By Dan O’Connor, PhD

 

Let’s start with a quick multiple choice question. You are seeking reliable, impartial information about a sensitive health issue. Which of the following is your source of choice?

 

A) Your family physician

B) A recognised medical specialist who has been recommended to you by a friend

C) The Internet

D) HBO’s critically acclaimed sitcom ‘Girls

If your answer is ‘D’ then you are either in sore need of a long, hard look at your life choices, or you are the putative subject of a recent New York Times blog.

 

Roni Caryn Rabin, the blogger in question, worries that the latest episode of HBO’s ‘Girls’ is ‘rife with misinformation about HPV’. In short, the sitcom’s self-centered central character, Hannah, finds out she has HPV and goes into a ego-absorbed meltdown, fuelled by false ideas about what the diagnosis means (having her ‘cervix scraped out’ due to ‘pre-cancer’ for a start). Rabin’s problem seems to be that no-one in the show corrects the reliably awful Hannah’s assumptions about HPV: “Viewers easily absorb health messages that are embedded in a narrative, research shows. Inaccurate information offered in a story format is recalled more readily than the real facts received during sex education classes or from a doctor.”

 

Let us take a moment at this point to applaud the admirable restraint of the HBO spokeswoman who was called upon to respond to Rabin’s assertion that maybe ‘the show’s creators just don’t care too much for the facts’. With magisterial self-possession came the response: ‘We respect your feedback on ‘Girls’ but must remind you that it is a comedy series and one which we hope people won’t go to for medical advice’.

 

As the kids say: ‘This’.

 

Firstly: Fiction, such as ‘Girls’, has no responsibility to be scientifically accurate. Fiction has one duty: to entertain through story telling. Fiction may wish to reflect scientific truth (hence the presence of medical advisors on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and legal experts on shows like The Good Wife), but they have no moral responsibility to do so. Fiction need only reflect scientific truth when to do otherwise would be to undermine the story and make it unbelievable. Those medical and legal experts aren’t there for moral reasons; they’re there to make sure the story doesn’t look silly. A story in which someone gets HIV by shaking hands with an AIDS patient wouldn’t pass muster because it is stupid. A story in which an ignorant character worried that they might get HIV thusly wouldn’t be stupid at all. Which leads to:

 

Secondly: Inaccuracy does not imply endorsement. Showing a character who smokes does not mean that the writers and producers believe that smoking is OK. It just means that the character, like lots of people, smokes. That’s it. So when a character like Hannah from ‘Girls’ knows nothing about HPV, the show is not peddling ‘misinformation’ about HPV, it is peddling accurate information about how stupid Hannah is as a character. The story isn’t ‘this is what happens when you have HPV’, rather it is ‘this is how a certain person might react’. Just because a fictional character says something, it a) doesn’t mean the storytellers believe it, and b) doesn’t mean you have to believe it either.

 

Finally: The supposed problem is that people believe what they see on TV. The answer to this is, far too often, to change what’s on TV. Surely it would be a greater boon to society to change how people reacted to what they see on TV? Health campaigners look at the controversy over the ‘Girls’ episode and see a dangerous message. I look at the controversy over the ‘Girls’ episode and see a worrying inability of people to dstinguish between a hipster sitcom and the New England Journal of Medicine. It’s not the fiction we should be worrying about, it’s the fact that (supposedly) people think it’s true.

 

If viewers can’t tell that Hannah is a horrible source of medical information, then we’ve got way bigger worries than her HPV inaccuracies.

 

 

Dan O’Connor – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases

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One Response to “Op-Ed: Fiction Owes Nothing to Scientific Accuracy”

  1. […] some deny any obligation of our fiction to reality, the inspiration traveling back and forth between the two […]

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