My college had a class called “Senior Symposium”. The idea was that all seniors would have a special course where they would read one book a week, with no other assigned work or tests. This was fantastic, largely because it was the only senior course to be taken by people from every discipline.
When I was a junior, and sadly unable to participate, they read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. This is, quite simply, my favorite play ever written. It takes wildly different threads — from thermodynamics to Byron studies to Fermat’s last theorem to carnal embrace (“Throwing your arms around a side of meat”)— and weaves them together in a brilliant way. The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, and the science is explained clearly. For example, in a scene where the main character wonders about the nature of time, and stumbles on the second law of thermodynamics:
THOMASINA: When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. Bit if you need stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?
THOMASINA: Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.
Stoppard is clearly in love with the ideas, and has gone to great effort to present them as best he can. He manages in this way to get at the essence of thermodynamics, chaos theory, and a number of bits of mathematics. At the same time he manages one of the clearest statements of why we study science.
HANNAH: It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. … If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.
So, when a fellow physics major who was taking the class told me, “Don’t worry, I told them the science in it was all crap,” I was stunned. Talking to this guy (I’ll call him “Mike” because that’s his name) about what in particular was wrong was frustrating, because nothing he mentioned was terribly relevant or even all that incorrect. Everything was details and quibbles. It seemed that the discovery of the smallest error was enough to reinforce Mike’s belief that any literature about science was bound to be horribly wrong.
I was reminded of this story because of this excellent piece on the presentation of science in TV shows by Jennifer Ouellette, where she recounts a similar story about meeting one of the writers for Bones who became very defensive after learning that she was a science writer.
Here was this very smart, really nice guy who loves his work and finds the scientific elements fascinating. Yet his personal encounters with actual scientists have been unilaterally negative and alienating — so much so, that he physically recoiled upon first learning about my science writing credentials. That has to change, or the cultural gap will just continue to widen.
As I learned, and as this shows, Mike’s attitude is widespread among scientists. I’ve met astronomers who are proud that they’re insufferable while watching Star Trek, and doctors who can’t stand House. There are certainly factual errors in all shows, and in all popular depictions of science, yet there are a number of reasons for scientific inaccuracy that have nothing to do with the writers being bloody stupid idiots. Here are a few.
1. The story. A whole lot of a show like Star Trek rides on breaking the known laws of physics. House relies on extraordinarily unlikely strings of events and wildly inappropriate (and unethical) medical decisions. But without those features the story doesn’t exist. As Jennifer says,
“Many scientists I encounter seem to incorrectly think that the scientific details are all that matter. While those are important for lending verisimilitude — particularly for procedural dramas like C.S.I., Bones, or House — network television isn’t an educational vehicle. … Good television is ultimately about igniting the imagination with a truly kick ass story. If we can enhance the appreciation of science (and by extension, scientists) in the bargain, so much the better, but that is not the industry objective.”
2. Necessary brevity. Much (technically all) of scientific knowledge is conditional, and that is the beauty of it. However, trying to be accurate by listing exceptions and caveats to a concept is at odds with the requirements of pacing and time available, especially in a medium like television. Too many details can kill a story. Take a look at this comment for an example.
3. Ambiguity in simplification. All science expressed in a popular medium has to be enormously simplified compared to the technical language used by practicing scientists. This process can create ambiguities as to what specific technical piece the author is referring to. For example, one of the animations in the documentary The Atom Smashers illustrates proton acceleration. At first the details looked wrong to me. It showed the proton going around the Tevatron and elongating as it went. “Wait!”, I thought, “The Lorentz contraction should go the other way, it should look like a pancake, not a banana.” However, “bunches” of protons do look like bananas as they get accelerated, and it could just as well be bunches that they were illustrating; the narration didn’t say. The important point though is that they were absolutely correct to not provide that detail. Introducing the concept of bunches at that point would have severely detracted from the essential point they were trying to make: that accelerators work by giving the particles little kicks each time they go around the ring. This kind of ambiguity is inevitable when you are talking, as you must in a popularization, in a language that isn’t the technical language of science.
4. Mistakes happen. Even the much revered peer-reviewed research publications have mistakes. These could be a minor point that the author didn’t understand, or a misplaced comma or other bad phrasing that creates the wrong impression. Insisting on 100% technical accuracy would probably eliminate a huge portion of the published literature; but as long as it isn’t crucial to the main point, minor errors aren’t fatal to the integrity of a science presentation. (I should note that this argument is much stronger for popular science presentations than for published papers, which really should be 100% correct.)
5. They could, in the end, be horribly, crazily wrong for no good reason. I’ll pick on one of my all-time favorite shows for this one : Buffy. One of the episodes in the first season invokes quantum mechanics to explain why a student has become invisible. What irks me about this is not so much that they describe the science in a way which is completely bonkers, but that there was no reason for it. The Buffyverse already has built into it a number of ways to have magical effects happen. If the show was inherently science fiction, there would have been a need to produce some convoluted physics. I think the writers realized this, since they never tried that trick again (thankfully).
Now, there are cases of atrocious science in the popular media. The point here, though, is that one shouldn’t assume case 5, without first checking the others. Certainly there is a place (a very large place) for blasting blasting gross inaccuracies and outright anti-science. But there are real attempts to infuse the arts with the ideas and worldview of science, and the default position shouldn’t be to criticize every detail.