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"
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.)
* 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?
Tags:science fiction, Unscientific America