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 Asp
berger’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