Scientists didn’t exactly rejoice when The Big Bang Theory got picked up by CBS a few years ago. Actually, they probably weren’t paying attention and may still be unaware of the show’s existence, even though it’s now become a major hit for the network. During the three seasons Big Bang has been on the air, it’s been pretty easy to dismiss as just another silly TV show with no mission other than to entertain. Never mind that most people spend a lot of time being entertained by watching TV.
As a result, TV is where most people learn whatever it is they know about science. But not from watching PBS or one of the Discovery networks, which have relatively small audiences. They’re far more likely to be viewing entertainment programming, including sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory.
Three of the show’s main characters are scientists and one is an engineer. Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj have become familiar faces to millions of Americans. The same cannot be said for real scientists. In fact, very few people say they know a scientist in real life, and only about one-third can actually name a living scientist.
A generation or two ago, Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason inspired kids to study medicine and law. They may have been among the first, but there’s never been a shortage of fictional doctors or lawyers on TV or in the movies.
In contrast, scientists have been a pretty rare sight, especially on the small screen. And, when they do appear, it’s almost always in one-hour drama shows. CSI and Numb3rs are known for their positive portrayals of scientists and mathematicians; CSI has even sparked growing demand for degrees in forensic science.
But until Big Bang, there hasn’t really been a character on a sitcom who made a living as a scientist – unless you count Ross Geller on Friends. Ross had a PhD in archeology, and a few storylines did focus on his work. For example, one episode took place in a museum, and in another, the publication of his dissertation was not actually cause for celebration. But Ross’ occupation was not the focus of Friends.
Science, however, is what The Big Bang Theory is all about. And, according to a recent New York Times article, the sitcom has been making scientists squirm. Not because the science on the show is portrayed inaccurately (it’s not), but because most of the jokes come at the expense of the profession. “[P]hysicists are [seen as] geeky losers, overwhelmingly male and ill at ease outside the world of Star Trek.”
Chances are the show wouldn’t be so successful if the writers weren’t getting it right. The stereotypes are all there, week after week. These fictional scientists lack the looks, social skills, and female companionship that make most sitcom characters appealing to their audiences. And, they’re all white guys, except for one who’s from India and speaks with an accent.
Also on the show, the work of science itself is most often represented by a poster covered with rows of neatly written equations that occupies a prominent position in the living room of Sheldon and Leonard. When the two discuss their work, they speak in a language that only another scientist could understand, leaving viewers with the impression that science is anything but exciting or glamorous, just the opposite of how medicine, law, and about every other profession are portrayed on TV.
To their credit, however, the show’s writers have been making the effort to make the characters likable, endearing, and even lovable. A few years ago, the reality series Beauty and the Geek got its audience to embrace the social misfits on that show, and Big Bang has certainly done its part on behalf of nerd acceptance. Leonard even got the girl, Penny, the pretty blonde waitress who lives across the hall. Just like other sitcom couplings, they now seem to be involved in an on-again, off-again kind of relationship.
The characters also seem to love what they do for a living. They feel passionately about their work, and the audience does get the impression that science is important – and can be fun, as evidenced by an episode that featured the staging of a robot race.
Nevertheless, scientists aren’t sure that the show doesn’t represent a setback when it comes to improving the public’s image of their profession. Children especially are greatly influenced by what they see on TV. If characters don’t come across as attractive, cool, and successful, kids may be turned off by what they see on the small screen. That means they’re less likely to consider science a desirable career. Over the years, “Draw-a-Scientist” tests have shown just such an image problem, that is, the stereotypical image of a scientist has been well-established in the minds of children. “The charming and charismatic scientist is not an image that populates popular culture.”
So, what do you think? Are scientists benefiting from the exposure? Is it enough that scientists, long underrepresented on TV, are finally prominently featured in a successful and critically acclaimed sitcom that reaches millions of people? Or, is the show doing a disservice to the science community and society in general by reinforcing already well-entrenched negative stereotypes? The Exchange would like to hear your thoughts.