Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek. Doctor Who. Television is good at science fiction. It's not so good at science fact. Some of the most popular shows today, like House and CSI, sacrifice accuracy to entertainment. While that might make fans happy, it makes scientists cringe.
Canadian series ReGenesis, entering its fourth season this year, tries to give both science and entertainment equal weight. Peter Outerbridge stars as David Sandström, who leads a team at the fictional North American Biotechnology Advisory Commission, exploring social, political, and ethical issues related to science.
Dr. Aled Edwards is a scientific consultant for the show, and it's his mandate to keep the show's writers from taking storytelling shortcuts that lead to those instant lab results on House or absolute certainty on CSI. "ReGenesis is the most accurate scientific drama out there, no holds barred, for sure," he claimed in a recent interview.
He finds it difficult to watch those other popular programs, but isn't offended by their use and misuse of science either. "It's almost like watching a cartoon, where Batman or Superman or House is the same. When I watch Superman, I don't get upset: 'Hey, men can't fly!'" he laughed. "When I watch those shows, I turn off my scientific brain. I say I'm watching mindless entertainment here. Because if I put on my scientific brain, I'd get upset. So I just watch it and think this is not science, this is not medicine, this is television."
While he's proud of ReGenesis's devotion to basing its fictional stories on fact, he doesn't lay claim to documentary-like accuracy either. "None of these scientific programs are ultimately the truth because we have boring jobs. I sit on my ass all day in front of the computer. The action takes place in the head and you don't see anything. There's no shooting. But it's fun for people to start to realize what we do."
Besides his position on the faculty of the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto, Edwards is a structural biologist who heads the Structural Genomics Consortium. That non-profit organization has a mission to place human protein information in the public domain with no patents, allowing it to be freely used by other scientists. His involvement with ReGenesis stems from that work.
"I spend a bit of my time doing public outreach, because to understand the complexities of whether information should be kept proprietary or free, or the value of the information, or why Canadian taxpayers pay me to do it, people need to at least be familiar with the words," he said. "But you don't normally talk to the majority of Canadians because they just tune out when they hear the word 'science.' So I figured I'd bait and switch. Get them watching TV and before they knew it, they might even learn something. That's why I did it. So I helped the guys do their stories on the precondition that they stick to as much reality as possible. "
Part of his outreach efforts led to a couple of recent public forums, one in Vancouver and one in Hamilton, called "Revealing ReGenesis: Explore TV’s Experiment with Gene Science Fact and Fiction."
Using clips from the series as conversation starters, the forums generated conversation among audience members and scientists sprinkled at tables throughout the room, as well as a panel discussion. Moderated by Jay Ingram, host of Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, the Vancouver panel was comprised of Edwards, fellow geneticist Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, ethicist Dr. Shane Green, and ReGenesis lead actor Peter Outerbridge.
"We used the draw of television and personalities to bring people there and then talk science and they realize man, that's kind of fun," explained Edwards. "That's why we were trying to link the art and the science together, because they're both about creativity and they're both about using your brain."
Daily Planet's Ingram is skeptical that television can teach science to the masses, pointing to his own experience as host of a popular science show. He said he's approached by people who love his show, but blank when asked what their favourite episode was. "People aren't learning facts," he asserted, "but it's creating an atmosphere of respect for science. ReGenesis is adding emotion to science, and that's what people remember."
Edwards concurs that TV on its own is not likely to inspire profound thought about the issues involved, which is why the peripheral activities, like the award-winning extended reality game, Ontario Genomics Institute fact sheets and video podcasts, community talks, and these forums are so important.
"I'm hoping that in a discussion format like we had that evening, people will remember stuff now because they've actually thought about it, and chatted about it, and heard other people's opinions. That is a much better way to learn than listening to a fact or watching it mindlessly on the TV," he said. "But you know, it's only a certain type of person who's going to come and listen to a scientist come and talk in the evening."
I am that certain type of nerd, having attended the Vancouver session. Spirited conversation ranged from the ethics of using genetic testing to predict behaviour to the wisdom of setting genetic information free. One clip from the show involved a teen on trial for drug charges whose DNA reveals a tendency to addiction. Another involved terrorists replicating the smallpox virus, using genetic information available to anyone with an Internet connection.
"I can't watch ReGenesis and not think of all the things that are a little wrong," UBC professor Simpson said at the forum. "And I forgive it all, because it's communicating to a group of people, getting them interested in science, psyched about science."
Though she pointed out some inexact science in the scenarios that served to simplify complex ideas, Edwards and Outerbridge insisted that ReGenesis largely focuses on what is possible or what will be possible soon. Ingram reminded the crowd that with science in constant flux, what was fiction only a couple of years ago is now fact.
"I can promise you, you're going to have your DNA sequenced before you're dead," Edwards told me. "Just think about that. There's your genetic code, and people can look at it and make predictions about you."
That was the topic of much discussion at the forum. Should tests be available when there are no known prevention or treatment options? Who should get access to the results of genetic tests? Employers? Insurers? How predictive are genes of behaviour, anyway? Simpson points out that IQ tests, for example, are not accurate predictors of future success, and genetic tests are equally bad predictors. As Greene of the Ontario Genomics Institute put it: "We're not just genes."
Those were some heady topics, but in our interview Edwards talks passionately about what he sees as "the biggest failure to communicate in the history of mankind": global warming. He uses that example to illustrate why it's crucial to get scientists and community members speaking the same language, and how a show like ReGenesis can help with that goal, "getting the public familiar with science, familiar with the scientific method, familiar with uncertainty."
"We'd known about (global warming), but we were ineffective communicators as a scientific community, or the media didn't have the appropriately receptive ears. They didn't understand. They couldn't interpret uncertainty. They thought uncertainty, therefore nobody agrees," he said, frustration evident in his voice. "It wasn't uncertain that it was happening. Sure, it was uncertain the extent to which it was happening, the degree of some of the downstream effects – is the earth going to rise by a degree or a degree and a half, is the ice going to melt in 2030 or 2080? That's uncertain. But the fact that it was happening was not uncertain, or that man was doing it."
He expressed exasperation that it took Al Gore to finally get the message across. "We really did a shitty job of communicating, and part of that is educating ourselves as a scientific community in how to communicate, part of it is educating the media on how to listen to scientists."
It's a lofty goal, and he understand that ReGenesis is not the complete answer. But he hopes by making the fictional characters use the same "uncertain" phrases as real-life scientists, like "the data suggests," or "my hypothesis is" instead of "I know," viewers will start to understand the language of science.
"They always get it right on TV," he continued, contrasting TV fiction to real life, where "the policemen come and give their testimony and there's a little bit of uncertainty and 'whoa, why can't you get it right?'"
Actor Outerbridge thinks accuracy is not just a positive choice for science, but for drama. "Reality gives credibility to your story and your characters," he said at the forum. He believes the ReGenesis writers are forced to think about drama differently, to search for what's interesting in the four hours or four days before test results come in, resulting in a more satisfying story.
"A lot of television writing is formulaic, and it's so easy to fall back into the trite stories that you know people will watch, you know people will like," Edwards said in our interview. "This is a much greater challenge, but it's a much nobler challenge."