Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Carl Zimmer on Bad Science in Good Science Fiction

Science writer Carl Zimmer has a bit of a rant about the recent efforts to bring accurate science to Hollywood:
My favorite science fiction movies generally deal in some really, really bad science. Laws of physics are regular flouted. Aliens make no physiological sense.

That’s because the directors are just using fragments of science to assemble fiction that reaches down deep inside us, not to our internal database of scientific facts, but to our addiction to beautiful images and human stories. Science fiction movies are not really about science. I just watched Wall-E and liked it very much, not because I learned about robotics (I didn’t), but because the movie’s creators paid close attention to how Buster Keaton made love stories. On the other hand, I watched GATTACA years ago and found the science side relatively clever and the plot as tedious as a tax form. You can’t just add good science to Hollywood like pixie dust and get good movies.
I certainly agree with him in general - I watch movies to be entertained, not to brush up on the latest research. However, I think there are few reasons why a good movie can't have a reasonably accurate portrayal of science and be enjoyable to watch as well. By "reasonably accurate" I don't mean that I want to watch our heroes perform every step involved in purifying and sequencing DNA (for example), any more than I want to watch characters spending hours doing laundry or trying to find a parking place - unless those activities drive the plot in some way.

What I would like is for non-fantasy movies to accurately portray basic scientific principles - Mendelian genetics is real, Newton's laws of motion are real, evolution is real and has no predetermined goal. Often the scientific inaccuracies that bug me are bits of dialog or action that wouldn't affect the plot if they were made more accurate. It makes me sometimes wonder if Hollywood screenwriters slept through high school biology. And I think that's the sort of problem that the National Academy of Sciences-sponsored Science and Entertainment Exchange can help with.

Interestingly, Zimmer followed up with a post about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the movie's "intentionally silly" science.
Tim thinks that I just don’t understand that science fiction is supposed to make us think about how advances in technology may alter our lives, and that Eternal Sunshine makes us consider the dangers of letting neurologists wipe out targeted memories. I just can’t see the movie that way. The “science” is intentionally silly–a low-rent doctor’s office filled with a bumbling dysfunctional staff. It’s just a way for the movie to get inside Jim Carrey’s head and create all sorts of wonderful images of how we assemble our lives from memories, and how terrifyingly sad it can be to forget them.
Maybe I'm strange, but I find the movie works on both levels for me: it is a bittersweet story of memory and love on the one hand, and also a cautionary story about the downside of relying on technology to solve our problems. The seedy office where the memory erasure business is housed is seemed appropriate for a technology that's apparently not spoken of in polite company. And the movie's portrayal of memory is not far off from how neuroscientists think it works, so I'd argue that Eternal Sunshine is actually a successful fusion of science and storytelling.

For me "science" doesn't require a glossy high-tech lab. Instead it's a way of looking at the world, and I like movies that reflect that.

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1 comment:

  1. Part of the issue here is that there aren't a lot of people working in the entertainment industry that are actually interested in science, and most of those who are aren't very rigorous about it -- they like the look and the sound of science while remaining entirely ignorant of its substance.

    Kinda like the rest of the population.

    During my brief period stint as an animation scriptwriter (ended by the Great Web Crash of 2001, he felt compelled to explain) there were a couple of times when I heard people referring to times when I'd made creative decisions based on what I knew of science.

    It was as though they were talking about someone with three eyes or something -- "Look at the freak! Can you believe he even did that?"

    Good people, talented people, and yet in this arena they were a pack of slope-browed knuckle-dragging ignorant impertinent baboons.


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