The impact of fiction on public perceptions of science

If there’s one place people who normally dislike science are guaranteed to encounter it, it’s in popular fiction. Films, television, plays, comics and novels commonly incorporate scientist characters, science settings, technologies that affect people’s lives, and scientific debates. While sometimes this science content is at the centre of a fiction story, often it’s just there in the background, and we might not even notice it as ‘science’. The question is: how does this ‘entertainment science’ shape our perceptions of what real science is like?

Several research projects at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science are investigating what films and television shows say about science, and what people see and hear when they watch them.

"We’re not really interested in whether the physics is correct in Star Wars or the biology is possible in Jurassic Park," Dr Lindy Orthia explains. "We’re interested in how fiction makes people feel and think about social, economic, cultural and political aspects of science—how it changes our ideas about where science fits into our lives."

Orthia teaches the undergraduate course SCOM2003 Science in Popular Fiction, in which students are encouraged to create an original research project for an attempt at publication, and in one case have already published in an academic journal. Orthia’s own research analyses ideologies of science in the television series Doctor Who, such as scientistic attitudes towards supernatural phenomena, or technocratic modes of decision making about science related problems, or how Doctor Who presents scenarios that justify sexism in the scientific workplace and colonialism across the globe.

But analysing the content of a work of fiction is just half the story, and student researchers are finding out how audiences process what they see on the screen. PhD student Rashel Li is studying fans of sitcom The Big Bang Theory, to find out whether its nerdy physicist characters affect people’s ideas about scientists. Master of Science Communication student Don Gomez is researching whether the street-hardened television drama Breaking Bad inspires public interest in chemistry.

"Fiction can package ideas about science’s place in the world in very different ways from other media like news reports or classroom science," Orthia says. "Just saying the word ‘Frankenstein’ can make people feel things that an article in New Scientist about biotechnology can’t. We need to understand why that is, if we are to understand how people’s attitudes to science are formed."