At a symposium last November to launch the National Academy of Sciences' new program, the Science and Entertainment Exchange, host Seth McFarlane (The Family Guy) - perhaps Hollywood's most powerful atheist -bemoaned the dominance of "comic book spiritualism" in film and television in recent years.
"I grew up watching Star Trek and I remember we used to be so excited about NASA and what they were doing," he told a rapt audience of prominent scientists and leaders in the entertainment industry. "Now we have The Ghost Whisperer. I don't know why I chose to crap on that show specifically, but the point is that the realism is gone, and the believability is gone. We need to get people excited about science again."
McFarlane makes a valid point. But there are signs that the TV times, they are a-changin' - science and rational thinking are making a comeback on the airwaves, if a quick survey of the top TV shows of the last few years is any indication.
For instance, in the new hit CBS series, The Mentalist, Aussie actor Simon Baker stars as Patrick Jane (a.k.a., "McSleuthy"), a former stage psychic turned police detective. The pilot makes no bones about the fact that Jane's past "career" of "speaking to the dead" was a scam. He was very adept at reading people via their mannerisms, personal photographs and so forth, and was able to leverage this skill into a convincing act. Then he offended a serial killer during a TV appearance; the killer took revenge by murdering Jane's wife and daughter. Jane quit the psychic gig and became a detective, and now he's the anti-Ghost Whisperer.
"There's no such thing as psychics," he coolly tells a gullible young policewoman who asks how he reacts when he meets "real" psychics. She persists, arguing that her own sister has "the gift" and has been "right" about things she couldn't possibly have known. He counters by pointing out the combined phenomenon of selective memory and wishful thinking: people tend to remember the "right" guesses and forget the wrong ones, thereby shoring up their propensity to believe in psychic phenomena.
Cognitive psychologists call this confirmation bias. It's a very real, well-documented phenomenon, but you're certainly not going to hear about it on The Ghost Whisperer.
That makes The Mentalist a refreshing departure from what used to be the usual prime time fare. And it isn't the only show on network and cable television that unapologetically espouses a pro-science rationalist worldview.
That is good news for champions of science-based thinking. Networks aren't altruistic; they're out to make money by appealing broadly to their viewers. The fact that so many successful science-themed shows are resonating with those viewers is an encouraging sign. There is a significant fraction of folks out there who are at least willing to listen to a rationalist viewpoint, provided it's presented in an appealing way. That means there is a greater demand for series with scientific content. The NAS launched the Science and Entertainment Exchange to help film and television professionals better incorporate these kinds of elements into their characters and storylines. We want this trend to continue!
Patrick Jane exists in part because Gregory House - the main protagonist on House M.D. - proved such a popular character, despite being an unhappy, embittered atheist who likes to manipulate people and pops way too much Vicodin. House, in turn, exists because of the huge success of the C.S.I. franchise, which immortalized the phrase "Follow the evidence," and emphasizes fact-based scientific thinking in practically every episode. Another network newcomer, Lie To Me, memorably debunked lie detection equipment in its second episode
One of my favorite House episodes is "You Don't Want to Know," when a magician ends up under House's curmudgeonly care. The magician performs a trick and refuses to explain how he did it, claiming that the fun is not knowing. For House, of course, the fun is in knowing. He demonstrates this by making a series of astute observations about the patient's diet, dental care, and sleep habits, then explains how he deduced these facts. "That was way cooler before you explained it," says the magician. "It was meaningless until I explained it," House retorts.
"People come to my shows because they want a sense of wonder. They want to experience something that they can't explain," the magician argues. But House still isn't buying it: "If the wonder's gone when the truth is known, there never was any wonder...." That exchange cuts to the heart of the Great Divide between scientific thinking and those who desperately want the world to be magic. And millions of people witnessed it.
There is undoubtedly a great deal of silliness and superstition to be found on TV, but there are other voices as well - and those voices are getting louder. Audiences are being exposed, week after week, to the rationalist point of view in snappy memorable sound bites delivered by beloved characters. House and The Mentalist alone account for millions of viewers each week. Add in regular viewers of the C.S.I. franchise and you've got some serious numbers. The Ghost Whisperer's ratings don't even come close.
Now if we can only find a way to get the equivalent of Gregory House onto American Idol. Twenty-seven million viewers would hear the mantra, "Trust me - it's way cooler to know" - no doubt set to a killer groove with scorching vocals.
Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer, blogger, and director of the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange, designed to foster creative collaborations between scientists and the entertainment industry. She is the author of The Physics of the Buffyverse and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, and is currently writing her third book, Dangerous Curves: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Calculus.