The scientific method: pathogens, superheroes and dragons

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Michael Crichton once argued that the portrayal of the scientific method in films is mutually incompatible with storytelling – that the best you will ever get is a caricature. While this last point may be true, Crichton does not elaborate further on the importance of caricature in narrative. In his 2002 opinion piece Hollywood Hurrah, John Pilger discusses the impact of Hollywood war caricatures on attitudes towards conflict. Although critical of the use of these caricatures, the article nevertheless highlights their potential in priming public attitudes.

So let’s have a look at the scientific method: it is the rigorous and robust process by which scientists attempt to construct an accurate representation of the natural world that is reliable, consistent and logical. As a former practicing scientist, I can verify that the method can be tedious. The seemingly never-ending lab work is often boring, repetitive, taxing, all consuming, and can be fraught with failure. But the failures and frustrations are contrasted by beautiful soaring highs that come with each successful validation towards the truth. At its highest level, the scientific method is exhilarating. It ebbs and flows with the frustration of failure, the suspense of the unknown and the elation that comes with discovery. How can these contrasting and ambivalent emotions be antithetical to narrative?

Here are some examples of movies that use the scientific method as a plot device.

The 1971 film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, does a fine job in portraying the sequential process of hypothesis testing and experimentation as a vehicle to build suspense. Similarly, director Steven Soderbergh crafts an incredible piece of storytelling, showing how the scientific method is applied to thwart a deadly pandemic from continued devastation in his carefully researched film of 2011, Contagion.

The scientific method is also applied to a varying degree in Iron Man (2009). Tony Stark, played by the charismatic Robert Downey Jr., initially fails at developing his souped-up metallic suit. Yet he reframes after failure and adjusts his approach accordingly until he is well on the way to superhero stardom.

And here’s one for the kids (and adults too!): Dreamworks’ 2010 animated film How To Train Your Dragon. Hiccup, the adolescent protagonist applies the scientific process, against a backdrop of cultural beliefs. He uses it to make logical sense of his place in a world full of dragons for the benefit of himself and his community.

Although these films may not reflect the rigour of the scientific method they do validate science and its processes as a meaningful part of our lives. More importantly, they highlight that science is not restricted to superheroes or those in white coats. Even a child can use it to seek truth and their place in the world.

About the author

Don Gomez maintains Science By Fiction and is undertaking a masters degree in science communication at the Australian National University’s Centre for Public Awareness of Science. Donnie loves a good yarn and is interested in the depiction of science in popular fiction.

Follow Don on Twitter @hairycanary 


  1. Lindy Orthia
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Nice post Don! Though I can’t help wondering: if many scientists don’t use the scientific method in their research, can we or should we expect fiction to represent it? By ‘scientific method’ I mean the strict sense of experimental methods used to test and statistically knock down hypotheses. In my former fields of biology, taxonomy and phylogenetics, that wasn’t how our research was done. Taxonomic research is an almost qualitative and intuitive process to name and classify and describe new species (which I suppose could be experimentally tested using breeding experiments, but very rarely are in reality). Phylogenetics uses investigative tools like DNA sequences to make very sophisticated guesses about historical evolutionary events that by their nature can never be tested, and so hypotheses about them can never be disproven. So as a scientist I almost never used the scientific method at all. Yet the emotional highs and lows were the same. So if fiction represents the human tale of highs and lows along with a few snippets of methods (if not THE Method) I’m pretty happy.

    • Don
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your comments Lindy and I’m glad you liked the post! Yes, phylogenetics work on different models of hypothesis testing that are more subjective than the simple yes and no answer you get from frequency based probabilities. But you’re right, the highs and lows are nevertheless the same, because at the heart of hypotheses validation is getting the data (experimentation) and this can be an emotional journey.

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