Thursday, October 10, 2013

Big Bang Theory and Conservative Christians

Sheldon: You know, in difficult times like this, I often turn to a force stronger than myself.
Amy: Religion?
Sheldon: Star Trek.
Maybe you heard the news this week. Sheldon Cooper – yet again – did not win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Cooper is, of course, fictional. But if you turn on a TV you’ll see him a lot more often than those two European guys who won.

It’s tough to avoid The Big Bang Theory

The program centers around two California roommates, both physics professors, as well as two equally geeky friends and a neighbor, Penny who, as Wikipedia puts it, “is contrasted for comic effect” from the nerdy guys thanks to “social skills and common sense.”  Several other semi-regulars come and go (the mothers are my favorite).

The show, like NCIS, is almost impossible to avoid thanks to syndication.
Science and nerdom lie at the heart of the program. The writers go out of their way to not only get the science right, but to make it funny. The best known character, Cooper, lacks any social skills and was raised in a religiously conservative Texas family. As such, the humor often pokes fun at religion. As in:
(Talking about about his religiously conservative mother's upcoming Christian cruise)
Sheldon: Frankly, Mom, I'm encouraged to see how advanced your group has become -- willing to sail into the ocean without fear of falling off the edge.
Given the very title of the program identifies a scientific theory many conservative Christians find unnerving, not unlike evolution or, say, electricity, you’d expect the program to be unpopular with them. Look hard enough online and you’ll find plenty of religious-based criticism, but when it comes to watching, conservative Christians are certainly less likely to do so than others.

And yet they don’t shun it entirely.

Take, for example, people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. That’s as conservative and fundamentalist as it gets and among these folks, according to my analysis of recent survey data, 18 percent say they watch. That’s nearly 1-in-5 from the word-of-God set.  As you’d expect, among those who say the Bible is from God but not to be understood literally the viewership is even higher (28 percent). Among the godless heathens who think the Bible is merely a book, it’s 32 percent.
How’s this for a promo – 1-in-3 of the everlasting damned watch our TV show! You should too!

For you stats nerds out there, the relationship is statistically significant at X2 = 77.0, p<.001. Don’t worry if you don’t follow the statistical mumbo-jumbo, Sheldon Cooper would, though he’d sneer at the social science.

The Big Bang Theory appeals not just to science geeks. We know this because (1) it is very popular and (2) this is America, and just look at our lousy test scores.

You’d hope some of the program’s love of science would rub off on its audience. For example, in the same data there’s a question asking people whether the U.S. government (you know, that shutdown thing) should rely on scientific methods in crafting policy. Most reasonable people who are not named U.S. Rep. Paul Broun would say yes, of course it should. Still, 4 percent of all people say “never” (I’d love to meet those folks) and another 34 percent say only “some of the time.” If The Big Bang Theory is so popular and the power of TV so pervasive, shouldn’t watching it nudge people toward the evils of science?

Turns out, not so much.

My cranking of the data found no real difference in people who watch it and people who don’t, at least when it comes to supporting a scientific approach to policy. Plus, among our friends who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, watching the show makes no difference in their beliefs about science and policy.

You can take that last finding as good news or bad news. It’s bad in that you’d hope anything might help them see the role science plays in government policy, but it’s good in that people believe what they choose to believe and a single entertaining TV program isn’t going to really change their minds.

So whatever your beliefs just sit back, watch it, and laugh. It’s okay. And maybe next year, Cooper will win that Nobel.

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