Science and the Entertainment Industry

By Chris Mooney | June 5, 2008 12:30 pm

Maybe it’s the bug I caught when I moved to LA. But increasingly, I’ve been thinking about how well science connects–or perhaps rather, fails to connect–to the entertainment industry.

It seems to me that there’s evidence on both sides of this issue. Positives:

1. Hollywood made a science movie, An Inconvenient Truth, into a smash success that changed the global warming debate forever.

2. Many popular films and television shows–Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, and CSI come to mind–have plotlines that are driven by science and technology.

3. There is certainly nothing virulently anti-science about Hollywood–prominent actors like Brad Pitt, for example, were instrumental in the California stem cell initiative.


1. The Expelled phenomenon–you can make a virulently anti-science film and get pretty far marketing it, if you have enough money.

2. The Michael Crichton/Jurassic Park phenomenon–many of the narratives about scientists that seem to catch on most powerfully depict them as “playing God,” crossing moral boundaries, turning into Dr. Frankenstein. I know it’s a good story, but aren’t there other good stories we can tell about science?

3. The Crystal Skull/X-Files phenomenon–the entertainment industry is seemingly obsessed with the paranormal.

What do you think? How does it balance out?


Comments (11)

  1. Hmmm…

    I would have to say that a couple of things from my youth were the drivers for my career in science (besides classroom education).

    1. Loved the tide pools. On family vacations I could spend hours digging in the sand, turning over rocks, watching shrimp, finding starfish (and I still feel bad about drying all those ones out….).

    2. My mom and I would watch Quincy M.E. together. I saw people actually working in lab answering interesting questions. Solving problems, solving mysteries.

    So I think I would lean to “good thing”.

  2. Mark P

    It’s an entertainment business, so they do what they think will sell as entertainment. Both “Inconvenient Truth” and “Expelled” are oddities in Hollywood. Most movies that have science have it as a prop, and the accuracy of the portrayal has more to do with dramatic effect than anything else. The most I expect from Hollywood is not to bend the truth too much.

    And you are right about the paranormal. It seems to be the genre of the day for movies as well as TV. It’s a phase. It’ll be something else soon enough.

  3. bsci

    This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. When Isaac Asimov started writing about robots, one of his explicit goals was to write stories were robots were positive characters. With partial exceptions like Jules Verne, most technology stories were of the Frankenstein mold. The original robot play from the 1920’s, RUR, was definitely of the the Frankenstein type.

    Of course, the biggest recent Asimov movie (“I, Robot” with Will Smith) was took a few loose parts of one Asimov story and made a Frankenstein movie so perhaps film is worse. Part of this is bad science is often more dramatic (or at least easier to write) than good science.

    As for anti-science prominent actors, just look for some discussions on the evils of vaccines and more than a few names pop up.

  4. Good stories are about people, not abstract concepts like science. “An Inconvenient Truth” was essentially a quest narrative starring Al Gore. The mad-scientist genre is just the standard “powerful person falls from grace through hubris” and the medical shows are interpersonal soap operas with romance and betrayals as drivers. So I think the question is, “How can we fit good science into a classic form of narrative?”

  5. I’m a big fan of Numb3rs, and I’d suggest it for an example of Hollywood doing science with at least a reasonable amount of attention to detail. Sure, there’s plenty of poetic license, but the math used on that show is real, and it’s going into its fifth season….

  6. Although I disagree with Miriam’s premise that
    Good stories are about people, not abstract concepts like science.

    it did remind me of Lorenzo’s Oil. Lorenzo died recently and there was some discussion of the impact on the Genetic Alliance mailing list, with very appreciative memories of this family’s quest and the recognition for rare diseases.

    I can become totally engrossed in well-done space stories, genetics stories, nature stories….may be my phenotype, though.

  7. Goatboy

    I don’t think I agree with any of your pieces of positive evidence.

    1/ A politician was needed to make An Inconvenient Truth, not scientists and I don’t see any evidence that the global warming debate has changed because of it (maybe in America it has, in Europe the major companies are still just Greenwashing; just like they were five years ago).

    2/ CSI/Grey’s anatomy are, at best, science porn, not science. In CSI, especially the latter two franchises, they might as well have the characters cast horoscopes and read entrails as run their amazing super speed DNA tests; it would make no appreciable difference to the plots. While I’m not opposed to science porn, per-se, I would hope for it to be a great deal more hardcore than what is currently on offer (“Hi, I’m here to fix your particle accelerator….”)

    3/ There certainly is something anti-science in Hollywood; the cult of celebrity itself. It’s really nice when people like Brad Pitt weigh in on the side of the science, hell I wish more of them did it, but promoting Stem Cell research off of Brad Pitt is no difference at all from the Anti-vax crowd being fronted by an ex-Playboy Model. I realise there’s nothing science can really do about this and so maybe we’d better recruit as many damn celebrities as possible, but that path holds only a pyrrhic victory for science at best (and what if Brad changed his mind?).

    However among your negative points, I would actually cite the performance of Expelled as evidence for there being good prospects for science.

    We can’t stop the anti-science from spending their money on attacking reason, but, when they spend (at least) $10m on that purpose, we should be very relieved they get so little for their money.

  8. Grey’s Anatomy should flip. It throws in a lot of wo-wo (mind-readers come to mind). Eli Stone is full of woo-woo. Usually the shows pit “Faith” vs. “Science” and have “Faith” win. Ghost Whisper goes with the paranormal. All in all, I don’t think science does well.

  9. Mike

    It doesn’t have to be about smacking people in the face with hard science. Think ‘Flipper’. One friendly dolphin and the next thing you know, we’ve got a Marine Mammal Protection Act. While one can certainly argue the scientific merits of that particular piece of legislation, there’s no doubt Hollywood had a major impact on its passage.

    Science could certainly take better advantage of mass-media crossovers, but in order to do so, the message has to remain accessible. And then you get the ‘Flipper’/MMPA scenario wherein an oversimplified image of marine life begets an overly simplistic management tool.

    So what’s it gonna be (to vastly over-simplify the equation): Higher profile, lower intellect, and a product that maybe isn’t ideal? Or lower profile, higher intellect, and a harder struggle to make progress in the policy forum?

    I like the concept of the entertainment industry as a means to reach the hearts and minds of the American people (who on the whole clearly care more about Brangelina than ocean acidification) but how do we create a message that both tastes good and is good for you?

    If you can answer that one, I’ve got some Hollywood contacts I’d be happy to exploit…

  10. Eric the Leaf

    Wow! On the day oil scales to new heights and the reality of peak oil goes mainstream, we are treated with science in the movies. Real science-and-society kind of stuff. Meanwhile the fabric of our society is being stretched by initial forces behind The Great Unraveling. Energy costs really now pinching the middle class, aviation on the verge of a new paradigm, tourism idustry threatened, city services (law enforcement, santitation, school services) stretched and thin, food, goods, and service distribution worries. Harbingers of a general meltdown. Yet, we can be thankful than someone is monitoring the movies!

    I have said before that by 2012 the only subject that will matter to anyone in the industrialized world will be energy, primarily the consequences of higher costs and increasingly difficult availability. This is becoming an anthropological problem (or phenomenon) likely to mark the most important episode in human history since the origins of plant domestication and sedentary life–with science and technology only variables in the mix, but so far not a solution. The next president will be overseeing a world of unfolding hurt and of unpredictable consequences and we haven’t even got to the issue of global warming. That problem, however real, will be swamped under the relentless depletion side of Hubbert’s curve.

    I know that many do not share my opinion, have different takes, claim that it is too pessimistic, underestimate human ingenuity, adpatability, etc. However, few have risen to the challenge of the topic or the debate.

    I contend that this is the moment for Chris and Sheril do some research on arguably the central connundrum of our time. They should welcome the the debate, even if they are unprepared. There is a lot of ground to cover, and the time grows short.

  11. Your #2, ‘many of the narratives about scientists that seem to catch on most powerfully depict them as “playing God,” crossing moral boundaries’, is a valid point of view for Hollywood to explore, and the reasons for audience’s interest should be of interest to scientists. What are the moral responsibilities of scientists when the science they produce is abused by the scientists themselves, by government, by industry? More bad press for Scientists arises, IMO, from the times when we say that it’s not our fault that we didn’t consider (all) the consequences of our research than from any other source. This blog is a leader in bringing to light and decrying environmental damage, but it is science that enabled the technology, engineering, and industry that caused that damage. The morality of calling for people’s views of science to be more positive is problematic if we fail to recognize our moral responsibilities.

    “Erin Brockovich”, for example, is as much a condemnation of the science and technology that causes pollution when engineering is skimped as it is a condemnation of industry and legal and other principals involved. Wanting everyone not to realize that science can cause unexpected, formidable difficulties as much as solve them, is to dream of returning to the over-optimism of the ’50s. It’s been a long time since the general public discovered that science is not all good all the time, and there’s no going back.

    I think the general public is quite sure that scientists do have some moral responsibilities for unexpected consequences of their research, and is exasperated at scientists’ obtuseness with regard to it. I think many of the funding disasters of the last 20 years have stemmed from a feeling that scientists have not played a wholly honest game while claiming a moral as well as intellectual high ground.

    Needless to say, this paints all scientists with a very broad brush. There are many who are trying heroically to find scientific ways to understand and counter the undesirable consequences of applications of science. Some of those attempts will make things better and some will make things worse (think ethanol, perhaps, although of course it can be argued here as always that it’s all politicians and Industrial Ag at fault). The choice we have is not whether to try to use science to solve the problems that science has caused, however indirectly and unintentionally, I think we have no choice but to do so, but with what honesty we will communicate our successes and failures to the public. Science is responsible for the light bulb, vacuum cleaners, medicine, and the internal combustion engine, great for a century or so, but how will these products of science be assessed in another century’s time? Should more funding be given to the people who created such (disastrous?) ideas?
    Again, the general public, politicians, and Hollywood know that there are big moral issues here; but do scientists, and what responsibilities do we accept?


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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