Comic Con 4: Abusing Science video

By Phil Plait | August 2, 2010 12:15 pm

Last week was Comic Con, and for the third year in a row, the Hive Overmind Discover Magazine sent me along to be on a panel. Every year we do a variation on discussing the science of science fiction, and this year we focused on its abuse. We asked our panelists (Jaime Paglia [Eureka], Kevin Grazier [science advisor for Eureka and Battlestar Galactica], Zack Stentz [Fringe, Thor], and Sean Carroll [cosmologist and DM blogger]) to pick examples of good and bad science in the movies.

The results? Well, watch for yourself:

A couple of notes:

  • The panel was a bit short. The panels in the room had been running long all day, and the Comic Con Powers That Be were pressuring me to end the panel really early. Sticking it to The Man is one of my favorite things to do, so I let it run almost to the full length.
  • It pained me to admit I wasn’t fully caught up on Eureka, which is really a fun show. My own TV show, the blog, and a billion other things have been swamping me lately, but since the panel I’ve been dutifully watching it, and it gets better with each episode! I really recommend it along with Fringe.

To more meaty matters: Zack brought up the point that science is important, and important to get right, but not at the cost of the story. This may surprise you, but I agree. As I said in my opening comments, I was inspired as a kid by some shows that abused science in a pretty awful way. But the science itself wasn’t the key thing, it was just that science and scientists were there. And in many cases, they were the key characters, figuring out what was going on. Spock, Victor Bergman, and many others were my heroes.

Of course, I hate it when science is flogged to death in movies, like in "Armageddon", "The Core", and a gazillion others, but even then it can still inspire someone. I’d rather it were treated with respect, as it was in "Deep Impact", or even "Iron Man". That’s when it really can come alive for kids, and even adults.

But the important thing to remember is that these are stories. Keeping the science accurate but screwing up the story makes for a bad movie or TV show. It’s OK to mess up the science sometimes if it’s necessary.

But only if it’s necessary. Many times, accurate science can vastly improve a story, and that’s the part of the aim of the Science and Entertainment exchange, which in part sponsored the panel. Writers can be very good at their craft, but they may be limited simply by not knowing all the possibilities the science of their story provides them. Nature is more clever than any of us, so I think that looking to the real science can inspire the writers. The more information they have about reality, the more likely they will see avenues and twists in the plot that would’ve been hidden otherwise.

That’s why I like that producers are using more science advisors. They can always ignore the advice if they want, and that’s OK. But sometimes it also provides a more entertaining story, too, and that’s the most important thing of all.

Panelist Sean Carrol provides his own thoughts on this at Cosmic Variance.

Related posts:

Comic Con 1: Abusing the Sci of SciFi panel
Comic Con 2: SMBC and me
Comic Con 3: w00tstock


Comments (34)

  1. Chris

    I know I’m not the first to mention this, but we’re all waiting for your opinion on Avatar!

  2. My most notorious science error of all time has got to be the swelling/exploding heads on Mars in “Total Recall.” Really crosses the line into unforgivable misinformation.

  3. Tribeca Mike

    As to “Space: 1999” — who could (or would want to) forget Catherine Schell as Maya, who once naively opined, “You mean, people killed people, just because they were different from each other? That’s disgusting.”

  4. BJN

    Meh. Science fiction that isn’t grounded in science is fantasy. I don’t have anything against fantasy, it’s a great art form with thousands of years of history.

    “Eureka” is 60’s-style happy-ending semi-comic low-fi sci-fi. “Battlestar Galactica” is at the core a religious parable with a core of mysticism that’s much stronger in the gritty remake than in the Mormon-theology-based kitschy original TV series. Is BSG any better because it makes sounds in space quieter than in other space operas?

  5. @BJN
    It’s a tough call sometimes. For the purpose of storytelling, you need sounds to accompany things rocketing and exploding in space to create a mood. That’s what I would call artistic license.

  6. Whomever1

    To say you have to have good science throughout for something to be science fiction means you have to leave a lot of interesting ideas untouched. Or only touched by some future being I can’t relate to. A faster-than-light drive is a fantasy, but it’s the only vehicle that will get Joe Ordinary into a story about some interesting alien ecologies or civilizations. It’s just like Berdyaev said–you can’t get to eschatology if you have to start from ontology.


  7. What were the missing clips?

  8. Egaeus

    There’s a big difference between a MacGuffin such as FTL travel or transporters that are assumed to have been invented, and the horrible abuses heaped upon science by the aforementioned films.

    As far as sound in space, I don’t seem to recall anyone complaining that Firefly didn’t have any.

  9. ERic

    I always thought it made Firefly that much more dramatic.

    As to the exploding heads on Mars, that did it for me. I walked away from that movie utterly disgusted at the horrible abuse of science.

  10. John Sandlin

    I’m going to echo rikchik… can we have a brief synopsis of the “clip unavailable” bits?

    A comment to gogblog regarding sounds in space, I think appropriate music could take the place of the nonsensical sounds in many sci-fi shows and be every bit as effective.

  11. PeteC

    For me, I don’t mind in the slightest if science fiction makes up all kinds of new science – I’m fine with hyperdrives, force field and phaser beams – but I don’t like it when it openly breaks existing science. It jars me out of the immersion and into a “but it doesn’t work like that!” realisation that this is a story that the writer got wrong. The aforementioned Total Recall, Armegeddon, etc, for example.

    The exception is things like Eureka, or Girl Genius. Mad science or Steampunk science are different – they’re basically silliness and magic anyway, so that’s fine. My sense of immersion is not “this could happen” but “welcome to another world”. I don’t complain about that anymore than I complain that there’s no anthropological evidence for Orcs, Trolls and Ents. Oh, and superhero type stories. Again, the basic premise is effectively magical, so I don’t worry that Iron Man armour still won’t save you from damage when you crash into the ground any more than full plate armour, sitting in a car or a concrete cube would. Setting the initial parameters of the world to “not real”, oddly enough, makes the immersion more effective.

  12. @PeteC
    You’ve got a point about music vs. fake sound effects. I recently revisited “2001: a space odyssey” after many years, and really saw the brilliance, for the first time, of pairing classical music with space. BTW, Kubrick got the idea when he made the associative leap between dancers whirling on the dance floor to a Waltz and the spinning space station…

  13. gopher65

    Whomever1: But you *do* need good science for something to be science fiction. If it has bad science in it then it is science fantasy, not science fiction. I like science fantasy more than I like science fiction for the most part.

    Non-fiction: Really happened, or is claimed to have really happened.
    Fiction: Anything that could happen under the physical laws of our reality, but didn’t actually happen. Can include things that are incredibly unlikely, but technically possible.
    Fantasy: Anything that is not possible under the physical laws of our reality, as they are currently understood. Generally divided into two categories (though not exclusively):

    1) Magical fantasy, where impossible things happen due to supernatural forces or other mysticism (BSG, LotR, etc), and

    2) Science fantasy, where impossible things are explained via differences in physical laws (Star Trek, Stargate, Asimov’s books, etc). Science fantasy is usually premised on a philosophy of metaphysical naturalism. Anything that includes FTL travel is fantasy, not fiction.

    There are others that fall into less common categories too.

  14. cmflyer

    Perhaps Bruckheimer and Bay got pissed and sued to remove clips? No, Phil’s got through. Can’t make fun of what I can’t see.

  15. gopher65

    PeteC: That’s pretty much how I feel too: you can add made up things as much as you want, but if you screw with something real it bugs me. Tolkien wrote an essay about that same effect. IIRC he said something like this: (heavily paraphrased from memory) “you can have a story with wizards and hobbits in it and no one will bat an eye. But if you have a car insurance salesman acting out of character, your audience will recoil from the story and have trouble finding their way back in. Familiar things need to act in familiar ways, but imaginary things can act however you want.”

    As a personal example of this: The Doctor Who (2005) episode “The Satan Pit” immediately lost me in the opening sequence when they had a black hole act in a way that was completely and utterly wrong. It was so wrong that I’ve never seen its like before in science fantasy. But I’d have been fine with the episode if they’d just taken the standard Star Trek route and called it a “subspace singularity” or a “gravitational sinkhole” or some other nonsense. I know how black holes work (more or less), so the episode lost me. I have no idea how a subspace singularity might work, so the episode can throw any old crap at me and I’ll buy it.

  16. Egaeus

    So you have the BSG science advisor there, and then they discuss how people feel cheated and angry when you pull the rug out from under them on the rules of the universe. AWKWARD!

    Oh, and your video player sucks. Any time I try to go to a different point in the clip, it starts from the beginning. I’ll never see the last 13 minutes….

  17. Tommy Offsubject

    I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no excuse for Armageddon. None. Zilch. Nada. Even the eye-candy of Liv Tyler was not enough to want to put myself through that again.

    I won’t beat the dead horse of the bad science on that one – I’ll just direct readers to the BadAstronomy blog, entries 1-12, 15, 18, and 46-285 (rumor has it the fine blogger insisted on keeping each entry on the poor science in that movie to under 20,000 words, which would explain the multiple blog entries).

    But even without the horrid science, the movie just blew chunks (no pun intended – it really brings out the gag reflex in me). Next time you feel like being tortured but your waterboarding bed is out for repair, watch this movie and keep an eye out for how the character played by William Fichtner is written. Now, that actor has done some fine work (Grace Under Fire, Heat, Go, West Wing) but his character goes from being an a**hole, to being a good guy, to being an a**hole, to being a decent guy, to being a REAL a**hole, to being a true hero. I keep trying to find evidence that Uwe Boll was associated with the movie… he HAD to be.

  18. ND

    wouldn’t including those clips in the whole thing fall under fair use?

  19. Pi-needles

    @11. PeteC Says:

    I don’t complain about that anymore than I complain that there’s no anthropological evidence for Orcs, Trolls and Ents.

    There’s plenty of anthropological evidence for Trolls out in the blogosphere! 😉

    PS. Doesn’t Discover Magazine like being called “the Hive Overmind” BA? Seems like a good & friendly enough nickname to me.

  20. AGH. I’m stilllllll embarrassed about my question at the end of the panel.
    I found your new area tho, so hey! Better late than never 😛

  21. I agree that Fringe is an amazing serious, if only because they’ve so clearly laid out the rules for their ‘universe’ that I can accept almost all the woo that throw at me.
    It’s like the northern lights. It’s not my universe so people can do whatever they like in it.

  22. Robert

    Can someone please put back the unavailable clips? This is so clearly fair use it is utterly ridiculous not to include them.
    “First, kill all the lawyers” – W Shakespeare.

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @6. Whomever1 Says:

    To say you have to have good science throughout for something to be science fiction means you have to leave a lot of interesting ideas untouched. Or only touched by some future being I can’t relate to.

    There’s an old writers saying : “Never spoil a good story with the facts!”

    That said, it helps if writers at least know *which* facts they’re getting wrong. 😉

    I don’t always mind bad SF where the special effects or other elements outweigh the scientific accuracy factor but I prefer good hard SF where the science is at least explored and a factor that’s been considered not just tossed away completely. Its a subjective thing of how much artistic license are you willing to give I guess.

    I’m happy to turn my brain off and just soak in Star Wars and the like enjoying them for what they are. At the same time, I really love reading intelligent Science Fiction where the science is discussed and realistic (or at least made plausible) such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, (most) Stephen Baxter’s novels and much of Isaac Asimov’s SF works.

    A faster-than-light drive is a fantasy, but it’s the only vehicle that will get Joe Ordinary into a story about some interesting alien ecologies or civilizations.

    What about Carl Sagan’s use of the wormhole – for which he got good scientific advice in his Contact novel and subsequent movie?

    In fairness, there are quite a few good stories that don’t use FTL as a MacGuffin but rather use generation ships, sub-light speed travel, incl. relativistic complications and so on. :-)

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    @6. Whomever1 :

    Have you read Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’ by any chance then? :

    Or Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Songs of Distant Earth’ :

    Where Clarke “.. states that he wished it to be a realistic interstellar voyage, without use of warp drives or other fantastic technologies.”

    Actually, Clarke’s Rama series also involved sub-light-speed travel and complications arising from it too. Plus there’s another one which, I think, was by Arthur C.Clarke as well (but might be wrong – cannot find my copy or recall the title) involving twins one on earth, one on a starship travelling at near-light speed.

    Finally, if you want really realistic – often gloomily so – technically & scientifically well considered SF then may I recomend Stephen Baxter’s NASA trilogy :

    Evocative and good hard near-future space exloration SF but at times – especially for Titan really depressing novels. Baxter’s Manifold series is similarly good like that too.

  25. Jostein Toftebakk

    I’m getting a lot of “Clip unavailable”. Maybe because I’m in Europe?

    Anyhow, can anyone tell me what Sean Carroll’s “good clip” was? The one about time travel and you don’t need to hurry.

  26. Litg

    @Egaeus (16)

    BSG didn’t pull the rules of the universe out from under anyone. The seeds of the spiritual portion of the story were there from the get-go. Head-Six was there from right after the colonies were destroyed.

  27. @25: From context, I think that was from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, one of the cases where the heroes resolve to take some action later, the results of which they take advantage of immediately.

  28. John Berryman

    Yikes – and someone is actually paying you to do a TV show …

  29. Zucchi

    I can’t get into “Eureka”. It isn’t the fact that they do (regardless of what they say) often cross the line into fantasy. It’s the blithe use of this moronic pop mythology about the U.S. government being so senselessly evil that it conceals discoveries and technologies that could solve the problems that are literally threatening the existence of civilization, if only they were released. (As just one example — don’t they have a working fusion power plant in Eureka? And the same government that’s still fighing wars over control of Middle East oil is just keeping that under wraps.)

  30. gopher65

    Zucchi: yeah, I have that same problem with shows like Eureka. I just can’t get into any show where the central premise is “evil scientists and governments and corporations band together with religious leaders to destroy the world by holding back vital technology from the general population for no particular reason”. It’s just like… what? Why? What’s the point?

  31. Having a panel that discusses science in sci-fi films, and having the panel show clips from films as examples is great. Cutting the clips out entirely and not giving any clues as to what they are makes the whole thing pointless. At least give us a clue, like maybe showing a prompt card with the film name, and ideally some time index information, so that maybe we might have a chance to go and find the clip for ourselves. Either that or fire the lawyers. Actually, fire the lawyers anyway.

  32. A point often missed is that there is effectively no difference between music in a space scene and sound effects in a space scene. The mistake in calling sound effects in space “bad science” is that it makes the assumption, not implied by the film, that the scene was supposed to have been filmed by a camera present there and that all the sounds present in the sound track were audible to that camera.

    Which would argue against the music, too.

    In fact, were that logic to be applied to every scene in every film, music should almost never be present on the sound track, but it nearly always is. Is that bad science?

  33. FAIR_USE

    FAIR USE! Ridiculous. That’s like taking out science from (good) science-fiction movies — totally kills the premise!!! Irony lost.

  34. Robert

    In this context (even though we are talking about movies) I think it would be worthwhile to mention Hal Clement. He was the only author I know about who adjusted his plots to science and not other way around. The premise of most of his stories and novels is to take a strange environment (high gravity and planet’s rotational speed or critical conditions of water) and show how would it look like and in what way would it be different from ours (for instance, use of a scale as a navigational instrument or huge raindrops going nearly horizontally). Despite that, he managed to create indrawing plots and characters which one can easily empathize with. It’s a pity they aren’t more widely known.

    I think that his philosophy is best represented by a quote from Whirlgig World (per Wikipedia): “Writing a science fiction story is fun, not work. (…) the fun (…) lies in treating the whole thing as a game. (…) the rules must be quite simple. They are; for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few such slips as he possibly can (…) Certain exceptions are made [e.g., to allow travel faster than the speed of light], but fair play demands that all such matters be mentioned as early as possible in the story”


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