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Television and Science

by Kirsten Sanford, Nov 21 2008

Sometimes it’s a good and sometimes it’s bad.

I just started watching Fringe (well, to be honest I watched the entire season to date on Hulu over the last two nights). I’m a little obsessed with the story. It’s fun. It thrills the science fiction horror loving side of me.

But, I am also bugged by a few things. Things that could have been different if the writers had taken the time to check the facts. Or, had a scientist on call to help them get things straight.

What is good about this new show?

1) The characters draw me in. I want to know more about them. That’s compelling writing and decent acting.
2) The lead is a strong, intelligent woman.
3) A lot of the science is based on some of the more far-out headlines I’ve read in the past couple of years, which makes the storyline more realistic or at least believable.
4) Good work on the Scully and Mulder vibe. I hope they don’t ruin it too soon.

What bugs me?

1) They keep calling hypotheses theories. They even have the “scientist” in the group doing it. Fail.
2) The “scientist” is obviously a play on the mad scientist stereotype. Ick.
3) They are lax on important safety protocol related details, which having spent time in a human experimentation lab, are pretty important.
4) Science is the villain.

I do wish they would stop saying theory all the time. The use of words like theory in place of the more accurate word undermines the work that people are trying to do to educate the public about scientific terminlology. However, this would not be an issue if the scientific community agreed to change their use of the word theory. Considering the political nature of the evolution/creation debate, sometimes I think it might be wise for science to take a cue from the general public occasionally. Can we humanize science by changing the terminology ever so slightly? Should we?

The ease with which this program presents human experimentation is a little disconcerting. The United States experimented on people without their consent in the past. We do still have human experimentation, but it is much, much more strictly regulated. Yet, there is still a dark shadow over all of science because of the things it did in the past. There is obviously a fear that it might happen again, and this show feeds right into that fear.

As far as the mad scientist goes, he does fit neatly into the plot. But, the show might have done science a favor with a less literally mad character. The mad scientist also ties in neatly with a main theme of the show. That of science and technology moving past the point of human control, and therefore being out of control. In this program, science itself is portrayed as being insane, and hence evil.

Great entertainment. Terrible for science’s PR.

Ok, overall, I love the show. It does have a bit too much of the wooo at times, and always ends a bit too tidily, but it’s good.

Regardless, of how this one show depicts science, I am optimistic that science and entertainment will be better matched in the future thanks to a new agency dedicated to helping bring artists and scientists together.

21 Responses to “Television and Science”

  1. NightHiker says:


    I was glad to see someone point out how bad the science in “Fringe” really is, but I think you left the worst out.

    I watched the first two episodes only – I couldn’t take any more of the “science”.

    The last drop in the bucket was the second episode sporting a baby who would grow to adulthood and die in mere hours. While the “scientific” explanation the crazy guy uses for justifying rapid growth is plausible, they forget one very simple thing: where did all the extra MASS came from, if the baby was not fed accordingly? The result would be a baby dying in a few hours, and not a fully grown human, but I guess that’s not as entertaining.

    On a side note, before ending the spoilers, I then turned to another show that had science as the main theme, the original, british “Eleventh Hour” show with Patrick Stewart. Again something in the second episod made me almost give it up: a few times the so called scientists speaks of the danger of having “billions of virus MOLECULES” infecting the masses. Strike one.

    Those things might be “small” details, but they completely break the suspension of disbelief for me. I love fantasy, but if I’m watching something that is supposed to be scientific, I expect it to be really scientific. Am I being too rigid?

    What irks me is that this kind of show somehow falls for the argument that says it’s impossible to have a story that is at the same time scientifically correct and entertaining, something the many thrilling science fiction novels we’ve grown to love prove wrong.

  2. NightHiker says:

    Ops… I used [SPOILERS] warnings with “<” tags (forgot about the html) and therefore they didn’t appear on the text. Sorry for that.

  3. BillDarryl says:

    Kirsten: They keep calling hypotheses theories. They even have the “scientist” in the group doing it. Fail.

    NightHiker: a few times the so called scientists speaks of the danger of having “billions of virus MOLECULES” infecting the masses. Strike one.

    Good, I’m not the only nitpicker who gets roiled when a “scientist” character says non-sciencey stupid stuff on TV.

    During the premiere of “Heroes” this season, the “scientist” made a passionate speech defending his decision to test a serum on himself, but where he should have said “take a leap of faith,” the writers actually had him say “make a quantum leap.”

    I wept quietly inside.

  4. Dread Polack says:

    Yeah, I’m also drawn into Fringe by the characters and story. I haven’t been too bothered by the bad science so far (although more so now than I was before getting into this whole skepticism thing).

    Of course, this is JJ Abrams, who gave us Lost. Very compelling, but you just might find yourself watching an entire season in a two-day marathon and saying “Wait a second. Nothing happened! All those hours and we’re no closer to understanding the meta-plot!”

    My other nitpick is that the show is just over-the-top dramatic. The main character looks like she’s about to break down completely at any moment. Her boss is also overly intense, IMO. I think it had a little trouble in the first couple episodes striking a balance between the surreal quality and the crime-drama quality of the show. Even after 6 (or 7?) episodes, I still cringe at the way some lines are delivered.

  5. Because of the abysmal state of science education in the US, a likely 99% of the target viewing public is not capable of picking up on the scientific absurdities rife in movies and TV shows.

    I’m too scared to try to calculate what percentage take their science education from movies and TV shows. I’ll bet 99% cannot explain the basics of how a TV works.

  6. Dr M says:

    They keep calling hypotheses theories. They even have the “scientist” in the group doing it. Fail.

    Well, let’s be fair. Even we scientists are very sloppy with the hypothesis/theory distinction in casual talk (it’s almost always clear from context what is meant). We tend to be careful about the exact choice of word only in contexts where it really matters, i.e. in more formal contexts and writing, and when it’s necessary to emphasise that what we are talking about is only a hypothesis.

    Also, the word “theory” really isn’t terribly precisely defined (even though we like to pretend that it is when discussing the hypothesis/theory relation). “Corroborated hypothesis” is only one of at least three meanings in common usage, the other to being “theoretical framwork” (e.g. the theory evolution, nuclear theory, quantum field theory — which are all theoretical structures built up from many confirmed hypotheses) and the casual use as a synonym for “hypothesis”.

    A theory in the meaning “theoretical framework” need not even be empirically confirmed: it is perfectly acceptable to say that “superstring theory builds on the hypotheses of supersymmetry and the fundamental entities being one-dimensional strings”.

    We may wish for a more precise use of terminology, but this is the language we use, and since we tend not to be confused about what is meant, I think it’s unlikely to change any time soon.

    Disclaimer: I have not watched Fringe, and nor do I intend to. My comments regard real-life usage of the word “theory”, not in any particular relation to the show. Also, I am a theoretical physicist, and my experience is mostly from physics contexts. Other scientific communities may be more careful in their use of terminology.

  7. ejdalise says:

    There is an interesting discussion (with some spoilers) at:

    Personally, I like the show. I don’t agree the female lead is a positive in the show, as her acting talent appears to primarily revolve around wearing an expression of mild intestinal discomfort. And they do tend to have so many side stories that it’s difficult to care past a certain point.

    But for me, it is the crazy-ass-scientist (CAS) and the made-up-science (MUS) that carry the show. I don’t watch it to learn about the frontier of science, and it does not bother me if some of the audience believes optic nerves store images after death. I watch it to hear CAS utter some crazy non-sequitur, or offer his skewed personal view of the world.

    Lime many things in TV and movies, reality gets stylized and ignored for the sake of entertainment. Some do it well, others not so much. This show is innovative in its total disregard of plausibility for sake of entertainment value. I don’t plan on learning anything regarding how science and scientists work any more than learning how medicine and doctors work when I watch House.

    Could they do more? Maybe. I think the fact they are so far off draws less criticism than if they shot for accuracy and missed by just a little. It certainly draws less of my criticism; since I have no idea how a thought transfer machine works, I’m willing to accept the portrayed equipment and procedure as reasonable approximations of how it might work if it were possible.

  8. John Powell says:

    Since I know they are not going to get the science right, I prefer shows with a more science-fantasy or space opera bent like Stargate and BBC’s Primeval (time rifts and dinosaurs running amok around London, what’s not to love?).

  9. Max says:

    Are we only talking fiction? Because I could get by with just Junkyard Wars, FutureWeapons, and MythBusters.

  10. James says:

    I stopped watching Fringe after 4 or 5 episodes. The ‘science’ was cringe worthy, and I also didn’t like the storyline of much of the acting.

    There are much better shows around than Fringe.

  11. Karl withakay says:

    FYI, My friend Scott (an MD) over at Polite Dissent (, posts a review of Fringe each week on Thursday. (It has to wait until Thursday, as he posts his House reviews On Wednesdays)

  12. I started watching fringe from the day it aired and I too enjoyed watching it for it’s interesting plot. Though I was a bit turned off when I started noticing how much of the science was off from real science and yes the whole “theory” problem which you talked about. Overall though I do agree that it sucks you in due to good writing, but if they would have consulted an actual scientist when writing it, it would have made the show much much better.

  13. Aj says:

    Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson were on Stargate Atlantis this week. I didn’t like the first episode of Fringe, so I didn’t watch it. The “science” or lack of didn’t bother me, I don’t mind if tv shows aren’t realistic. If a show did include some science that would be great. I like House and The Mentalist this season.

  14. I think it’s typical for specialists to bemoan how their specialty is depicted in TV & movies. Ask a genuine crime scene investigator about the reality of any of the CSI franchise shows. The first tip-off in any show comes before any character so much as speaks one word – everybody onscreen has glowingly white teeth and is Hollywood beautiful.

  15. I agree Devil’s Advocate. As a pilot, I am often more puzzled than bemused by how the aviation industry is depicted in TV and movies.

  16. NightHiker says:

    Devil’s Advocate,

    “The first tip-off in any show comes before any character so much as speaks one word – everybody onscreen has glowingly white teeth and is Hollywood beautiful.”

    That’s why I love the “Jonathan Creek” series from BBC. It’s not exactly “science”, but it’s pretty skeptical and the lead characters are not at all “Hollywood beautiful” – to the contrary, they look very ordinary.

  17. Skeptico says:

    I have to disagree with your main positive conclusion – I thought it was terrible. The characters were unbelievable. The mad scientist who was just so much more brilliant that anyone else (even after being in a loony bin for, what, years?). Releasing him only if a “family member” took responsibility. Why? when does that ever happen? It was just too stupid and was obviously just a lame reason to bring in the “son” – needed as a romantic interest for the (unconvincing) lead character. We’re supposed to believe this brilliant arms dealer (or whatever he was supposed to be) just gave up his previous life to baby sit his father in this dubious operation. And the “science” was just too cartoonishly dumb to be entertaining. Just my opinion,of courser.

  18. Drew says:

    I did not like this show mainly for normal reasons not to like a piece of film: direction, acting, writing, and so on.

    But the one thing that I think is really bad about this show is that it perpetuates the myth that things like “telekinesis” is a fringe topic in science. Meaning it’s a real scientifically studied thing that most scientists just don’t bother with because they’re too focused on boring mainstream stuff. The opening conflates mysterious things like “dark matter” with utter nonsense, and that seems to be the starting point for much of the science in the plot.

  19. jjthejetplane says:

    C’mon guys! All you guys are giving it too much credit. Nobody believes any of the science is real. Just like the reality shows aren’t really reality. Quite the opposite. It’s an escape from reality. Do people watch CSI and believe it’s all real? I don’t think so. Actual CSI folks can’t stand the show because of how inaccurate the episodes are.

  20. Steven says:

    Yep. The Fringe is terrible for science and 11th Hour isn’t much better.

    The Mentalist is good. He is a good sceptic. So far.

  21. John Sherman says:

    Most scientists are decent, intelligent people working in commercial labs, universities, or government facilities, under a regiment of strict rules and guidelines that, for the most part, insure the safety, quality, and factuality of their work.

    Old movies gave us plenty of mad scientists, but these were generally guys working in castles by themselves or with a couple of hunchback villagers. But today we get a nearly nearly stream of science AND scientists as villains. But unlike the old movies, these mad scientists are all legitimate and working in labs where they are sponsored by commercial or government villains. The X-Files, Fringe, and Eleventh Hour are more outlandish example. But even shows like 24 support this terrible stereotype.Heck, you could even include House!

    I love these show, in a way, but I also hate these shows. All they do is slowly, but surely, make people ignorant of what real science is, and scared of what they think it is.