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What Seinfeld can teach us about science

From micro pigs to the doping dangers of a poppy seed bagel, life may be imitating the US sitcom

When Jerry Seinfeld starts his UK tour, listen out for a science joke. From early on in his TV career, the comedian poked fun at science. In his 1981 HBO debut, he said of weather forecasts: And then my favourite part, the satellite photo. This is really helpful. A photograph of the Earth from 10,000 miles away. Can you tell if you should take a sweater or not from that shot?

His eponymous 90s sitcom is also packed with nuanced references to science, with the storylines of some of the most famous episodes centred on it: George Costanza pretends to be a scientist in The Marine Biologist, while in The Abstinence he becomes a boffin after swearing off sex. In The Non-Fat Yogurt, Kramer has a romantic fling in a lab and inadvertently spoils an experiment testing whether the frozen snack is as healthy as it sounds.

Academics have written volumes about the sociology and philosophy of Seinfeld, but the role of science has been left relatively unexplored. In an attempt to redress this, I have recently published a peer-reviewed paper on the subject in the Journal of Science and Popular Culture.

Researchers have brought science and Seinfeld together in other ways: in 2014, mathematicians from the University of Vermont quantified the sitcoms happiest characters and seasons (Kramer and season 5 respectively). In 2017, Seinfeld fan and freelance scientific editor John McCool exposed the murky practices of a predatory journal one that offers publication without proper peer review in exchange for payment. The journal accepted a paper he submitted under the name of Dr Martin van Nostrand, a pseudonym used by Kramer when impersonating a doctor, on the topic of uromycitisis a fake medical condition invented by Seinfeld. And a popular US dermatologist and a TV star calls herself Dr Pimple Popper, inspired by the derogatory name Jerry uses for a doctor hes dating.

Some viewers have gone to great lengths to find out whether the science in Seinfeld stands up. The Film Theorists YouTube channel examined whether its really possible to die from exposure to toxic glue on old envelopes, as Georges fiance Susan did in the series (reassuringly, they say, its not). And what about Elaine failing a drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel? This was exactly what happened to one Pennsylvania mother, whose baby was taken away by welfare authorities until the mistake was cleared up.

A lot of the science in Seinfeld comes from Jerrys standup acts within the show. Somebody, I assume, genetically engineered these ponies, he says in The Pony Remark. Do you think they can make them any size? I mean, could they make them, like, the size of a quarter, if they wanted? That would be fun for Monopoly, though, wouldnt it? The suggestion is absurd, but in a case of life imitating fiction, scientists are now using gene editing to create miniature animals, such as micro pigs, to sell as pets.

In the opening standup scene of The Mango, Jerry says: How about that seedless watermelon? What an invention, scientists are working on this. You know, other scientists devote their lives to fighting cancer, Aids, heart disease. These guys are going: No, Im focusing on melon. Oh sure, thousands of people are dying needlessly. But this [makes spitting noise], thats gotta stop. While the diseases Jerry mentioned still havent been cured, scientists today are still engaged in the quest to engineer seedless fruits, including tomatoes.

Jerry Seinfeld at a standup performance Photograph: Netflix

A lot of Seinfelds standup skits show how some scientific ideas had become common knowledge. Seinfeld casually references Biosphere, Dian Fossey, and tungsten or wolfram, and breaks with the TV cliche of scientists as socially awkward singletons. Jerry dates a political scientist, Kramer falls for an FDA chemist, and George gets a date by pretending to be a marine biologist.

At the same time, the show makes us laugh at misconceptions about science, like Kramers theory that the government has created a pig-man, that theres such a thing as quoning or that fat molecules in frozen yoghurt change when it melts.

In The Abstinence, lack of sex turns George into an intellectual who would rather talk about science than his career with the Yankees. He ventures on to the baseball field to teach Major League players how to improve their game: Hitting is not about muscle. Its simple physics. Calculate the velocity, v, in relation to the trajectory, t, in which g, gravity, of course, remains a constant. He then hits a home run and says: Its not complicated.

George was ahead of his time; data analysis and sports science have become a bigger part of sport than ever before.

Ultimately, science is also Georges undoing. He reverts to his former stupid self after having sex with a Portuguese waitress. I calculated my odds of ever getting together with a Portuguese waitress, he says. Mathematically, I had to do it, Jerry.

Whether the science in Seinfeld works is a mixed bag. Theres no evidence that abstinence can make you smarter; in fact, the opposite may be true. But if you were wondering about the science behind shrinkage? That one stands up.

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Facebook Is Making Its Own Supreme Court for Oversight. Everyone Is Skeptical.

Facebook wants its own Supreme Court to review controversial material and restore trust in the site. But trust in Facebook is so shaky that audiences dont even trust it to pick the people who pick its new oversight body.

Since November, Facebook execs have flirted with the idea of establishing a special oversight board that would rule on the sites most challenging content questions. The board would discuss issues like harassment, hate speech, and safety violationsall areas where Facebook has been accused of making questionable rulings, without enough transparency.

The board wont be a magic bullet for Facebooks PR woes, though. On Thursday, the company released the results of an international study on its potential Supreme Court. The results: Many Facebook users dont trust Facebook to handle its own internal issues.

Conducted with more than 650 people from 88 countries, the study searched for a solution that would satisfy as many Facebook users as possible. But as Facebook queried users on the best way to staff a 40-person content board, a recurring problem emerged.

Many of those who engaged in consultations expressed a degree of concern over a Facebook-only selection process, but feedback was split on an alternative solution, Facebooks findings read. An intermediate selection committee to pick the Board could ensure external input, but would still leave Facebook with the task of picking the pickers.

Many participants wanted Facebook removed from the selection process, the study found. Even letting the board members pick their replacements was a potential problem. Others questioned the proposal to leave future selection up to the Board itself, as this could result in a recursion problem and the perpetuation of bias.

At the same time, the study found, others recognized the efficiency of Facebooks proposed approach, which would avoid the Kafkaesque process of drafting a separate committee to pick the committee.

But with more than 2 billion users spread across virtually every country, Facebook will be hard-pressed to select a 40-person board that adequately represents every user (87 percent of study participants said they wanted a board that was rich in cultural or linguistic knowledge).

Currently, Facebook employs an army of contractors who sift through the sites worst content, often making decisions in a hurry, based on dubious guidelines. These moderators often work in secret, forbidden from discussing the traumatic pictures and videos they screen every day. The gated community of low-wage workers doesnt help Facebooks reputation of limited transparency. The new oversight board proposes to act as an appeals process for cases that remain controversial, even after moderators review them.

Facebook has previously made noise about democratizing its policy changes. In 2012, the company invited all users to vote on proposed policy changes. The vote would only count if 30 percent of all users weighed in. Less than 1 percent voted, voiding the whole process.

The company also tried signing over its trending topics to a dedicated news team, which was supposed to combat the sites trouble with misinformation. After reports of poor management and sexism, Facebook canned the team. The platform almost immediately resumed promoting hoaxes in the trending topics.

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