How does pop-culture shape the public’s perceptions of science?

by Kgomotso Dhlamini

Most of us readily understand the importance of scientific literacy. We know that everyone, not just scientists, can benefit from the knowledge, skills, and insight that science provides. Innovations of science are better understood and more likely to be accepted when the public understands the scientific process. However, as a future scientist, I can admit that our discipline doesn’t always do a good job of communicating science to the plain-spoken people in our society. To understand people’s relationships with science, Orthia (2019)surveyed a 575 “Doctor who” fans and demonstrated the potential importance of fictions in science communication.

So how effective have these TV shows been in communicating science? SABC’s “Intersexions” depicted how a series of intimate encounters entangles a group of people. The series focused on educating people about HIV and AIDS, encouraging safe intercourse, and eradicating the stigma around these issues. Now this is an example of effective science communication!

As an aspiring forensic anthropologist, I became curious about the public perceptions on biological anthropology and forensic science. The human mind can easily be influenced by the events seen, heard or experienced. The televised portrayals of legal proceedings are no different. Shows such a CSI: Crime scene investigation and Bones are responsible for some of the distorted realism and unrealistic expectations that people have regarding criminal investigations. This has meant that jurors are more likely to not convict a suspect, not on the merit of his/her innocence, but because the techniques that they observed in the shows were not used by the forensic investigators. This is known as the “CSI effect” (National institute of Justice , 2008).

Shows like “Bones”  give forensic science an air of unshakeable certainty. In the show, the forensic anthropologist, Dr Brennan often makes conclusive determinations of age and sex based on a single landmark or a brief visual observation, thus giving viewers unrealistic standards of success. In reality, a biological profile is created using many landmarks and multiple methods. These include Phenice traits and the Walker’s traits which are then analysed morphologically and osteometrically. These observations are further tested with the use of softwares.

In the show, the scientists focus on one case at a time and typically, at the end of each episode the case is almost always solved in a matter of days. The forensic anthropologists in Bones often use sensationalised technological innovations such as holograms and simulations to recreate further analyse the crime. In actuality, forensic anthropologists often work  on multiple cases simultaneously in addition to their research, building a biological profile takes much longer than mere minutes, the advanced technology  portrayed may not exist, many cases remain unsolved for years and some may never be solved. This is evident in the number of missing people and unidentified individuals in South Africa. It is reported that 1 in 10 of the deceased individuals sent to a mortuary will remain unidentified and eventually buried by the state.

Fiction promotes the idea of an unimpeachable scientistic method, thus contributing to the social expectations and the unrealistic standards of success that is expected of forensic anthropologists. If the high numbers of unclaimed and unidentified bodies faced in medico-legal facilities in South Africa were accurately portrayed, it would bring about awareness and implore people to help find solutions to improve certain protocols.

References

Orthia, L. A., 2019. How does science fiction shape fans’ relationships to science? Results from a survey of 575 Doctor Who viewers. Journal of science communication, 18(4). National institute of Justice , 2008. The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist? Available at: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/csi-effect-does-it-really-exist

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