Thursday, March 11, 2010

Culture Shock 03.11.10: Scientists ask for better science at the movies

Getting good science from a typical Hollywood movie is a bit like hearing hoof beats and looking up to see a zebra instead of a horse. It happens, but not nearly as often.

To change that, the National Academy of Sciences founded the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which aims to improve the portrayal of science in movies and on television.

But while some members of Hollywood's creative community have proved receptive, it looks like the scientists still have a lot of work to do.

Exhibit A: "2012," directed by serial offender Roland Emmerich, whose credits also include "The Day After Tomorrow," "10,000 B.C.," "Godzilla" and "Independence Day." He also helmed the Mel Gibson vehicle "The Patriot," so history isn't his strong suit, either.

The bad news is bad science doesn't stand in the way of box-office success. "Armageddon" grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide despite relying on some of the worst science ever committed to film. From a scientific standpoint, "Armageddon" is like spending $140 million to remake "Plan 9 from Outer Space."

The good news, however, is bad science doesn't always sell.

Exhibit B: "The Core," a box-office disaster so egregious in its scientific illiteracy it makes "Armageddon" look like it was written by Stephen Hawking.

Meanwhile, good science — or at least passable science — can make money. "District 9" made more than $200 million worldwide on a budget of $30 million.

But while there is nothing preventing filmmakers from being more scientifically literate, there is no guaranteed payoff for scientific accuracy, either.

Scientists can complain about scientific inaccuracies in movies, but audiences don't seem to care. And the reason audiences don't care is because they don't know much about science.

A Harris Interactive poll last year found that only 53 percent of adults in the U.S. know how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun. And only 59 percent know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. A Gallup Poll last year found that only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution.

Given statistics like that, it's no wonder hardly anyone complains about the aliens in "Avatar," no matter how unlikely it is that a species would evolve hair that plugs into trees and animals, just like a USB cable plugs into a computer.

By Hollywood standards, "Avatar" director James Cameron is usually careful with his science, but even he won't let science stand in the way of a metaphor. He has 2.6 billion reasons — and counting — not to care too much about the plausibility of USB hair. Besides, most scientists are giving the Na'vi a pass because they are Cameron's only real stretch of the imagination in "Avatar." Well, besides "unobtanium," that is.

Emory University physicist Sidney Perkowitz, for example, has suggested a rule allowing every film just one major suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, while the success of "Avatar" has every movie studio rushing to make 3-D movies, they don't seem as eager to follow Cameron's lead in getting the science right.

Scientific illiteracy isn't confined to the United States. Michigan State researcher Jon Miller found that while only 28 percent of Americans qualify as scientifically literate, that's still slightly better than in Europe and Japan.

So, while I wish the National Academy of Sciences well, I doubt it will make much headway in Hollywood until audiences, not just here but worldwide, demand more realistic science from their entertainment.

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