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Uno Dos of Trace: Is "The Scully Effect" Real?

8 minutes

One of my favorite shows growing up was The X-Files, and this is the 25th anniversary week of The X-Files first airing in 1993. [WHISTLING THE X FILES THEME SONG] But I never identified with Fox Mulder. He was annoying, I didn't like him. You know who I did like? Dr. Dana Scully. Medical doctor with an undergrad in physics turned paranormal investigator detective for the FBI turned inspirational figure for women joining STEM fields. A la the Scully Effect, which is just the best, but is it real?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Hey, nerd fam. Happy X-Files a'versary. 25 years ago in 1993, X-Files first aired on Fox, and allegedly changed the country by creating-- [WHISTLING THE X FILES THEME SONG]

[COUGHS]

--the Scully Effect. Maybe you've seen this going around the internet thanks to all the X-Philes around the net. Dana Scully has quote measurably and quote perceptibly increased the number of women in science fields. So in this segment, Is This Real, I dig into these things that we just accept, and I hope to find some science. What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. Professors, doctors, stem practitioners, and Queen Gillian Anderson herself have all agreed that this character changed lives. But the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media did a survey to back up these anecdotal experiences with a five-day-long online opt-in survey of 2,000 people. They actually oversampled women in STEM to get better results. It's not a bad thing, by the way. It's like getting higher resolution. They wanted more data about that, and then they weighted the results to make them representative again. The GDIGM found that quote women who regularly watched X-Files were more likely to express interests in STEM, major in STEM, or work in STEM. And then people who watched more X-Files were more likely to also have worked in STEM. Over 50% said that Scully increased their interest in STEM, and nearly 2/3, or 63% of women, said that they work in STEM today and Dana Scully was their role model. The answers are there, you just have to know where to look. So the Scully Effect is real. Yeah! Yeah! It's real! Scully for president! Literally, anyone else for president. Except that that's not the whole story, right? Because perhaps, the online respondents who were likely to watch a brooding crime drama with a strong female lead that had a science fiction series with a lot of darkness in 1993 to 2002 were already into STEM. Yeah, a classic correlation versus causation argument here, obvi. But we should absolutely give the Scully Effect a win. There's a statistical significance in this survey. However, it's part of a larger whole. So c'mon, let's dig a bit further, shall we? In the '80s and earlier, the media was-- different.

(SINGING) Denver, the last dinosaur. In 1981, the Department of Commerce explored how science was portrayed, and wrote quote, "Although science is a frequent theme of television drama, the scientist is a relatively rare and specialized dramatic character." Another bit of evidence of the broad-reaching Scully Effect, if a gut punch, is that "women scientists as dramatic characters were also overrepresented on television compared to their tiny actual percentage in the country." However, when there is science, it often goes hand-in-hand with violence. And in the '80s, scientists were more dangerous and quote headed for ultimate failure often. But that changes as we move into the '90s. A 2014 paper by one of my former professors at American University looked at onscreen scientists, and they found that they fit into four different archetypes-- the mad scientist or villain, the powerless pawn, the anti-social geek, and the much more common today, science hero. Put another way, before the '90s, most scientists were evil, powerless, or anti-social outcasts. But during and after the '90s, scientists are more often nerds and heroes, and that is throughout the entirety of the US media. And that is a massive shift. Disappointingly, though, this paper does almost exclusively use men as examples of scientists in media, and also, most characters mentioned are light skinned or are white. I'm going to count Spock as white, yeah. Do you have theory? I have plenty of theories. STEM, in general, was portraying better than it had in the past. Scully was a symptom of that bettering and probably one of the most visible, in that 20 million Americans watched at the peak in 1997. The top shows on television in '93, when X-Files premiered, were Roseanne--

[LAUGHING]

Home Improvement--

[MIMICS GRUNT]

[GRUNTING]

And Seinfeld. Quone?

[VOCALIZING SEINFELD THEME SONG]

In fact, even from 2000 to 2008, only 1% of all TV characters were scientists. So intelligent, strong female characters-- pretty thin on the ground. And the human brain is really bad at telling the difference between what we see on TV and what exists IRL. I'm not even going to dig into the number of papers that confirm how media affects us, because it does. And if you think it doesn't, you are wrong. Scully was a huge win for women in STEM and for STEM in general, and arguably one of the most visible STEM heroes on TV to that date. So to digest it even more, let's set the Scully Effect aside for a second and look at the CSI Effect.

[MUSIC - THE WHO, "WHO ARE YOU"]

Yeah! I don't know if that joke worked. Crime TV is super popular. Lawyers, judges, prosecutors, all of these people were worried about the CSI Effect, as they were calling it. The crime show, CSI--

[MUSIC - THE WHO, "WHO ARE YOU"]

Yeah! --they thought, was affecting jurors, making them expect more science in the courtroom. So criminologists in Michigan interviewed over 1,000 randomly selected jurors over three months in 2006. And did they find the CSI Effect?

[MUSIC - THE WHO, "WHO ARE YOU"]

Yeah! Oh. Actually, I can see how that could be confusing in this situation, because they didn't find it. They found it would be--

[MUSIC - THE WHO, "WHO ARE YOU"]

--negligible.

[CHUCKLING]

They found the effect to be negligible. The important thing is that people thought it was there, and it helps with the Scully Effect, too. Why? Because CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, they all have female heroes who rely on STEM for the successful resolution of their stories. So even if the science was fake, they were still showing STEM in a great light. And I also do want to point out, I can't just-- I can't not point it out that in 1996, Dr. Samantha Carter shows up. She shows up in Stargate SG-1. She's super awesome, quantum mechanics specialist, pilot, US Air Force major, and a great leader, and a force for women on Earth and other planets. Oh, here we go. Another scientist. General, please. Theoretical astrophysicist. Oh, she's an amazing role model. I love her. So in the end, the Scully Effect is statistically significant, according to the Gina Davis Institute. Even if it is correlation and not causation, it is part of this larger pattern, right? STEM in the '90s was popular and positive, and everyone who was anyone was using STEM to solve crimes, go boldly to defeat the Goa'uld and to get dino DNA. And many of these stories included very visible women. STEM was everywhere and we were all exposed to this positive world that STEM could build. And Dana Scully was a very visible part of that. The Scully Effect is really the effect of all these amazing fictional women that got into our psyche and they showed us the power of STEM. I hope we'll never have another day without Scully or the power of the media to show us, each of us, what we can be. Thanks for learning. Stay curious, nerd fam, and I'll be seeing you. Yeah! Yeah! I feel like Adam Sandler. Yeah! Yeah! I guess the US media was pretty-- effected. Double is pretty good.

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"The Scully Effect" is the idea that Dr. Dana Scully (heroine of the "X-Files," scientist, and FBI agent) inspired a huge increase in women joining STEM fields, but what if there's more to the story? Host Trace Dominquez looks into the study behind "The Scully Effect" and explores if there are other factors that affected how people viewed STEM in the 1990s. Part of the "Uno Dos of Trace" series.

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Runtime: 8 minutes

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