V. is like blaming Ford for making cars. Hollywood doesn’t do science.

    2.CSI (all of them), Bones, Numbers, and NCIS (all three personal favs and shows I’ve worked on), and all the other entertainment programs that tell stories that give people some time off from the real world, portray science and the people who use it in a positive light.

    3.And as the science exists to further the plot, the need to get DNA results in hours as opposed to weeks or months trumps the otherwise undesirable passage of time.

    4.If you want real science, you need to go to documentary writers. You might even find a way to make a show interesting without the need to be a documentary. Look at the oft mentioned Mythbusters.

    I know that the liberties taken with science and with the speed at which it moves in real life vs. reel life drives some of you nuts. I too have seen something that isn’t real and know that without it, the writers could end up with something even less plausible. And wouldn’t we all love to have one of those magic computers that enhance photos beyond the pale of reality? But the truth is, the show writers don’t have time to learn particle physics, nor do they have time to figure out how to put it into easy speech for all the viewers who watch the show and want their 60 minutes of stress free escapism.

    After years of movie and T.V. vision, science labs are always pretty and chrome, and modern, because that says to the viewer, LAB. No explanation necessary. The people that run the labs know it all because hiring 25 actors to explain the plot points that revolve around the science is too costly. It would never get past the line producer, much less the suits up stairs.

    Here is what I think is going to happen. You folks are on the cutting edge. The Internet. Blogs that are interesting and well written, short films made by those who want to educate the public, and are willing to get them on the net for that purpose. The fertile ground is where you are. Let Hollywood do entertainment for it’s own sake, and you guy keep making science interesting to the rest of us. It will filter up. And if we’re lucky, some show writer will see it and say, “hey, that would make a great idea for an episode of Bones”.

    And lastly, remember that Star Trek, MacGyver, CSI, and other shows that present science in a positive light are often responsible for turning young minds onto science. I wonder how many young people will turn to mathematics because of Numb3rs, and I know that many of todays scientists were influenced by Star Trek and other science fiction. Not a perfect situation, but given these shows are for entertainment purposes only, not a bad thing.

  52. dave says

    Perhaps slightly skewed timing, as Beeb4 is full of the splendid Medieval season, and perhaps the nearest to science in that is “Historians and archaeologists cook a Tudor feast as it would have been prepared 400 years ago, sourcing food from the land and using recipes from the era.” Of course some may find “Inside the Medieval Mind” of similar interest. Worth looking for the splendid advert / commercial / trailer or whatever on YouTube – psychedelic medieval imagery to an early musik version of Jimi Hendrix.

    But I digress. Last week had a re-run of David Attenborough’s excellent “Life in Cold Blood” series, next week there’s Patrick Moore’s astronomy. Not enuff, perhaps, but better than nowt.

  53. BAllanJ says

    @28…yes…ReGenesis. It’s Canadian and I’m not sure its on UStv.
    Sorry about CSI (owned by a canadian company….alliance/atlantis)
    And of course there was quincy before that.

  54. says

    I can’t speak for the rest, but “propel themselves on chairs which swivel and have small wheels, often making verbal ejaculations as they do” certainly rings true in my lab. They forgot “and shoot each other with stretched-out laytex gloves”, though.

    Mmm, rolley-chair drive-bys.

  55. says

    I’m running for Congress in 2010, I’ll introduce a bill requiring fiction to be significantly closer to fact when possible, all for you.

  56. Lightnin says

    What infuriates me most about CSI is how poorly lit their labs are-how the hell can they possibly get any work done?

  57. andyo says

    I think Phillip Moon above has a good point.

    Anyway, I also watch Numb3rs>/i>, but I’m on the verge of leaving it. In the aforementioned last ep, the physicist did have a great argument with a religious nut, but then they had to compromise, and make him regret it. He was also referring a little too much to his “faith” throughout the episode.

    That’s why I LOVE House. Never mind the medical mumbo-jumbo, the uncompromising, relentless comedy is just gold. GOLD I say! I think the concept that “faith” is somehow good and (GASP!) enlightening is one of the biggest, greatest, and most dangerous lies ever perpetrated to the human race. House has no problem whatsoever of saying the truth about it, in a histerically funny way, and getting away with it. I don’t think any other shows dare to do that.

  58. Ichthyic says

    there’s only one approach I can see that will fix this mess:

    1. you have to convince the networks that the dumbing-down of America by catering to the lowest common denominator is a BAD thing, regardless of ratings.

    2. a gradual introduction to the science behind what people ALREADY like to see will get them used to it, and eventually some will really like it. Example: take one of Irwin’s naturalist adventures, and instead of watching him just shove his thumb up a croc’s bum, he instead talks about, or better interviews one of the scientists doing research on crocs.

    anything is possible, so long as one is able to pitch the argument that life isn’t just about popularity and the bottom line (even temporarily!). What’s more, eventually, as people adjust, competition will end up making the bottom line the same as it always was, with just a slightly different emphasis.

    As it stands, I rather think we may have lost that battle in America, but I hope not.

  59. Christianjb says

    Who watches TV these days? In case you haven’t noticed- using television as a source of information went the way of the Dodo once people realized they could more easily obtain information from the internet. (The shameful propaganda accompanying the Iraq war was the last straw for me.)

    I used to agree that it was a shame that networks carried no science programs, but that was before I had completely given up on television as a source for serious information.

    Let television do what it does best- provide minute to minute updates about Britney Spears.

  60. Jenny says

    How can you not love CSI: Miami? The whole show is preposterous. The best part: David Caruso’s oh-so witty one-liner before the credits.

    “That’s what I call…a decorative vase.”
    AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! We don’t get fooled again!

  61. cousinavi says

    PZ, you rat bastard! Not to engage in name-calling, mind you, but you have to stop watching CSI for science. It’s about titties in tight shirts. And lip gloss. And thoughtful pauses punctuated with thoughtful staring into the distance as the perfect scientific tack dawns on the person wearing the tight t-shirt over the titties.
    No one ON the show ever notices the titties…which is proof positive that they aren’t even human. I know if I worked in a dimly lit lab, surrounded by titties in tight t-shirts, I’d certainly notice (and turn the A/C WAY WAY UP!).
    I wouldn’t get much crime-solving science done, but CSI is not about science, you (damn…already used rat bastard…I need to learn some more names)…you…you titty!
    Frankly, and let’s be honest here, titties have more to do with mammalian evolution than all the petri dishes and microscopes ever found in all the labs, ever.
    Let’s get our priorities straight, shall we? Sure, Marge Hellgenberger is getting old and couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag…but she has GREAT titties for an old(er) woman and a collection of low cut, tight t-shirts.
    MMmmmm. Science.

  62. jsn says

    How can you not love CSI: Miami? The whole show is preposterous.

    Most ludicrous scene I’ve, uh, seen (out of a grand total of less than 5) involved a search for a little girl. The cops and Caruso’s character all met at where she was last seen (or something) and decided to “fan out” to search for her in the area. The cops race off in their squads, leaving Caruso standing all alone. He studies the ground, walks a few feet towards some trees and finds the girl hiding behind one.

  63. jsn says

    So let me get this straight, PZ. You’re upset about how TV shows portray science and scientists. Well, hot damn! Welcome to the world of Christians! At least scientists aren’t almost always portrayed as bad guys. At least they’re not almost always portrayed as unhinged, murderous psychopaths. Because you know it’s sooooo realistic to portray Christians like that every time they’re used on these shows. I mean, you walk into any Christian church service and there the Christians are sharpening their knives or caressing their guns and hearing a sermon on how the Bible says evil people must be exterminated by Christians. Yep.

  64. John S says

    Lets spare a thought for the non-charismatic animals that never make the cut when it comes to “nature documentaries”. Where, o, where is the animal planet special dedicated to the various exciting forms of snail? Was Darwin not passionately interested in barnacles of all types?

    Slimy, spiky and ugly, yes. Cute, fluffy and cuddly, no. Now where is my freakin Tee Vee program???

  65. csrster says

    I wonder if the way scientists are portrayed in TV shows is less accurate than the portrayal of, say, cops, doctors, the military or gangsters? Do you think there are mobsters jumping up and down in front of the box shouting “It’s not like that at all! When did you last meet a wise-guy with a thick italian accent? What the hell is a ´wise guy´ anyway? Why do they think we all look John Gotti with the blowdried hair and the designer suits? What’s it going to take to change these stereotypes? Do we have to whack a few screenwriters to get the message through? Not that we use words like “whack” anyway.”

  66. Ichthyic says

    I wonder if the way scientists are portrayed in TV shows is less accurate than the portrayal of, say, cops, doctors, the military or gangsters?

    show me a reality TV show based on scientists, and I’ll let you know.

    OTOH, how many “COPS” clones are there now?

  67. ShemAndShaun says

    The Life on Earth series was such a worldwide success that the BBC is planning to cut staff at the Natural History Unit which was responsible for the fantastic filming which David Attenborough so ably fronted and narrated.

    Life on Earth was first shown in 1979. I still remember it vividly when it was first broadcast. I was hooked from the first show. Never missed an episode. I was 12 years old at the time. I read the book too which I got from the library.

    If the BBC is planning to cut staff, they are taking their time over it. In fact, if I remember correctly, they had been planning on cutting staff before the series was shown, but the success of the series has made the Natural History Unit one of the BBC’s best sources of revenue.

    Of the various series that David Attenborough did, I think the Life of Plants was the one I enjoyed most. The original Life on Earth remains mixed up with childhood nostalgia. I haven’t seen it in ages, but I would love to watch it again. They are all excellent. The BBC sell a box set of all eight ‘Life’ series. 24 DVDs for a running time of 60 hours. Hmmm.

    As for the Tories accusing the BBC of having a left wing bias, that is as least as old as I am. I don’t remember a time when they were not saying so. Being independent, the BBC have always told them to bugger off and rightly so.

  68. Ichthyic says

    If the BBC is planning to cut staff, they are taking their time over it.

    hmm, I was wondering if the person who referred to the Life on Earth series was actually thinking of the Planet Earth series instead?

    since the BBC sold the rights to that to the Discovery Channel (who promptly fubar’d it by rewritting the dialogue and replacing Attenborough with Sigourney Weaver), that might be indicative of the BBC being a bit on the short side wrt funding for nature shows?

  69. andyo says

    How can you not love CSI: Miami? The whole show is preposterous. The best part: David Caruso’s oh-so witty one-liner before the credits.

    “That’s what I call…a decorative vase.”
    AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! We don’t get fooled again!

    Posted by: Jenny | May 4, 2008 11:03 PM

    You are not the only one who loves that!

  70. RHM says

    The best “science as entertainment” I’ve seen on the tube, lately, are middle-of-the-night reruns of Bill Nye The Science Guy, on PBS.
    Sure, it was made for kids, but it’s fun – it’s “SCIENCE!”
    And Bill is sexy.

  71. says

    Yeah, scientists in TV series etc. are portrayed in a non-realistic way, but OTOH so are almost all other professions. I strongly doubt that a cop’s everyday life is anything like CSI or all those other HuntingTheBadBoy (TM) series, or that the average medic behaves like Scrubs’ Jaydee…

  72. The Pale Scot says

    This is what got me interested in Bittorrent, BBC, NatGeo, Attenborough etc. The extra expense for broadband is well worth it.

  73. Ouchimoo says

    UGGG! I hate those shows So much!!! Even worse, I grew up on the Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel (before it turned into the woman’s interior decorating channel! >:@) watching the REAL Detectives and Forensic Science and the FBI files ETC. ETC. And I was considering a career in Forensic Scientist. Then I hear people rave about how awesome they think CSI is and about accurate it is. I Just glare at them and tell them straight out how bad it is and absolutely NOTHING like the real thing. They either argue it (badly) or are completely caught off guard.

  74. says

    Charles Darwin’s blog reviews a week’s worth of programming, and finds a near total lack of any kind of science.

    Sort of like this blog. *rimshot*

  75. trrll says

    While I agree with almost all of the criticisms of the science in TV shows, I disagree almost completely when the overall point. I still remember how much of a breakthrough Mr. Spock, with his ridiculous probability estimates to six significant figure, seemed at a time when the prototype of the fictional scientist was Dr. Frankenstein. Now we have numerous shows–the CSIs, Numb3rs, House, Bones–in which science and scientists play a major role.

    It’s still true that I only rarely manage to watch an episode of one of these shows without catching a major howler. I can’t tolerate House at all because of the combination of incorrect medical science and a protagonist who exemplifies the very worst tendencies of the medical profession.

    I still get annoyed every time one of these shows takes a 512 pixel video image and “enhances” it to high definition. And while it is perhaps remotely plausible that Las Vegas might have a state-of-the-art forensics lab, I’ve been inside New York police stations, and I have an idea of what their budget must be. And where do all of these guys get those glass blackboards, anyway?

    But (unlike Mr. Spock, who was almost always right) the protagonists of these shows actually have to form hypotheses, test them by experiment, and usually revise them in the light of new data. This is even true of the execrable House, even though House typically learns that his (generally ridiculous) diagnostic hypothesis is wrong by nearly killing a patient by some horribly unethical attempt at therapy. And while the protagonists still mostly look like Hollywood starts, some of them, particularly the supporting characters, are actually starting to sound like the scientists I know–and also to exhibit the sort of enthusiasm for science and discovery that typifies real scientists. More to the point, I can’t think of any time in the past when mass media fiction has exhibited this much respect for the scientific process, or this much respect for the sort of people who do science.

    Yes, it is still very far from a realistic portrayal of science. But they have come a very long way from Dr. Frankenstein and Mr. Spock.

  76. bruceJ says

    I wonder if the way scientists are portrayed in TV shows is less accurate than the portrayal of, say, cops, doctors, the military or gangsters? Do you think there are mobsters jumping up and down in front of the box shouting “It’s not like that at all! When did you last meet a wise-guy with a thick italian accent?

    As a matter of fact, FBI agents dealing with the Mob in NY DID notice a change when The Sopranos started up…more and more of the mobsters they were watching started talking and dressing like Tony, Silvio and Paulie…

  77. says

    Next on CBS…

    …The Proposal!

    This episode, we watch our three young scientists, one a physicist, one a biologist, and one a climatologist, as they try to get their proposal approved by the National Science Foundation. With the recent budgetary caps and reductions in an anti-science administration, it’s sure to be a tale of woe and despair!

    …Followed by…

    …The Conference!

    A controversial scientist comes to an astronomy conference to push his theory on Modified Newtonian Dynamics, and gets in a fist fight with one of the attendees! Also, at a biology conference, we see the first conclusive evidence that the bacterial flagellum evolved from a simpler structure, and the resulting abandonment among Cdesign Proponetists for Intelligent Design!

    Next on CBS!

  78. Chris Crawford says

    I’ve got some bad news for you, PZ: a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there never was anybody called Luke Skywalker and he didn’t blow up the Death Star. Hamlet never wondered about existence, Frodo never saved Middle Earth, and we’re not inside The Matrix. These are all STORIES, not histories. Their truth does not lie in the literal details, but in the abstraction of the events they present. Luke Skywalker is a lie, but there is truth in the movie about the nature of young males. Middle Earth never existed, but World War I certainly did.

    It is the job of the storyteller to communicate truths about the human condition, not scientific principles. The CSI stories are NOT about DNA and fingerprints and hair follicles. They are about people using their minds to achieve truth and justice. They are about the triumph of rationalism over human perfidy.

    Stories are not expected to teach science and science is not expected to entertain. Sometimes stories can sneak some science in and sometimes science can be entertaining. But we don’t give Nobel Prizes for laugh-a-minute theories and we don’t give Oscars for scientific truth.

  79. Ichthyic says

    It is the job of the storyteller to communicate truths about the human condition, not scientific principles.

    why not? or do you think science has never contributed to our understanding of the “human condition”?

    But we don’t give Nobel Prizes for laugh-a-minute theories and we don’t give Oscars for scientific truth.

    both trite and irrelevant.

    in fact, your entire post was such.

  80. says

    @#84 Chris Crawford —

    It is the job of the storyteller to communicate truths about the human condition, not scientific principles.

    So maybe detailing the process of ATP synthesis is out of the question for these shows…but it could certainly do a better job at representing the truth of *how* science is carried out (which is really more of what PZ was talking about in the OP). Doesn’t the way we investigate and arrive at interpretations of the natural world say something about the human condition?

  81. Chris Crawford says

    Ichthyic and Etha Williams, “the human condition” is a term of art used to describe the more abstract aspects of life. It’s what art does. Michelangelo’s statue of David communicates truth about the human condition, even though it is anatomically incorrect. Indeed, the function of art always includes some element of untruth, in that art focuses our attention on something — and that act of focussing necessarily minimizes other truths. Think in terms of caricatures. A caricature of a face is a deliberate untruth: it exaggerates the characteristics of the face and therefore constitutes a deviation from truth. Yet in its untruth it reveals other truth.

    Ichthyic, I have no interest in arguing with you; if there’s a point you’d like to discuss, I’d love to discuss it with you.

    Etha Williams asks, “Doesn’t the way we investigate and arrive at interpretations of the natural world say something about the human condition?”

    Well, yes and no. It is possible to create a story whose central truth is the scientific method. However, most stories are about other topics, and so the deliberate distortion of the scientific method is appropriate in those stories. If you wish to create a story about the scientific method, by all means feel free to do so. My objection is to the insistence that stories must be literally true.

    Lastly, I want to warn everybody about a common error that may or may not apply to any individual reader: it is human nature to underestimate the expertise of those in other fields. Everybody does it. The danger is that some of the scientists here might underestimate the richness of the narrative process. I was trained as a physicist, but later in life I began to seriously explore the art of storytelling, and the more I learned, the greater my respect for those who do it well.

  82. RHM says

    #86: Thanks Ichthyic(and Ivan)for the link.
    Perhaps Nye’s style didn’t translate well to an adult audience, but I’m inclined to believe it was short-lived do to a general lack of interest in actual science. The popularity of all the pseudo-scientific dramas, mentioned above, is one factor that convinces me my speculation is likely correct. The “science” is only cool when it’s gruesome or titillating.

  83. Ichthyic says


    the point is, TV ISN’T just about storytelling.

    you are grossly underestimating it’s function as a media outlet.

    Moreover, Sagan was a fantastic storyteller in his own right, even when sticking to pure science.

    I rather doubt he misunderstood the value of the narrative process.

  84. Chris Crawford says

    Ichthyic, I agree that TV serves many functions. But the discussion was specifically about stories on TV: CSI, for example. That’s a story program, not a science program.

    And yes, Carl Sagan did a great job. There are plenty of good science shows on TV. My point is, we shouldn’t expect drama shows to be science shows. Let the storytellers do their job without nitpicking them about scientific accuracy. That’s not their job.

  85. Ichthyic says

    Ichthyic, I agree that TV serves many functions. But the discussion was specifically about stories on TV: CSI, for example. That’s a story program, not a science program.

    Oh, my bad, I thought you were addressing the topic of science programs on TV in general, and concluding that there is no room for science on TV.

    yes, you are correct that CSI IS a story program, not a science program.

    so were the adventures of Steve Irwin.

    that does not preclude the possibility of actually including real science in them as well.

    why reinforce misperceptions of how science works if it isn’t absolutely necessary for story?

    after all, you wouldn’t say that CSI thinks itself pure fantasy, either, right?

  86. Chris Crawford says

    I draw the dividing line between story and science, not between fantasy and science. Thus, I give any story — television, novel, or movie — all the leeway it wants to fulfill its narrative goals. If we held stories to any kind of standard of scientific accuracy, we wouldn’t have Star Trek, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, 2001 A Space Odyssey, or even such timeless classics as The Day After SomethingOrOther, Independence Day, Asteroid Smashes the Earth, etc [ahem]. Indeed, we wouldn’t have ANY science fiction if we tried to make it conform to science fact. Think how boring life would be without Captain James T. Kirk seducing green women!

    As an aside, my first “catch” was with 2001: A Space Odyssey. They showed an excavation at the crater Clavius, and the gibbous earth was in the sky above the scene, but the terminator was just passing over Clavius, and that particular geometry is impossible. I caught it and showed off my expertise to my fellow physics friends. Garsh, aren’t I smart! But that didn’t change the value of the story one iota.

  87. Ichthyic says

    If we held stories to any kind of standard of scientific accuracy

    …we might be better off.

  88. Ichthyic says

    I caught it and showed off my expertise to my fellow physics friends. Garsh, aren’t I smart! But that didn’t change the value of the story one iota.

    you just defeated your own argument. If it didn’t change the value of the story, why not correct it for accuracy?

  89. Chris Crawford says

    “If it didn’t change the value of the story, why not correct it for accuracy?”

    Because correcting it for accuracy may well have intruded into the narrative structure, which is the only meaningful factor to consider. Worrying about pointless details such as the geometry of the earth as seen from Clavius is a waste of time. It’s a story! Enjoy it! If you want to learn about the geometry of the earth-moon system, read an astronomy book!

  90. Ichthyic says

    If you want to learn about the geometry of the earth-moon system, read an astronomy book!

    of course!


    your argument simply doesn’t hold water.

    if a story driven show wants to pretend adherence to a scientific principle, unless there is some overwhelming reason not to (and you yourself provided an excellent example of a case where it wasn’t), again, WHY NOT make sure accuracy is applied?

    your entire argument is only relative to a subset of cases where the storyline is fantasy oriented.

    and, let’s face it, with the popularity of shows like “law and order” and “CSI”, I’d say the idea that the audience is only interested in story rather falls flat on its face.

  91. John Scanlon, FCD says

    In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan expressed a plea for something decent on TV that shows – heck, total realism is not even a requirement, so ‘portrays’ is the better word – a team of people using science to solve problems in the real world.
    He seemed to think The X-Files had had potential, but noticed immediately that the sceptical member of the team always turned out to be less wrong than the credulous one. Disappointing.
    The only other show I recall he mentioned was Scooby Doo, where the ghosts always turned out to be some unscrupulous land developer in disguise. Those who only know SD from the recent movies may be surprised that the original cartoon had a strong sceptical message, though it wasn’t exactly about science.
    Shortly after I read Sagan’s book, the first CSI hit the screen and I recognised it immediately as an attempt to deliver on his plea. For that, I can forgive it a lot. Also because of Marg Helgenberger, who was the reason I watched Species multiple times. Not that I’m a titty-man, but no denying she’s hot.

  92. Chris Crawford says

    “your argument simply doesn’t hold water.”

    That’s a vaguely generic comment; I’ve written quite a few things here. I request that you provide a more specific criticism. In order to clarify the matter, let me restate my basic claim:

    Storytelling should be evaluated on its dramatic or narrative content, not its scientific content. It is inappropriate to criticize a story for poor or incorrect scientific content.

    That’s the basic argument. Now for some elaboration on it. The basic concept here is to clearly understand the point and purpose of an enterprise and respect that purpose. In everything we do, we must first establish our goal, and then preserve that goal against compromise by other considerations. This task can be complicated in the real world when the ultimate goal is difficult to articulate. For example, we can claim that the goal of storytelling is to entertain — but in most cases, the goal is actually to make money. Moreover, if we inquire closely into the nature of entertainment, we discover that it often contains an educational element — although that educational element is usually confined to the human condition, not the physical universe.

    The mistake that you and so many others make (and I made when I was younger) is a failure to appreciate one of the fundamental truths of storytelling: a story is a lie that conveys a deeper truth. Every story lies. Have you ever noticed that people almost never go to the bathroom in stories? Real people do it all the time, but in many stories we see a character go for hours and hours, battling bad guys, romancing beautiful women, and never once pausing to take a leak. You might argue that this constitutes a violation of scientific truth, that the human bladder simply cannot hold all the urine that must be generated by all that metabolic activity — and you would be scientifically correct and narratively wrong. A story is not a simulation. It falsifies reality to focus the audience’s attention on artistically significant matters. If you wanted to make a movie about metabolic activity and urination, I’m sure it would be possible. But don’t plan on any Oscar nominations. ;-)

  93. Cathy says

    I wholeheartedly agree with Chris. I am glad that I am able to enjoy story without undue nitpicking, and I know that good storytelling is really hard. I am really pleased that there is more science and math being shown in a more positive light than there used to be. (Of course, with satellite TV and a million channels, there is more of EVERYTHING than there used to be.)

    Of course, Ichthyic is correct in that, if a story is set in the “real world” (not MTV’s version of same) and if it attempts to portray the world realistically (“Pushing Daisies” emphatically does not and is great!), the set designer, scriptwriter, costume designer, etc., should consider getting things as accurate as possible – but Chris is right in that accuracy will and should take a back seat to the necessities of the narrative. Maybe “all those glass blackboards” are more effective in a TV show than in real life ‘cuz we need to see the character’s faces as they work things out. Maybe dim lighting is setting the artistic tone that the director or set designer wish to have.