A collaborative study involving undergraduate students and researchers has revealed that science in our favourite TV shows often slips under the radar. By CASEY HAMILTON.
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.
So, did you spot the hidden science?
In recent years, science-based programming has exploded onto our televisions. The science on our screens has exposed us to 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, Lindy Orthia of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU, 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.
"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.
"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 text itself."
The study, run as part of Orthia’s Science in Popular Fiction undergraduate course, was a cooperative effort between Orthia and her students. The students designed and ran the discussion groups, analysed the data and worked with the lecturer 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.