Science and the giant rubber duck… He's watching..
When I think about science fiction in the movies I immediately imagine that iconic image of Colin Clive in the classic 1931 Frankenstein movie, shouting ‘It’s alive!’ as he brings life into his monstrous creation. Back then, audiences were on the edge of their seats, but nowadays we all know how the story goes…
Frankenstein was arguably the very first true science fiction novel, but while the science aspect was new it was a familiar story line, and one that seems to appear in just about every genre. It is the tale of ‘I told you so’. It usually goes like this: character wants to do something, friend/wife/society tells him not to or there will be terrible consequences, he does it anyway, terrible consequences follow. Character learns life lesson and/or the world subsequently implodes…
The number of science fiction films which follow this template and ones like it are seemingly endless: Frankenstein and The Fly, right up to more recent fiction like Jurassic park and 28 days later. Apparently audiences love nothing better than to shout ‘you won’t be doing that again will you!’ at cinema screens. It’s hardly surprising, science gives us all new ways to blow up the universe, and whether these images are realistic or not science has become something fiction writers have been keen to exploit. It seems the tale of curiosity killed the cat, or in our case curiosity killed Schrödingers cat, is here with us to stay.
Where in this line of reasoning does the actual science come in? It is often said that these images damage the reputation of science and scientists. It has become somewhat of a sacred cow of science communicators that when discussing science fiction these assumptions are to be taken as given. Prominent communicators of science push this idea and even the National Science Foundation singles out science fiction as a major damaging influence on public attitudes toward science. Scientists and scientific organisations feel compelled to produce ‘the real science behind the movies’ style documentaries in order to combat its corrosive influence, but where is the evidence that these films actually influence public opinion in this way?
Well actually there is relatively little empirical evidence to support the idea that negative portrayal of science in fiction directly affects public literacy and understanding of science. While early studies of science fiction suggested a direct relationship between television use and negative attitudes towards science, subsequent studies show a more complicated picture. The current data suggests that ‘displacement’ is a stronger factor in the cultivation of these negative attitudes. This is the idea that time spent watching television simply prevents taking part in activities which would lead to higher levels of science knowledge, such as reading or visiting museums.
Other major studies on the subject tend to suggest that rather than being a cause of fears, works of science fiction are more likely to reflect already held concerns. It is over simplistic to blame our favourite sci-fi movies for any and all public concerns about GM crops, cloning or nanotechnology. It is true that analogies to fiction are often used by the public as metaphors to convey fears about science, but the idea that their concerns were warranted by works of fiction simply isn’t backed up by evidence. It seems there is a complex web of different factors influencing an individual’s knowledge and acceptance of science, far from the one-size fits all ‘Sci-fi alibi’ some of us in the science community have come to accept.
Furthermore, while the fall-back assumption is that fictional television is overwhelmingly negative in its portrayal of science; there is evidence to suggest that images of scientists are actually quite positive. Scientists do indeed have a greater share of negative stereotyping (1 ‘evil’ character to every 5 ‘good’) compared to doctors (1:19) and police (1:40), but content analysis suggests they are generally portrayed positively on the whole. Far from being the ‘Mad scientist’ caricature of the 1930’s, scientists on-screen are a more nuanced bunch, with even the more villainous characters not simply being out-and-out evil, more fatally flawed, misguided or simply naive.
The picture is the same for portrayal of science itself, at least in cinema. The most comprehensive study was by film scholar Andrew Tudor, who undertook a content analysis of 990 horror films produced between 1931 and 1984 and found that while science was generally the main source of threat in horror (at around 25%), there has been a significant decline in science fiction films following this model post 1960. While there are limitations to this kind of research, it does highlight that our ideas about science-fiction may not be what they first appear.
It is ironic to think that the ‘Science-fiction effect’ that a great deal of scientists hold to is actually not based on science. Using science fiction as a pedagogic tool to challenge beliefs is one thing, but getting hot under the collar because Professor Frink is about to destroy the planet is a different issue entirely. In fact (and this is just my opinion here) science communicators seem to be the ones who are among those who love to perpetuate this idea the most, perhaps because shooting down straw men images feels like a pretty direct way to do our job.
I will be the first to admit that nothing feels better than to sinking your teeth into caricatures like Dr. Moreau, but it seems it really isn’t all that useful after all. At least not if our aims as science communicators is to… you know… communicate science. It turns out our time might really be better spent elsewhere.
Andrew Jonathan Balmer