How A Journalist Overestimated the power of One Sitcom in Society.

Recently, I found an article published on Medium describing how the 1990’s sitcom Friends is responsible for the “downfall of western civilization.”

The whole article seemed to be just a little over the top, so I decided to give a thorough reply on this blog page.

In case you have not seen the article I am referring too, follow this link to give it the quick once over.

And if you are like me, you  were alive in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and you probably owned a TV set. While many other shows were popular during the 1990’s, it’s really hard to ignore the show Friends, a comedy sitcom focused around six quirky friends struggling to establish their lives in New York City.

One of the main characters, Ross Geller, is a scientist.  More specifically, he is a paleontologist who begins the show working at a museum, and later ends up as a professor at a prestigious university.

Throughout the whole series, a whopping 10 seasons, Ross is constantly picked on for his profession and is largely ignored by his friends when discussing his work. These exchanges constantly get a laughter from the studio audience.

David Hopkins, the man behind the original article, claims that this visualization of “picking on the smart people” is what caused the downfall of our civilization and likely contributed to the scientific illiteracy we see in today’s society.

“Yes, my theory is that Friends may have triggered the downfall of western civilization. You might think I’m crazy. But to quote Ross: ‘Oh, am I? Am I? Am I out of my mind? Am I losing my senses?” ”

-David Hopkins, “How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization.”

I think that is a gross exaggeration. And let me describe to you why.

 

Friends is not the first and not even the worst:

Maybe intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point — where social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, where politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, where scientific consensus is rejected, where scientific research is underfunded, where journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.”

-David Hopkins, “How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization.”

The largest issue I see with Mr. Hopkins complaint, is that Friends is not the first show to have a scientific/nerdy guy who was picked on during the show. Do we all remember the show Cheers? I admit, it’s a little old for my generation, but I have seen the show in it’s entirety and this show has two main characters similar to Ross that are ostracized for their intelligence. Anybody remember Diane Chambers, who was constantly picked on the gang at Cheers for her fascination with classical books, plays, and overall interest in learning? Or perhaps Fraiser Crane, the psychologist who was a bore for basically the first two seasons of the show until he became a regular who drank more than he treated patients (and let’s not forget his wife Lillith).

Now sure, Fraiser ended up receiving his own show, but even on his own show him and his brother Niles are picked on constantly for their intelligence and love of the finer things. And let’s not forget the dozens of other shows that constantly bully geeks, nerds, and dorks on mainstream television. Steve Urkel on Family Matters? Lisa Simpson or Milhouse Van Houten on The Simpsons? Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? All of these characters came before Ross was a twinkle in the producer’s eye that invented the character. If anything, the character Ross added to the description of nerds in mainstream media, and was likely developed to be similar to other nerds on other TV shows.

Ross was not alone in his suffering:

 Sure Ross was picked on. Quite a bit actually. But he was not the only main character in the hot seat. Basically every single character was picked on religiously throughout the show. Joey Tribbiani, the lovable aspiring actor, was constantly bullied for his stupidity and by the end of the series was even written to be almost to stupid to be real. Monica was continuously made fun of her obsessive cleaning and organized personality. Chandler, the sarcastic one, was picked on not only for having a job no one could remember, and everyone thought he was secretly gay. The fact of the matter is, at the end of the day every character, even the small characters like Gunther, were picked on for their personality an equal amount. And at the end of the day, it was the diversity of the group that made the group fit so well together. If we want to specifically say Ross’s character contributed to scientific illiteracy or high point in bullying nerds, I think we would learn more evaluating the community as a whole.

2004, a year with coincidences:

Sure it does seem like the end of Friend’s marked the beginning of scientific devastation in our civilization, but it’s really all a coincidence. It’s not good science to automatically correlate events happening within a year together. In 2004, Mr. Hopkins was a teacher who constantly saw bullying of nerds, President Bush was elected for a second term, Paris Hilton was a big deal, etc…..

But what does this really show us? It’s easy to look at any information from one year and make some random conclusion.

For example: I randomly choose the year 1998.

Google was born. Bill Clinton denies he had sexual relations with that woman, and a huge financial crisis hits a large portion of Asia.

Conclusions? Bill Clinton’s lies caused Google to form to prove him wrong, and this causes a financial crisis in Asia.

Now I know this is ridiculous, And I spent about 30 seconds writing that to be as ridiculous as possible, because there is no good reason to look at any year and try to piece information together. Correlation does not always correspond to causation. 

If you look at any year in particular, you can probably fit any narrative you wish to defend your claim, and that is not the purpose of good science. Scientists spend time objectively spending time looking for trends, and then try to find an explanation for them. More importantly they look for other explanations to explain the phenomenon besides their own theories.

 

And finally to sum up my main issue with this whole idea, why should we put all the blame on TV shows? Sure we all watch TV and that has an impact on our lives, but WE are the ones choosing what to watch. If there is anyone to blame, it is ourselves for watching American Idol or The Bachelor over The Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Rather than putting actors and musicians on the pedestal, we should put scientists and inventors in the public eye. We should inherently be more interested in news items that expand our knowledge rather than the celebrity gossip. And this has been a problem looooong before 2004. Just as we shouldn’t blame video games on increasing school shootings, we shouldn’t blame TV for stupefying civilization, we should blame ourselves.

So Mr. Hopkins, I think we are trying to say the same thing. But this issue is much larger than one sitcom. It’s the society in general.

And here are the suggestions I have to improve our society.

Think Critically: 

Stop believing everything people tell you. Question as much as you possibly can. Even your professors or teachers, because more than likely they are wrong about something (not always on purpose).

Don’t Enter an Echo Chamber: 

It is extremely easy on the internet to find sources that on the surface appear legit, but below end up being complete garbage. If you are looking to prove something you believe in, don’t just look for sites that confirm your suspicion. Spend just as much time looking at the other side of the argument and hear what they have to say. If you spend your whole life only reading articles that support your belief system, you are entering into an echo chamber that can in the long run harm the knowledge you have developed.

Be Willing to Change your Opinion:

People are wrong all the time, myself especially. And this is extremely hard to get used to, but stop being bothered by being wrong. It happens. Rather than digging yourself into a faulty belief, say “Oh yeah, I am wrong, I need to change my opinion.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Dear God Yes Read a Book: 

Mr. Hopkins said it well. Reading a book rather than watching TV is a great way to expand your knowledge, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Read books that question your deepest belief system. You cannot limit your books to your safety zone, it is much more harmful than it is helpful.

Have a Scout Mindset: 

I think it’s safe to say that all of us are curious. But some of us inherently are more curious or more interested in feeding our curiosity than others. So the next time you wonder why the sky is blue, don’t just think about it for 30 seconds, look it up. If you can’t find an answer that makes sense, keep digging until it does make sense. You will learn so much. Basically look for THE answer, not YOUR answer.

P.S. If you do not know what a scout mindset is, check out this wonderful Ted Talk.

So the next time you binge watch Friends on Netflix, don’t feel so bad for Ross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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