World's Fair

Part 1 of “Do You Like the Big Bang Theory?”, addressed whether one emotionally “likes” the scientific theories one works on – and how or if that should impact one’s work. Here I’d like to talk about the television show.

“The Big Bang Theory” has been highly touted and praised as being the best science-in-fiction on regular television, but it has also been criticized for being its rather demeaning portrayal of science grad students. I think the show is extremely funny – and I mostly enjoy watching it for that reason. Other than “2.5 Men”, it’s probably the funniest show on regular tv (and comes from the same producer, who apparently has a somewhat misogynist reputation).

However, I personally have to agree with those who criticize its much touted “science content”. Sure the equations on the white board are (mostly) correct, and sure there are scattered references to real science – but the much ballyhooed science content seems to be quite problematic to me: it’s rare to finish watching a show and actually be able to describe any real science. Much of it is what we called “techno-babble” in the “Science in the Theater and on Film” course that I teach. “Techno-babble” = where the words the character says, and the facts given, are technically correct (often because they were vetted by a scientific consultant), but where no real scientific information is actually conveyed to the audience.

One of the main science consultants to the show (David Saltzberg) recently has tried to correct some of this problem by creating a blog where he discussed the techno-babble utterings in more detail and explains what they actually mean – but how many show viewers run to this blog after the show to find out what each “techno-babble” moment actually means?

Many other people (including Zuska, who’s blog I really enjoy — see links below) have discussed the show’s “stereotypical” characterizations from a number of interesting angles. It seems to me that its portrayal of astrophysics (and computer science) grad students and scientists goes beyond stereotyping into downright vilification. Stereotyping of scientists as nerdy and geeky and socially awkward is fine – we mostly are – ( for example, the over-the-top geeky scientists characterizations in the old Kids in the Hall movie “Brain Candy” are great, hit quite close to home, and are hilarious – I use that movie in my “Science in the Theater and on Film” class and we deconstruct all the little details of the geeky characterizations).

But, in contrast, in “The Big Bang Theory” the lead character (and clearly smartest of the characters) is downright conniving and often portrayed as a budding “evil genius” with little or no altruism or desire to make the world a better place – it’s a bit denigrating to both scientists and to people with mild Aspberger’s (which his character is purported to have). The rest of the characters are not much better – but if you look across the spectrum of characters – the smarter they are on the show, the less likable or generous they are. In some ways it’s the old “evil genius” problem in a new package.

So, I guess to summarize: I do like the show, and I watch it every once in a while and find it funny, but if this is as far as we’ve gotten in the incorporation of real science into fiction on television, we definitely have orders of magnitude farther to go.

I’ve also enjoyed several other really good posts about the show:

From the Science and Entertainment Exchange

From the mouth of Thus Spake Zuska

Discover Magazine weighs in on the issue

David Saltzberg’s “teachable moment” site

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    August 15, 2010

    But, in contrast, in “The Big Bang Theory” the lead character (and clearly smartest of the characters) is downright conniving and often portrayed as a budding “evil genius” with little or no altruism or desire to make the world a better place – it’s a bit denigrating to both scientists and to people with mild Aspberger’s (which his character is purported to have).

    “Budding evil”? You’ve got to be kidding. Have you ever actually watched the show? Geez, if you’re referring to Sheldon, this is about as off-base and downright wrong of a characterization of the character as I’ve ever seen. Sheldon is actually more of a naif, who, because his mind is all science, is unable to understand normal human interactions and is endlessly getting into trouble because of it, his extreme intelligence notwithstanding and his science ability unable to help him. You can argue if you don’t like that portrayal, but, jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, at least get the characterization right.

  2. #2 Adam_Y
    August 15, 2010

    “Budding evil”? You’ve got to be kidding. Have you ever actually watched the show? Geez, if you’re referring to Sheldon, this is about as off-base and downright wrong of a characterization of the character as I’ve ever seen. Sheldon is actually more of a naif, who, because his mind is all science, is unable to understand normal human interactions and is endlessly getting into trouble because of it, his extreme intelligence notwithstanding and his science ability unable to help him. You can argue if you don’t like that portrayal, but, jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, at least get the characterization right.

    Uhhh… I’ve known naifs. There is no difference between his portrayal and yours.

  3. #3 crowther
    August 16, 2010

    Here is another ScienceBlogs.com author’s take on the show, which I found useful:
    http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2010/04/the_big_blah_theory.php
    I haven’t really watched it myself, but the “nervous character gets drunk before a big speech” episode was shown on my last plane flight and, even without the sound, I could tell that it was kind of lame.

  4. #4 ERV
    August 16, 2010

    I dont mind the techno-babble at all. That is precisely how we (virologists) sound to casual observers. Its not a show about ‘teaching science’, its a ‘peek into the funny lives of these scientists’.

    The only problem I have with the show is how they portray biology. Im assuming that for all their physics/engineering consultants, they have zero biology consultants. There is no biology techno-babble, and its treated like a hobby the main characters do in their free time– in other words, “biology is easy”.

    If I explained what I do every day, in techno-babble, to Sheldon, he would make that twitchy face he always does when hes frustrated.

    But I dont have a pole up my butt, therefore, I think BBT is one of the funniest shows on TV.

  5. #5 Ray Ingles
    August 16, 2010

    it’s a bit denigrating to both scientists and to people with mild Aspberger’s

    It’s “Asperger’s”, actually. I wouldn’t even bother with a correction at all, except it reminds me of something funny.

    Our little boy with Asperger’s was once asked how he’d like his hamburger. He replied indignantly, “I don’t have hamburgers, I have Asperger’s!” Of course, the way he says it, it doesn’t sound like “asp” burgers…

  6. #6 Vince LiCata
    August 16, 2010

    @ Orac: Yeah, I’ve got to agree with Adam_Y — it’s not about the source/intent, but about the result. Sheldon is always manipulating people, hiding information for his own gain, sometimes endangering people because of it, and all the other characters often react accordingly with frequent utterings of how much they’d like to strangle him, etc. I like your description of why he is a “budding evil genius”, but I’d still say he is one, although he’s always just on the edge of being able to be saved.

    @ERV: It’s definitely not a show about “teaching science”, but the point I wanted to make is that is is being highly touted as a 1) show that does teach about science, and 2) that has a lot of science in it, and 3) that it represents the future of incorporating real science into television shows — and my post attempts to say that if it actually does any of these things, they are in a very embryonic state relative to where they could be. As I noted in the post, I also agree that it is one of the funniest shows on tv, which is one reason why it is worth discussing.

    @Ray: thanks for the story and the correction (I’ll fix it in the post).

  7. #7 ERV
    August 16, 2010

    Vince– Sorry, Vince. I didnt mean to imply you had a pole up your butt, but I think a lot of people do have a poles up their butts about this show :)

    As far as Sheldon goes, you all are nuts. I would date him in a second. Cute. Smart. Has a good job that he loves. Extremely motivated. Always straightforward. Cant lie. That boy is worth his weight in gold… well, I probably weigh more than he does… but you know what I mean. I think his boyfriend potential has been underutilized, and I hope they dont throw it all away next season.

  8. #8 Badger3k
    August 16, 2010

    You mean people actually watch that show? Seriously?

  9. #9 Samantha Vimes
    September 11, 2010

    Oh, wow. You really don’t get the show.

    1. Sheldon Coooper is not the lead. Leonard is the lead. Sheldon is his foil, the major male supporting character, etc.
    2. Sheldon is in fact, not evil. He’s just very self-centered, and he can’t help it. And I know plenty of Aspies and his generosity and honesty are some of the traits that I see in my friends that make them my friends (however, my friends are a little better socialized). He’s also probably OCD.
    3. Sheldon is assumed to be smarter than Leonard by Sheldon, and by Leonard’s mother, but so far, I’m not convinced the matter is clearly defined. For one thing, there are many aspects to intelligence; besides physics, they are both musical, and Leonard learned social skills Sheldon has not developed yet.
    4. The sleaze of the group, Howard, is the only one who has a Master’s rather than a Ph.D. 0– if you measure intelligence by that (as Sheldon does), the least intelligent of the geeks is the most evil.
    5. It has been noted that working as faculty in a university, they don’t make as much money as they could have with the same amount of education and a different focus. They stand by their friends, even when it’s difficult. Every one of them has gone out of their way to help each other, even when it was unpleasent and inconvenient.

    Hmmm… maybe you meant Leslie is the most intelligent (she corrected Sheldon’s whiteboard) and most evil. That would be more arguable, but I think it’s understood that she probably is more kindly in her normal social group, and that her vendetta against Sheldon is entirely justified by his sexist remarks to her.

  10. #10 Jimmy
    November 17, 2010

    I disagree with the notion that Sheldon is evil. I also, subjectively, disagree with it being offensive to people with Asperger’s, since I myself have AS. I think it’s a great show!

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