Reel science

6th June 2003 at 01:00
How does cinema shape our perceptions of science and scientists? Chris Daniels and Elizabeth Kingsley - both "slightly mad" scientists - report

"Isn't there any way I can change my DNA, like - sitting on the microwave?"

"Well, not according to any movie I've ever seen!"

(From The Simpsons)

It's an unlikely plot: a beggar with no legs is taken in by a doctor who replaces the legs, then - not being able to pass up such a good opportunity - replaces the poor man's rather unattractive head, too. In so doing, the world got its first cinematic "mad scientist" in Georges Melies's 1897 film Chirurgien americain (also known as A Twentieth Century Surgeon). The mould had been set, one that more than a century of science-fiction film-makers have shown little inclination to break.

In recent years, however, there has been a heartening trend towards a desire for accuracy in the depiction of science in films and on television.

It became standard practice for technical advisers to "vet" the scripts of dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Silent Witness - and even The X Files. Those who perform this function have become minor celebrities in their own right.

Film-makers often emphasise the lengths to which they have gone to ensure the authenticity of a movie. Before the opening of Mission To Mars, for instance, director Brian De Palma claimed that the most exciting thing about making the film was "creating realism", and that his goal was to be "as authentic as possible". The director of The Core, Jon Amiel, said his aim was to "put the science back into science fiction" and that his film contains "a good dollop of science, a considerable amount of fact and a wee bit of fiction".

But a strange contradiction still exists in the portrayal of science and scientists. While pains are taken to improve the accuracy of "science", the depiction of scientists has altered very little since Georges Melies's opportunist doctor and legless beggar.

"Uh-oh! Is this gunna be another crazy experiment that crosses a line man was not meant to cross?"

(From Futurama)

The misconceptions about scientists propagated by movies have affected popular attitudes toward science and scientific research. There is little doubt that the community at large is confused by the role of science in society and generally does not understand how science works, what it achieves and what the limits are of its applications and responsibilities.

Science seems to be responsible for all that is wrong, evil or destructive in today's world, yet everyone marvels at the internet, the CAT scan, or the recovery of the panda.

The recent reductions (in real terms) in funding reflect the fact that our political masters perceive the voting public as uncaring or even suspicious of research. Movies and TV are also carriers of popular anxieties about science, often turning them into blockbusters - for example, genetic engineering movies such as the Jurassic Park trilogy, and the horribly awful Deep Blue Sea.

While hundreds of films have depicted real-life writers, visual artists and singers, a recent review by the magazine Variety revealed that fewer than 20 had been based on the lives of real-life scientists. A reason for this disparity is that scientists are often viewed with suspicion by the general population. Ever since its invention, the cinema has spent most of its history telling audiences that scientists, science and technology are, actually or potentially, harmful. Perhaps it's a fear of scientists'

knowledge base or of people who use reason and logic - or perhaps it's derived from the type of science movies portray.

A selection of 1,000 science-fiction films distributed between 1931 and 1984 shows that mad scientists andor their creations were the villains in 31 per cent of them. And scientific research has produced 39 per cent of the threats in all science-fiction films. By contrast, scientists have been the heroes in a mere 11 per cent of science-fiction movies, while scientists destroying the Earth, people or society outweighs scientists saving the Earth, people or society by 10 to one.

"Pah! Eggheads - what do they know?"

(From The Simpsons)

Movie scientists tend to fall into one of two categories, neither of which is particularly flattering. Even when they are on the side of light, they are nerds, dorks, geeks, dweebs - there's a range of derogatory words to choose from. In short, they are maladjusted misfits, at home only in a laboratory or in front of a computer, who speak unintelligible jargon, and whose esoteric pursuits leave them unfit for "normal" human interaction.

More frequently, however, movie scientists are mad, bad and dangerous to know. They are amoral misogynists obsessed with pointless gadgetry andor the infliction of unnecessary surgery on defenceless organisms (animal and human).

The mad scientist is the lazy screenwriter's best friend. No matter how illogical, dangerous or just plain stupid something is, the justification is right there: he's a scientist - he's nuts. It is this attitude that, as late as 1999, allowed one mad scientist in the film Bats to utter the immortal words: "I'm a scientist - that's what we do" when it was revealed he had created a strain of genetically modified killer bats.

However, even the madness of the maddest mad scientist isn't sufficient to justify much of what goes on in the movies, which demand that screenwriters and directors completely ignore three of the biggest facts of life with which all real-life scientists must contend on a daily basis - ethics committees, funding bodies and peer review. On the rare occasions that movies raise the issue of ethics committees at all, the mad scientist seems to disregard them with impunity.

And, in reality, scientists spend a depressingly high proportion of their time chasing the almighty dollar. Those who are successful with more than one in 10 of their grant applications are usually regarded as "well funded". In contrast, very few movie scientists are ever shown worrying about where their next pay cheque is coming from and when they do it is usually in the context of the threat of having their funding cut, which naturally provokes them into that dramatic "rash step". In a convention that goes back at least as far as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), a scientist thinking about money at all is generally a sign that he is untrustworthy. "Good" scientists are presumably above such sordid considerations. Even when money is allowed to be an issue, there seems to be little understanding of the scientific process. Mad science is a lot harder to carry out than it looks, with business managers and accountants watching every cent that you spend. It is for this reason that so many movie scientists are independently wealthy and - the most absurd convention of all - work out of their own basements.

Another common assumption is that science funded by industry must always be intended for evil purposes. In reality, industry is a welcome, if often frustratingly rigid, source of funding. In Twister, the "bad scientist" was a "night crawler" because he went out and got himself some "corporate sponsorship". Even worse, "he was in it for the money, not the science".

Science is not regarded as science until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. The whole point about publication is that the data is presented for public scrutiny by our peers. If the work is unethical or unrepeatable - or just plain rubbish - it will quickly be noticed and dealt with. The peer review process may not be perfect but over time it does filter good science from bad science.

Of course, if films did start to take such things into consideration, about 99 per cent of them would never be made.

"They're scientists, Allan - they know what they're doing."

(From Queen of Blood, 1966)

There is also a disheartening tendency to ignore the fundamental practices of science - something rarely encountered in the depiction of other common "movie careers", such as law and medicine. The key elements in science are hypothesis, method, application, reproducibility and publication. Yet how many movie scientists are ever seen validating a technique; carrying out an experiment more than once? For that matter, when did a movie scientist ever weigh or measure reagents or handle biological material under sterile conditions - or even clean up after themselves? On the other hand, movie scientists are given to making solemn proclamations like "As scientists we must be rigorous, objective and thorough" - language that would get them laughed out of any real laboratory on the planet.

"Why would a girl who looks like that get mixed up in science?"

(From Hell and High Water, 1954)

Perhaps the most aggravating convention of the science-fiction film is the demand for a good solid reason for anyone becoming a scientist. The chief protagonist (heroic or mad) either became a scientist or chose a particular line of research because of a personal trauma. The need for dramatic motivation cannot fully explain the frequency with which this theme recurs.

Rather, it seems to reveal a belief on the part of the film-makers, unconscious or otherwise, that no one would choose a career in science of their own free will. While men may occasionally become scientists without accounting for their behaviour, it seems to be a union rule that any film that focuses on a female scientist will contain a "How did a girl like you..?" scene. In Twister, for example, the young girl who grows up to be Dr JoAnne Thornton-Harding (played by Helen Hunt) sees her father killed by a tornado, while in Deep Blue Sea, Dr Susan McCallister (acted by Saffron Burrows) justifies her choice of career, and her unethical conduct, by revealing that she lost her father to Alzheimer's. Clearly, an interest in science is not considered sufficient reason for a young woman to devote her life to it.

In recent years our screens have been graced by a plethora of young and gorgeous female scientists, most of whom - the unavoidable childhood trauma aside - have received the kid-glove treatment from their screenwriters. No matter how young these women are - and most of them are very young - they not only have a doctorate, but are "the leaders in their field". They are rarely wrong about anything, especially when they are opposed by a male scientist over the age of 40. No matter what disaster confronts them, they are fully capable of dealing with it on their own and without smudging their make-up or getting a hair out of place. Witness, for example, Dr Margo Green (played by Penelope Ann Miller) in The Relic. She battles a hideous genetic monster while wearing a little black cocktail dress and high heels. Or Dr Emma Russell (acted by Elisabeth Shue) in The Saint, carrying around the formula for cold fusion in her bra. The absurdity of all this makes one long for a repeat viewing of The Andromeda Strain - one of the few films to feature a female scientist who doesn't look like she funds her research by strutting the catwalk in her spare time.

"Ah, there's nothing more exciting than science! You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention ...

Science has it all!"

(From The Simpsons)

So why do scientists become scientists? Despite what the movies tell us, usually for exactly the same reasons that anyone chooses a career. It is because of interest or talent or a particular turn of mind. It is rare that dramatic events in an individual's past play a part. The authors of this piece are themselves very typical of the career scientist. We both studied zoology because we have a passion for nature and animals. One of us still studies reptiles but because he likes them, not because his first love was eaten by an anaconda. The other went into cancer research not because her mother was terminally ill, but because that is where the jobs were when she graduated. Not very romantic, but that's the way it is for most of us.

So why is there such a strong tendency in society for science to be viewed as something apart? Why are its controversies so widely and passionately debated, while advances in medicine and technology are accepted almost without comment?

And what influence does the inaccurate depiction of science in films and TV programmes have on the viewing public? Technical advisors to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation admitted such an influence when they observed that the show raises unreasonable expectations of forensic science and scientists, even among those in the field of law enforcement.

Steven Spielberg, on the release of Jurassic Park, said that he "wouldn't ban molecular biology altogether", even though it is "dangerous", because it is "useful in finding cures for cancer, Aids and other diseases". His opinions seem less influenced by reality than by his own film, the science of which, by the way, has holes in it you could drive a Tyrannosaurus rex through.

We argue, or rather plea, that film-makers take the responsibility to depict science and scientists on screen as carefully as they do court procedures or the requirements of police work and not just dismiss scientists' concerns with the line - "It's only a movie."

Christopher Daniels (PhD) is associate professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide, Australia.

Elizabeth Kingsley (PhD) is hospital scientist at the Oncology Research Centre, Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, Australia

For more information visit Elizabeth Kingsley's website: And You Call Yourself A Scientist!

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