Secret science in The Simpsons

A collaborative study involving undergraduate students and researchers has revealed that science in our favourite TV shows often slips under the radar.

In a small town in America a young girl discovers a skeleton that resembles an angel. The find causes religious hysteria among the locals. Sceptical of her discovery, the girl searches fervently for the truth, eventually revealing the skeleton as a fake, part of an elaborate hoax.

This story is the premise of an episode of that staple of televisual entertainment, The Simpsons. Entitled Lisa the Skeptic, it highlights the importance of not believing everything you see and the quest for truth that embodies scientific research.

So, did you spot the hidden science?

In recent years, science-based programming has exploded onto our televisions. Through television, we are becoming familiar with concepts such as court case DNA evidence, string theory and the formation of the universe.

But each evening, as viewers relax with their weekly dose of House, NCIS or Doctor Who is everyone who tunes in absorbing the science content?

A team of undergraduate students, led by their lecturer Dr Lindy Orthia of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, has been exploring viewers' reactions to science in works of fiction.

The team conducted discussion groups with volunteers who had been shown the science-laden episode of The Simpsons. What they found took them by surprise, says Orthia.

“Some people watched Lisa the Skeptic, which we thought was just steeped in science – in ideologies of science and scientific debate and content – and said there wasn't really much science in it at all,” says Orthia.

“Some participants even identified visual paraphernalia of science such as microscopes and dinosaur skeletons, yet still didn’t make the connection to other aspects of science.”

“Our study is an important foundation for further research to build on. Science is a big part of everyday life and is increasingly being used in fictional texts - even in TV programs you might not expect, such as The Simpsons. And we now know that people react very differently to this science, based on their previous experiences, their beliefs and their knowledge of The Simpsons itself.”

The study, run as part of Orthia's Science in Popular Fiction undergraduate course, was a cooperative effort between students and teacher. The students designed and ran the discussion groups, analysed the data and worked with Orthia to prepare the results for submission to an academic journal.

Student Stefan Nekvapil jumped at the opportunity to take part in the study.

“Lindy gave us the choice between individual assessment and working in a group. The group project was a bit more work but it wasn't arduous because we were doing something productive, not just churning out assessment pieces that no one will read again,” he says.

The Simpsons may seem like an unusual choice of text for a scientific study. As is often the case in life, inspiration came from an unlikely place, explains Orthia.

“The decision was a result of my unwitting choice of clothing that morning” she laughs. “I was wearing a t-shirt with Lisa Simpson on it and it basically snowballed from there.”

“The Simpsons, while seemingly a simple cartoon, actually contains a lot of adult subtext which often goes unnoticed,” says Nekvapil. “We chose the episode Lisa the Skeptic because it contained the most science content. It was tough research – I had to sit down and watch almost every episode of The Simpsons to find the best one.”

To everyone's delight, the study led to a paper, published in the International Journal of Science Education. Getting the class' work published in a top journal was a pleasant surprise for Orthia.

“I wasn't sure anything of publishable quality would come out of it, so I was absolutely delighted when we aimed high and a top journal accepted it,” she says.

Orthia hopes this will be the first of many successful collaborative projects with her undergraduate students.

“There is no reason why undergraduate students shouldn't be doing research that's of a publishable standard,” she says.

Nekvapil says he found the opportunity to publish created a sense of involvement he hadn't experienced in other group projects.

“This style of teaching makes learning more enjoyable and it's nice to feel like you're doing something relevant as an undergrad,” he says.

It's a sentiment Orthia agrees with.

“For me it's been a wonderful and valuable experience in many ways,” she says. “I really enjoyed the collaboration and interaction between a group of different minds on the study”

“I also really enjoyed the professional relationship that builds up between teacher and student that you don't often experience in undergraduate teaching. And of course, for all of us, being published is a thrill.”

Next time you're watching your favourite show, be it Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jamie's Kitchen or The Big Bang Theory, see if you can spot the hidden science. Once you start looking, you'll see it everywhere.

Story by Casey Hamilton.