Episode 22: Science Education on TV
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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To get into the Back-to-School spirit, the hosts discuss some classic and current science education television shows, including The Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
Image of the Scientist among High-School Students by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux
Rebecca: Welcome to episode 22 of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.
Anna: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I am a historian, writer, and editor, and I study 20th century American culture and the history of the American Space Program in the 1960s.
Leila: And I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science.
Rebecca: And I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history around the Internet.
Leila: So, a little bit of housekeeping before we get in to it. So first, we've changed up our website a bit, which you've noticed if you've been to the site recently. And so, without boring you with too many details, I'll just say that we no longer have a monthly issue. Instead, we've moved all essays that would have been included in the issue to a new Features section. And you can still expect all the same kinds of content, history, women, gender, science, all that stuff. It's just under a different banner of features.
Leila: And, so that brings me to number two, which is we have a new associate editor. Her name is Haley Weiss and she'll be taking over our Features section. So, if you have an idea for a feature, send her your pitches at email@example.com.
Leila: And, lastly, we have some changes in our Patreon. So, all the Patrons previously got early release of the monthly issue as a Patreon reward, but since we don't have the issue anymore, you'll be getting Patron-only videos each month, which will give you a sneak peek into what we'll be releasing in the course of that month.
Leila: And of course, you can find our Patreon page and give us money there at Patreon.com/ladyscience.
Rebecca: Okay, to get into the back-to-school season mode, we're spending this episode talking about science education and the history of science on television. We've previously covered depictions of scientists in adult fiction on the podcast, including an entire episode about Star Trek; another one about the best and worst depictions of women scientists in film and TV; and one about our favorite television show, Call The Midwife. But, today we want to talk about how science made its way onto television as entertainment and education for both kids and adults. So we'll be covering some of the classic science television of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Rebecca: We'd planned to have historian of science, Ingrid Ockert, on the episode to talk about history of science television programs, but that interview went very long, so we're releasing that interview with Ingrid as a bonus episode soon after this episode drops. So, you're going to get double the science education on TV fun, which is awesome.
Rebecca: So there's a lot of science education media out there. So, for this episode, just to keep ourselves relatively focused, we've decided to talk about just a couple of different television shows that we remember from our childhoods, as well as one or two more recent examples. So, let's get into it.
Anna: Okay. Well, I want to talk about The Magic School Bus because I love The Magic School Bus.
Anna: And it was very fun to watch a little bit of it while I was working on this episode, and the theme song just makes me so happy. So, the first episode of The Magic School Bus TV show aired in 1994 and, if you were a book fair, Scholastic book fair devotee in your youth...
Leila: Yes, ma'am.
Anna: Yes. I love book fair. Yeah, you'll know that The Magic School Bus was originally a series of very excellent picture books that were written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. And, the books and the show both follow zany school teacher, Miss Frizzle, and her third grade class, and they learn about everything from spiders to outer space, chemistry, recycling... I looked through the Wikipedia list of episodes. There is one of the TV show on salmon migration, so check that out.
Anna: And so, Miss Frizzle's class learns about all these interesting things by taking field trips in her magic school bus, which does all kinds of fantastical things like shrinking down to enter Arnold's body when he's sick, or, transforming into a spaceship to visit the planets, in which another bad thing also happens to Arnold in that episode. Poor Arnold.
Rebecca: I feel like Arnold goes through a lot of stuff.
Anna: He really does.
Rebecca: Isn't he the one who's always like, "Oh God, what's going to happen this time?"
Anna: Yes. He's always so nervous. I would be Arnold if I was on The Magic School Bus because I would be like, "So many things can go horribly wrong in this situation. My head could be frozen into a block of ice on Pluto."
Anna: So, the book series was adapted for television by Scholastic who published the books and was supported by the National Science Foundation. And, compared to some of the other things we're going to talk about, it wasn't like, it's weird because, in my mind, it's huge, but it wasn't as popular or was massively well-received as some of the other things we'll talk about, but it did get lots of individual Emmy nominations. Lily Tomlin won one, she won a Daytime Emmy for her performance of Miss Frizzle, which is an iconic role. Good for you, Lily Tomlin.
Anna: And, in 2017, The Magic School Bus sort of returned as a Netflix series, like many things that we didn't necessarily need Netflix to give us again. And there have been two seasons of that and I have not seen any if it because I just...it's not the same, so...
Rebecca: One thing I want to note, that we'll also get into a little bit in our interview with Ingrid, but this reminded too, basically how much really good publicly-funded television, educational, but also super entertaining television is out out there. And I feel like, I don't know, I'm not a kid and I don't have kids so maybe there's still is great stuff, but I do feel like the 70s, 80s, early 90s seems to have been this peak time for PBS. I mean, I didn't realize that the National Science Foundation supported The Magic School Bus.
Anna: And yeah, it feels kind of really strange and archaic too.
Anna: I guess Public Television feels that way for a lot of people anyway, but, especially with making the sharp contrast of it coming back on Netflix, I think is kind of an illustration of, we're definitely in a different era of television, and of children's television and educational television, where we're kind of relying on places like Netflix to pick up this kind of work because there's less interest or less funding for publicly supported TV like this.
Leila: Yeah. One of the things that I love about Magic School Bus is the longevity that it's had, especially the way, I think, Miss Frizzle has become some sort of legendary woman among women in science today, and how people make homemade Miss Frizzle dresses.
Leila: I guess for anyone who hasn't seen it or doesn't remember, each episode, Miss Frizzle had a different dress on that somehow went along with whatever they were going to explore that day. And, I think also, is that she has this kind of unhinged curiosity that I think goes really nice with all of her bananas dresses and stuff. But, I think that that kind of enthusiasm, in all regards of Miss Frizzle, has given her this legendary status today, and I think that that's really neat.
Anna: I mean, that's a thing that I feel like I have seen on Twitter, or maybe have heard from friends of mine who are in the sciences, about women presenting at conferences in their Miss Frizzle dresses or giving talks in their Miss Frizzle dress that they made or whatever, and that that's like a signifier for everybody who knows The Magic School Bus as, like you say, this kind of unbridled joy about being in science and...I don't know. It's really nice.
Leila: Yeah. I think it's really cool. And I think it's also important that it was a woman that was Miss Frizzle and that it was a woman who voiced her, and I think it's also really neat that it was Lily Tomlin, who's also gay. I think that those types of representations, both as the characters are drawn themselves and then who is also voicing them, also is important.
Rebecca: Yeah. And both Miss Frizzle and Lily Tomlin have crazy curly hair and out-sized personalities and take up a lot of space, and Miss Frizzle, in particular, is just kind of unapologetically feminine in the way she takes up a lot of space. Like their Miss Frizzle dresses, there's something that's very, "I'm going to be weird and wacky and female in public about science," that's kind of great.
Anna: And she always has cool earrings that match her dresses,
Anna: That have planets on them or something and they glow of things. I love it.
Leila: I guess in the same vein with representation, the children on the school bus...Arnold is Jewish, Wanda is Chinese and there are two black characters and there's more girls than boys on the bus. Right?
Anna: Yeah. It feels very deliberate to me in the same way that we had talked about Children's Television Workshop, in creating their shows, like Sesame Street and stuff, they're very deliberate about making sure that the kids and then the guests and people that come on the show, like specifically going out and looking for people of color and women to fill roles that they might not otherwise do.
Anna: It's just kind of wild to me that we were having all of these ridiculous conversations about whether The Little Mermaid can be black or not now, but we have stuff like this from the 80s where, this is the way we make children's television and this is how it's done, and we seem to have slid so far away from that.
Leila: Well, and it's strange because now as an adult, I can recognize the importance of making those decisions and being deliberate about that, but as a kid, I didn't know any of that. I didn't see it as being some sort of deliberate thing to get me to see. It was just the thing that I saw. And, I think that there's this weird...when people complain about The Little Mermaid and stuff, or Hermione being black, or whatever, none of these people are real anyway so get a grip, but, that there's this whole thing about manipulating children by indoctrinating them with diversity or gay super heroes or whatever, and it's like, kids don't know. Kids are going to watch what's in front of them and if that happens to reflect a more diverse world in which they live, then that's what it does.
Rebecca: And all of these things are choices. And I think that's the other thing that these obnoxious conversations about diversity in media these days miss is that all of these things are choices, and, we don't get spontaneous diversity because we live in a world that doesn't let us be spontaneously diverse.
Rebecca: And, the fact that Children's Television Workshop built shows like Sesame Street and said, "We have to put effort into making sure that we have representation," and that Magic School Bus was built where people are saying, "We have to make an effort for representation." I think it's really important to acknowledge that because unfortunately, because of the world we live in, we're not in a place where, yeah, it spontaneously happens and if we're spontaneous about it, we often end up with a lot of white people.
Anna: Yeah. I think it's interesting too that, I imagine that lots of people who are complaining about black Ariel or black Hermione or, whatever, there being black characters in historical video games, don't have a problem with these things from their childhood.
Anna: They don't look back on The Magic School Bus sort of like, "Well, why does Arnold have to be Jewish? I mean, come on." They're not looking back like that. That's just like a product of our particular moment. I mean, we live in hell, obviously, so...
Anna: It's interesting. When I was kind of look around for stuff on The Magic School Bus, it's weird, the way that, I think it exists in all our minds as a beloved thing from childhood, but it's sort of online presence is just weird. It's The Magic School Bus. People were mad about the reboot because of various things and they kind of looked like they did it kind of cheaply and the animation wasn't very good and people were upset about that. But nobody, as far as I have found, has ever said anything bad about The Magic School Bus, ever. And it's incredible and it's because it's so pure, and because people put so much sort of care into it to make this piece of children's media inclusive and interesting and visually exciting. And, I don't know.
Leila: I think one of things with Sesame Street, Magic School Bus, all of this resurgence with Mister Rogers and stuff like that, is that, we had all this great public programming, educational programming in the 80s and 90s and I think we became saturated with dark things on TV and that that was made good TV. And I feel like there's now a pushback against that because we are living in hell. I think we're tired of it. We're tired of being saturated with things that make us feel bad and so I think there's this resurgence of things that made us feel good from that time. Also, with Mister Rogers, rebooting Magic School Bus, rebooting She-Ra on Netflix as well, all of these things that were good, that promoted good things like kindness and positivity and stuff like that, a return to that, I think, is really nice.
Anna: Okay. We can move on because I got really excited that I wanted to talk about all the jokes that are in the background of the illustrations and the map paintings for the show, but we don't need to get into that. But, I think I am going to get a couple of Magic School Bus books from the library just for kicks because they really do make me feel very happy. So...let's move on to something else.
Leila: Okay, so, we can talk about Bill Nye The Science Guy. This show first aired in 1993 in syndication with Disney and it aired on PBS beginning in 1994. And overall, there were 100 episodes, and Bill Nye is the center of the show, the host and the show uses his name, obviously. It's a distinct format from other kinds of science programming like The Magic School Bus and it made Nye into a celebrity scientist.
Leila: And, at the time, and I don't think a lot of people actually know this, that Nye wasn't a working scientist at the time. And, I guess, Anna's favorite petty pendant thing is that Nye was never a scientist, he was an engineer.
Anna: What is science?
Leila: [crosstalk 00:18:32] at the time when he developed the show. And he was actually pursuing a career in comedy then, and, doing the show is what sort of led him back to science and he started working with the planetary society and the Mars Exploration Rover after the show, as well as writing some popular science books.
Leila: And so, this is kind of a weird thing from the Wikipedia article. It says, "Nye plays a hyperkinetic, tall and slender scientist wearing a blue lab coat and bow tie." I don't know why that description of his body was so necessary.
Anna: I don't know why they would put it in there because it's so weird.
Leila: I don't know.
Anna: There's a lot of weird stuff you can read about Bill Nye.
Leila: So, everyone has probably seen the show. The format is kind of a sketch show with a cold open where Nye performs as a zany scientist doing experiments, and he parodies musical numbers and interviews scientist, and he also had celebrity guests on the show, people like Kenny G and Bob Ross and Christopher Walken. And the show was super successful, with 19 Daytime Emmys, many for Nye himself as the performer and writer.
Leila: So, this was one that and Magic School Bus were probably the two science programming shows that I watched continuously and religiously as a kid, I think.
Anna: Yeah, same here.
Rebecca: I think, one of the...I'm wondering what you guys think about this. So Bill Nye The Science Guy is known, I think, notorious for the absurdly high level of energy of it. It's just like, it's like a kid-
Anna: It's kind of frenetic.
Rebecca: Yeah, it's phonetic. It's a kid who ate too much candy for like 23 minutes straight, and there is, in some ways, a similar like, a lot going on high-energyness to The Magic School Bus. But, maybe it's because it's aesthetically different, both of those do seem to tap into different kinds of, "Isn't science cool?" kinds of things. And I feel like in retrospect, I am more in favor of The Magic School Bus version of it, though I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why, and I'm curious if you guys have though about the phoneticness of both of those and the wacky scienceness of both of those and how they're different?
Anna: Yeah. I think for me, this is just a personal aesthetic thing, but, as a kid, I watched a little bit of Bill Nye, but not nearly as much as Magic School Bus or other things. And I think, for me, it was because, apart from Mister Rogers, I just didn't care about adults telling me stuff until I was a little bit older and then started just watching a bunch of UFO documentaries. But, Magic School Bus age, Bill Nye age, and they came out really close together, I just want like, "Who is this guy? He's loud and I'm not really interesting in hearing him talk about things."
Anna: And I wasn't allowed to watch a lot of stuff when I was a kid, and so, there were a lot of jokes and things and the musical references and stuff that just went way over my head because I was not allowed to be plugged into popular culture enough to understand all the jokes. And so I was just like, "Well..." Yeah. So...I don't know.
Anna: One thing that I wanted to just ask you about, I think, there has been...I couldn't find any scholarly research on The Magic School Bus. It doesn't seem like there's...at least a Master's thesis out there for somebody who's interested in science and media, but there's just an unbelievable amount of stuff around about Bill Nye. And it's because probably it was so much more famous and because there's a celebrity involved, but I just thought we should talk a little bit about, and this has been talked about before, does it matter that kids are maybe being introduced to the idea of being a scientist or doing science or what's interesting about science by Bill Nye The Science "Guy"? Does that matter?
Rebecca: Yeah. I think it does. I think it matters sort of in all the representational ways that we talk about a lot, but I think it also matter for, kind of, the value placed on it by our larger culture and Bill Nye as a person's ability to tap into his celebrity. I think that that's almost what makes it matter the most is that Bill Nye is able to position himself as an authority in a lot of different ways because he's a white dude, because he's a tall white dude. Because he's a tall-
Leila: And he wears the lab coat.
Rebecca: Yes, he's a tall rich white dude in a lab coat. And, we can kind of trace the cultural influence of Bill Nye in a lot of different things, and so he feels more famous. Whereas Magic School Bus almost feels like it has this more subconscious running through our culture because I feel like you can make a Miss Frizzle reference or a Magic School Bus reference in so many different contexts and people will know what you're talking about. But it doesn't have the cultural bigness of this dude who goes and fights with creationists and had a wacky TV show in 90s and is a guy who where's a lab coat and blows stuff up.
Leila: Well and I think that speaks to the difference of the types of show that it is. Magic School Bus is cartoon.
Leila: Lily Tomlin is an actor.
Leila: That has a limited way that it can speak to itself and for itself, whereas Bill Nye, as being a person who is still alive and has a celebrity, is able to continue to tap into the image of himself as Bill Nye The Science Guy from our childhoods and plug that into different things now. He's able to continue that story and that celebrity in a way that, of course, Magic School Bus cannot do.
Anna: And I think, the character of Bill Nye The Science Guy, it's a stereotyped and kind of iconic image of the scientist and it's one that has existed in the United States for basically all of the 20th Century.
Anna: The zany, absent-minded, weird, mad scientist kind of figure, that's something...there's a very famous study from 1957 by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux called "Image of The Scientist among High-School Students" and they did this survey of high schools students to get an impression of what they thought a scientist looked like and did, and the results are kind of what you would imagine.
Anna: They didn't think that women were scientists. But there is this imagine of the scientists as like a zany character who's very eccentric and stuff that Bill Nye super taps into that. So I think that that...and like you said, he's a real person and so, you see Bill Nye in the context of Bill Nye The Science Guy, but you also see him on The Daily Show.
Anna: You know? On various late night TV and debating creationists in Australia or whatever.
Leila: I feel like he's had a...obviously I don't know what his inner thought world is about the character that he has created and can't seem to kill or escape or anything now.
Anna: I just want to be free!
Leila: So meta at this point. But, I feel like he has had a hard time breaking away from that very popular image of Bill Nye The Science Guy into something a little bit more serious, which is why he goes on The Daily Show, puts on the image of Bill Nye, but then says, "Fuck." You know? Like trying to, in a way, upgrade that image or change that image, while still tapping into it at the same time. And, I think he tried to do that will the show that he had on Netflix, which was more aimed at adults, which sucks by the way, having people on the show that he interviews that have no right, or no expertise, talking about what they're talking about. I think he's had a hard time breaking away from that image into something more serious that, I think, maybe he wanted to be, which is maybe why he did that interview with Ken Hamm. Stuff like that. I think that the image of him as Bill Nye has become bigger, this untamed monster, that he can't put back in the box.
Anna: Yeah. And one thing I wanted to say about that, about the new Netflix show and interviewing people who have no expertise about anything, Bill Nye doesn't have a lot expertise about stuff either. Like I said, he's not a scientist. He's an engineer, and he hasn't been working as an engineer for decades. And, he is not an expert on climate change. He's not a climate scientist. He's not a biologist. I think the persona of Bill Nye The Science Guy as an all-knowing scientist, a generalist who is an expert in everything, that's what the character is basically.
Anna: Like you said, because it's so difficult for him to separate away his persona as The Science Guy from Bill Nye the dude, people still give him the benefit of the doubt of being an expert about everything he opens his mouth about. And that's why he gets to go around everywhere and be an expert at everything, and I guess it's good when he's telling people to vaccinate their kids or that climate change is real, but there is this kind of hyper-concentrated scientific authority that has funneled into the image Bill Nye The Science Guy, which I think is really weird.
Rebecca: And, it's fine that he's not a scientist, it's fine that he's really a comedian who once worked as an engineer for a little while, and it's fine, we have science communication and science journalism as a separate career, exists, and is fine and good, and there's a lot of great people doing that stuff out there, but, I think there is a difference between being a science communicator who sort of imbues yourself with the authority of, "I am a scientist who happens to know every kind of science, ever," and being a science communicator who says, "I'm the one who's going to teach you some stuff about science that I learned from these cool scientists over here." And there is so many good examples of the second version of that in the world, many of them women. That version number one, whether they are working scientists or not, is increasingly exhausting.
Leila: Yeah. And, for the most part, I don't mind Bill Nye. I don't have some sort of hatred towards him. As far as I know, he's never sexually harassed anyone. I don't think there's any accusations floating around about that. He's gone on TV and has argued with anti-abortion people and arguing the science of abortion. He's done good stuff like that, I think, harnessing his Bill Nye image for good.
Rebecca: Right. Right.
Leila: As far as I know, he hasn't been openly racist or something. So, I don't mind him and I think it's just that there is this issue of expertise and continuing to harness an image of a white guy in a lab coat that feels old and tired and not necessary anymore.
Leila: But talking I guess about people who do have sexual harassment charges against them...
Rebecca: Yeah, moving deeper into both problematic dudes and also, the problematic nature of the celebrity scientist, we are going to talk about Cosmos, both a tiny bit about original Cosmos, but mostly, perhaps unfortunately, about the more recent Cosmos reboot.
Rebecca: So, the original Cosmos, which was titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was a beloved documentary series that first aired in 1980. It was written by the scientist Carl Sagan, who I believe, at the time, was already, kind of had celebrity scientist status and if not, it certainly exploded after this. And, it was also written with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter. Sagan himself hosted the series, which, it was 13 parts, and covered a pretty wide variety of topics, everything from the structure of the galaxy to the human brain to nuclear warfare.
Rebecca: And for people who haven't seen it, which I recommend you do, it's like out in the universe, no pun intended, in many digital places. But it has this really dreamy, 70s, early 80s feel to it and it's really imbued with Carl Sagan's particular old scientist hippie mojo, and I feel that the theme of it is that the universe is this amazing place that we should all understand better and also maybe we shouldn't destroy it with nuclear weapons. Because, again, this is made in the late 70s, early 80s, anti-nuclear proliferation and the...oh my god, Society of Concerned Scientists? That's not what it's called. Anyway, a lot of scientists were talking about, including Carl Sagan, were talking about, "Nuclear weapons are going to destroy us all, let's not do that, maybe, please." So, it was imbued with a lot of that.
Anna: And a lot of corduroy and turtlenecks.
Rebecca: Yes. Yes. Yeah, if you've only seen one picture of Carl Sagan, it's him wearing corduroy and turtlenecks and a really weird bowl haircut that is delightful.
Rebecca: So, in 2014, Cosmos was rebooted as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and it was presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who much like Carl Sagan, was, at the time, already a public figure and a celebrity scientist. Interestingly, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter also wrote this version and were heavily involved in its making, which makes the fact that it's rather different in a lot of different ways, kind of interesting.
Rebecca: So, this version presents some of the same topics as Sagan's original, but also dives a little more heavily into the history of science. The original one did some of it, but the new one did that a little bit more. And in fact, the opening episode kicked off a small controversy on Historian Twitter regarding its presentation of 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno.
Rebecca: Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic by the Catholic Church and, so, the show kind of makes Bruno into this rational hero who was killed for believing that the earth went around the sun. He did believe that, but he also believed a whole lot of other stuff that the Catholic Church kind of hates. I was looking things up about him to remind myself, and he believed in reincarnation, among other things. So, obviously shouldn't have gotten burned at the stake. The 16th Century Catholic Church was a hot mess, but they weren't murdering him because he was this scientific radical; they were murdering him because he was pain in their ass. So, this episode drops, and Historian Twitter gets very, very mad about it. And frankly, Historian Twitter got super obnoxious about it.
Rebecca: But, I do want to say that I feel like the fact that the series kicked off with this idea that there is rational science on one hand, that has always been fighting against ignorance, often in the form of religious ignorance, and that rational science is the way forward, kind of imbues this whole series in a way that, especially for me, in retrospect, is just really exhausting.
Leila: Yeah, I think that's right. I think that one of the thing's Anna had said is that, this new atheist flavor to the series, and I think what's bad about that, especially if it's trying to traffic in some history of science is that, a lot of the historical characters that he has on his show were religious people. They believed in God, and he doesn't mention any of that, at all. And, by starting it off in this kind of framework, science vs. religion, kind of elides the fact that a lot of these people that he honors in the show were devoutly religious.
Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.
Anna: Yeah. And I think that that, as a historian of science, that is a big problem and something absolutely worth critiquing. I think, for me, the larger issue with that isn't necessarily a historical accuracy one; it's the way that, to me, it looks like it's pandering to a kind of, like you said, new atheist crowd, which is, you know, on the one hand-
Leila: Terrible and awful?
Leila: And they're all mean?
Anna: Yeah. On the one hand, led by a bunch of ridiculous bigots like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and on the other hand, is kind of tied into these, sort of, internet underbelly, kind of misogynist cultures. Yeah, we don't need to get into a whole taxonomy of bad dudes on the internet, but, you know. I think that, repeatedly framing this history as one of science vs. religion and rationality vs. irrationality plays to that crowd in a way that I think science communicators need to be much more careful about because they're feeding into...you know, like Richard Dawkins, blatant Islamophobia and, you know, things like that. I think that that's a real problem.
Rebecca: So, if the original Cosmos' sort of cental, moral, we have to save the world from X, from ourselves, argument was about nuclear annihilation, this Cosmos, the sort of existential and manmade threat is climate change. And, that makes a lot of sense. That makes both moral sense and scientific sense and storytelling sense, but, I think it makes kind of this framing of, there are irrational stupid people over here and scientists who know the truth over here, more frustrating because there has been a lot of work out there about how that is not the best way to combat climate change. It probably wouldn't have been the best way to combat nuclear annihilation, which is why the original one was not framed that way. And, that is troubling when the stakes feel so high.
Leila: Well, and like you said Rebecca, research shows that that's actually not the best way to talk to people about climate change. And I think Katharine Hayhoe is kind of leading the charge on that because she comes from a religious background, a pretty conservative religious background, and she hasn't thrown off the shackles of her religious upbringing in favor of climate change. She uses them both to try to bridge this gap. And, I think that's a strategy that needs to hold a little bit more water with some of these celebrity scientists that take up a little too much air.
Leila: My main problem, of course, with this series, was its treatment of women and how women got sequestered into one episode, and it was about the women Computers at Harvard. So, people that we all know quite a bit about, I think, at this point, Annie Jump Cannon, and that lot. Cecilia Payne as well. And, I believe in the commercial for that episode, they describe Cecilia Payne as an English beauty.
Anna: Yeah. Oh, I remember that.
Leila: Yeah, so, like a lot of problems with one, sequestering women to one episode instead of integrating them into the larger story that they're telling throughout the series is a big problem, I think. The other problem is with the episode itself. It starts off with a myth about the Pleiades, which is a rape story. The Pleiades were sisters who were fleeing from someone trying to rape them. That's how the episode starts. And, he ends the episode sitting around a campfire, toasting a glass of wine to women in science.
Rebecca: God, I had forgotten about that framing. I remember having lots of complicated feelings about that episode. But I had forgotten that framing. Oh boy. Yeah.
Anna: I think it's something that we talk about probably ad nauseam on the podcast and for the magazine, this idea of, if you're teaching a course, you have a week on women. If you're making a TV show, you have one episode on women. And that that's the bare minimum of meeting the expectation of like, "Well, we have to talk about women or people will get mad, but if we talk about women too much, then other people will get mad." So, our solution is just to cram it all into one week. And, like we said, it further reifies this idea that women are sort of only sparsely available in the history of science and that they only made, you know, very, sort of, isolated, specific, contributions, and they-
Anna: Marginal. And that any contribution by somebody, like your Marie Curies or your Annie Jump Cannon, were the exception to the rule and that they were remarkable outliers. If you make them an outlier in the framing of whatever format you're presenting them in, then they will continue to be perceived that way. It's not really...I don't know. I guess to us, it really doesn't seem like a difficult fix. You just sprinkle a little women in there alongside the men that were there, in chronological order.
Rebecca: Also, in choosing the Harvard Computers and presenting women in science in this particular story, it kind of shows something else that's a serious problem throughout the show, is the kind scientific lone genius. And this goes also with the whole idea of fighting against the ignorant authority. There's some other episodes that a little bit delve into that, but this is the one where it's like, "Science is a collaborate process. Look all these ladies doing science together." Whereas, "Isaac Newton is a lone genius," and "Bruno was a lone genius." It's showing how hard it is, how a lot of people find writing science as collaboration, and the way you kind of have to write science as collaboration, if you're going to talk about women in science all over the place, because of the way that women were not, have not been centered in the world.
Rebecca: Yeah, it goes back to what we talk about a lot which is, how do you define science? And they kind of skirted that question by saying, "Well, we'll have one episode where the science people are doing doesn't really look like the science that we show in other places, and then it's easier to include all these women and then we'll just go back to this other framing of scientific genius."
Anna: I think that is fed by, or feeds into, or just a feedback loop] there, that goes back to the image of the celebrity scientist of Neil deGrasse Tyson, in particular, as this sort of...he is very comfortable portraying himself as this sort of lone figure standing up against a tidal wave of irrationality, and that it's his duty as a scientist to push back on people.
Anna: And, it's one of the things that makes him absolutely one of the worst people on Twitter just because he is insufferable. But there is this idea that he is this lone figure speaking out in support of science and rationality because he's a solitary lone genius scientist. And, I think that his self-image feeds into Cosmos in that way, that kind of, it's a way to index and order all of that information and so things get framed that way.
Anna: And you know, apart from him being just an insufferable pedant on social media, he's also an asshole and a harasser. And so, I think we should think about how much faith we want to put in these lone genius figures when we're relying them, I guess, to be science communicators and to be the voice of reason in an unreasonable world, or something like, who are letting speak for us in that sense.
Rebecca: And, when I watched Cosmos, I thought it was fine. There was things that I liked about it. There were things I didn't like about it. There were things I was inclined to like more about it than maybe it deserved, because, again, Historian Twitter were being obnoxious. And it is one of those things that, in retrospect, as more about the way in which Neil deGrasse Tyson has harassed women, but also just the degree in which he has become more and more publicly obnoxious has increased, I have looked back on Cosmos significantly less favorably.
Rebecca: And I think that is not just because, you know, not being able to separate a product from the person doing it, but because you do see his fingerprints on it and the things that I now go, "Oh God, he's the worst," are reflected throughout the show. It lets you connect the dots between the things I didn't like, where, in some ways you could say, "Oh, well that's just things I didn't like." But now, when you connect it with the person doing the thing, you can kind of go, "Oh no. All the things I didn't like are actually the underlying thread holding this thing together."
Rebecca: It's a structural problem, not just a couple of pieces that were annoying.
Leila: Well, then, you both will be pleased to hear there will be a second season of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Anna: Yeah, they're just going to delay it and wait for everything to blow over, I guess, with his sexual harassment accusations.
Leila: Well, I guess that's a good place to wrap up. Actually, I want to end on a nice note by saying that a new PBS show starring a woman science communicator will be coming soon, with, Emily Graslie? Is that how you say her last name?
Leila: In which she will be doing a tour of fossils in the Dakotas and Nebraska, I think.
Anna: That sounds awesome.
Rebecca: Yeah. And, you should follow Emily Graslie on Twitter and watch her YouTube show "The Brain Scoop" because she's a great example of this science communicator who loves science and knows some stuff about science, but is really there to introduce you to scientists as well as to scientific concepts. So, definitely check her out and also, she is always offering amazing suggestions for other women science communicators that you should follow on the internet in various ways.
Leila: So, we'll end there. Be listening for the bonus episode that we'll have which is a interview that goes more deep into some of the TV shows and historical aspect of science communication on TV. So, if you liked our episode today, please leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcast so that new listeners can find us. If you have questions about any of the segments today, tweet us at @ladyxscience or #ladySciPod.
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Image credit: Cover, The Magic School Bus: Inside The Human Body. Scholastic, 1989 (Internet Archive | Fair Use)