Hollywood gets science wrong — and that's okay

A gap separates people who do science and the people who make science fiction, but that's no problem, thanks to the people who bridge the two.

Sidney Perkowitz is a physics professor at Emory University, and the author of several books that blend science and pop culture, including Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a science advisor to multiple films, including Contact and the 2008 re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Together, they fight crime.

Okay, that last part isn't technically true. But it does make for a good story, and, in that, it actually does a really good job of showing you what these two men actually do. Both Perkowitz and Shostak work to bridge the gap between the people who do science and the people who make science fiction. They're involved in the Science and Entertainment Exchange — a National Academies of Sciences effort to bring scientists together with directors, producers, and writers. The goals: Help scientists do better public communication and make sci-fi more awesome. But there's a catch here, because "awesome" and "totally 100% accurate" are seldom the same thing.

This week, I spoke to Perkowitz and Shostak about what happens when science and entertainment cross streams, how you illustrate things nobody has ever seen, and why — even when the science in the movies is bad — science still wins.


Maggie Koerth-Baker: First, let's get some background. How does the relationship between Hollywood and science work?

Sidney Perkowitz: All I can really comment on is what the Science and Entertainment Exchange does. There are two main modes of interaction. First, the Exchange is open to having a movie maker or a TV maker call them up and ask for a suggestion of a scientist who could advise them on a specific issue. And the Exchange will give them a name. There's hundreds of interactions like that. The second thing is to have these soirees to bring science and entertainment people together. Those allow people to communicate and it builds trust between the two sides.

Seth Shostak: [When you work as an advisor to a specific project] it's usually more in-depth, rather than a quick question. The minimum I've done is an hour-long talk. They want to hear about the general subject area and marinate in the subject a bit. It's background research for them and the studio is enlightened enough to think that's worth the plane tickets. [Shostak had just finished spending the morning with a movie team that flew up from L.A. to meet him before he and I spoke.] More often, though, the National Science Foundation buys me a ticket down there.

Normally they don't want to know how to illustrate an idea — they know how to illustrate things — but they have quesitons about details. How do we make the dialog sound like it's real scientists, for instance. If aliens invaded Earth, why would they come here? And what sort of weapons would they have? As if we know. They're looking for something to hang a plot point on. So I advise them and then they take maybe 30% of my suggestions.

MKB: Seth, I'm curious how you'd answer that question. What sort of weapons would the aliens have?

SS: Probably very poorly. If I knew, I'd be working for DARPA. But I'll make some general observations. Like, say, our weapons work basically by hitting pieces of metal and throwing throwing them at someone else. It's all based around projectiles. But that's kind of silly. They can't move very fast and they're very inaccurate. It's crazy, when you think about it, that we build a whole aircraft carrier, for billions of dollars, and we put it out in the ocean and its only function is to move us a little closer to the enemy so we can throw bits of metal at them. It's so primitive.

So I'd just assume that the aliens have gotten away from bullets. Maybe they're using lasers. Maybe they have launchers on the Moon or their planet and you don't have to build these big ships to get right up close. But, you know, [the entertainment people] aren't thinking outside the box like that. You ask a caveman, what weapons will the aliens use and he'll tell you, "Well, they'll have bigger clubs." They're thinking bigger artillery. So it's my job to step back and say, "Well what is it you really want to accomplish and what are some other ways we could do that."

MKB: What happens when they want to know what something looks like, and nobody know what it looks like — like, you're talking about something that's still theoretical, or something that can't be observed directly.

SP: With particle physics, a lot of science fiction shows the outcome, rather than the particle itself. You have this miraculous particle that makes a weapon. They don't often try to show the particle itself, they show the weapon. The example that comes to mind, though, is from the other end of the scale — not particles, but at the cosmic level. Go back to Star Wars. Every time they go into overdrive, traveling faster than light, what you saw through the windscreen was stars stretching out. That was a great impressionistic way to show what was going on without trying to explain what was actually going on. They were expressing the idea of faster-than-light travel in visuals, in a way that's good enough to keep audience happy.

SS: Getting it correct is less important than conveying what is going on. During the making of Contact, I was one of the people called up by folks at Warner Brothers asking questions. They asked me what it looked like when you fly through a wormhole. Well, nobody knows, of course. And it's not clear you could even do it. But it is true that when you go faster than the speed of light the universe collapses into a bright point of light ahead of you and a bright point behind you. I told them that and then I told them that, usually when someone illustrates it though, they use something that looks like a pig's intestine. But this would be more accurate. So they said, "Thank you," and we hung up, and they made it look like the pig's intestine.

But that's okay. They're going for the pop culture, the iconic depiction of the thing. It's really a shorthand, so that when you, the audience, see something like that, you get it. They don't need to spend a lot of screen time explaining what it is. There's a different intent and a different audience. In the question, "What does it look like", the important point is "like".

MKB: So it's okay to get the science wrong?

SP: You have to bend accuracy. Entertainment starts with an assumption that a lot of scientists don't start with: The story and the science have to somehow blend. You can't just insist the science be 100% accurate. It's better to have some science in there that's more or less accurate, than to have it badly done or not there at all. So [as advisors] we'll bend some in return for having some input.

Almost all of the superhero movies have some of this in them. You take being bitten by a radioactive spider in Spiderman. There's no scientific sense to it. But it starts the story going, and maybe along the way you can fit in real science. In Spiderman 2, we're way beyond his origin story now, and he's dealing with a scientist who wants to create fusion power and the way he does it is meaningful — using lasers to induce fusion is a real, ongoing scientific operation. There's real science in there. I think a really hard-nosed scientist might say you have to throw the whole thing out the window. But the Science and Entertainment Exchange says let's accept the bad part and see what we can fit in that works reasonably well.

SS: Scientists like to whinge about accuracy. And it's true, particularly years ago, a lot of sci-fi was just bonkers. I mean, it's still bonkers. But even more back then. But [the entertainment industry] aren't in the business of science education. They're in the business of entertainment.

I was the science advisor for The Day The Earth Stood Still, and one of the things they had me do was redline the scripts and help them make the dialogue sound more realistic. And they have these lines, like one scientist saying to another, "Professor Sputnik, there's an asteroid on a hyperbolic trajectory" and they rattle off all these numbers. Well, that's not how scientists talk to one another. What they'd say is, "Bob, there's a goddam rock headed our way!" But they don't take all my advice on that because they're trying to make those characters sound "like" scientists, not sound like actual scientists.

MKB: If they don't have to get it right, though, what's the point of involving scientists at all?

When I was a kid, you'd see something in a movie and realize it wasn't right, but it's coming off the supply reel at 90 feet a minute there's no backing it up to see what you'd missed. Now you can just hit a button, stop, back up and play it 20 times and see exactly what's wrong. And then you go on your blog and say it's wrong and stupid, and that has actual consequences for the filmmakers, which it didn't in the past. Before the one percent who noticed a mistake didn't have a platform to tell ayone else about it. Now there's much more interest. People do have a platform. And so the National Academy of Sciences set up the Science and Entertainment Exchange down in L.A. to bring filmmakers and scientists together when they're in early stages of a film and can still change things. It's better to get it right than wrong. But to say it's going to make a big difference in science literacy is probably not true. Nobody going to say, "I don't want to be a scientist because I saw this movie and they got all the science wrong." What's important is that it grabs you at emotional level, not intellectual one. That's what got me interested in science, in fact. Seeing silly science fiction films as a kid.

MKB: Okay, but what does science really get out of this relationship? Why is it worth your time to keep them from being picked on by the Internet?

SP: Here are some of the pluses. Science gets exposure. One of my favorite movies goes back a few years — The Day After Tomorrow. It was partly right and partly wrong on climate science, it had things unfolding over a matter of days that would take years, for instance. Purists were upset. But a more flexible scientist would say it got some of the basic ideas across. And in surveys since, we see that it did raise consciousness about global warming.

The other thing is that you get kids turned on. If some 16-year-old girl sees a film about neuroscience and it's wrong, but she grows up to become a neuroscience who does science right, that's a net plus. There's anecdote after anecdote of scientists getting into science because science fiction got them as a kid.

SS: I think this is good to do, but in the end, storytell is about the emotional content. If they've got the technology accurate, but the movie isn't interesting, it doesn't matter. I think advising for films is one of those things that it's better to do than not. It's like table manners. On the other hand, the real value is when you bring scientists and filmmakers together they might expose the filmmakers to new science that they didn't know about and that might be really interesting. Sci-fi tends to follow these tried and true formulae because they don't know what's going on in science. What was there before the big bang? They don't know that's an active area of research. It's valuable to do it simply because it might give them an idea of a new story. So the real value may be exposing people who have ability to present stories to the public to new ideas in science — especially if those ideas might interest next generation of scientists.

MKB: Have there been times when you've seen Hollywood get the science really spot on in a really clever way?

SP: One of my very favorite examples really shows how creative people, if they want to, can do science right and make a good story. Do you remember A Beautiful Mind. In real life, John Nash won the Nobel for a math theorem and I'm sure you know that's the hardest thing to express in a pop culture way. But they had a scene in which he was trying to make choices out of multiple possibilities. They illustrated that in a scene where a bunch of male math students went to a bar and tried to figure out how to connect with pretty young women in the bar. That director found a really clever way to act out an abstract idea and get it right. So it can be done.

Image: scotia theater, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 75001512@N00's photostream

Published 9:08 am Fri, Jan 25, 2013

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.

Maggie goes places and talks to people. Find out where she'll be speaking next.

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36 Responses to “Hollywood gets science wrong — and that's okay”

  1. James Salsman says:

    Clearly these people have never had to remove the endless fictional speculation from any of Wikipedia’s articles related to faster than light travel.

  2. peregrinus says:

    What I’d like to see is science getting Hollywood right.  Grasping a director’s imagination so firmly and compellingly that the scientist’s view is what makes it onto the screen.

    Especially if they could jokingly get something screened that was plain stoopid to the most uninitiated member of the audience.  That, that’s what I would like!

  3. oasisob1 says:

    When Prometheus was released, I read a lot of reviews that went on an on about the poor science. I saw the movie so much later I had kind of forgotten about it. It was a fantastic movie, and I was able to brush off some of the obvious bad science. I just didn’t care, the movie was that much fun to watch.

  4. Engineer_ says:

    That’s no excuse for Prometheus. 

  5. JoeBuck says:

    No, “A Beautiful Mind” did not get the Nash equilibrium right, not at all.  A Nash Equilibrium is a situation where no player can obtain an advantage, because any change to an agreed-on policy would produce a worse outcome, so there’s no way to cheat. In the bar situation, any of the guys can cheat by pretending he’s gone along with the deal but then sneak off to hit on the hot blonde instead.

    • AnthonyC says:

      Right. It’s more like a prisoner’s dilemna

      • Tynam says:

        It’s almost exactly the converse of the prisoner’s dilemma.

        In a prisoner’s dilemma, each individual benefits if they cheat, but nobody cheating leads to the best outcome for the group as a whole.

        In a Nash equilibrium, any individual is worse off if they cheat, so the result will happen even though it might not be the best possible outcome for the group as a whole,

        • AnthonyC says:

          Right, but the situation in the movie was a (potentially iterated) prisoner’s dilemna, not a Nash equilibrium. And Nash is discussing Pareto optima, not Nash equilibria.

          • Tynam says:

            Ah; I misunderstood the referent for “It’s”; you were talking about the scene.  (Sudden lightbulb.)  Caught on now, thanks.

            True (and typical) that one frustrating thing about movies is how often they touch on some genuinely interesting bit of maths (or science), then misclassify it or ignore it in favour of a dumber example, or both.

    • wysinwyg says:

       The Nash equilibrium is a condition for some abstract mathematical games.  The fact that Nash (the character in the movie) applied this mathematical model to a physical scenario in which it did not pertain doesn’t change the fact that the movie described the abstract condition known as the “Nash equilibrium” rather soundly.

      • Tynam says:

        I wouldn’t want to over-emphasize the abstraction here; all concrete games reduce to abstract mathematical games.

        (Whether this is practical is unlikely with many games, but it’s always possible.)

  6. wysinwyg says:

    The biggest problem is that movies do more to shape people’s worldviews than science education.  If movies mislead people regarding what scientists do, what science is all about, and similar that is actually a pretty big concern, I think.

    Getting the details about the scientific content a little bit wrong isn’t so bad.  At any given time there’s plenty of scientific findings that will ultimately be reversed.  For example, Arthur Clarke wrote a story in the 50′s about noise cancellation where “conservation of energy” caused a huge explosion.  That’s Arthur Clarke, conceiver of geosynchronous satellites, getting a pretty fundamental point of physics completely wrong.

    On the other hand, screwing up details that could very easily be checked and are common knowledge to nerds (a strong proportion of the viewership for sci fi action movies from what I understand) is really jarring — at least to me.  If you want to make a more enjoyable, watchable movie, just add a $100 physics textbook to the movie’s budget and get some unpaid interns to fact check the script.

  7. AnthonyC says:

    I don’t mind wrong science so much, unless it’s done really really badly.

    One minor complaint is the way scientists in moves are portrayed. Not the “I can solve this by myself in an hour” problem, but the Spock-like “give 7 sig figs and always be wrong” problem. It teaches the lesson “We can safely ignore science’s predictions and go with our gut instincts.”

    • Jerril says:

       Definitely agreed.
      This is connected to what bothers me about the interviewees not being terribly bothered by the scientists not shouting “Holy shit it’s headed straight for us!” or some other more realistic line of dialogue: scientists are un-people, who say and do un-people things, and are never right.

  8. xzzy says:

    I’m fine with movies getting science wrong, what I’m not okay with is it not being plausible “what if” situations. Hackers vs Tron is my favorite example. Tron gets a pass because they asked the question “what would it be like to live in a video game” even though nothing you see in Tron is actually what happens inside a computer. They don’t try to pass it off as anything other than fantasy.

    Hackers on the other hand is painful because they were trying to glamorize hacking, using real world equipment. Tape robots are mechanically incapable of fighting over a cartridge, and don’t even get me started on security analysts chasing down a hacker in a virtual environment instead of just yanking the power cable so he can run forensics later.

    • Tynam says:

      Exactly.  I can advance suspension of disbelief for just about any premise however silly, but once I’ve accepted that premise the rest of your movie had damn well better follow through on the consequences.

      It’s the storytelling equivalent of the Uncanny Valley problem.  I don’t mind if your starship has FTL travel, but I can’t stand it when it doesn’t have surge protectors on the bridge consoles.

  9. kroeghe says:

    I feel like such a jerk for saying this, but if this guy’s favourite movie really is “The Day After Tomorrow”, then maybe it’s a good thing that filmmakers don’t listen to all of his suggestions… ;)

  10. soupcrusher says:

    I just watched the trailer for ‘Upside Down’ before coming across this article: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkYvYGR7Ys4
    Laws of gravity. Pfft.

  11. vonbobo says:

    Great article.

    Pilots complain about aviation movies, nurses and doctors complain about medical movies, sailors complain about sailing movies, and I’m sure even entertainment people complain about movies made about the entertainment industry. I never take that criticism as anything more than some sort of boastful smugness, or at the very least some tongue in cheek observation.

    Also- it is called science FICTION after all.

    • euansmith says:

      Its called “Science Fiction” but what we get pretty much without fault is “Science Fantasy” where real science is dumped in favour of magical fiction.

      • Jonathan Badger says:

        There’s a relatively new (or not so new if you want to count things like Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith from the 1920s) genre called “LabLit”, which is fiction about science and scientists rather than spaceships or monsters.

        Probably the best one I’ve read is Allegra Goodman’s “Intuition” about cancer researchers and the temptation to read more into data than what can be legitimately concluded and how it’s a slippery slope from that to actual fudging the data. I highly recommend the book.

    • Robert Drop says:

      Also, in addition to what @euansmith:disqus said, if the science is so bad that even as a layman I’m cringing, then that’s pretty bad.  And that happens far too often with films, and for no practical reason (i.e. it wouldn’t have impacted the plot at all to have gotten it right).

      • vonbobo says:

        You are correct, but what I got from the article is that writers/directors generally don’t care because they are writing a story and they don’t want science to get in the way of the narrative, even when they know the correct answer. And I don’t believe general audiences, excluding the small group of long winded bloggers, care either- they want to be entertained and have fun. You call yourself a layman, but you still may be in a small minority of people who even caught the error, and then even a smaller set of people that cared.

        And why is the word “science” used at all? The English Patient isn’t called “medical fiction”. Snakes on a Plane isn’t called an “aviation fiction”. Personally, I feel that 90% of sci-fi movies are incorrectly labeled and should simply be called action, horror, etc. (my answer to this question is that hollywood feels the need to direct general audiences away from the “nerd” movies)

        So all movies contain inconsistencies- you know there are flora and fauna experts that know the movie scene isn’t in the right region or country for the story. So why do scientific minded folks feel like they have cornered the market on being slighted in movies?

        • Robert Drop says:

          The science mistakes are often so egregious that they’re basic things that most people should know.  If you look at how evolution is treated in sci-fi programs, for instance, it’s presented in a way that anyone with a high school education should be appalled by.  That, in the US at least, they generally aren’t is an indication of how poor the science education is.

          • euansmith says:

            Not everyone with a High School Education would be appalled by the treatment of Evolution… some High Schools use those Creationist “Science” Books :D

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      nurses and doctors complain about medical movies

      The most unrealistic thing there is the idea that doctors marry nurses. They marry other doctors. Or lawyers.

  12. euansmith says:

    Jet pack? Flying car? Basic Pleasure model? I don’t ask much from life… I’d settle for the Basic Pleasure Model.

  13. Andrew Planet says:

    How funny,”and its only function is to move us a little closer to the enemy so we can throw bits of metal at them. It’s so primitive.” How true! I think that really there must come the time that an intelligent exo-species becomes so evolved that it would just avoid any other nascent intelligent technological species still projecting any hint of primitive aggressive antagonism. Technologically savvy Romans were barbarians compared what is deemed civilised nowadays

    • Maurizio Pescatori says:

      “Technologically savvy Romans were barbarians compared what is deemed civilised nowadays”
      Were I a Roman, I’d feel offended by this comment. Romans had Codes of Law and Tribunals, and their Juridical infrastructure was so sound it became the british, then the American Judicial System. They had paved roads in 200 BC when in 1600 AD Queen Elizabeth’s London was a muddy quagmire after a rainstorm. They had acqueducts and sewers and public baths and public surgeries whereas in many “modern” nations people will go on day after day after day without so much as a hint of soap. 
      Technologically savvy Romans were such because, first and foremostm their society was sound.
      End of story.

      • Jerril says:

        Romans thought torture, training animals to rape prisoners, and death sports were fabulous entertainment.
        Their society was based on continual conquest and slavery.
        They used pure unlined lead pipes for all that drinking water, and didn’t have for most of the history of the empire. Soap isn’t necessary for hygiene, it just makes it simpler.

  14. geech says:

    how nice to see Boris on boingboing.

  15. Goodfella says:

    When the bus in Speed jumped the bridge and defied gravity that was it for me. A movie has to be beleivable.

    • Jerril says:

      Objects that move wrong (like the bus in Speed) definitely are my bugaboo. My mother’s kryptonite is visible power outlets or wires in period dramas.

  16. katenonymous says:

    Here’s the thing: it’s great to say “Oh, maybe the entertainment value will get kids interested in science.” But what’s happening right now is that juries don’t understand science, and think that if you’re not showing them what they saw on CSI, your case is invalid.

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