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Rethinking The Big Bang Theory
Jul 2010
Jul. 12, 2010 — The Big Bang Theory has lately inspired a degree of handwringing in the research community. Not the theory itself; I think scientists are generally OK with that. Rather the TV show named after it, the CBS sitcom about a pair of geniuses — an experimental and a theoretical physicist, respectively — who share an apartment in Pasadena, just across the hall, of course, from a fetching yet slightly dizzy blonde waitress and aspiring actress. An aerospace engineer and an astrophysicist — the requisite “wacky neighbors” — round out the cast.

Much of the humor in "The Big Bang Theory" derives from the male characters’ marked lack of social skills and unabashed geekiness: "Star Trek" jokes abound in the series. Indeed, these deeply entrenched stereotypes about scientists lie at the very heart of the show. Here, the characters live in a world that only occasionally intersects with the real or “normal” world, and that’s what makes them funny.

At the same time, this premise has some observers crying foul. Scientists are like anyone else, they say. They maintain all manner of interests outside the lab (and outside the worlds of "Star Trek" and "Battlestar Galactica"); they go out; they meet people; many raise families; most have never even seen a pocket protector. By perpetuating such decades-old stereotypes, they argue, the series is reinforcing long-held social and cultural views in which the scientist is somehow posited as “the other.”

Other investigators take a more sanguine view. They suggest that, by moving the nerd stereotype to the fore — assigning it to the main characters and not just to some oddball peripheral role — and making those characters endearing, even lovable, the show is contributing to mainstream acceptance of scientists and the work that they do.

Why does it matter, you ask? Why do we even care what the public thinks? Here’s one reason: Researchers remind us that children’s attitudes and behaviors are often shaped by what they see on television, and that this can impact the choices they make later in life – for example, what they study and what career paths they decide to follow. Thus, negative stereotypes on TV could help to dissuade children from pursuing an interest in science.

What do you think? Is "The Big Bang Theory" trading in stereotypes that could ultimately prove damaging to science? Or is this just a whole lot of noise about nothing?

Basic ScienceBattlestar GalacticaBig Bang theoryDifferent WavelengthsGary BoasGary Boas BlogNerdsscientistsStar TrekStereotypes

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