Should junk science be banned from movies and television?

Most of you reading this will think – yeah, banning junk science that wouldn’t be bad – but you’re probably skeptical. You don’t need to work in the entertainment industry to know that scientific accuracy is almost never a priority. So a ban on bad science? Good luck with that – right?

An academic complaint

What got me started on this subject were some guidelines mentioned by Sidney Perkowitz (professor of physics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia) during a recent speech to the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Very simply (paraphrased):

Every film should be allowed just one major suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story.
Films should avoid internal inconsistencies – breaking scientific rules established in earlier scenes.

Professor Perkowitz is something of an authority on science and the entertainment industry, especially movies. His book, Hollywood Science: movies, science, and the end of the world published in 2007 established his slightly tongue-in-cheek framework for criticizing bad science in movies.

Perkowitz is a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a group set up to nudge creative people (and that does include the entertainment industry) to consider using better science. They have seen no end of bad examples, but thought that providing advisory services and other technical scientific support might get writers and directors (at least) to consider making their use of science more accurate.

This is moderation in action. It is NOT a suggestion to set up a board of science censors to excise any and all transgressions against the laws of science. Nor is Professor Perkowitz calling for eternal scrutiny of every movie containing key scientific elements. This is a matter of trying to change perceptions – in the industry and to some extent the public.

Suspension of disbelief

In some ways, it all does boil down to perceptions.

Generally speaking, most people watch theater, movies, or television to be entertained. A good experience is, in part, that you understand the story; it catches you up, and you follow the narrative without interruption to the end. Interruptions – places where you drop out of the story – interfere with the quality of your experience.
In theater the principle is called suspension of disbelief. You know you’re not seeing real life, but you’re willing to suspend your disbelief so long as the story keeps you engaged. All good storytelling has this quality.

When it comes to science in entertainment, and science fiction in particular, there’s always the possibility for your suspension of disbelief to be broken by bad/junk/inaccurate science.

You’re watching the new Star Trek movie. Young, not yet Captain, Kirk has been marooned on an ice-moon, a desolate landscape of glaciers. Kirk spies a beast running toward him. (It looks a little like the furry beast of the ice planet Hoth in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, so that’s okay.) Kirk runs, not very effectively. Just as he’s about to be taken down, the ice erupts behind him and something that looks like a cross between a crab and an insect (with a shiny chitinous shell), as big as Jim Cameron’s house, grabs the furry creature and flings it away. Then it turns, immediately to chase Kirk.

How does this huge creature get food on a glacier? And why doesn’t it just eat the furry thing? End suspension of disbelief.

Biologists in the audience are nearly in convulsions (of one kind or another). The whole scene is biologically impossible for that environment. Worse, it becomes obvious the scene is just a plot setup to get Kirk into a cave where he will meet ‘old’ Mr. Spock.

When I was a kid, going to the Saturday movies, we used to lean over to our friends and whisper: “Fake!”
But I suppose, as a kid, I would’ve thought the scene in Star Trek to be just gonzo great.

Therein lies the difference in perception. To a biologist, and probably quite few others, this scene jolts you out of the story to think about other things. To a kid, it’s just an exciting chase. To the biologist, the scene has near-zero scientific plausibility. To the child, that’s not an issue.

Scientific plausibility

Most, if not all entertainment that involves science is not completely accurate about the science (at best). However, most of us, including scientists, have a sense of what is scientifically plausible. This works even when we know the science is wrong.

For an example, think of warp drive (Star Trek) and hyperdrive (Star Wars), the ability of a spaceship to travel faster than light. If there is a science to explain this form of travel, it’s pure speculation – but that’s enough to establish scientific plausibility.

Scientific plausibility goes back to the suspension of disbelief. If the story you’re watching has plausible science – then regardless of the actual or ultimate truth – you’ll suspend disbelief and go along with the story. Some of this scientific plausibility is so well established that it becomes a matter of convention.

Conventional enjoyment

Science fiction is full of conventions (not the ones in a sports hall): faster than light travel, instant communications across space, transporters, artificial gravity – etc. None of these are even remotely real – not now and in some cases not likely ever. Most everyone knows this, including non-scientists; but we choose to accept the conventions because they’re plausible within our knowledge and experience.

Science fiction storytelling would be very difficult – and probably dull – without such conventions.

Some conventions are general – warp speed, for example. Other conventions are personal. Let’s say I’m a scientist and I don’t believe for one minute that people on spaceships can walk around like they’re on Earth (there’s some kind of artificial gravity). There is no humanly significant gravity in space, and nothing that we’ve seen so far in physics indicates that we can ever create artificial gravity. (Hell, we don’t even know what gravity is yet.) However, in the vast majority of space movies people move around the ships like there was gravity. In most cases, we go along with it. It’s not even plausible, but we’re used to seeing people walk normally, so it’s easy to forget the ‘untruth.’ It’s a falsehood we’re willing to accept by convention. Other people might not accept it.

Consistency counts

I might not accept artificial gravity either, if two scenes later, I see a character go floating weightless out of a space lock. To some extent consistency is important. As Dr. Perkowitz said, “Films should avoid internal inconsistencies.” Even if the story uses some kind of crackpot science idea, it should at least use it consistently. Otherwise it can break the suspension of disbelief.

One of my favorite inconsistencies, which you see in all kinds of movies, involves lava. Movies love to put people in places where they’re in danger of falling into molten, red-hot, lava. Sometimes we get to see that dropping, say, a knife into the lava from several hundred meters, resulting in the knife going ‘poof’ – vaporized by the heat. In another scene, same movie, the hero and party skirt around a lava flow at a distance of no more than a few meters. Maybe the characters are seen to sweat, sometimes not. In any case, molten lava has a temperature from 700-1300C (1300-2400F). Anything within a hundred meters or so will burn – give or take a few seconds. But where’s the fun in that reality?
Perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised how often the rule of scientific consistency is violated, usually for the convenience of the plot but sometimes out of sheer laziness.

Is it junk science or just fantasy?

Sometimes the ‘science’ in some genres of film is by definition ‘junk,’ but without it there’s no story. The classic examples are vampire and werewolf stories. If you can’t accept the plausibility of vampires, or werewolves, even for ninety minutes, then you’re not likely to watch this genre of movies – and many people don’t.

It’s easy to complain about the science in science fiction entertainment. It even makes sense to complain about bad science in many forms of drama, especially horror films of one kind or another. (Pity what the bad science in Jaws did for the now almost extinct great white shark.) But what about the films that are truly fantasy, yet touch upon things that are also part of science? Some of the most successful films of all time skirt between the impossible, the magic, and the scientific: Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series.

At least these films are friendly to the concept of science and learning, if not exactly ‘accurate.’ There are plenty other films that are anti-science in one way or another. Michael Crichton tended to specialize in books (and then films) where science is the bad guy (literally and figuratively) – Jurassic Park for example. There’s a long tradition of “mad man” scientists, going back to the earliest Frankenstein. Some people perceive such films as ‘interesting’ and ‘cautionary’; others see them as direct attacks on the curiosity and method of science.

Does It Matter?

Fundamentally, I think many people – Professor Perkowitz, the Science and Entertainment Exchange – are bothered by the notion that seeing crappy science in movies and television will give people (especially young people) false impressions and bad information about science. (And it’s not like we’re doing such a great job in this department with general education.)

I’m not going to get into the argument here about the impact – or lack of it – of the entertainment media. Do people learn, and do, bad things because of what they see on TV and the movies? There are studies by the yard. Some are contradictory. Intuition is not always correct, for the impact of specific films may be quite different than some people perceive them to be. For example, the Star Wars series, which is not known for particularly accurate science – nor any interest whatsoever in presenting science with a role in the culture or society (other than negative, I suppose). Yet Star Wars probably did more for the advancement of interest in science than anything else in the latter half of the twentieth century – with the exception of the landing on the Moon. It looks like James Cameron’s Avatar is going to do that for this decade.

Sometimes the science as presented in entertainment is specifically good or bad. Mostly, however, it is a matter of trends. Dr. Perkowitz and many others find the trend to be anti-science. They seek to counteract that trend by bringing up the issues – sometimes a little ham-handedly – but that’s PR.

Hollywood and other makers of entertainment will not follow Perkowitz’s guidelines. They have only one guideline: Do what makes the most money. In that regard, we can be thankful that Avatar is not only the most successful film in history, but also involves science and scientists (Sigourney Weaver’s character) directly in the main context of the story.

For the rest of us, and by ‘us’ I mean people who are interested in forwarding the advance of science, the Perkowitz guidelines are a thought experiment. Something to get the intellectual juices flowing. It’s not enough to dismiss them out of hand. Will this be just an academic exercise? Probably, but you never know; it might become popular again to criticize entertainment for bad science. From such individual acts of criticism trends can be made.

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