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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends: Science on Trial

To put a big full stop on Super Science Trends, I wanted to talk about science and narrative. If this decade has taught us anything, it’s that facts cannot defend themselves. The more hopeful science enthusiasts will assume that, because humans are reasonable creatures that adhere to truth, science should come naturally to them. But more often than not, we adhere to comforting, often inaccurate narratives over “cold, hard facts.” I maintain that science and narrative aren’t incompatible, and you can use narrative to your advantage if you want people to be scientifically literate. And I think the best example is a cartoon I watched as a kid called Science Court.

Science Court, “where science is the law and scientific thinking rules,” aired on ABC from 1997 to 2000. The show’s premise centred around a law court where simple scientific concepts were explained in the form of a court room drama. Usually, the defendant would be in some kind of predicament that required the explanation of a scientific concept to make their case, while the prosecution would attempt to willfully misunderstand it to persuade the jury to their side. Expert witnesses, such as a recurring scientist character, voiced by a young H. Jon Benjamin (Archer from Archer), were called in to clarify definitions and terminology for the jury and, by extension, the audience. It’s a bit of a high concept, but it works incredibly well structurally, since the legal process and scientific explanations both rely on precision of language and working from a body of established precedent and prior knowledge.

The episode on gravity, for instance, is about a con artist selling an “anti-gravity weight loss” potion, which boasts the incredible claim of helping you lose weight by removing your “extra” gravity. When a skeptical health centre owner investigates the potion, he is caught by the con artist, who cries sabotage and sues him. The matter gets brought to Science Court, where the defence has to explain the distinction between mass and gravity to win the case, therefore proving that the potion is a fake, because you cannot “lose” gravity.

The episode on work and simple machines involves a workplace dispute in which a disabled female factory worker named Mary is unfairly demoted for appearing to do less work than her able-bodied male co-worker Joe, because she uses a lever to do her job and he has to do heavy lifting. The prosecution argues that because Joe sweats a lot, he is actually doing more work, while the defense has to prove scientifically that, despite using a lever, Mary does the exact same amount of work (or force applied over distance) as her co-worker. The defense wins because their scientific reasoning wins out over a simplistic farcical argument, and Mary gets to keep her job (#feminism).

You might argue that the narratives are exceedingly simplistic, but they don’t have to be any more complex than a court drama necessitates. Plot twists come not as a result of an external pressure or character conflict, but from the presentation of new evidence changing the proceedings (y’know, like actual science) or the prosecution attempting to base an argument on an misinterpretation of the science being discussed (which, fortunately, never works).

Admittedly, it doesn’t completely hold up. The characters look like rejected background characters from The Simpsons circa season one and the animation is minimal to non-existent at times. Each episode ends on a song which, while never outright terrible, is about on par with those dreadful science raps on Youtube where a “hip” biology teacher has put their students up to rhyming an explanation of potassium-sodium exchange or what-have-you.

Finding the right balance between information and entertainment is difficult to achieve in a TV show, or any story, where real-life facts are important to the plot. Story gets sacrificed for the sake of getting the facts straight, and science gets sacrificed for the sake of a good story, for fear of making the proceedings too complicated or dragging the plot down with explanation. The Magic School Bus found a way around this by having a scientist character at the end of each episode explain the liberties taken with each story to make the plot work. So, in “The Magic School Bus Gets Lost in Space”, the scientist had to explain that the planets had all been conveniently aligned to make the shortest field trip through the solar system possible. I’d maintain that Science Court is one of the better educational shows, involving both a) a thing working the way it actually works, and b) a narrative context in which that information proves to be useful and valid.

Educational shows are making a comeback of late, with Bill Nye getting a new show and The Magic School Bus getting rebooted for a new season on Netflix, albeit on the condition that the bus trades in Ms Frizzle for her younger, hotter sister. The best way to make educational shows work comes from adapting to the medium, not changing the message. Part of how Sesame Street was such a success is because it adapted to its television environment, utilising the language of branding and jingles that had become ubiquitous in television to teach children basic math and literacy, “brought to you by the letter H!” Hell, we all remember rooting for the baby iguana getting chased by the snakes on Planet Earth II, right? The natural world is full of action, romance, and comedy, we just need the dulcet tones of David Attenborough to narrate them for our viewing pleasure.

Which brings me to my closing statement: we need to bring Science Court back. Of course, if I ran it, I’d have new stories about sensationalist science columnists (“Sir, do you realise you were sensationalising a discovery in an incremental progress zone?”), and I’d probably plead guilty of that on a few occasions. But hey, write what you know, and I know that if you’re going to make science matter to people, you have to keep up with the trends.

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