‘Bad movie science’ a snooty pleasure

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Picking on the incorrect science in fiction films is a popular pastime in the science communication world.

There are gagillions of websites, books and events out there that take pleasure in mocking and criticising movies for having crap physics, silly chemistry or unrealistic forensic biology in them.

Those who mock frequently claim that this ‘bad movie science’ is eroding public scientific literacy and creating a generation of dullards.

Yet there’s little evidence that this is the case. Only two academic studies have found evidence that watching incorrect science in fiction can make people learn wrong things about science, and notably both were methodologically flawed.

In one, researchers screened the notoriously incorrect 2003 blockbuster The Core as part of a high school geology class. Unsurprisingly the kids regurgitated some of the movie’s content in a test as if it were factual – just as they are supposed to do with any material they learn in class. The researchers set them up to fail and highlighted the result as the ‘damage’ movies do.

In the other, researchers showed people short clips from movies containing incorrect science then quizzed them on a bunch of scientific facts including those in the films. A whole lot of people got a whole lot of questions wrong, seemingly suggesting the movies had corroded their intellectual capacity. But what the researchers didn’t do (as they admitted) was ask a control group of people to answer the questions without seeing the movie clips first. My guess is a control group would have given a whole lot of incorrect answers too – because the quiz questions themselves were ambiguous and obscure and even contentious just like most science literacy quizzes are.

For example, based on the ‘incorrect’ science in the 2001 Spielberg movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

A still from the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

… the researchers asked:

“If the ice on the North Pole were to melt, massive floods would result from the excess water – true or false?”

The correct answer is supposedly ‘false’, but the question is flawed. It may well be true, depending what you mean by ‘massive’, or how directly ‘result’ is, or whether you’re looking at local or global scales, etc. It’s a complex question and ‘true’ is just as good an answer as ‘false’ – people answering ‘true’ were not necessarily thinking about A.I.’s image of flooded New York.

Most research into audience responses to the science in fiction shows that people see all kinds of things in science-related films, filtering the content through the unique lens of their individual experiences and opinions, and with an understanding that what they are seeing is fiction, not documentary. What the creators of movies put in, including incorrect scientific facts, is often not what people remember or even notice.

It’s foolish to assume fiction has no effect on our perceptions of science – most things we encounter in life have some influence on us, great or small. But picking on popular culture accomplishes little more than demonstrating how snooty and elitist scientists can be.

About the author

Lindy Orthia is a lecturer in science communication at the Australian National University where she teaches an undergraduate course entitled ‘Science in Popular Fiction’. Some of her research looks at social, political, economic and cultural aspects of science in Doctor Who.

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