Since it is the start of the new television season, I thought it would be a reasonably appropriate time to bring this up.
For the benefit of those readers who are either young or are not too familiar with the history of radio and television, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a program that started out on radio in 1928 and was created by two white actors/writers Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll who were inspired by a conversation they overheard between two African-American janitors. Originally, it was a 15-minute nightly dramatic program and, in 1943, morphed into a weekly sitcom that ran until 1955 and finally a music program from 1955 to 1960. During its radio run, Gosden and Correll did most of the voices (being radio, they could get away with it). In 1951, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” moved to TV and had an all-African-American cast. The TV version was almost immediately met with divided opinion in the African-American community. Some had no problem with it. Others, such as the NAACP, felt it perpetuated negative stereotypes. The opinion of the NAACP carried the day and the show was taken off the air in 1953, though it managed to hang on until 1966 in syndication. Here is an article with some detail on the program.
Now, back to the present discussion. “The Big Bang Theory” is a sitcom which deals with a small group of scientists (presumably astrophysicists and others who work for NASA) and their misadventures. However, it is not a flattering portrayal and, in my opinion, perpetuates negative stereotypes about people in the sciences much the same way “Amos ‘n’ Andy” perpetuated negative African-American stereotypes. For instance, the scientific protagonists on “The Big Bang Theory” are portrayed as extremely inept and dysfunctional in any area outside of science and technology. Being an amateur astronomer and follower of space science, I have seen many in the field who are totally unlike what you see on that sitcom.
For instance, there were some members of my astronomy club who served with distinction in the military (in World War II, no less) and went on to make inventions, including one (a means of measuring errors in transmitted data) that had impact in the nuclear industry, was used by the U.S. Navy, and probably had a role in the creation of what we would later call the Internet. Then there was one member who endured terrible hardships (the Ukranian famine as well as a stint in a Nazi slave labor camp) and went on to become a very productive citizen and prominent member of the club.
I have also seen some professional astronomers who would not look out of place in a country-western bar. Most space scientists I have seen look perfectly normal.
This raises the question of why Chuck Lorre, the creator of the show, would choose to have such a stereotypical depiction of space scientists. After all, I doubt he would be crude enough to insult people like those club members I mentioned above. Granted, there may be some in the field who share some of the traits of those sitcom characters, but in this day and age, we are supposed to frown on such stereotyping in entertainment media. It wasn’t that long ago that a sitcom was yanked off the air because of a single joke based on a Puerto Rican stereotype. I suspect that he feels that it is acceptable to ridicule small groups who lack clout in the lamestream media, ones who are unlikely to lead sponsor boycotts or other types of resistance.
Since the show does well in the ratings and rakes in huge amounts of money in syndication, it is unlikely that it will ever be retooled to address this grievance. The best that could be hoped for in this regard would be the addition of some space scientists who are not stereotypes to balance things out. However, this is also unlikely.
One solution I would suggest is that Chuck Lorre take some actions on his own to show that he is not against space scientists. For instance, a publicized donation of a significant sum to a group like the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) or the Planetary Society would be a good move. Another would be to show support for amateur astronomers, possibly by making cast members available for personal appearances at astronomy events (with either Lorre, the production company, or CBS eating the appearance fees). These actions would be like the requirements that a polluter take steps to mitigate the effects of the pollution they create. In addition, these steps would bring useful publicity to astronomy and space science.
Do you have any suggestions on how to counter negative space science stereotypes? Are these negative depictions an issue or are they best ignored?