Category Archives: television

Ho ho ho? Making jokes about science

This first appeared in the December edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the January edition, including a New Year’s piece from me on whether scientists have the future in their bones.

Happy holidays. Families congregate to catch up with each other, reflect on times passed and their hopes for the future, chat, eat, play games, offer gives, laugh and FIGHT. This is as true for groups of science as any other form of family.

Just before Thanksgiving, enter Joe Hanson of It’s OK to Be Smart show, with a special video featuring a dinner table of famous scientists from history. I’m going to have to describe it because it’s been taken offline (more on that in a moment). Featuring bobble-head dolls of Einstein, Tesla, Marie Curie, Darwin, Newton and Galileo and with a large turkey in the centre, they all laugh and joke, saying how pleased they are that their work has had so much impact on the world. Hanson points out that, for all that in many ways they have been mightily influential, there’s a long way to go.

Because, er, yeah, about the whole everyone believing in evolution thing, and um, we might get the whole third law of motion, but the public appreciation of the physical consequences of climate change could probably do with a bit more work.

It’s comedy, though rarely laugh-out-loud; light-hearted with comic fantasy of silly voices, anachronism and jokes about mixing up the movie Gravity with the physical force.

But on the holiday season fight. Because that’s the fun bit. I’m OK to be Smart is popular and held in respect by much of the scientific community, but as soon as it went live, there were complaints. Firstly, the scientists are it chooses to give thanks to are all white, there is only one woman and she starts off by saying she was just happy to have been included. Perhaps it’s traditional at Thanksgiving to whitewash history, but what kind of celebration of science only remembers those famous people our unequal society usually chooses to revere?

Further, Telsa’s played as crazy, a bit too crazy perhaps, with crazy played for laughs in a way that understandably aggravated people who’d like to see better treatment of mental illness. The silly accents were arguably a bit racist. And then there’s the way the Einstein character treats Curie. He starts off just by being a bit flirty, this moves to outright lecherous, as the others discuss science and history, with every cut to Einstein you seem him escalating his moves. Again, this is all played for laughs. It’s extreme and fantastical. It ends up with the bobble-head doll naked (the gentles pixelated out) “falling” on top of Curie. It’s a joke, yes, but it does look a lot like attempted rape. Many were appalled. Comments on the video’s Google + page were disappointed, shocked and angry.

In response, Hanson initially offered a not especially apologetic apology. The PBS ombudsman offered the excuse that it had ‘opened debate’ about women in science. As Emily Willingham pointed out, that debate was already quite open thank you very much, and if PBS and Hason had really been paying attention, they’d have realised how unhelpful, unimaginative and plain hurtful the video must have appeared. After further complaints, Hanson took the video down, with a fresh apology.

Two things are particularly interesting about this fuss. Firstly, it was a reasonably rare example of people arguing against a joke. It’s hard to say ‘no, that’s not funny’ and stand up against the premise of a joke. It’s one of the reasons feminists are often labeled ‘joyless’ or lacking a sense of humour. There’s a pressure to say anything goes in comedy, or at least it’s ‘just having a laugh, eh?’ Jokes act to articulate shared ideas, logic and attitudes. It is one of the reasons a shared joke between friends feels so special, and why you can feel so hurt or confused when you feel left out of one. Similarly, it’s hard when a joke falls flat. In many ways it was brave of Hanson to eventually take the video down. It’s always hard to say you think that, in retrospect, you were wrong, but perhaps especially true when it’s a matter of a joke.

Secondly, I find the whole video indicative of the way humour tends to be used to replicate the traditional structures of power in science, not buck them. There’s been a bit of a rise in science-related comedy in recent years, from the Science Museum’s Punk Science to the Infinite Monkey Cage. For all that we might imagine science to be a highly serious business, in many ways scientist and comedians are an obvious match.

A striking feature of comedy in modern Western societies is how much of it is based on the premise of some laughable imagined stupid Other person. Perhaps it is because so much of our lives is based on ideas of rationality we feel a need to laugh through the various anxieties we have about that. Or maybe we just need to feel superiorly rational. Whatever, science-based jokes offer a lot of material from which to build jokes about stupidity. George Bush’s dyslexia gags getting old? Try one about how there’s nothing in homeopathy.

As a result, the comedians largely side with scientists who can provide the knowledge. There are still a lot of jokes at the expense of scientists as a bit weird. The Big Bang Theory geek, for example. But in a way, that serves scientific authority too, painting them as a bit otherworldly, not really one of us and so hard to argue with. We don’t understand them which is why they are funny, but it’s also why they get to tell us what to do. Members of the scientific community may get angry at mad scientist serotypes, but in many ways, it offers them a lot of power.

I wonder if the web played a role in people standing up against the It’s OK to be Smart video. Those who felt offended by the joke could find others and collect together to feel less isolated, more justified in calling it out. This context of the web also reminded me the way Richard Dawkins has become a figure of fun online. Previously isolated quiet admissions that “I don’t really like Dawkins much” has flourished online to a whole sub-culture of people who regularly respond to everything his tweets with the in-joke of “your a dick” (a response to this). There’s even an online game. This is new, and feels significantly different from something like Monkey Cage.

I’m not sure if laughing at Dawkins is really much progress from homeopathy jokes made by educationally privileged people at the expense of the confused. But the comparison between the two, as with the controversy surrounding Hanson’s Thanksgiving video, can remind us that humour in science isn’t simply a matter of finding new audiences to talk about science to. As is often the case with science in popular culture, science comedy reflects a politics and should be politically aware. We should ask whose humour, about whom, disrupting what exactly, and why? Not simply how do we make more of it.

Why Don’t You? A review of ‘Making is Connecting’

making is connecting

I’ve mentioned David Gauntlett’s new book, Making is Connecting, a few times recently: on my work blog, my knitting one, and on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories. It’s an interesting book worth talking about. It’s about the social meanings of creativity and 21st century maker cultures, be these makers of blogs, woolly cardigans, cupcakes, podcasts or physics-themed lolcats, and in particular the changing structures of making which surround what is sometimes called ‘social media’. As any seasoned media studies scholar will grump at you, all media is social, but with this thing we call web 2.0 the patterns of sociability are changing (Gauntlett has made a lovely vid on this) in ways which are wrapped up in the history of crafting.

It has, however, taken me a while to actually finish reading the book and post this review. This isn’t because it’s a hard read, or boring. Quite the opposite. For a piece of social sciences, it’s incredibly well written. Still, in a way, it is a book that inspires slow reading, because one of the many reasons why it took me so long to finish (why it takes me so long to finish most books, unless I make myself sit and read them in a go, or even watch a movie or er… finish this sentence) is that I get distracted. I stop consuming whatever other people have made – in this case Gauntlett’s book – and go and produce something for myself. I knitted, I cooked, I wrote, I gave lectures and organised events. Some of this I did myself, some of it collaboratively. Along the way, I also found stuff other people had made to consume and take part in too. And that’s why Making is Connecting might be ‘slow reading’. Because, this process of going off and doing something yourself is a lot of what the book is about.

One of the key frames of the book is a shift from the passivity of the ‘sit back’ model of what might come to be seen as the odd mid to late 20th century era of the television and towards a culture dominated by ideas of making and doing. People who watched British television at a certain point in the late 20th century may remember a show called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead. So does Gauntlett.

I wondered at times whether this shift is over-stated in the book. Or at least that I we should be careful of putting them up against each other in terms of making. I love the passivity of some TV shows because they free me to knit in front of them (just knitting on its own doesn’t catch my attention enough). Or what about TV shows that draw on crafting cultures? (food TV, especially in the USA is fascinating here). Moreover, there are ways in which that big smooth professionally oiled machine of big media acts as a material for 21st century craft. One of the striking, not always appreciated, aspects of 21st century making is how much of it is re-making. Fan fiction is the classic case study of the complexity of such remaking culture. Take, for example, Constance Penley’s book NASA/Trek where she writes about people re-working the stories of Star Trek just as they also rework the various stories surrounding NASA.

A smaller topic, but equally interesting I thought, was that of mess. Gauntlett mentions this first when he is introducing web the notion of web2.0 and mentions a video from Chris Anderson, and then comes back to later when discussing the Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. It reminded me of my friend Felix’s great idea (a few years back now) of ‘messy Tuesdays’. Inspired by the ways in which some knitting and cooking bloggers seemed to be self-consciously styling their domestic lives to look like a glossy lifestyle magazine, Felix wrote up a manifesto (currently offline): ‘You are not your flawless surfaces. You are not your orderly laundry-pile. You are not the seamlessness of your Finished Objects. You are not your risen cakes. You are not your sewn-in ends’. As another blogger, Lara put it, ‘as someone who spent her teenager years wrapped in teenage angst about not being clever enough, pretty enough or thin enough, the idea that my home won’t be beautiful enough, my craft not so well executed or my knitting up to speed has been at times quite tough’. They confidently posted about the less tidied-up bits of their lives, celebrating the beauty and reality of the mess that surrounds us all.

I sometimes think we should bring that back: #messytues has something on a twitter meme about it, no? I also think there’s potential for some research here. John Law is good on this topic, as a post on the ‘serendipity engine’  reminded me recently. Although I’ve just quoted a couple of knit-bloggers, I think this idea of the reality, necessity and even beauty of mess has something to say about the way we tell science stories too (as the reference to Law may signal).

The point that most interested me about this book, however, was the way that Gauntlett, as a professor of media studies, is interested in people making media and mediating making. It’s all very popular culture orientated, with some nods to domestic life. The hand crafting of pharmaceuticals, for example, doesn’t get much of a look in. I wondered if this would have brought something else to the debate.

That’s one of the reasons why I referred to NASA/Trek. There are many other better works on fanfiction (e.g.) but I think Penley’s discussion of something as intrinsically ‘big science’ as the space race says something about the social arrangement of makers in late modern society. There is a danger that by focusing on the ways people make and remake some objects we further ‘black-box’ others. For example, I learnt how to knit from reading knit blogs. I can make a jumper. I can also blog about this on the super clever iPhone I carry around with me. I don’t know how to make an iPhone though, or even spin my own wool to make that jumper from. The latter is largely a matter of choice (I do at least know some blogs that’d teach me to spin and even what plants to grow to make my own dyes from, as well as a few people who have access to sheep for wool, or possibly even a llama). For the former though, I have no clue where to even start teaching myself, even if I did, the manufacture of an iphone is not exactly opensource. Most of the time, I’m ok with that cluelessness, it frees me up to be knowledgeable about other things, but it does also disempower me.

There are key ways in which most of us do not have the means to (media) production – from our inability to understand how to do anything but use (as in use as a consumer) the shiny computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, to more economic or legal issues like the one Martin Robbins recently flagged up on his post about web hosts as the Achilles heel of online journalism.

None of that is necessarily a criticism of the book. We all have to focus somewhere, and Gauntlett does touch on these issues a bit in his final chapter ‘Web 2.0 – not all rosy?’ Still, I was surprised not to see more on the sociologies of work, expertise and technology and finished the book wanting to hear more about anti-social aspects of DIY culture. I also suspect Gauntlett would get an intellectual kick out of the various aesthetics of steampunk maker culture (old post I wrote on an exhibition of such work).

To conclude, I do want to stress that Making is Connecting is a lovely book, not least because of Gauntlett realistically optimistic approach. Though he’ll happily call ‘rubbish!’ (his 10 things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model is justifiably a classic), he doesn’t wear an ability to be ‘critical’ like it’s some sort of pin badge to show membership of the ‘very clever thinkers club’. Academics should be able to say they like things, and I like this book. I’ll end on a positive note, an honest one, and say if you are a maker of any sort, I can wholehearted recommend Making is Connecting. It’ll give you a chance to think about the history and philosophies of crafting cultures. It’ll lift you out of your own maker microculture to help you ponder your wider context. It inspired me to make this post, and others, and to think more about my making. So do read it, even if it does take you a few months to get around to finishing it because you keep putting it down to do something else instead.

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees

Does my brain look big in this?

According to an oft-cited paper by Marcel LaFollette, a 1926 magazine once introduced an eminent medical researcher as a woman whose mahogany furniture “gleams”. From the same study, but a 1950 magazine, a senior figure in the Atomic Energy Commission was praised for sewing her own clothes. Later, via Dorothy Nelkin, Maria Mayer (Nobel physics prize, 1963) was described as “a tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother… her children were perfectly darling” and Barbara McClintock (Nobel prize in medicine, 1983) introduced as “well known for baking with black walnuts”.

In today’s more enlightened times, we see women scientists in an entirely different light. No longer do we look past the prizes, publications and other achievements to a gleaming kitchen table. No, we look at the woman herself and er, um… well, maybe we linger too long on certain other features of her femininity which similarly obscure her professionalism. I am referring, of course, to the emergence of scientific ‘totty‘ (or hottie, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).

To give you a flavour of what I mean, the following are descriptions of women scientists, from profiles of them written in the British press in early 21st Century:

shoes of teetering altitude [...and a] miniskirt of dizzying brevity [she] may be Britain’s leading authority on the brain, but it is her physique that turns heads

We must mention the makeover [...] accessorised, a sparkling intellect doesn’t get you in on to the pages of Vogue

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist [...] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Lab coats, safety googles – and killer heels [...] getting teenagers all steamed up over science

The above quotes (and historical examples) were all snaffled from a recent paper by media scholars at the University of Cardiff, Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger. Part of a larger project considering the representation of women scientists in UK media, this paper notes the attention given to women scientists’ appearance compared to men, as well as the slightly different places women are used to talk about science. This is a topic discussed by many science bloggers last July, following a thoughtful post by Sheril Kirshenbaum, but it’s interesting to see systematic research on the topic too.

Chimba and Kitzinger’s research was rooted in an analysis of 51 interviews with scientists, 8 of which were with women, pulled from a sample of 12 UK national papers between January and Jun 2006. They also explored profiles of Susan Greenfield and Kathy Sykes in more breadth. In addition to this content analysis, they collected data from 86 female scientists about what they liked and disliked about media representations as well as their own experiences of working with the the media (questionnaire, follow up interviews and six focus groups).  Finally, they explored emerging findings with more scientists, as well as journalists and communication professionals (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 611-2). I personally wasn’t entirely sure of a focus on profiles as representing representation of women in science across media, especially considering the stress on Greenfield and Sykes. However, I can also see why they took that approach and the other side of the research helps them broaden their scope very neatly. Moreover, I think if you remember the context from which these profile analysis came, they are still worth thinking about.

One clear difference emerged from studying the 51 profiles: the attention given to the appearance of women scientists. Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of the profiles of men. Such references might seem fairly innocuous, especially when located within a generally positive article, but Chimba and Kitzinger stress the ways in which references to a man’s appearance carry a different tone. For example, while women might be described as having a ‘mane of blonde hair’, the focus for men is more likely to be on a beard, with rather different connotations: ‘His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 612-3). It’s not just journalists doing this: hunting out a line about ‘the Nigella of science’, they found it was sold to an editor by a television company’s PR agency (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 617).

References to hair and heels, etc might be welcomed as a way of showing off a generally unseen glamorous side to science. Chimba and Kitzinger also note the way in which a headline such as ‘Blonde hair, short skirt, big brain’ could be a mater of a journalist playfully deconstructing the various stereotypes  on offer; challenging images of boffin and bimbo at once (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 613). At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget the ways a focus on female scientists’ appearance can have very negative consequences. It may draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

For me, the most important finding was the way in which Chimba and Kitzinger draw attention to  the difference in places women are used in science coverage. For example, one publicity officer for a major science organization explained that if they were dealing with a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they would go with a white middle-class male, where as BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman (see Boyce & Kitzinger, 2008, pdf). Another of their research subjects reports that she had trouble moving from kids television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 620). Men may signal an aura of gravitas in science, whilst women are used when the science is being made ‘accessible’ or ‘sexy'; a possible divide between real scientists and scientifically flavoured ‘eye-candy’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616).

The paper also stresses that women aren’t just the objects of media representation, they are active creators and negotiator of their own image, even if they do not always have control over this conditions of this (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616). They noted an ambivalence in some of the interviews, and sense that they were in processes of negotiation. For example, one spoke of it as a matter of ‘walking a tightrope'; how much do they use it for their advantage, ‘or is that getting in bed with the devil?’. Further, such a representation would a woman more than just professionally. One mentioned being personally flattered as well as personally and professional offended. Another said she gave up because of the personal pressure on image (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 619).

Men on television get letched over too, of course, and this can make them feel uncomfortable too. Whether it has the same impact on their career is debatable though. It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but Chimba and Kitzinger suggest, it is especially risky for women, especially as sexuality gets folded into this. Playing with the term ‘media whore’, they quote Laura Barton in saying ‘even in the intellectual world there are slags [a derogatory term for  promiscuous women] and there are studs [an admiring term for promiscuous men]‘ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

Personally, I don’t mind the odd bit of glamourous science media, but it shouldn’t become a dominant theme. Scientists should not feel as if they have to play up a glamorous image in order to do any public work. Neither should we sort our media scientists into serious debate with men of gravitas on one side, and a bit of girlie chat/ tickle your fancy on the other. If nothing else, it’s limiting; for audiences as well as scientists. I think we should be aiming for a diversity of voices in our science media (and I don’t mean diversity simply in terms of gender).

  • Chimba, M., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: An analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662508098580

What do you think?