Close your eyes and allow me to set a scene which should be engraved in your psyche: A naïve scientist discovers and experiments with something that may endanger the human race. After preventing a global catastrophe, the scientist learns a valuable lesson about the dangers of science. You may not be able to pinpoint the movie this synopsis is from, but you may recognise it as one of the most well-known tropes displayed on the big screen.
The portrayal of ‘science’ in the cinema is highly nuanced and of great influence over society. At times, science can be portrayed as a beacon of hope, the bastion of knowledge that can be used to solve any problem. Apollo 13 (1995), based on the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission displays the resourcefulness of scientists when faced with impossible odds, able to effectively utilise their knowledge of engineering and physics to adapt the command module’s square carbon dioxide filters to the lunar module’s round receptacles. The film does an exemplary job of accurately depicting the attention to detail and interdisciplinary communication that occurs when solving scientific dilemmas. Likewise, The Martian (2015) demonstrates how scientific knowledge can be used in unorthodox ways to adapt to any situation. This is highlighted when Mark Watney uses the hydrogen from the leftover rocket fuel to produce water for his improvised farm.
However, despite a number of positive depictions of science in the cinema, many films are staged as cautionary tales, warning of the dangers of interfering with things much larger than ourselves. Take Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) as an example of the negative portrayal of science in film. One of the biggest themes portrayed throughout the film is the carelessness of scientists as their use of genetic manipulation brings about a very real threat to the human race. Similar films like Gattaca (1997) display advances in science against a grey-skied dystopian backdrop; genetic engineering being displayed as a tool to control society rather than advance its growth.
[image: ]Naturally, this exaggeration makes for great entertainment, introducing a conflict that takes its audience on an emotionally thrilling ride. Let’s face it, the films would not have the acclaim they do now if they had portrayed ethics committees discussing the applications of science. However, should this artistic license be regulated in Hollywood films?Scientists are often portrayed as reckless and arrogant, experimenting with uncontrollable forces of nature (Jurassic Park 1993).
Preliminary evidence has found that the portrayal of science in the cinema can negatively impact science literacy and public perceptions of science (Bucchi and Trench, 2014). This is due to the many creative liberties taken in cinema, with science often being used as a plot device rather than a comprehensive and integral part of the film (Bucchi and Trench, 2014). Efforts have been made to better educate the public on real science and highlight the ‘bad science’ portrayed in film: Wired, an American magazine focused on how emerging technologies affect culture, economics and politics, has created a web series known as ‘Technique Critique’ where they bring in experts from different fields and disciplines to critique the accuracy of science in different films (WIRED Videos 2016). Similar efforts include a long-running film series created by the US National Institute of Health in which real scientists critique and comment on the accuracy of science in films (Bucchi and Trench, 2014).
However, despite the many benefits of scientific advances, such as the eradication of smallpox through the utilisation of vaccines and the attempts of the scientific community to alleviate misinformation, trust in science is at an all-time low according to a study by Gauchat (2012). The negative portrayal of science in such a widely consumed medium [image: ]as film has contributed to distorting the public’s understanding of the underlying science and reducing the public’s trust in the scientific community (Master and Resnik 2011).
People oppose change and are hesitant to embrace concepts they deem to be ‘unnatural’. Films such as Outbreak (1995) can skew the public’s opinion of scientists when they portray them as opportunistic individuals who use biological disasters as grounds for monetary gain. Such an interpretation of science could promote public doubts about the risks versus the benefits of new scientific innovations (National Academies of Sciences and Medicine 2017). The same fear that surrounded the idea of a “Frankenstein’s monster” is now being directed at genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and vaccines, specifically the The term ‘scientist’ now evokes images of mad movie scientists like Dr. Frankenstein (Universal Pictures, 1931).
MMR vaccine. A recent workshop exploring the trends in public opinion of science found that there are strong divisions in the public opinion about foods, with 39 percent of the population believing that GM foods are worse for your health than other foods. (National Academies of Sciences and Medicine 2017). Similar percentages had reservations about the MMR vaccine which in 1998 were linked with the development of autism in children (Moore, 2006). Despite being proven otherwise, the negative coverage in the media and in film has resulted in public distrust. The term ‘scientist’ now has negative connotations, drawing up images of unhinged scientists like Dr. Frankenstein shouting “He’s alive!” as his monster is brought to life (Bucchi and Trench, 2014).
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There are multiple scientific fields that are more commonly villainised than others in film. One of these is the field of biotechnology. As mentioned before, films like Jurassic Park (1993), a seemingly simple action thriller, display genetic engineering as a volatile and uncontrollable science. The iconic phrase “Life finds a way.” highlights the deeply ingrained belief that manipulating life is an indication of hubris and should not be undertaken lest you are punished by some divine force. Similarly, the film The Boys from Brazil (1978) associates genetic manipulation with one of the most identifiable paragons of evil: Hitler. In the film a Nazi scientist has created clones of Hitler in the hopes of continuing the Nazi cause. Worse still is the depiction of biotechnology and genetic engineering in Gattaca (1997) where this technology has been used as the foundation of a utilitarian society which has created perfect humans and discriminates against anyone genetically inferior. While the film does try to discuss the positive aspects of genetic editing such as treating genetic diseases, this is lost in a sea of dreary and dystopian imagery that is prevalent in the film. Such an unbalanced portrayal of [image: ]biotechnology instils fear and doubt in the public which can hinder scientific research due to the significant impact of public opinion on research and public policy (Burstein 2003). This can be highly detrimental to the advancement of science. For example, by slowing down biotechnology research, studies such as those dedicated to revitalising endangered species or treating genetic diseases may be severely hampered. The cold, metal staircase symbolises the imposing and inviolable nature of genetics (Gattaca 1997).
However, the negative light cast on science in film is not necessarily negative. The fear elicited from the negative portrayal of science can have a positive impact on society. Recent studies have found that beliefs about climate change are highly divided politically. When asked if they agreed with the consensus among climate change scientists who agree that humans are causing climate change, 52 percent of respondents said yes and – more alarmingly – 48 percent said no (National Academies of Sciences and Medicine 2017). By portraying the impacts of climate change in the cinema, natural disaster films such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006) can instigate a fear of the effects of climate change. Hype, whether it be through the media or film has been shown to cause a loss of public trust (Master and Resnik 2011). Just as the negative hype for biotechnology has resulted in an overall distrust of the science, so too can the negative hype produce a fear of climate change. If not, at the very least it can lead to critical thinking about climate change.
Overall, it is difficult to say what impact the portrayal of science in the cinema has had in society; whether this depiction has been ultimately positive or negative. Sure, there are examples of films where the take home message is that science is an abundantly useful tool with many positive applications. But there are just as many if not more films that depict science as the villain, only capable of endangering or enslaving the human race. It can be argued that these films demonstrate the cataclysmic ramifications of science falling into wrong hands, rather than science itself being bad. As uncle Ben famously proclaims, “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Spider-Man 2002). But the fact remains that the depiction of bad science even in the hands of an evil or reckless scientist is still a negative portrayal of science and as such, not only increases public mistrust of science but also decreases science literacy in the population. It is a rare film indeed, that provides a truly balanced portrayal of science and leaves the audience to decide the nature of the impact of the science. The film Her (2013) is one such movie. The film portrays artificial intelligence as a neutral technology, capable of becoming an isolating obsession for some and a means of exploring yourself and understanding human interaction. Despite the bleak colour palette of the film, the audience is left wondering whether the protagonist’s interactions with his AI were more emotionally real and psychologically beneficial than human interaction could have been.
With these mixed portrayals, should the artistic depiction of science therefore be regulated in the cinema? Well the question is a difficult one. Completely severing the film industry from science can not only diminish the enjoyment of films but also isolate the general public from science altogether. It may prevent the distortion of scientific concepts, but it would simultaneously prevent exposure to scientific concepts, period. The withholding of scientific issues and themes would increase public mistrust as people depend on scientists to be honest and forthcoming about their research (Resnik 2010). What if then regulations were imposed to control the depiction of science in the cinema and ensure the accurate portrayal of scientific issues? This option certainly seems like an effective way of providing accurate and honest information as is expected of researchers (Resnik 2010). However, it is also the most effective way of ushering society into a real-life Orwellian police state. What better way to escalate mistrust in science than by censoring artistic depictions of it in film?
No, despite the warping of science in the cinema, regulation can only result in poor quality films or public mistrust. Perhaps instead, attempts should be made by screenwriters and film producers to undertake research and provide a story based in real science, with the resulting film portraying realistic concerns associated with new scientific innovations. Or rather, perhaps the responsibility falls on each individual member of the public to view films from a critical standpoint and invest time in researching the depicted science for themselves.
Science is a highly nuanced theme that appears in the cinema time and time again. The portrayal of science ranges from positive, a force for good capable of solving any issue, to negative, a dangerous tool with catastrophic implications in the wrong hands to somewhere in between. This article looks at the different portrayals of science in a number of popular films such as Jurassic Park (1993), Gattaca (1997) and The Martian (2015) and discusses the impact these depictions can have on public trust and science literacy. Furthermore, it looks at the whether or not the artistic portrayal of science should be regulated in film and the implications of different levels of regulation.
The publication I would be targeting with the feature article above would be a popular science magazine such as Scientific American. Compared to a scientific journal such as Nature, Scientific American provides a platform for writing that incorporates scientific elements but that also deals with areas of popular culture and politics. This fits in well with the topic of my article which involves both science and film, an integral component of popular culture. The reason I would not publish in a film or cinematography magazine such as American Cinematographer is that these magazines normally focus on the craft of film-making and other technical aspects that are incorporated into film and television (Theasc.com 2019). Conversely, my article provides very brief outlines of the films and does not deal with the mechanics of the film-making process, but rather focuses on the element of science portrayed throughout each film. In this way my article is more suited for a popular science magazine than a film magazine.
The target demographic for a popular science magazine includes members of the general public with a casual interest in new scientific innovations and technology which coincides with my intended audience. The topic of my article further narrows the range of my intended audience to individuals who enjoy films either casually or who enjoy interacting with and exploring the elements of a film, with an emphasis on people who thoroughly enjoy analysing ethical issues surrounding science.
Throughout the article I attempted to use data and references that came from peer-reviewed journals. I tried to incorporate relatively recent research (articles published in the past 10 years) on the topic of public trust in science as the trends are prone to change. Often, I found scientific articles that had baseless data and statistics. One article had referenced a newspaper article for a statistic and when I followed the reference, I found that the source had no research, credible or otherwise to back its data. As my article was highlighting the inaccuracy of science in film, I steered away from such articles, and only used articles with credible sources, to depict an honest and multifaceted analysis of the portrayal of science in film and its impact on the public understanding of scientific concepts and issues.
- Theasc.com. (2019). About – The American Society of Cinematographers. [online] Available at: https://theasc.com/asc/about [Accessed 25 Jul. 2019].
- Bucchi, M. and Trench, B. (2014). Routledge handbook of public communication of science and technology. 2nd ed. Routledge.
- Burstein, P. (2003). The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda. Political Research Quarterly, 56(1), pp.29-40.
- The Day After Tomorrow. (2004). [film] Directed by R. Emmerich. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox.
- Gauchat, G. (2012). Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere. American Sociological Review, 77(2), pp.167-187.
- An Inconvenient Truth. (2006). [film] Directed by D. Guggenheim. Hollywood: Paramount Classics.
- Apollo 13. (1995). [film] Directed by R. Howard. Hollywood: Universal Pictures.
- Her. (2013). [film] Directed by S. Jonze. Hollywood: Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Maentis (n.d.). 99 Steps of Progress: Hollywood. [image] Available at: http://www.maentis.com [Accessed 22 Jul. 2019].
- Master, Z. and Resnik, D. (2011). Hype and Public Trust in Science. Science and Engineering Ethics, 19(2), pp.321-335.
- Moore, A. (2006). Bad science in the headlines. Who takes responsibility when science is distorted in the mass media?. EMBO reports, 7(12), pp.1193-1196.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017. Examining the Mistrust of Science: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief.
- Gattaca. (1997). [film] Directed by A. Niccol. Hollywood: Columbia Pictures.
- Outbreak. (1995). [film] Directed by W. Peterson. Hollywood: Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Spider-Man. (2002). [film] Directed by S. Raimi. Hollywood: Columbia Pictures.
- Resnik, D. (2010). Scientific Research and the Public Trust. Science and Engineering Ethics, 17(3), pp.399-409.
- The Boys from Brazil. (1978). [film] Directed by F. Schaffner. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox.
- The Martian. (2015). [film] Directed by R. Scott. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox.
- Jurassic Park. (1993). [film] Directed by S. Spielberg. Hollywood: Universal Studios.
- Universal Pictures (1931). Movie Poster for the 1931 Frankenstein Movie. [image] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/learning/lesson-plans/teaching-frankenstein-with-the-new-york-times.html [Accessed 24 Jul. 2019].
- WIRED Videos. (2016). Technique Critique. [online] Available at: https://video.wired.com/series/technique-critique [Accessed 24 Jul. 2019].