Monday, July 13, 2009

Hollywood, Science, and Unscientific America

As those of you who are regular readers of The Intersection are aware, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's recently published book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, takes a look at how American culture influences science literacy (or the lack thereof). There has been a lot of controversy (at least in blogland) about some of the content, particularly in the authors' suggestions as to what scientists could and should do in promoting science to the public. Discussing the science in fiction is my whole reason for blogging here, so I was particularly interested in what Unscientific America had to say about science and Hollywood*.

As the chapter points out, the way that Hollywood portrays science is often egregiously bad and the way it portrays scientists is almost always negative. Because most of the public has little exposure to either quality discussions of science** or interaction with actual scientists, what people see on the big or little screen negatively influences their perception. I can't argue with any of that.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum point out that part of the problem is that many filmmakers consider scientific accuracy to get in the way of telling an entertaining story.
But throughout the industry, there is certainly a sense that science is inimical to storytelling, that it quashes creativity, which must be allowed to breathe. As screenwriter and ScienceDebate2008 founder Matthew Chapman explained about some of his fellow writers; "among the less talented, there's I think a kind of inherent prejudice against science, because science means being rational, and being rational is considered the opposite of being creative –– whereas fantasy, superstition, magic, all of these more child-like ways of looking at life, are somehow thought to be what the creative process is about."
I suspect that the large number of actors and Hollywood trend setters who embrace pseudoscience and New Age-style magical thinking adds to the problem. See, for example, quantum physics woo in What the (Bleep) Do We Know!, the quackery and pseudoscience promoted on the Hollywood-connected Huffington Post, stars drinking magical Kabbalah water, and so on. Of course not every screenwriter, actor, and director in the film and television industry is anti-science, but those who are make up at least a significant minority.

But Mooney and Kirschenbaum go a step further and claim that part of the problem is that science and storytelling that is based on the laws of nature is inherantly boring to most people.
The problem for science in this context is that the technical facts it furnishes can rarely hold the attention of non-scientists – and anyone who has watched presentations at a scientific conference knows why.
and
Such science-centrism simply won't work for the broader, non-scientist population. It ignores their compelling need not to be bored. Successes like March of the Penguins notwithstanding, most of the time people need to see and hear stories about other people, or about animals that are given human attributes, as in Disney-Pixar films.
Are scientists really all pushing for Hollywood to produce technical documentaries rather than fictional tales? I haven't heard or read such an arguments. Sure there is a lot of discussion of where the science in fiction goes wrong - right here among other places. But that's not a demand that Hollywood should stop making entertaining films - the vast majority of scientists that I know can both suspend disbelief and critique the silly science they've been watching. That's why the LSC movie series is such an institution at MIT: hard-core geeks and nerds enjoy watching summer blockbusters as much as they enjoy picking them apart (and shouting "LSC...sucks", of course). It's all part of the fun.

Personally, I don't get particularly annoyed at bad science unless it either does nothing to serve the plot – for example, the scientist in Red Planet naming the DNA bases A, G, T, and P (rather than C) – or if the writer or director has made a big fuss about how science-based their movie. A couple of recent examples of the latter are the TV series Eleventh Hour and M. Knight Shayamalan's The Happening. If you claim you are basing your show on science, I'm going to hold it to a higher standard. On the other hand, the outrageous science on Fringe doesn't bother me because that's the whole point of the series. And sure, I'm going to write about where they get it wrong, but that doesn't mean I think they should be doing things differently.

Anyway, the only example of a narrow minded entertainment-hating scientist that Unscientific America comes up is bioscience popularizer and unapologetic atheist Richard Dawkins:
And some scientists will also have to get over the idea that everyone ought to be as captivated by the intricacies of science as they are. "The natural world is fascinating in its own right," Oxford's Richard Dawkins has stated. "It really doesn't need human drama to be fascinating." He even reported told the New York Times that he wondered why Jurassic Park required a cast that included human beings –– after all, it already had dinosaurs.
Now, I looked up the 1998 New York Times story that that quote was pulled from, and from the way I read it, I would take what Dawkins is reported to have said with a big grain of salt. You see, the article is actually about a series of panel discussions hosted by the Sloan Foundation, which included Hollywood directors and producers and scientists. There was much disagreement and at one point the discussion "degenerated into a raucous name-calling exchange." It was at an interview after this meeting that Dawkins "wondered why ''Jurassic Park'' had to have any people in it at all when it had dinosaurs." I don't think it's far-fetched to think that he might have been speaking out of annoyance or less than completely seriously - something we can't judge because the article gives no context for Dawkins' paraphrased comment.

And no matter what Dawkins did say, he certainly isn't the spokesman for all scientists, or even all biologists. I'm disappointed that Unscientifc America indulges in the same sort of negative stereotyping of scientists that pop culture does. And maybe I'm misunderstanding, but the suggestion seems to be that scientists should not comment on or complain about "minor" scientific inaccuracies, because, well, just because:
Yet in marshaling scientific complaints against the entertainment industry, it's important to consider what really matters and what doesn't. Any specialist – a historian, say, or an anthropologist – is prone to get ticked off if a film or TV drama makes a mistake about his or her field. [ . . . ] So how worried should we really be if an inaccuracy or implausibility sips into a film to serve the plot or to satisfy audience expectations – if, say, Star Wars shows fiery explosions in space? Probably not very.
Again, I don't really get it. It's not as if scientists aren't filing formal complaints with the movie studios or organizing boycotts because of science bloopers. Talking or writing about where the movies go wrong harms no one (except maybe thin-skinned filmmakers) and actually can be an entertaining way to start a discussion about real science. And I'm not convinced that having more realistic space battles in Star Wars would have made it less entertaining.***

Anyway, they do have some suggestions that the "scientific community" can take to try to improve the depiction of science and scientists in films and television:

- First off, as noted above, scientists have to understand that people want to be entertained by the movies, which should include both drama and people. This is where scientists who are also science fiction writers can play a major role, since they are already familiar with the difficulties of balancing the science with the fiction to tell a compelling story. But as I noted above, there are many scientists who are great movie fans too, and who wouldn't have any trouble with the idea that telling a story requires some suspension of disbelief.

- Next, get to know the right people in Hollywood, and know them well:
Science consultants can have an impact on the scientific content in a film's script, on its set design, on its sound effects. In general, they are invited on board by those at the head of film projects –– directors, producers –– and their influence is proportionate to the closeness of their relationship to that leader.
The key is developing "relationships with important players and learn how to serve them to further shared goals, rather than merely issuing criticism and denunciation." There are, in fact, already number of scientists who already act as advisors for movies and TV shows, so that's clearly doable.

But I think criticism is important too, since bad science sometimes can't be helped – the superpowered "mutants" in X-Men, for example, aren't going to called anything different. The scientific community is not monolithic, and so it makes that some will be included to work with Hollywood from the inside, while others will be more comfortable critiquing Hollywood from the outside. There's no reason why there can't be doing scientists doing both, unless producers and directors are so sensitive to negative comments that any criticism will turn them away from attempting to accurately portray the functioning of the universe.

- Finally, scientists must realize, they may be called for advice on too late to make any substansive changes:
By the time a science consultant arrives on the scene to work on a project, many things such as plotline, cast, and budget are usually already agreed upon, and a script has likely been written, at least in draft form. Given all of this, any effective science consultant or adviser will be acutely aware of the realities and constraints of filmmaking and will work with them, rather than trying to overturn them.
And "factual accuracy" is the first thing to go when a movie is being made:
Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount –– that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot. Either science will align itself with these overweening objectives or it will literally get flattened by the drive for profit.
I find it a bit disturbing that they are suggesting that scientists should ignore "mere factual accuracy" to get an "in" in Hollywood. Science consultants shouldn't be the ones worrying about profit - that's the job of the filmmakers. I don't think anyone should be surprised if their suggestions for scientific accuracy are sometimes ignored, but that doesn't mean that those suggestions shouldn't be made. If factual accuracy is completely off the table, what's the point in being a science advisor?

It all sounds a bit hopeless, at least from the perspective of an individual who doesn't have any Hollywood connections or much spare time to build personal relationships with filmmakers. That's where The Science and Entertainment Exchange comes in - it should be a useful mediator between scientists interested in Hollywood and filmmakers interested in science.

So overall, I think Unscientific America does make useful points about how science is portrayed by Hollywood. However, I don't think it's helpful that the book portrays most scientists as clueless joykillers who can't enjoy a less-than-documentarian movie, or that it suggests scientists should stop criticizing science in the movies. And yes, I took it a bit personally, because discussing bad science in science fiction is much of what this blog is about. I think it's worthwhile, not in small part because I've gotten comments from people who stumbled in here looking for information about whether the science in their favorite movie or TV show is "real". I'm glad I could give them the information they were looking for.

And if you are still reading, you might want to check out some of the other posts that have discussed the "Hollywood and the Mad Scientists" chapter of Unscientific America:
  • Stephanie Zvan @ Quiche Moraine has an excellent post: "Mere Factual Accuracy"

    "Setting up story and accuracy as a dichotomy also ignores the richness that accuracy can add to a story. In fact, whole stories can be built from closely observed detail."

  • Janet Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science: "Book review: Unscientific America"

    "It struck me, while reading this book, that the root problem here is no fundamental flaw in the American character, but a capitalist system that squeezes out spaces for things that are not expected to sell widely for the lowest costs to produce. Science is brimming with complexities. Explaining it, understanding it, takes time and effort. But if the news media and Hollywood (and politics, too) are harbingers of doom for a scientific America, it makes it seem just as likely to me that a long term solution will involve replacing extreme capitalism with something different. Show me the alternative and the plan to implement it, and I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and help."

    ETA: And definitely read Janet's excellent post "Are scientists all on the same team?"

  • PZ Myers @ Pharyngula has a scathing review: "Unscientific America: How Scientiric Illiteracy Threatens Our Future"
    and
    Chris Mooney @ The Intersection replies: "PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America"
    (Note that PZ and Chris don't agree on anything, PZ was called out in the book, and there's a fair amount of animosity between them, so the comments reflect that.)

I think all the Scienceblogs.com bloggers got review copies, A number of Scienceblogs.com bloggers have also reviewed Unscientific America, so you can read more about the book as a whole over there.

--------

* The chapter titled "Hollywood and the Mad Scientists" is the only one I've read so far, so I can't comment on the rest of the book.

** It's unfortunately true that a lot of the reporting of science in the news media is really reallyreally bad (click the links for examples just from this month).

*** But then I'm one of those freaks who thinks showing women having a conversation about something other than than boys, weddings or babies can be entertaining too, so what do I know?

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13 comments:

Mishal said...

Good article, reading on Scienceblogs about the book only dragged out all the opinions of the various bloggers, but no thorough (that I found anyway) critiquing and analyzing of the book's subject matter.

And maybe I'm misunderstanding, but the suggestion seems to be that scientists should not comment on or complain about "minor" scientific inaccuracies, because, well, just because...

I think what was meant there was an application of psychology and behavior modification than science fact-checking or complaining. If you keep attacking everything a child does (read:Hollywood) if it isn't done perfectly, with perfect pronunciation and grammar, does that make the child more likely to try harder to make everything correct? No, it ends up teaching the child that they can never please you, so why should they bother trying nothing they do will ever be good enough? And then you end up with only listening to lip service and bait-and-switch reactions (read: last minute editing changes) to anything you say to them.

I believe that is what the point was, don't hen-peck every misspelling to death at first, but catch and correct the gross errors. That would allow Hollywood to still feel they had some "freedom" to mess around and be "creative" (though from the sheer enormity of sci fi that's based on hard, factual science, creativity's hardly something squashed by having science around, just ask Niven, Heinlein, Clark and Scalzi about that) but would also protect the scientific integrity being presented. I am not suggesting that this should be the hard and fast rule, but it's a *start*, in showing producers that they can make a profitable (and that's the key that must be kept in mind: P-R-O-F-I-T, because money's the only thing that gets anything done in Hollywood) movie while sticking within science, then once they get used to not making laughable bad science as a matter of course, then they can be steered into presenting good science. Which still lets them keep their big-budget explosions and sound effects (because, let's face it, the Death Star blowing up would not have been nearly as cool if it was all silent) but we won't be subject to them saying that detonating nuclear bombs in the earth's core will magically make it spin because it suddenly stopped and stop birds crashing into bridges.

And I may be by myself on this, but even old "bad" science movies may still have a place. I think that A. E. van Vogt's "Voyage of the Space Beagle" would make an excellent movie, bad science (mass paralyzing hypnotism, nexialism [maybe, a broad Psych education and experience in several other fields in jobs gets close surprisingly], 100% effective chemical sex-drive killer) included. The same goes for Clifford D. Simak's "City" with all it's out-dated references to atomic power.

It goes right back to pulp, and in Hollywood's obsession with sequels and prequels, we could use some new stories and if producers can be told that they don't have to stick to hard and fast science to stay true to the stories, perhaps they'd even consider it.

Blake Stacey said...

Nice post. I should say first of all that I write for ScienceBlogs.com but I didn't get a review copy of Unscientific America. I didn't ask for one; I'm months behind in my book-reviewing queue already, and from the excerpts I've read so far, I expect reading the whole thing would be like eating the rest of a rotten egg.

I've written a fair bit about the issue of "scientific accuracy" in fiction, as I think it's an important and interesting issue, although the way M&K talk about it is almost completely tangential to the important and interesting aspects of it.

Peggy said...

Mishal: I suspect you are probably right about what was meant about ignoring the "minor" inaccuracies. Where your analogy breaks down, though, is that scientists aren't confronting filmmakers directly about those errors, in the manner of correcting a child's grammar. Instead, many scientists and science communicators use the inaccuracies in the movies as a jumping off point for a discussion of how the universe actually operates.

It was pointed out numerous times that "drama" will always trump "realism", so it's unreasonable to expect that some depictions (like loud explosions in space) will never change. Since that's the case, I don't see the harm in discussing why that's not actually realistic.

It also seems that there is a cultural misunderstanding. Scientists like picking things apart and talking about the details. That is part of the fun, and it doesn't stop scientists from heading to the theater to watch frothy fare like "Star Wars" or "Spiderman". It shouldn't be a surprise that scientists enjoy talking about science.

On the other hand, the sense I get is that filmmakers are very much like sensitive children, in that any sort of criticism of their work is taken as a personal attack and will cause them to never, ever listen to scientists again. And those are willing to work with science consultants may or may not use any suggestions for accuracy.

What, then, are those of us who both like science and like the movies, but don't have Spielberg in our address books supposed to do? In my experience there are many ordinary people (i.e., non-scientists) who have a general interest in science, and who wonder whether what they see on the big screen is possible in real life. I'd much rather write about what's accurate and (more often) what isn't in Hollywood's output than to close up shop in fear that a director is going to have his feelings hurt. And no, I don't really think I'm important enough for filmmakers to care what I say, but the same goes for big-name scientists too. It's offensive to me to suggest that scientists are ultimately hurting science literacy by talking about science in pop culture.

Peggy said...

Blake: I've updated my post to reflect that not all of you are reviewing the book. Sorry about that.

Athena Andreadis said...

Very eloquently said, Peggy.

I expressed my view of Nisbet, Mooney and their ilk a while ago: On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks. I won't do so again because they don't deserve that much time and attention. They're crass opportunists, as well as intellectual featherweights. There's an Internet term for them: concern trolls.

Blake Stacey said...

Peggy:

No problem! :-)

You know, M&K's assertion that in Hollywood "the story is paramount", or that showbiz cares about "character development", is really bloody naive. Have M&K ever been to a movie? Hollywood cares about butts in seats.

The surest way to get good science into a movie is to have Hugh Laurie or Olivia Wilde give a lecture under the opening credits, after which commandos burst into the lecture hall and a ninety-minute escapade of kung-fu explosions then ensues.

I'd watch.

Peggy said...

Blake: They do mention the "drive for profit", in the context of dismissing nature films (the ones without people).

However, I think what's missing from their discussion is the acknowledgment that the real problem is that profit is paramount, and because scientific accuracy likely makes little difference in the bottom line, filmmakers have no reason to care. That may be where the "befriend an influential filmmaker" suggestion came from: scientists should use their charming powers of personal persuasion to convince directors that their film will be tangibly better with an accurate depiction of science.

But that's a sales job, not a science job, and it's not reasonable to expect the majority of "scientific community" to have those skills or even be interested in playing that game.

Mishal said...

Instead, many scientists and science communicators use the inaccuracies in the movies as a jumping off point for a discussion of how the universe actually operates.

I'm afraid I don't follow, you're saying that actual *real* scientists have actually taken the crap!Science from The Core to actually explain how the magnetic field works? (As an example, I mean. I couldn't think of another worse movie right off hand, though Sunshine would come close, if I could watch it to gauge how bad it is.)

It also seems that there is a cultural misunderstanding. Scientists like picking things apart and talking about the details. That is part of the fun, and it doesn't stop scientists from heading to the theater to watch frothy fare like "Star Wars" or "Spiderman". It shouldn't be a surprise that scientists enjoy talking about science.

Picking the movie science apart have always been the fun part for me, and in some respects, it allows for a lot of suspension of reality. Particularly for "Star Wars" (I prefer "Wars" to "Trek" because at least the aliens in "Wars" aren't obviously wearing rubber foreheads all the time.) To be fair, it's that whole desire to pick at the silly and illogical which led to the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" program and it's offspring, "Cinematic Titanic" and "RiffTrax".

On the other hand, the sense I get is that filmmakers are very much like sensitive children, in that any sort of criticism of their work is taken as a personal attack and will cause them to never, ever listen to scientists again. And those are willing to work with science consultants may or may not use any suggestions for accuracy.

That was the point of my original reply, mainly that Hollywood and basically everyone up there is basically a sensitive child or sensitive parent of, with money. People get overly protective of their ideas sometimes, so, like you said any criticism or critique really, I prefer the word critique, as criticism has gotten such a negative connotation from people who use the word to tear down a subject instead of analyze, per the word's definition. But aside from that, what you also said early about how "drama trumps realism" comes into play.

I think another problem is that audiences have become so jaded, and expectant of breasts and explosions to the exclusion of storytelling (pay attention to the amount of dialogue from a standard summer action flick like the new "Star Wars", "Transformers" or even the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, to a "foreign-natured" film, like "The Darjeeling Express" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to really note where the focus is, even in a fantasy-oriented movie) that people in movie production think important details like science are irrelevant anyway, its not as though the audience is really paying attention to the dialogue, not when there's beef/cheesecake or toys and explosions on the screen to catch their eye.

But anyway, your thoughts? I'm enjoying the comments and discussion.

Peggy said...

Mishal: Good questions!

I'm afraid I don't follow, you're saying that actual *real* scientists have actually taken the crap!Science from The Core to actually explain how the magnetic field works?

I don't know about The Core, but Joan Slonczewski's Biology in Science Fiction course, for example, uses both good and bad SF examples to teach basic biology pricinpals. And there is also the excellent Physics of Superheroes, which discusses of superhero "bloopers".

To be fair, it's that whole desire to pick at the silly and illogical which led to the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" program and it's offspring, "Cinematic Titanic" and "RiffTrax".

Yes, that's exactly the fun of MST3K! Of course that makes us part of the problem: the science is bad and we plunk down the money to watch the films anyway, so why should Hollywood do anything differently?

I think another problem is that audiences have become so jaded, and expectant of breasts and explosions to the exclusion of storytelling (pay attention to the amount of dialogue from a standard summer action flick like the new "Star Wars", "Transformers" or even the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, to a "foreign-natured" film, like "The Darjeeling Express" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to really note where the focus is, even in a fantasy-oriented movie) that people in movie production think important details like science are irrelevant anyway, its not as though the audience is really paying attention to the dialogue, not when there's beef/cheesecake or toys and explosions on the screen to catch their eye.

I don't think there's much hope to hold out for any type of accuracy in movies like Transformers, that are all about the explosions (and boobs!). It's the science fiction-based films that at least pay lip-service to scientific accuracy and attempts to have a sensical plot and a bit of character development that I think could be improved by advice from a science consultant.

That's why the Science and Entertainment Exchange has real potential to make a difference - it can facilitate the interaction between scientists and filmmakers who are interested in their advice.

ERV said...

HAHA! I didnt get a copy either. Until Blake said something, I thought I was the only one... but still, no one asked if I even wanted one...

On topic-- I am like, 6-degrees from being a Hollywood insider, just because of my relationship with the XVIVO crew. I know they have turned down Hollywood work because they were asked to make things too unrealistic by film makers. Considering how weird, cool, and alien extreme-closeups of the human body are, I really dont want to think about what Hollywood wanted to do to 'sexify' them...

And, like dealing with Creationist Claims, 'fixing' science in sci-fi movies is a GREAT way to teach people about real science! Its a MUCH better starting-off-point than stupid garbage Creationists say! So, Im jealous :P

Peggy said...

ERV: XVIVO does gorgeous work and I think some of their animations look like they are right out of a SF movie (to see what they do, follow the link and click "Animation" for their demo).

The nice thing about teaching science by correcting the errors in a SF movie instead of, say, the Answers in Genesis web site, is that people aren't so emotionally invested in the source being correct. I'd bet that even hard core Trekkers are willing to acknowledge that the Trek universe doesn't always behave as our own.

george.w said...

My kids were raised on the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" model of enjoying movies; half the fun is flaying them on the cutting board of reality. But the other half is the explosions and breasts and stuff.

My middle son was highly miffed in the fifth grade when a writing teacher insisted he write about a triangular planet "as an exercise in creativity". And gave him loads of crap for failing to comply, when he protested that planets have to be spherical, and that you could be creative without a triangular planet.

They knew that the Death Star was (to say the least) improbable, but still enjoyed Star Wars immensely. They'd tell you that transporters are a literary device to keep the story moving, but still enjoyed Star Trek. Yet when BSG came along, we all enjoyed the hightened realism and wondered why it couldn't be used in more movies.

How are scientists supposed to push the real story forward by ditching the complexity? The complexity IS the story, or a goodly chunk of it. At minimum, understanding just how far complexity goes is some defense against inanities like "it's cold outside so global warming is a hoax".

Cujo359 said...

Whenever someone implies that a story that's factually correct isn't important, I like to point out Master And Commander as a counter-example. That story was about people running smack up against the limits of nature, both their own and the ocean's. When the kid fell over the side, the ship couldn't go back and get him. If it had been a typical Star Trek episode, there would have been a minute of technobabble about transporter buffers, then they would have beamed him onboard.

Nature creates boundaries within which we have to operate. When a movie ignores those limits, to me it risks being less entertaining, not more. I don't mean to say you can't ignore some limits - it's fiction, after all. But the more a story ignores, the less interesting it usually is to me.