Popular Culture, Media and the Scientist

(Last updated on: January 9, 2014)

Mad_scientist AhNinniah 200pxScience Fact:  Popular culture surrounds us today and in many ways shapes who we are, including how we think.  Popular culture admits various definitions, but generally includes mass media as well as personal and family habits and traditions.

Many years ago I was on an airplane flight and, uncommonly for me, had a conversation with the man next to me.  I was fascinated to learn that he was a professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.  I knew that the social sciences had long ago left my physics training in the dust, but this went beyond anything I could imagine.

Although popular culture celebrates the vibrant diversity of modern life, it also shapes our lives from the time we first become aware of the world around us.  A previous blog commented on the effect of popular culture on girls’ choices of careers (The Science of Women Scientists, plus Big Bang Theory).  However, it’s not going too far to say that popular culture reinforces stereotypes of scientists as a class and makes a career in science seem both uncool and un-sane for both sexes.

Consider how the mental image of science evolves as a person grows up in the U.S. today.

An early picture entering a young mind might be Professor Frink of the Simpsons.  For those who may have not kept up on things, Prof Frink is the mad scientist who, while not busy trying to take over the world, invented hamburger earmuffs.  Of course, Prof Frink was inspired in turn by a similar character who shaped young minds during the 1960s, Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor.  And should we mention the Twerking Einstein Doll?

As the young person graduates past cartoon characters and into television comedies, Big Bang Theory dominates the popular culture landscape of scientist caricatures.  I’m not much of a TV person anyway, but my nonscientist friends always seem amazed that I’m not an avid follower of that show.  I’ve never known anyone over the age of twelve – OK, maybe fifteen – who acted that way, so the characters just are not believable to me.  Other scientists I know loathe the program but not necessarily for the same reason.  Apparently the show takes pains to make the science accurate.  This seems to me a waste of time.  No one expects the characters to be real, they just want them to be entertaining; so why not let the science match the characters?

Science Speculation:  As adults, we are supposed to have the maturity and intelligence to decide for ourselves what to think. However, popular culture bombards us with information, so of necessity we are selective about what we pay attention to.  Some people bemoan that the trends in online and social media push people to focus so narrowly that they never have a chance to consider a new or different idea.  However, we don’t have much of a choice: the statement has been made that today “mass audiences do not exist” so that media are headed toward a future of narrowcasting.

Scientists also succumb to narrowmindedness – once a scientist steps out of his or her specialty, the work of other researchers is all but incomprehensible.  For that reason, one of the purposes of this blog is to crack open the door of information, not only for nonscientists but also for scientists themselves.

Nevertheless, a few items about science creep through the barriers we all erect.  There are the annual oddball summaries such as Yahoo’s Weird! Strangest Science Stories of 2013 that treat science as an entertaining curiosity.  And sometimes there’s an acclaimed and popular film like Gravity in which the science, although “bent” slightly in the service of the story, is both accurate and exciting.

You may say, but I remember reading about some medical or biological or technical advancement in the regular news!  True enough, and I often enjoy those stories and trace them back to find out about the original research.  However, recognize that science is not only a calling, it’s also a business.  Thus a scientific result that pops up in the news may not be an earth-shaking advance, but may have been simply planted by a vigorous public relations department at a university or national laboratory, or even by an individual scientist with a knack for promotion.

Years ago, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin created the Golden Fleece Award to highlight U.S. public officials who he believed were wasting the taxpayers’ money, often by funding esoteric scientific research.  Proxmire’s creation was such a media success that it has served as the inspiration for similar serious or satirical awards, of which a prime example is the Ig Nobel Prize.  Thus even when it comes to (dubious) awards, science as a curiosity gets more press coverage than science as a serious pastime.

How strongly do popular culture and mainstream media shape your perception of science and scientists?

Drawing Credit: AhNinniah, on openclipart.org


Popular Culture, Media and the Scientist — 1 Comment

  1. Uncle Art, thank you for defending us Scientists… I had never thought of the popular cultures influence on how people perceive those who are Scientists and Engineers. -M