Is Science Making a Pop Culture Comeback?


Is Science Making a Pop Culture Comeback?
With the emergence of so many scientifically-oriented TV shows, is science experiencing a new surge of popularity in the English-speaking world, or is this just a passing coincidence?

Sometimes the modern age we live in can seem strangely backwards in terms of the contrast between our technologically dependant civilization and our far less advanced cultural mentality. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the ever-increasing speed at which we advance our knowledge and capabilities has far outpaced the rate at which we can adjust to those changes, leaving us to depend on but have little to no understanding of the technology that we take for granted each and everyday. There are few better examples in this in the present day than those organizations that deny the scientific validity of well-established theories, such as evolution or climate change. Partially driven by cultural stagnation and the clash between established religion and scientific consensus, these organizations, though they might mean well, are damaging the potential of their communities by steering individuals away from the scientific basis on which we have built our modern society. While it is true that one of the benefits of living in a secular, democratic society is that you can believe who and what you want to for no better reason than “Because I can,” it is ultimately a disservice to everyone when an ideology emphasizes faith over education. This tenuous balance of observable fact and intellectual freedom has its ups and downs, as education and economics have proven to be very closely tied indeed.

The unfortunate contradiction that this balance brings us to is the selective application and denial of the scientific process, which is often presented as both optional and equally valid to individual opinion. Because of the power that modern media holds when it comes to reaching a wide audience, we have seen the battle for our minds engaged again and again on these topics, whether on television, radio or the internet. Quite recently, there has been what I would call a resurgence of scientific interest in popular culture, evidenced by the popularity and abundance of shows and individuals that are focused, at least partially, on promoting science and the pursuit of intellectual curiosity. Chief among these is Neil deGrasse Tyson and his re-launching of the show Cosmos, which was originally hosted by the late and great Carl Sagan. With the intent to spark the viewer’s thirst for knowledge, just as Sagan did before him, Tyson is attempting to engage a new generation of minds and establish a respect for learning and, more importantly, inquiry. When Cosmos premiered on March 9th, 2014, it was no small matter that the series was introduced by none other than the president of the United States, Barack Obama. Speaking about the importance of “the spirit of discovery”, Obama loaned the significant weight of his office to promoting the show. It is more than just refreshing to see an authority figure, especially one as prominent as Obama, who is not a scientist promoting the importance of science as more than just a tool for us to use at our convenience. When you take into account that Cosmos airs on Fox, as well as others, it seems like the show really hit a home run. While there’s no doubt that Cosmos would have made an impact on any public TV network that it aired on, Fox offers exposure to many who might otherwise be all but cut off from such content.

Bill Nye, who is commonly given the title of ‘Science Guy’, has made a bit of a comeback in recent months as well, choosing to tackle the issue a little more directly by engaging in a debate with Ken Ham, who is the owner and founder of a Creationist Museum in Kentucky. Though Nye did receive a fair amount of criticism from the scientific community for the debate, which they argue only serves to lend an illusion of legitimacy to Ham, I think that it served to bring the issue out of the cultural bubble it exists in to the public eye. Though bringing the debate to the attention of the public might not serve to actually change the outcome of decisions made in Kentucky, it might prevent the same struggle from raising its head in other communities that don’t live in a bubble. Few, if any, other well-known representatives of the scientific community could have been better suited than Nye for this issue due to the connection he managed to make with the now-adult audience that remembers how awesome his show was. Chances are a good deal of youth were exposed to the issue because their parents were curious to see how the Science Guy would fare in the exchange. Being the brilliant speaker and inspiring educator that he is, Bill Nye performed as admirably as one can when faced with a topic that is essentially unprovable by nature.

As one of the highest rated comedies on television for several seasons running in the UK, Canada and the US, The Big Bang Theory has also recently done quite a lot popularize scientific interest and ‘nerd culture’ as a whole. Though some of the themes pushed by the show are arguably enforcing some negative stereotypes about intellectuals, for the most part it glorifies the pursuit and application of knowledge, almost above all else. The show’s characters take their scientific professions very seriously (with the exception of Penny, obviously) and frequently come into conflict with each other when disagreements are based in their areas of expertise, even occasionally ending relationships as a result. By investing its characters with an obvious passion for science, The Big Bang Theory sets a strong and yet subtle example for viewers to follow. I think that this is especially true for the younger portion of the audience, many of whom are still forming opinions about the world around them. Let’s not forget the show’s awesome theme song, courtesy of The Barenaked Ladies.

I’m not exactly sure how many Facebook pages have netted themselves a television show due to their popularity, but I’d be willing to bet that IFLS (I F***ing Love Science) is one of the first, if not the only. With a wide variety of high-quality content from across the whole spectrum of scientific disciplines, IFLS has seen huge success on Facebook and has become one of the most widely liked pages on the service. When a page dedicated to sharing scientific information and news can contend with the likes of celebrities, sports organizations and bands, it says a lot about scientific interest in a culture. Though the page’s name makes for some difficult censoring, it also very aptly expresses the attitude of its audience, which is an interest in science for the sake of personal enjoyment. Sure, it sounds pretty nerdy, but more and more these days, that is becoming as much a compliment as it is an insult. I’m looking forward to seeing how the show is presented, as the Facebook page’s creator and moderator, Elise Andrew, has managed to do such an amazing job with little to no resources at her disposal.

I would very much like to believe that an interest and respect for the pivotal role that the scientific method plays in our lives is on the rise, but it could be that I’m just blinded by my own bias. Either way, it is important to recognize the contributions of educators at all levels of society, whether they are Neil deGrasse Tyson or your high school biology teacher. Education is of paramount importance in the lives of each and every member in a community of any scale and should be recognized as such, even by those who are not interested in learning themselves. Establishing a positive opinion of scientific achievement in the minds of a society’s youth is absolutely crucial to fostering a strong appreciation for what it has brought us, as it is all too easy to take how far we have come over the ages for granted.

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