How Doctor Who Changes Fans' View Of Science

Doctor Who cosplayers at the Sci Fi London Parade. For some the Doctor is a role model who has reshaped their view of science. ChrisHarvey/Shutterstock

Scientists and educators worry feverishly about how to promote science to a wider audience in the face of misinformation and hostility, but may be discounting science fiction’s contribution, a paper in the Journal of Science Communication suggests.

Dr Lindy Orthia of the Australian National University surveyed 575 fans of Doctor Who, the world’s longest-running science fiction TV series, about how it affected their perceptions of science. Orthia acknowledged to IFLScience her sample was not necessarily representative of the fanbase as a whole, but it did reveal that Doctor Who has been quite influential for many fans. For some, it inspired a desire to become scientists themselves, altering their choice of subjects at school and university, while for others it led to greater respect and enthusiasm for science.

The relationship between science communicators and science fiction has not always been amicable. Along with portrayals of mad scientists stretching back to Frankenstein, science fiction often doesn’t feel bound by what we know. Might images of spaceships banking in a vacuum, or human-alien hybrids lodge in viewers' brains as truth?

Such concerns, however, come from a perspective of science as a collection of knowledge, a set of proven facts. However, science is at least as much a process, a method of investigation, and a curious attitude to the universe. Doctor Who celebrates these things, and Orthia thinks they are what sticks, rather than an expectation sonic screwdrivers will soon be available at the hardware store.

Indeed, Orthia told IFLScience: “Often the responses were that watching promoted people to check facts and look things up.” Most examples involved checking the historical accuracy of episodes in which the time-traveling Doctor found him (or more recently her)self in a by-gone Earth era; it seems the series is encouraging people to research and validate. If so, a more scientifically literate population may result.

Where people do come to believe scientific fallacies from fiction, Orthia thinks it’s usually on topics that don’t matter greatly to people’s lives at the time. She uses the example of those who watched the Jurassic Park series doubting dinosaurs have feathers – wrong, but likely to be quickly corrected should they embark on a career in palaeontology. “All of us have learned some things that are wrong,” she said, “but people reflect critically when it matters.”

This doesn’t mean watching Doctor Who, or other science fiction series, is necessarily entirely positive. Orthia said some of her sample described being influenced to see science as civilizing, which she said is “closely tied to racist discourse”, with some of the earlier seasons presenting non-technological peoples as savages. Yet overall the dominant effect seemed to be to cause viewers to “think about ethical questions, persist in the face of difficulties, and value curiosity.”

Orthia said there does not appear to be any equivalent research on other science fiction franchises, even the heavily studied Trekkies. Where people have attempted to measure the influence of film it has usually been “artificial in nature”, arranging screenings and quizzing viewers immediately afterward.

Orthia’s sample group was collected through a post on a popular science website, but Orthia tried to be as vague as possible on the purpose of the survey to avoid skewing it further. Participants included some who had watched the series from the beginning while others came in recently, with a large bump among those who started at the reboot. While the older fans tended to be male and white, overall 59 percent of respondents were women, and those who had started more recently were more ethnically diverse.

Comments

If you liked this story, you'll love these

This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to use our website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.