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Science goes to the movies

This is one of my Big Peeves. It’s so huge, it’s not even a pet. The incredibly dumb treatment of science in entertainment is only the beginning. As someone who’s on both sides of that fence, a professional biologist and a rarely-paid science fiction writer, the thing that drives me screaming batshit crazy is when the mental midgets don’t follow their own rules.

Ars Technica has an excellent post on two physics profs in Florida, Efthimiou & Llewellyn, who detail a whole series of nonsense.

The excuse for the crap is always that the story comes first. Can’t get in the way of the story. So why do they get in the way of their own ignorant plots?

The two physicists describe a movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, about a prison breakout on a planet that’s explodingly hot by day. The prisoners escape at dawn, the sun’s overtaking them, one guy stops to look back at the hero rescuing the female prisoner who’s lagging behind (now there’s something that’s not a cliche). The stopped fellow is literally incinerated to nothing in seconds when the sun hits him. The hero, meanwhile, saves the girl by gallantly sacrificing all the drinking water in his canteen and pouring it over her to keep her cool enough to get away.

So is it as hot as a pottery kiln on that world or isn’t it? Make up your goddamn minds.

It’s practically the first rule of any fantastical writing: bad things happen when you break the rules of your own magic. The reader climbs right out of the story and starts laughing at you. And they start pointing and laughing if you break the rules to get the hero out of a jam.

Don’t get me wrong. I know fantasy has to break some rules or there wouldn’t be any point. If we wanted straight reality, we’d just read the dictionary and take anti-depressants. Faster than light travel, just as a big for instance, is against the Law in the worst way (unless two German profs change that). When the broken rule is necessary to the story, and when it does not foster day-to-day ignorance, that’s different. That’s allowed and necessary.

What I mean by “fostering day-to-day ignorance” is paltering with the truth for no reason at all, and in such a way as to make people stupider in their real lives. The reason for doing that has nothing to do with “the story.” It has everything to do with sheer laziness on somebody’s part: writers, directors, Vogons who are secretly trying to destroy humans, somebody.

Take an example from an epidsode of Star Trek- The Next Generation. There’s a big disaster as everyone evolves backward into insects (small problem right there…) and Beverly Crusher is saying, “The DNA! It’s degrading into amino acids!”

There’s two problems with that. One, any kids who are smart enough to learn will learn drivel. It’s much harder to unlearn stuff than to learn it in the first place. Two, exactly how would it interfere with the story to have Crusher shout, “It’s degrading into nucleic acids!”

Okay, that example, though egregious, is only of academic interest as a practical matter. But consider any show that has somebody calling an ambulance. One of my favorite blogs is Random Acts of Reality by a London EMT. He points out how many people have learned from the soaps that the correct way of getting an ambulance is to yell “AAAMBULAAAANCE” into the phone and hang up. It hugely complicates everybody’s life in emergency services. Some people may even die because of it.

Sure, it would take an extra 30 seconds to do that right. The crucial difference is that the caller just has to answer the dispatcher’s questions, starting with “Fire, police, or medical?” and going on through important items such as the caller’s location. There doesn’t need to be any gap in dramatic tension. The second hand on the clock could move slower, and slower, and … slower … . Meanwhile the phantom ticking the caller feels grows louder and louder and louder and faster. Admittedly, you might need a slightly better actor/actress than one who only knows how to yell one word. But the upside is everybody would magically learn how to report a disaster. That could be a life skill in the real sense of the word.

Take another example of real world consequences. Efthimiou & Llewellyn give a thorough mathematical analysis to the stupidity of a bus managing to leap a 50-foot gap in a flat bridge. That was apparently done in a movie called Speed. The directors seem to have forgotten about gravity.

But it’s just a special effect, right? Nobody learns about real-world physics from films. Nobody ever needs to race a bus across a broken bridge. (Yeah, I know. I refuse to take that cheap shot.)

The bus problem is not that different from a common one drivers face. Just the other day I came across a fellow stopped by the side of the road because he thought he could fly over a foot-deep pothole suitable for parking a (small) foreign import. Predictably, the front wheels slammed into the sharp edge at full speed. The front airbag deployed ($700), he was going to need an alignment ($75), he’d probably dented the wheel rims (2 x at least $100), the tires would probably have to be replaced (2 x at least $100 on his car), and he was lucky he didn’t lose control of the vehicle. It’s a tough way to find out that gravity doesn’t care whether you have four-wheel drive or not. Would he, and the hundreds of other drivers who make this mistake, have made it if every movie gave people the right images about what happens when you move down as well as forward? And if they did, I’m absolutely convinced it wouldn’t lessen the dramatic tension one bit.

(Seriously, they’d have to write the scene differently if anyone was supposed to live, but there’d be nothing boring about it.)

I think there’s a real issue here about whether a culture’s storytellers are under an ethical obligation to teach as well as amuse. I don’t mean that in a nanny state, let’s-have-a-new-bureaucracy-censoring-DVDs sort of way. I mean that it needs to be a component of artistic integrity. If your story, song, or whatever, can also help people get through life, then do it. There’s no pleasanter way to learn than via entertainment. So why are our storytellers feeding us stupid pills instead of giving us fun we can use?

Related links that often blow up media science ignorance: Bad Astronomy Blog and Mike, the mad biologist. I know I’ve missed good ones. I’ll add them in updates.

Crossposted at Shakespeare’s Sister