[A note from your AWOL blogger: I got stuck with jury duty last week, plus, I am supposed to be working on the new book, ergo, blogging has been a bit infrequent of late. As penance, here's another monster post on a subject near and dear to my heart.]
For those with zero interest in the first presidential debate, Friday night's network lineup included a re-airing by CBS of its brand-new series The Mentalist. Like Phil Plait, who raved about it over at Bad Astronomy, I think this show is easily the most promising of fall's network debutantes, precisely because it overtly espouses what one might call the "rationalist mindset" -- and it does so via an especially dreamy (and sympathetic) mouthpiece: Aussie actor Simon Baker, who stars as Patrick Jane (a.k.a., "McSleuthy"), a former stage psychic turned police detective. (Jen-Luc Piquant sez: *swoon!*)
The pilot makes no bones about the fact that Jane's past "career" of "speaking to the dead" was a scam. He's just very observant and adept at reading people via their mannerisms, personal photographs and so forth, and was able to leverage this skill into a convincing act. He was pretty darned successful, too, until he made the mistake of insulting a serial killer during a TV appearance; the killer took revenge by murdering Jane's wife and daughter. Jane quit the psychic gig and became a detective, as well as a fervent antagonist of his former profession. And now he's the anti-Ghost Whisperer.
In one telling exchange, he coolly tells a gullible young policewoman who asks how he reacts when he meets "real" psychics, "There are no such things as psychics." She persists, arguing that her own sister has "the gift" and has been "right" about things she couldn't possibly have known. He counters by pointing out the combined phenomenon of selective memory and wishful thinking: people tend to remember the "right" guesses and forget the wrong ones, thereby shoring up their propensity to believe in psychic phenomena. Cognitive psychologists call this confirmation bias. It's a very real phenomenon, but you're certainly not going to hear about it on The Ghost Whisperer.
That makes The Mentalist a refreshing departure from what used to be the usual prime time fare. I use the past tense because The Mentalist isn't the only show on network and cable television that unapologetically espouses a pro-science rationalist worldview. My inner geek thrills to a mix of science, compelling narrative, strong characters, and good writing; there are so many series now with these elements that said inner geek is positively intoxicated by the sumptuous feast laid out before her: the C.S.I. franchise ("follow the evidence"), House, Bones, Numb3rs -- and those are just the ones with the best ratings.
Here's why I think this is significant. Networks aren't altruistic; they're out to make money by appealing broadly to their viewers (not that there's anything wrong with that), and the kinds of shows, therefore, that become breakout hits reflect the preferences of the general public. The fact that so many successful science-themed shows are resonating with viewers is an encouraging sign that there is a significant fraction of folks out there who are interested in science and at least willing to listen to a rationalist viewpoint. Science is not only perceived as marketable -- it is perceived as cool and hip. I won't go so far as to call this a cultural paradigm shift, but as someone who cares deeply about science, culture, and communication, I find the current trend heartening.
The USA Network, for example, offers Psych, a light-hearted comedic version of The Mentalist, in which a young, brash private detective passes himself off as a psychic to help the police solve cases -- using many of the same powers of observation and "tricks" employed by Patrick Jane. (The premise is that he does this to get around the legal technicality of not having a PI license.) Psych strategically airs new episodes during network "off seasons," when much TV fare consists of reruns, which has helped it garner a healthy audience -- plus, it's a terrific, entertaining show.
Hearts and Minds
Most of the other prime time science-y series are rolling out their season premieres. Bones was first out of the gate a couple of weeks ago with a two-hour episode that found Booth and Brennan in Merry Olde England, on the heels of an explosive finale in May in which a major character turned out to be in league with a serial killer. This surprising development played into one of the show's central themes: the search for balance between head and heart, thinking and feeling, brain and brawn, personified in the various cast members. For instance, Booth evolves from sneering at the "squints" and their academic, cloistered view of the world, to appreciating their expertise and single-minded devotion to uncovering the facts -- even if it means accepting that one of their own is the guilty party. Brennan, for her part, started out as a coldly analytical scientist who squelched her emotions (although not her sex drive), learning through her collaboration with Booth to cut less-brilliant folks a little slack, and that it's actually okay to be human and just a little bit vulnerable.
In that sense, Bones follows in the footsteps of C.S.I., whose main character, Gil Grissom, constantly exhorts his team to "follow the evidence," put their emotions aside and rationally assess the facts of the case. But even Grissom has had to face the head/heart conflict, first by letting down his walls to fall in love with team member Sarah Sidle, and -- in the explosive season finale -- by losing a beloved team member. The season premiere promises to be a doozy as everyone deals with the fallout from the shooting death of a major character. [I am trying very hard to avoid major spoilers, although the truth is out there on the Internets for those who wish to know more details.]
Monday night was the season premiere of last year's breakout sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which proved to be something of a lightning rod for controversy when it debuted last year, at least within the physics community. (My own take in Symmetry magazine can be found here.) Normally, scientists content themselves with nitpicking various aspects of the science in movies and TV shows, but in this case, the science is largely correct, thanks to the efforts of technical consultant David Saltzberg, a physicist at UCLA. So most of the complaints about TBBT have been of the "negative stereotype" variety.
As I've said before, such criticisms might have an element of truth but they are entirely missing the point: these characters appeal to viewers. They are likable just the way they are, and that is a Good Thing for Physics. If the goal is to make physicists feel good about themselves, then okay, maybe this isn't the best approach. But if the goal is make physics and physicists more palatable to the general public and win their hearts and minds, these characters are fantastic ambassadors. I vote for the latter.
Granted, the pilot episode painted the characters with the broadest possible strokes, but as I predicted, those characters have evolved into far more complex versions. It's no longer just about the nerdy physicist Leonard longing for the unobtainable pretty blonde, Penny. Turns out she might not be unobtainable. In Season 1, they became friends, as they learned to look past appearances, their own stereotypes, and the inevitable culture clashes. And in the season premiere, Penny and Leonard go on their first official date, with disastrous results. (C'mon, there's a long-standing tradition in TV to drag out the romantic suspense.)
They are now grappling with the unavoidable gaps in their respective educations, in an interesting role reversal from the first season. Penny confides in Sheldon (of all people) that she feels insecure about not even graduating from community college, worried that Leonard will grow bored with her because he's always dated women with PhDs. Once he finds out, Leonard blows it by handing her a brochure for college classes, thereby reinforcing this impression -- when he's really only trying to help address the issue. It's an entirely believable point of contention, and I'll be interested to see how it plays out.
I was a hard-core fan of The X-Files, but I have mixed feelings about FOX's new series, Fringe. On the one hand, it's got a couple of great characters, most notably Walter Bishop, a brilliant scientist whose unethical (more accurately, criminal) experiments landed him in the loony bin for 15 years. He has a delightfully loony, macabre sense of humor, which balances out the sometimes over-heated plot lines. Much of the "science" goes well beyond speculative and slips into the realm of the silly and implausible, but this is the prerogative of science fiction, so one can't criticize that overmuch. On the other hand, it could be argued (and has been) that the best science fiction is speculative but doesn't cross that critical boundary. Furthermore, for all his charm, Bishop is literally a "mad scientist," and several of the plots thus far have involved the fallout from his earlier research -- he's kind of cleaning up his own mess.
Among the converts to the show are the irreverent folks at io9; a recent post listed four reasons why they think it is the "most reassuring show," at least when it comes to science fiction on television. Reason #1: "Everything weird can be explained away," with science, no less. Perhaps, but that doesn't mean it's a convincing explanation. I was especially struck by Reason #2, which I suspect cuts to the core of my ambivalence about Fringe:
Science is Magic and Can Do Anything. Need to see the last thing a dead person saw before they died? Need to psychically project your own mind into a coma victim's? ... It's all possible, with science! Yes, science can make the dead walk again (literally, as long as you do it within six hours) and fulfill all of your wildest ambitions.... So now there's quite definitely nothing that we can't do if we just put our minds to it."
Uh, no. That is not what science is about; it's what science fiction is about. I love both, but let's not confuse the two. By all means, confess your love for Fringe; we all have our guilty TV pleasures. I recently confessed my affection for the highly uneven, yet strangely compelling short-lived series Witchblade (about as supernatural and non-scienc-y as you can get, and more than a little silly at times), and I wrote a whole book about physics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. But I would never claim that science is like "magic."
Fringe isn't anti-science, but it's not pro-science either. It's far more ambivalent, and thus potentially more interesting, depending on how the show develops. I definitely don't find it "reassuring." A prior io9 post described the science depicted therein as "out of control and scary." In fact, writer/producer Jeff Pinker is on record saying that he thinks science "doesn't seem to have a goal anymore." Of the kind of research being done today, Pinker observes, "Some of it seems to be morally good and some of it seems to be morally a little bit careless. But anything that we can imagine be it good or bad, seems like the real world is already two steps ahead of our imagination." I'm reserving judgment on Fringe -- it has yet to win me over -- but the scientific community should be paying attention to Pinker's sentiments. I suspect they reflect the mixed feelings of lots of other people when it comes to the brave new world of science.
The World is not Magic
The io9 folks applaud Fringe for being the antithesis to Lost: "removing paranoia and showing that there's no such thing as a magical time-traveling island anyway.... After all, House can't do it all alone." Say what? Comparing Fringe to House? (Quoth Jen-Luc, that faux-gallic hothead: "Oh, no, they didn't!") Look, Fringe has its way-out-there sci-fi charms, and House is a clearing house for the most bizarre, rare medical conditions imaginable, but the two are apples and oranges in terms of their worldviews. A more apt comparison would be with Eureka: it has the same near-term futuristic, "Ooh, isn't science kooky and kinda scary" vibe to it -- and the same charming flashes of dark humor. (The Website Notcot has an amusing interview via Twitter with S.A.R.A.H., the "smart house" on Eureka, in which S.A.R.A.H. dishes on the selection of beers on her premises.)
House has far more in common with The Mentalist than with Fringe. In fact, it could be argued that Patrick Jane exists because Gregory House proved such a popular, compelling character -- despite being an unhappy, embittered atheist who likes to manipulate people and pops way too much Vicodin than is good for him. This understandably bothers some atheists, but as with The Big Bang Theory and physicists, if the audience doesn't love the character, the show simply doesn't work. Audiences love Greg House, precisely because he's so nastily outspoken, saying and doing things we often fantasize about ourselves (except in the real world, he would be so fired). Which means there are plenty of folks out there for whom his stark rationalism resonates.
One of my favorite episodes is "You Don't Want to Know," when a magician's heart stops mid-performance for no apparent reason, and he ends up under House's curmudgeonly care. House's first theory is the magician faked his illness because he's a hack who botched the trick. The magician counters by performing a trick House can't explain (even though he dabbles in a bit of sleight of hand himself, we discover).
The magician refuses to explain how he did it: "Oh, if I explain it becomes mundane, and you lose the actual magic." This prompts a typical House observation: "Magic is cool. Actual magic is oxymoronic. Might not even be oxy..." The magician claims that the fun is not knowing; for House, the fun is in knowing. He demonstrates by making a series of astute observations about the patient's diet, dental care, and sleep habits, then explains how he deduced these facts. "That was way cooler before you explained it," says the magician. "It was meaningless until I explained it," House retorts. The magician explains, "People come to my shows because they want a sense of wonder. They want to experience something that they can't explain." But once again, House isn't buying it: "If the wonder's gone when the truth is known, there never was any wonder." Now that's a fantastic exchange that cuts to the heart of the Great Divide between scientific thinking and wanting the world to be magic.
At least Fringe and its creators aren't openly hostile to science, unlike rising Hollywood player Mark Millar (Wanted and Kick-Ass), who recently penned the following screed on his message board, calling for a "jihad" on those involved with the Large Hadron Collider:
Am I the only person who thinks God Particle, possible Black Hole on the French/Swiss Border, Recreating the Big Bang, etc. are all phrases I only want to read in New Gods? ... These freaks genuinely risk ending the world!!! And for what? To see how the universe might have begun? Who gives a fuck? ... Get outta here, egg-head! I don't care about dark matter, dark energy or even other dimensions. Best-case scenario is we're sucked into a black hole, every atom in our body screaming as we die in a nanosecond. ... Europeans creep me out, but none more so than Euro-SCIENTISTS. I declare a Jihad on all these boffins who risk reality in the name of their curiosity. No wonder Pol Pot killed everyone with glasses.
I hope Mr. Millar managed to wipe all the spittle off his monitor after that sadly uninformed, xenophobic rant -- and then went back on his meds. He's pretty much Exhibit A for why we need some sort of long-term cultural exchange program between the scientific community and Hollywood. Granted, Millar and his ilk are a lost cause -- you can't reach out to teh crazy, they'll bite your hand off and then claim you attacked them first -- but I think the creators of Fringe, for example, would benefit from interacting with the real-world scientists who are actually conducting this "scary" research they find so interesting and yet unnerving. We fear the unfamiliar, so obviously, one of the best ways to allay people's fears is to better acquaint them with how science is actually done. And the Fringe guys could return the favor by enlightening scientists to how TV shows are actually made. Much of the criticism leveled at how science is depicted in Hollywood is a bit off the mark because scientists have no clue about the inner workings of television, or the criteria for what makes a hit series.
When I invited Saltzberg and TV writer David Grae to the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara for a workshop on science in Hollywood (streaming video is here), one of the most illuminating moments for the assembled scientists came when Grae laid out the standard framework for a one-hour TV drama. Metaphorical light bulbs went off all over the room: "Oh, there's an underlying theory!" Like physicists, TV writers have their models, and their work has to fit within those boundaries. For his part, Grae was enthralled by the KITP atmosphere of open inquiry, and excitedly took a picture with his cell phone when he saw two physicists arguing vehemently and scribbling equations on a chalkboard: "Oh my god, they really do that!" See? We need more cultural exchange.
For Saltzberg and his pals at The Big Bang Theory, it really is like a cultural exchange. Saltzberg brings a visitor to the set every week during taping of a new episode -- he calls it "the geek of the week." The Spousal Unit and I were featured geeky guests last year, and got to hang out with the cast and writers (a fun, creative bunch) afterward. It was a wee bit tentative on all sides, and we didn't all instantly become best friends, but as a first step in bridging the gap between two very different worlds, it served a useful purpose.
Saltzberg also influenced the set and wardrobe staff as the series was being developed, inviting them out to his lab at UCLA so they could see actual scientists working in their native habitat. You'll notice that Leonard mostly dresses like a typical physics grad student (a wee bit exaggerated for comic effect), and there is nary a white lab coat in sight. The wardrobe mistress came back from the visit and told her underlings, "No lab coats! I didn't see a single lab coat while I was there!" Set designers were astonished to find the equipment old and out of date, with researchers blocking laser beams with grubby business cards, and they designed their sets accordingly. As a result, when Leonard asks out female physicist Leslie in the lab one day, it looks far closer to an actual physics lab than one might expect from a TV sitcom. And Leslie is preparing a meal using liquid nitrogen. What grad student hasn't done that, given the chance?
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. Hollywood's purpose is not to teach viewers about science, and TV shows are not documentaries, and should not be held to the same exacting standards -- although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, provided both sides are willing to compromise a little. 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.
True story: a year ago, I met one of the writers for Bones at Grae's birthday party. He was initially pleased to find that I really was a fan of the show, and not just being polite. (I knew all the characters and plot twists -- a dead giveaway.) But when I mentioned I was a science writer, he suddenly became guarded and defensive: "Yeah, yeah, I know, we take liberties with the science, DNA test results never come back that fast...." I reassured him that I wasn't one of those sorts who compulsively nitpick the writers to death, and he relaxed a little. But the exchange saddened me a little. 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.
Don't Blow Up Your TV
One last point: Scientists (and frankly, academics in general) need to get over their disdain for television. Honestly, I am so bored already with listening to folks insist they "never watch TV," or only watch NOVA (the Discovery Channel is just a bit too populist for them), etc. -- as if this somehow makes them morally superior to the rest of the unwashed lumpenproletariat. In reality, by ignoring such a hugely influential popular medium, you are cutting yourself off from a highly significant aspect of American (and, increasingly, global) culture. And that makes it far more difficult for working scientists to connect with the public at large.
Writing for The Smart Set, Morgan Meis (whom I know through 3 Quarks Daily) offers an apology of sorts to novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace, who recently committed suicide. Meis cites an essay by Wallace called "E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction" (it can be found in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again), in which the author grapples with his ambivalence towards TV and popular culture. Per Meis:
"Bravely, he begins the essay talking about television. He likes television. Goddamit, we all like television. He will not join the ranks of those who simply dismiss the boob tube as nothing more than that. ... For Wallace, the central problem is not whether television is good or bad. Television, he wants to say, is constitutive of who we are, and that which is constitutive of who we are is beyond simple value judgments -- it has become the necessary ground from which we proceed.
"You can't be a writer, you can't write about how the people around you experience the world, without taking into account that simple but massively important fact. You have to deal with television and other aspects of American popular culture, truly deal with it. And yet, Wallace doesn't want to be reduced to television. He is confused about just how much he should accept it and how much he should reject it. He is trying to find the right balance in the midst of his confusion."
It's okay to be ambivalent about television, provided one doesn't ignore it. It's time for the scientific community to start grappling with that ambivalence and make its peace -- because there has never been a more auspicious time to reach out to the fine folks in Hollywood. Science-themed shows are a hot commodity. Scientific expertise is thus suddenly in demand, provided it's the right kind of expertise: a true collaboration, with no hint of condescension, and mutual respect between the two worlds. It's not an easy thing to achieve, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The long-term benefit of doing so is influencing millions of TV viewers, assuring them, in the words of Gregory House: "Trust me -- it's way cooler to know."
[Comic gakked from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, an excellent site!]