May 06 2008

Culture Matters

Last week we interviewed Kirsten Sanford for the Skeptics’ Guide podcast. Kirsten is a PhD neurophysiologist who is forging a career as a media scientist. She currently hosts the This Week in Science podcast and is working on a number of other projects.

We discussed the role that culture, particularly television and other mainstream media, plays in forming the stereotypical image of the geek scientist. Kirsten lamented that female scientists on TV are typically unattractive, both physically and in their personality, and that part of her goal as a media scientist is to show that women can be “girly” and pretty while still being interested in science.

The segment prompted this e-mail from a listener:

You guys went on a bitter tear about there being no pretty female scientists on the television. I feel the need to gently smack you about…


I’m *aware* of the following.
Fictional characters:
There are at least 2 on CSI
At least 2 on CSI Miami
At least 1 on CSI New York
the girl on mythbusters
the girl on that con show
lisa ling on national geographic
I’m sure there are more.

It’s a double edged sword, though, because the other side of that argument is “every woman on tv who is a scientist has to be sexy and hot. why aren’t there any human looking female scientists on tv?!?!”

I wrote an essay years ago with the main point being “there should be more parts for *.* ” (that’s star dot star for the computer geeks in the hizzy

Basically, there will never be enough representation for any specific group on television. Any group can complain, and usually do, that they aren’t represented honestly and correctly in “the media”.

I think that people don’t really take much away from “the media” but have the condescending attitude that role models and positive television characters are important for “other people”. I’m annoyed when atheists are portrayed as sad souls who need an imaginary friend to be whole but the only thing it makes me do is not watch and gripe at my long suffering wife about how much t.v. sucks. I’m not disenfranchised and I’m not going to begin lobbying.

We have to remember that fewer and fewer people are watching t.v. and going to the movies. It’s a really important piece of information. The numbers for network television are even worse. The one caveat is that it means that the people left watching network television are poor people. So, maybe there’s an argument but it drifts towards an area that is fraught with the possibility of racism and that area gives me the fear.

Network television shouldn’t be a teaching tool. Personally, I wish it were more stupid then no one would watch it and we could all get on with our lives.

Now, I must break my high horse’s ankles, dismount and shoot it on the track as a horrified nation watches.

Dean Cameron

The e-mail brings up several points that frequently arise whenever we rant about television, movies, or other mainstream entertainment. The questions are – should we be critical of fiction or just accept it as fiction; how much should or can we expect from such media; and are we advocating for any kind of censorship.

The last question is easiest to deal with – the answer is no. To be perfectly clear, I do not advocate censorship. Complaining about quality is not a call for censorship – it is just a plea for better quality, or perhaps just complaining. In fact, often I am just exercising my free speech rights to criticize the nonsense or harmful stereotypes that others are perpetuating.

The more complex question is whether or not we should bother criticizing fiction because, after all, it is just fiction. No one expects it to be realistic. But that misses the point. Humans, as skeptics often point out, are storytelling animals. We make sense of ourselves and our world by telling stories about it. Stories are very important to the human psyche and to human culture.

In our modern world television and movies have a central role to play in the storytelling of our culture. TV and cinema both reflect our culture and affect it. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to point out that stereotypes, endlessly perpetuated in the mainstream media that most people consume, will have a tendency to reinforce those stereotypes.

I think this is analogous to the new speak of Orwell’s 1984. The oppressive government instituted changes to the language that were designed to limit the number of words specifically for the purpose of limiting the range of human thought. (double-plus-good). This would in turn make the sheeple more easy to control. The analogy here is that pop-culture has an annoyingly limited set of ideas and archetypes with which it constructs its fictions. Actually, the situation is worse, because news outlets also subscribe to a similar set of limited ideas and story lines into which they shoehorn the news.

The archetype scientist is nerdy, socially awkward, disheveled, and also (and this is the worst part) in possession of inaccessible arcane knowledge that is often of little practical use, tends to blow things up, and cannot be meaningfully communicated to “normal” people. Brilliant scientists always seem to need a major personality defect. In movies this tends to be the “mad scientist” and on TV and in lighter contexts, the scientist is a hopeless nerd.

The point of our discussion is not that we need better “representation” of attractive scientists, or that we should censor such portrayals. Rather, we want to break this stereotype, primarily to make science more accessible and interesting to the public at large, and to make a career in science seem more appealing. Pop-culture is driving a wedge between science and the public and pulling them apart – we want to bring them back together.

Our method for doing this is to try to get more positive and accurate portrayals of scientists into the popular culture – through whatever means we have at our disposal.

I would also acknowledge that there is more diversity in recent years on TV – including some positive images of scientists. I particularly like Grissom from CSI. (And to clarify – we said on the podcast that there was a “dearth” of attractive female scientists, not an absence of them.) But we are not content with this slight and recent trend. I would like to break the stereotype completely, or at least reveal it to be the cardboard caricature that it is.

We did not discuss this on the show, but I also observe that the more intelligent the show the more likely they are to represent a scientist in a realistic way. TV made for children and the unwashed masses are the worst. The dumber the tv show – the more extreme the negative stereotype. But this also means that teenagers and pre-teens are exposed to the worst of this stereotype right when they are forming their cultural senses, their identity, their sense of what kind of person they want to be and what career they may want to pursue.

Regarding the point that mostly poor people are left watching network tv (dumb tv), I am reminded of several articles by David Brooks who writes very well about the fact that America is evolving a new class system based upon education and skills. If it is true that poor people are left watching “dumb” tv while technofiles are migrating to the internet and new media – this would make the class division even worse, because dumb tv would have the effect of making the poorly educated even more isolated culturally from the very things that could elevate them in society. Think about that – let’s serve up nothing but anti-intellectual salve to the poor and uneducated so that they will not view science and education as a way to improve their condition.

Culture matters.

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