Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Friends and Seinfeld were the most successful comedies on television because they appealed to wide audiences. That may seem tautological: The fact that Big Bang Theory has now surpassed them indicates a cultural shift in America. The widespread acceptance of Big Bang Theory derives not just from the writing and acting, but from a general interest and appreciation for science.

To some extent, this is a measure of pretense. More people claim to watch PBS and listen to NPR than actually do because it is expected as a sign of culture, learning, and social standing—at least among some people. The ratings for BBT are more reliable than that. It remains that very few of the millions who enjoy the humor freeze the frames to read the white boards. True fans know that the erasable boards contain physics equations that underscore passing elements of the dialog. Sometimes they frame the running narrative. The show is funny and the characters are compelling without it.

(For four seasons, the show was supported by a scientific website, Big Blog Theory written by their science advisor, UCLA’s David Saltzberg.  The final post, which footnoted “The Raiders Minimization” (Season Seven, in fact), was November 10, 2013, here. David Salzberg interviewed by NPR here.)

It raises a deeper question about the nature of comedy in particular, and fiction and literature more generally. Friends was inclusive. It had a large cast of ordinary people from several overlapping urban micro-cultures. Seinfeld was point-of-view, observational humor, with Jerry Seinfeld as our lens, even as we glanced aside to share with George, Elaine, and Kramer.

We can identify with the characters because we know them, perhaps all too well. When I first brought BBT home from the library in 2009, Laurel could not watch even the first episode. It was too embarrassing because it was too much like the people she worked with at the University of Michigan. Personally, I just thought that it was because she has so much in common with Sheldon. The fact is that even those millions who do not see themselves in the characters – as with Friends and Seinfeld – know people like them, again, as with Friends and Seinfeld. The difference between then and now can be attributed to a sociological “tech effect.”   

BBT is just one of many high-tech shows, such as the CSI franchise, N3MBERS, and Bones. Even NCIS is as much about Abbey, Duckie, and their labs, as it is about the marriages and marksmanship of Leroy Jethro Gibbs; and McGee graduated from MIT. The “tech effect” was the label given to the so-called “CSI Effect” in complaints from prosecutors that jurors were expecting sometimes ridiculous physical evidence, such as fingerprints lifted from grass. (See “The CSI Effect” earlier on this blog here  and “Junk Criminology as Pseudo-science” here.) Researchers Barak, Kim, and Shelton found that less educated jurors wanted "scientific" evidence. Educated people just trusted the prosecutor, worrisome as that is.

That nonetheless may reflect the wider “Flynn Effect” which posits that the general IQ is rising and that we are measurably smarter than we were 100 years ago. That being as it may, it is apparent to me that too many people still believe a lot of really stupid claims. It may be a slippery slope from speculation to mythology, from Star Trek to Star Wars, from Batman to Thor, from putting climate science and creation science in the same category.

A recent Pew Research poll on basic science may be disappointing because only 78% of 3278 randomly chosen Americans got 9 out of 12 right. You can take their quiz hereAnd read the analysis here.  However, as Wired writer Rhett Alain pointed out about a different quiz (here), these instant investigations ask not about scientific thinking but about the memorization of isolated facts. Alain was responding to a now-classic pop quiz given by Prof. Jon Miller of Michigan State University back in 2008 (see here and here ). One extension that Miller reported then was the fact that Americans tend to score slightly higher than Japanese or Europeans.


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