The framing of scientists

The other night I caught the second half of a documentary about science shows on the TV. It covered a bit of Sci-Fi and drama but mostly the actual science and technology shows and how they were presented, what they covered, how they were made and styled and so on. It was quite light and breezy but did include some classic clips and was a decent summary of the cultural attitude towards science and how it featured on television.

One feature was the use of quite a few talking heads of various researchers who are also well known as TV presenters or similar. One thing absolutely struck me however, so much so that I actually grabbed my camera and took some photos of it (so they are mostly not very good). And here they are. Let’s see if you can spot the ludicriously obvious and annoying trend.

Yes. If you are not sitting next to a series of flasks full of coloured liquids then you are obviously not a scientist. Most of them also have a human skeleton in the background too. This is madness. I’ve ranted before about the ‘labcoat = scientist’ thing in the media (and ironically this show mad a joke about that, despite doing this!). Even if you are a Nobel Laureate, have a Knighthood or Professorship, people clearly won’t buy your credibility as a ‘scientist’ without some coloured liquids.

Some of these are especially egregious – Colin Blakemore and Ian Stewart are in front of storage cupboards which are obviously full of just glassware, but then a few of them have coloured liquids too. Michael Moesley nearly gets way with just a fume cupboard, but then there are some lurking in the background. David Attenborough get’s off OK and so too does Jim Al-Khalili with just a couple of molecules. But then the top one actually had liquids smoking with dry ice! Come ON! and Liz Bonnin has a plasma globe. As a collection, this is pretty rank.

Now look, I know you want a bit of background colour for your shots to make them a bit more interesting. That’s fine. Stick the guy in front of a nice machine, or some books, or a skeleton or whatever. But several of these are obviously shot in labs, and yet are obviously not nearly science-y enough so you have to add coloured sodding liquids and plasma balls. I’m surprised they didn’t have a Van Der Graff generator in there or a shambling hunchbacked servant called Igor in the corner. If you are going to have the temerity to do this *while* having a go at older shows for patronising scientists by dressing them up then this simply stinks and makes you look stupid.

Oh yes, and most obviously gives an insanely cheap and obvious popular stereotype of science which massively inaccurate. For a show exploring just such issues, that’s not just a shame, it’s all but an insult.

33 Responses to “The framing of scientists”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 23/05/2011 at 9:05 am

    I also enjoy the implication that chemistry is the only science.

  2. 2 Josephine 23/05/2011 at 9:49 am

    At least they’re not wearing lab coats! C: So that’s one step in the right direction. In the 1900’s you weren’t a scientist without a lab coat, so maybe it will be another hundred years before you can be a scientist without coloured liquids as well! Ah, the future is bright!

    Though, it does make one wonder what the -rationale- is. I have been to plenty of labs, but *none* have had even the trace of a coloured liquid. If they have liquids, they’re colourless.

    But I suppose it all traces back to portraying the scientist as a person separate from the mortal world; that they are people on a mission, symbolised by lab coats, microscopes — and coloured liquids. To anyone who is not a scientist, it looks ethereal, unattainable, inspiring.

    …but it does of course come with the price of making people who are familiar with science raise an eyebrow and go: “WTF?”

  3. 3 Mark Wildman 23/05/2011 at 11:17 am

    Dave – I’m sorry but you just made me laugh out loud! Perhaps all these scientists are actually victims of product placement by a test tube manufacturer. I would have loved to see Igor shuffling about…

  4. 4 Kilian Hekhuis 23/05/2011 at 11:52 am

    That’s indeed hilarious, although there are clearly less different locations than scientists: Robert Winston, Maggie Philbin, the first guy and the last guy are clearly in the same lab (though some attributes seem to have been shuffled between interviews), and so are Richard Edwards and the old guy (that you have twice, for some reason), and Ian Stewart and Colin Blakemore.

    As for “most” having a skeleton in the background, I can spot one behind Colin Blakemore, there’s one in the Robert Winston et. al. lab (pictured behind him and the last guy) and one behind Sir David. So I wouldn’t say “most”.

    The plasma globe is imho the worst prop, as it has little to do with actually doing science, but hey, plasma globes rule! We should definitely have more plasma globes on tv! 🙂

    • 5 David Hone 23/05/2011 at 12:15 pm

      Ok not ‘most’ for the skeleton. But it is in 3 and it was up in a couple of others but not visible in shot when I took the pictures. Still, even 3 is pushing it really.

      And edited out the duplicate. I had problems with the first photos and ended up doing them in a big batch and trying to take out duplicates. Missed one.

  5. 6 Nico 23/05/2011 at 3:34 pm

    All those liquids, all those flasks, and not a single pipette in sight…

  6. 8 Mark Robinson 23/05/2011 at 3:38 pm

    Completely agree. Totally outrageous. While it’s proper that Dr Mosley isn’t partially obscured by a swathe of glassware since he’s not an actual scientist, why doesn’t Prof. Al-Khalili have at least a Jacob’s ladder high-voltage spark gap thing – he is a physicist after all?

    I think it’s the same thinking behind the adverts for hair restoration or magic cream or whatever – put a bright white lab coat and black-frame glasses on the spruiker and have a couple of people pouring liquids between flasks or maybe holding up some litmus paper in the background. That way, when they tell you that their product will make your hair 5 times more splendiferous or that there are exactly seven signs of aging, you can be assured that it’s all very properly scientific.

    Touching on Mike’s comment about chemistry seemingly being pre-eminent, I wonder if that’s because, for a lot of people, the most sciencey experience that they would identify with/remember would be doing chemistry in high school?

    Anyway, good post! Made me laugh.

  7. 9 Rob Jelf 23/05/2011 at 4:57 pm

    I think Mark Wildman might be on to something. The same Pyrex (sometimes prominently featured name) Erlenmeyer Flask in most of those shots. If we call props, which they obviously are, why is that particular flask so prominent and the Pyrex brand on it often facing the camera? I wonder if Pyrex was an underwriter for this show…

  8. 10 Elaine Zeman 23/05/2011 at 5:11 pm

    So where, I ask you, is the infamous “looking down the barrel of a microscope” shot?

    Or, for that matter, the “staring at a Petri dish held up to the light”?

    • 11 David Hone 23/05/2011 at 5:24 pm

      Well these are talking heads so they probably get away with it. Doubtless if this was a science show rather than a show about science shows we would have seen these too.

    • 12 stefafra 07/11/2012 at 4:09 pm

      not to mention the infamous “staring at petri dish using microscope”, a normal microscope, non a binocular or something like that….usually followed by shot of microbes on slide, sometimes stained: “look, lethal E. coli! It was growing around your sink”.
      Then you get students trying to do that in real life, and have to clean the microscope forever….

  9. 13 Fraz Ismat 23/05/2011 at 6:05 pm

    We used to set up flasks of brightly colored liquids when potential donors or other VIPs came through the lab.

    Of course, we studies developmental biology…

  10. 14 Marc Vincent 23/05/2011 at 6:32 pm

    Isn’t Robert Winston a Lord these days? Why was Attenborough given his title, and not Robert Winston? As a pedant, I am considerably niggled. Yes.

    Oh yes, and the flasks of coloured liquids are daft of course. Apart from the false characterisation of scientists/science, it’s just so damn PREDICTABLE and lazy.

  11. 16 mattvr 24/05/2011 at 12:15 am

    This may be the way they portray scientist in the US and UK, but in Australia you’re not a scientist unless you’re wrestling a crocodile while being interviewed.*

    *May be a slight exaggeration.

  12. 17 zinjanthropus 24/05/2011 at 2:13 am

    Funny, I thought it was that 13/15 of them were men… and the two that were women lacked a title like “Prof.” or “Dr.”

    • 18 David Hone 24/05/2011 at 8:00 am

      I hadn’t thought of that. Though in general there is a big male bias in science so it’s perhpas no surprise that this carries through into things based on science. A couple of the men are also untitled (the guy fro SFX and Johnny Ball).

      • 19 zinjanthropus 25/05/2011 at 1:14 pm

        There’s a slight male bias in “science” taken as a whole… certainly not 87%! In biology, it’s pretty 50/50, and in science taken as a whole it’s about 60/40.

      • 20 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 1:28 pm

        How’s that being measured though? For students and postdocs I can understand that, but I have yet to work in a department (biology / geology / palaeo) that was even 60:40. And engineering is notoriously light on women. And I’d say that 60:40 is quite a big bias already (though obviously not 12/14 (there was a duplicate image in there).

      • 21 zinjanthropus 25/05/2011 at 1:40 pm

        Statistics for the US from here:

        My major point is that there is a bigger problem with the way scientists are being presented than the presence of pretty liquids in the background. A good way to begin to correct the male bias in science would be to show women who do science, doing science.

      • 22 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 1:56 pm

        Well I’m certainly not disagreeing that it’s a problem. But I would say that in the context of this post, it’s not the issue. These are people commenting, so there’s no need to show them ‘doing science’.

        The portrayal of people in front of coloured glass is an absolute and concious decision of the producer / director on the show. Quite who may have been available or otherwise for a talking head segment may not have been. And since there were a number of older people talking about science from back in the 50s and 60s (when women were far less represented in sciences) it’s perhaps more inevitable that there is a bias there. In other words, this collection *here* could be biased becuase of previous biases (like women on TV), not current ones and could be chance or unintentional. But the framing of the issue is absolutely current and deliberate.

        While we do need more women in science (and yes, more minorities too, that’s another big issue – there’s only three there) I think the portrayal of those scientists is key. Simply making us as a collective appear to be cheap caricatures with bubbling flasks is no way to encourage anyone into the field or have people take us seriously. That is not a good thing either.

  13. 23 Jamie Revell 24/05/2011 at 9:32 pm

    As a histologist, I actually *do* have a lot of bottles of coloured liquid in my laboratory – and microscopes, too. Makes me wonder if my discipline was simply invented to look on TV, rather than for its purported purpose…

  14. 24 Craig Williams 25/05/2011 at 2:09 am

    I thought it might have been that most of them are in shady, darkened rooms away from attention.

  15. 25 Pingly Pingston 01/06/2011 at 6:22 pm

    You forgot “The Machine That Goes *PING!*”

  16. 26 Ilja Nieuwland 02/06/2011 at 5:47 pm

    I think there’s not more than two spaces involved here, to be honest: one with Richard Edwards and the older gentleman, and another one with all the others – the props being cunningly rearranged.

    What I found just as typical, however was the use of ‘CSI’-lighting. It’s not that you need a lab coat and coloured liquids to be a scientist, you obviously also need to have strange lateral lighting, preferably just enough to make out your contours.

    • 27 David Hone 02/06/2011 at 5:52 pm

      There must be more than two, Attenborough’s lab has rather more skeletons that the others, and Al-Kalhali’s lab has wooden benches, and Bonnin has books behind her. So there must be at least 5, and probably a couple more (like the fume cupboard one) given some of the arrangement of things. As much as anything, crews don’t like moving whole set-ups around as it takes hours to set up. Even if there were only two, they still chose this for their set-up for every person.

  17. 28 Ilja Nieuwland 02/06/2011 at 6:23 pm

    Probably, yes. But that still beats having to move stuff around, and if you look at individual elements (the large glass cupboard, type of handles, etc.) I still think they used mostly the same room. Mosley’s fume cupboard might be just down another wall.
    What would really be interesting is to see whether this setup was used for any other science-related productions. Clearly, for these producers, branches of science are largely interchangeable.

    Scientists ‘doing science’ aren’t necessarily much better, though. I still have painful memories of the paleontologist in Jurassic Park just needing to ‘dust off’ a fossil.

  18. 29 Mika 02/06/2011 at 10:59 pm

    If only I’d known the trick to looking like a scientist sooner!

    I had to submit a photo for a fluffy-science article. I sent a normal headshot, and it was rejected for not looking “sciencey” enough. Next, I submitted a photo from the field, complete with neon orange carrier vest, field hat, geologist’s hammer, and lots of mud. It was rejected. So I submitted a photo from a department party of working with a small telescope while wearing a ballgown and full-length gloves. It was rejected, and they printed the article without a photo.

    Clearly next time, I’ll have to submit a photo posed with glasswear and coloured fluids. What exactly this has to do with geophysics or astrophysics I haven’t the foggiest, but if that’s what it takes to look credible… 😉

  19. 31 Robert Sloan 03/06/2011 at 11:36 pm

    It’s obvious, the study of paleontology demands many different flavors of Jell-O. Good point about the window dressing. I’ve been scratching my head over that for years, since chemistry labs don’t even usually have six flavors of Kool-Aid in assorted glassware. It’s much more like the Igor stuff.

  20. 32 threeoutside 04/06/2011 at 12:25 am

    He was looking for Kool-Aid(R) in flasks, is all.

    I’m glad someone mentioned pipettes because I have a years-long game going with myself: every. single. time. there’s a medical research piece on TV news, they show someone pipetting. I used to work in medical research labs, and yes, we used a lot of pipettes. But not *all* labs use pipettes, nor do all procedures require the use of them. Along with the white lab coat, you have to have a minion in the background pipetting (preferably colored water) or you just don’t cut it as a scientist.


  1. 1 Blog Carnival #32: Scientist Stereotypes, Sauropod Necks, Must-Know Dinosaur Facts and More | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 02/06/2011 at 3:52 pm
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