Scripps SciComm Post IV: Jennifer Ouellette on Science in Hollywood

By Chris Mooney | August 11, 2009 12:45 pm

We started off this morning with a real treat: A talk by Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and now director of the the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange. Jennifer talked about how despite past tensions between the two groups–and occasionally egregious anti-science, like the Eli Stone anti-vaccine storyline–Hollywood now appears to be increasingly interested in real science and the plots it can impel. Granted, there are still plenty of “socially inept nerds” and “literally mad scientists” (as in Fringe) to be found; but such stereotypes are increasingly balanced by really good stuff, like Bones or Numb3rs.

Jennifer’s central point was that scientists have to stop being in full-on criticism mode towards entertainment, and instead, should work to bridge the gap with creative people–who are very open to using as much science as they can to tell a good story. We all just need to take our defenses down, and focus on commonalities rather than differences. That’s what the National Academies started late last year with a gala event bringing together luminaries from both fields, and “they just started talking to each other,” said Jennifer.

“It is not scientists swooping in to correct Hollywood,” she emphasized. “We do not ‘scold’!”

Jennifer then went into much more detail about her job–how the Exchange helps Hollywood’s writers and other creative talent get science content into their work. Some TV shows have a regular science consultants, knowing they will regularly need them (e.g., David Salzberg and The Big Bang Theory); in other cases, it’s a one-off affair. Most of the consultants aren’t paid; this is generally a nonprofit endeavor.

In my opinion, the NAS Exchange is among the best and most innovative programs out there for bringing science into a new and different arena; hopefully Jennifer’s presentation was as eye-opening to the students as I had hoped!

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Comments (23)

  1. To echo Chris, what a terrific talk! Everyone enjoyed this session–especially me :)

  2. ARJ

    Jennifer gives a great talk and her blogs are among the best-written science blogs out there, but I think it worth noting that she was a former English major! — i.e. there’s a basis for the quality/fluidity of her communications, and it isn’t something that can be matched by the majority of working scientists (… who I suspect cared less for whatever English courses they had to endure in college).

  3. Great discussion with Jennifer about the intersection (another one!) of science and Hollywood. I particularly enjoyed the debate of how accurate television science must be. Clearly, TV writers need to take some liberties with scientific details to ensure they have interesting, engaging plot and characters. But how much should the science be sacrificed to ensure a good story?

    When I watch CSI with my immunology PhD roommate, he cringes: DNA gels take longer to run! You would never use a microscope in a dimly lit lab! Why aren’t those scientists wearing gloves??

    Ditto when I watch Law and Order with my lawyer friends, or when I sit down to watch the Blue Planet series (admittedly, one of my favorites) with friends who aren’t marine biologists. I feel an almost pathological need to explain the truth behind some of those Blue Planet oddities: this scene is staged, that interaction is a computer animation, this fish doesn’t really make that sound.

    But how much of this matters? Which facts are critical to get correct, and which ones are probably okay to gloss over so that audiences can appreciate the big picture?

    I don’t have a ready answer to this question, except to recognize that because I am a marine biologist, mistakes in TV biology (The Discovery Channel makes egregious errors here) bother me far more than do forensic science errors on shows like CSI. But then again, I’ll take a few factual errors any day if it means that scientist are portrayed as smart, exciting, sexy individuals who make critical contributions to society.

    Because that is the truth.

  4. Ben F

    It’s great that the film industry is working more closely with the scientific community. I think that it means the that the industry is less likely to make gratuitous error. People in general won’t remember the details that scientists often fret over. I think it is more important that TV serves as a medium to engage the public than it is that every last detail is correct. Honestly, I haven’t watched TV regularly in years so I’m a little short on practical examples. However, I beleive, or would like to believe, that television and movies ultimately should serve as a gateway to more learning in science and is not viewed as the end all be all learning tool. My cycnical side says I’m probably wrong though.

  5. Jules M

    I think the conflict between science and media is one not-so-small piece of an incredible disease that is infecting American society, and something that people like Jennifer, the Science and Entertainment Exchange, Chris and Sheril are doing a great job trying to combat.

    Our addiction to cotton-candy media has caused an epidemic of mental obesity in our culture. All of these bad stereotypes about science and scientists and the rabid focus on big bucks entertainment is like a constant sugar diet– we wouldn’t know what to do with something substantial if it hit us in the face. Moreover, as we learned today, the scientists had a bad habit of making fun of the fat kids on the playground instead of showing them how to run it off!

    Now, we have some real progress. You know those kids’ drink commercials that were on a while ago where the mom was talking about how it was so darn tasty the children wouldn’t even know they were drinking a full serving of vegetables? Sneaky sneaky. I feel like that’s been the state of affairs for a little while now– we’ve had to make the science so appealing, so shiny, that audiences can’t tell it apart from the rest of the razzle-dazzle, and thus can’t protest. I think it’s pretty brilliant, and a crucial step forward and away from the Rise of Media Slime.

    Like I said, I think the science/media schism is indicative of a broader, scarier issue we face, which maybe just boils down to apathy. I’m excited that Hollywood may be part of the cure, and that the Science and Entertainment Exchange is sneaking (or sometimes boldly tossing) vegetables into our sugar. Still, though, it makes me sad. Why does science have to be sexy? I wish that there were more people who could like science in its own right, but if wishes were fishes, I wouldn’t have to be a marine conservationist.

  6. Amanda K.

    Jill’s comment resonated with me because I would be hard pressed to catch all but the most egregious errors in forensics or microbiology. And it’s true, these minor errors don’t matter when compared with the value of sparking the public’s interest in science. The misconceptions generated by medical shows are definitely among those that are too big to gloss over but it is a fine line. This might be one of those issues that a lot of time and money have to be invested and spread thin in hopes that something will have a positive effect.

    What interested me most about today’s discussion was how hard people like Jennifer have to work to simply encourage screen writers to broach science as a potential plotline source. Screen writers really do have to know about a lot of different things and most definitely shouldn’t be intimidated to even try science. I think getting them to consider the science behind simple natural processes or technology will greatly broaden our entertainment industry. (I’m imagining a movie or mini series where characters revel in the science of really obvious aspects of nature like animal migrations, storms, changing colors of leaves…. sort of sounds like a fantasy).

  7. Amanda Netburn

    Today was an interesting day for me. I don’t watch tv, so I didn’t recognize most of Jennifer’s examples; and I have never blogged before yesterday. I kind of feel like my grandmother with the VCR and the cable box.

    I know that I don’t want to start watching television, but now I wonder: Should I be following and contributing to blogs? I keep wondering where (and honestly, why) people find the time to read and write blogs. I have occasionally ended up at Dot Earth while navigating the Times website, but other than that I have not yet journeyed into the blogosphere. I mean this in no way as an insult to the bloggers, but between a full-time job (or school now), cooking dinner, working out, doing homework, cleaning house, and all the other fun and boring things I choose to do each day, I am not sure if I should be setting aside time for reading and writing in the blogosphere. I suppose it is time for me to explore and find out for myself.

    I think that the Science and Entertainment Exchange is a great forum for scientists to help spread truth, or at least “closer-to-the-truth.” I hope that this forum also acts to inspire scientists to bring fun and creativity into their work and communications. Maybe through their new networks in entertainment, scientists will figure out how not only to influence the way entertainment portrays science, but start to use entertainment to spread the messages we want, as I presume people like Bill Nye the Science Guy (just like CSI, I haven’t actually seen this) or like Randy Olson has done in his films. It sounds fun!

    Sheril and Chris, thanks for sharing your experiences and harassing us in mock interviews! I wish you both the best of luck in all of your future endeavors.

  8. Lauren W

    Jennifer’s lecture today was so interesting. We all love entertainment and know, to a certain extent, that it is stretching the truth. I think it is fantastic that scientists and movie/tv producers are coming together to try and get the science right without taking away the entertainment value. There must be a happy medium with scientists and movie/tv producers. As scientists we cannot fret over the little details as some of my classmates mentioned, but we need to be excited that these people are even interested in talking to us because, let’s face it, they really don’t have to.

    Entertainment is a great way to get people interested. We mentioned briefly in class about the fact that most kids, and therefore future scientists, get interested in science from some sort of entertainment mainly television. It is so important for scientists to be open about working with people in the entertainment industry for this reason. It is also a great way to get adults interested in science without them even knowing it. Some of those discovery channel documentaries really spark people’s interest. It makes them care about something they may have never seen otherwise. Entertainment is the best way to reach people on a broad level. I am not sure how I feel about that fact, but it is reality. And if we want people to be well informed, we must work with people in the entertainment industry to get it as close to real science as possible.

  9. Liz Terk

    I found both today and yesterday’s lectures really interesting….although I have to admit I have been feeling a little out of the loop on certain things. Having been living outside the US for the past four years I have definitely missed out (quite happily I might add) on a few things. This whole blogging and YouTube thing are a little new to me. I did try a few times, but who is really going to watch a YouTube video that costs you about 8 cents a kilobyte and takes 3 hours to download? So, I will admit until June I had never heard of a YouTube video going viral or spent more then few minutes trying to read a blog. Now back in the US armed with high speed Internet, that amazing yet unbelievably distracting device called an iphone, and cable TV I am ready to join our discussion on science in the media…I think.

    These past few days have given me the impression that I must embrace this new technology as well as start watching more tv if I’m going to be an “effective science communicator” to the public at large. However, I still have my concerns about tv shows and movies that gloss over the details in order to entertain the audience at large. If the message is so tightly wrapped up in an attention grabbing package, does the message get lost? I do however, applauded the effort Jennifer Ouellette is making with the Science and Entertainment Exchange. If movies and tv are the way to go, I am happy that someone is out there trying to insure some accuracy.

  10. Shannon Y

    We must not forget that Hollywood is not reality; rather, it is entertainment. While shows and series based on science should be consistent with the science and process, the embellishment of reality that is Hollywood is something that is very necessary in our wild chaotic lives. Sometimes a melodrama series or fantastical movie is as valuable escape and allows us to ask “what if?” Many shows take the science to the edge and beyond to explore this realm of the unknown. Nowadays, the effects and concepts can be so well conceived that the audience does not always distinguish the line between probable, plausible, and downright bizarre.

    Sometimes real life follows fantasy. It is cliché, but the impossible can become possible. The Department of Defense is experimenting and investing in new technologies from robotics to invisible cloaking materials! Now tell me that you don’t want any of those for Christmas. (I’ve always been envious of octopuses for this nifty superhero ability.) Even the act of emailing half way around the world in a second baffles me, much less teleporting a cloud of atoms! We must embrace this zany and wonderful world full of possibilities.

  11. Alvaro Palacios Casanova

    Unfortunately for me (and my wallet) I was not able to attend today’s class. I have some titanium plates that ache. I will contribute by being brief on this intersection of Hollywood and science. As a science nerd, I find it exciting and tantalizing to read about efforts to bring science literacy to Hollywood. There definitely needs to be more science literacy in all sectors of society. I would like to comment on something I saw over the weekend at home in Thousand Oaks (where there is cable). I was privileged enough to see an episode of shark week. The premise of this episode were the 10 deadliest beaches in the world, based on the type of shark species that where found around the world. In the background haunting and horrifying music played as they told stories of shark attacks. Throughout the whole show I was thinking what a bad rap sharks were getting, still not leaving behind the “Jaws” stereotype that Hollywood started. I was quite amazed at another episode that was testing theories about shark attack behavior. The hosts put out “non-toxic” plastic seals to elicit white shark breaching behavior off the coast of south Africa. While the plastic may have been non-toxic the effects that the shark would receive from swallowing plastic certainly would not be good for its health. I think channels like the Discovery Channel have a bigger obligation, I think than other media outlets to be responsible practitioners of science dissemination.

  12. Stephanie Nehasil

    I was extremely enthused by Jennifer Ouellette’s lecture today and the recent establishment of the NAS Science and Entertainment Exchange. It’s about time the scientific community and entertainment industry became friends! The power of mass media is unquestionable, and I am a firm believer in the strength of movies and television to communicate basic science to the public or at least inspire viewers to value science. As we learned today, entertainment can instill scientific facts in a way that other forms of communication cannot. Remember the astounding stats?

    Though scientists have scolded Hollywood for its inaccuracies, I believe that a slightly “inaccurate” form of science in entertainment is better than the alternative; the complete exclusion of science from entertainment. Despite the lack of real science in some of my favorite sci-fi films (Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Independence Day), watching these films as a child enhanced my motivation to pursue science.

    The point is that Hollywood can have various impacts on how we view science. In one extreme it can continue to inspire those who are already interested or engaged in the field. For others outside of the scientific community, Hollywood can influence these viewers to at least appreciate why science is important. I anticipate that the NAS Science and Entertainment Exchange will only strengthen these impacts, and I look forward to seeing positive results for science as the program develops.

  13. Heather

    What I found most interesting about this lecture and the rest of day two was the excitement that people have about science. In the video clip that Chris showed us, there was a very excited little boy and I think that image reminded at least a few of us of ourselves. Jennifer touched on how sci-fi books/movies/tv shows have all been known to inspire people to become scientists. I think that it is important that we remember that we all go into this field because it’s fun and awesome. Hollywood may take the extremes of science but if one movie sparks the interests of child to become a scientist then it was worth it. I totally became interested in marine biology after watching Jaws, and so much of that movie was not accurate. However, it didn’t matter I fell in love with sharks and am still pursuing that dream (although now in a conservation kind of way).

  14. Megan B

    Science and entertainment have lived parallel lives for some time. From cave painters to science fiction writers, story-tellers have entertained us with fantastical visions of the future, often to the chagrin of scientists for whom the laws of physics are the primary guiding light. This duality has become amplified in our modern age of big-budget movies and weekly TV ratings. As director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange, Jennifer Ouellette is making huge strides toward bridging the gap and bringing scientists and entertainers to the same table. The general thought being that, the populace at large tends to believe what they see on TV and, if we can bring truth to their entertainment, than maybe we can entertain and educate simultaneously.
    Rather than fighting the tide of TV and film-based ignorance, I agree that it is time to embrace “edutainment” and sprinkle as much scientific truth into people’s lives as they can stomach. Sharing information following the path of least resistance can only behoove us as the educationally-progressive country we want to be. Scientific truth should not remain only in the collegiate-elite domain, but should be freely disseminated with passion, honesty, and a catchy theme-song.

  15. Joel Barkan

    Open communication between scientists and Hollywood is absolutely vital. Film and television not only reach a massive audience–one much larger than we can reach through scientific journals or lectures–but also have the ability to educate and shape minds, for better or worse. After all, if people will believe a fictional character is a real doctor, as Jennifer mentioned, they seem likely to base many of their beliefs on what the talking, glowing box tells them. I personally view “An Inconvenient Truth”–despite its faults–as being responsible for a sea change in which the public stopped thinking of environmentalists as tree-huggers and started to view human impacts on the environment with real concern.

    The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a step in the right direction, but its real value lies in its potential to do more. Jennifer mentioned that most consultants contribute twenty minutes to an hour each week communicating with producers and screenwriters. How much of an impact could a half hour conversation really have on Hollywood’s message about science? Sure, it’s nice when Leonardo Dicaprio drowns under an accurate northern latitude night sky instead of, say, the Southern Cross of the southern hemisphere, but is that really important? Jennifer’s efforts are honorable, but I hope the Exchange can build on its early connections to eventually create a partnership where Hollywood delivers legitimate scientific messages in an entertaining form, not just an accurate depiction of physics geeks on the Big Bang Theory.

  16. dominique

    If I’ve learned anything this week it’s that scientist need to get involved in various forms of media and change this horrible perception that scientist are cold, nerdy, and socially inept. We are cool, trendy, and sexy. Like Jeremy had said, “scientists maintain a childlike approach to life”. To be a scientist means to be an explorer on a constant expedition. We face challenges (which means work) but we also get to travel to cool places, meet interesting people, and effect change.

    I really enjoyed Jennifer’s talk and I want to commend the Science and Entertainment Exchange. I had no idea that the film/television industries utilized the scientific community to create a more realistic representation of life. And I know a few scientists who would be great participants. That said, I think we need to be careful with the realism of these programs. If the audience can’t tell the difference between a doctor on TV and the one at their local office, we’ve got problems. We want an audience that can find real people to be their role models (sorry Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan). Being introduced to concepts through entertainment media is cool, but let’s maintain the ability to distinguish truth from fiction

  17. ponderingfool

    Not sure Bones is a good example. Bones herself is emotionally distant and is needing to learn how to connect with her humanity through her artist friend & the gung-ho Booth. Her responses to certain situations are just bizarre. Then you have her former assistant who became an apprentice of a serial killer due to his “logic” skills and the fact he was socially stunted mix with post-traumatic stress. Yep that helps the view of scientists/science. The Big Bang Theory while a funny show once again plays up the nerd stereotype and overly so. And don’t get me started on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.

    Heck in the past we had a scientist on a top show, Dr. Ross Gellar on Friends. He had his oddities but no more than the other 5. He watched sports, got the girl. Heck Rachel and Ross consummated in a natural history museum. Not perfect: Phoebe was an evolution denialist & Gellar did not have a strong argument against her position and the scientist Phoebe dated was a stereotypical nerd but was a good guy.

  18. Lauren Franck

    Jennifer’s work with the Exchange is admirable, outstanding, and exciting. But I continue to find myself wondering why it is necessary?

    As stated in lecture, 90% of scientists polled today indicate that their interests stemmed from a film, a sci-fi book, a TV series, or comics. The story of Jim Kakalios’ excitement over being asked to help with ‘Watchmen’ was touching, but why is that the exception and not the norm?

    There is a great tragedy here where many scientists have lost this sense of adventure and story-telling, that hooked them in the first place. How could we expect society to be excited if the scientific community cares more about the time for DNA to be processed than the excitement of ‘you can figure out who murdered that guy’?

    John Oliver’s quote from the Daily Show clip ‘Human’s Closest Relative’ resonates with me here:
    “Does the word ‘interesting’ mean something different to the scientific community than to the rest of the world?”

    I think it is starting to, as scientists get lost in the details and lose the sense of discovery and wonder that excited them in the first place. Kudos to Jennifer, Jim, the Exchange program for breaking the mold and bringing the magic back.

  19. Megan R

    Jennifer Oullette’s lecture today was incredibly interesting. I find it very encouraging that the entertainment industry is making such an effort to use the Exchange to make science in movies and television more credible. There is nothing that is more annoying to me when I see something on a show or in a film that is simply so far fetched that it causes me to lose interest and change the channel or push the stop button on the remote. Generally speaking, in shows or movies that have a serious science component, that science component is a major part of the plot of the story such as the source of the conflict (Armageddon) or the resolution of the conflict (CSI, Bones, House…). If I am not convinced that there is some accuracy of the scientific component, why should I watch the story unfold? On the other hand, I think it is also equally important that there are certain aspects of science that have no business in the entertainment industry because they are anything but entertaining to the mass public, and sometimes this can lead to an inaccurate representation of science in entertainment. However, the Exchange is a way to keep that inaccuracy to a minimum while preserving the entertainment value of the project at hand. I believe that the Exchange is a fascinating way to reach this happy medium and it seems like such an interesting project to be a part of.

  20. Hollywood Huelsenbeck

    I think Jennifer’s NAS program is a significant step in the right direction. I found her lecture particularly interesting because I have been involved in my own amateur exchange between science and hollywood on the topic of sharks. In a real life situation, I have been playing the role of an aspiring scientist and my buddy who attends USC screenwriting school serves to represent a burgeoning Hollywood star. We have been engaged in an epic debate about “sharks and society” for over half a decade. My screenwriting buddy is deathly afraid of sharks and won’t submerge himself past his knees into the ocean. This is due in part because he grew up in central Ohio and his only experience with sharks was watching JAWS and the Discovery channel’s Shark Week. I, on the other hand, am a big fan of sharks (loved JAWS like Heather) and I grew up wanting to be a shark wrangler, as seen in the cinema classic Deep Blue Sea. Anyways, in attempts to show the danger of sharks on humans, my buddy constantly sends me dramatized shark attack media and trailers to D grade shark attack movies. The problem is I can only send back my personal opinions and op ed pieces from scientists or conservation groups. Hollywood and the media doesn’t have my back, and I demand a blockbuster hit about human attacks on sharks as a parody of JAWS. I think it could be effective, what’s Spielberg’s number?

  21. The representation and misrepresentation of science on film has a long and vivid history that has shaped public understanding of science. I recently made a documentary film in which I tried to expose the inner workings of a science lab – a molecular biology lab at Columbia University to be precise. In order to make a film that people would respond to, I had to capture the drama inherent in research, but without the tedium of most documentaries, or the clichés so typical of science fiction. At the onset of the film’s production, my hypothesis was that in one dynamic laboratory, with a young and still evolving professor and a cohort of interesting graduate students, we could observe the transformation of the novice into an independent scientist, highlighting the factors that make it happen – commitment, selecting a worthwhile problem, mastering technology, mentoring, collaborating, and dealing with competition. It took four years to create a film that adequately portrays this complex process. For more information about the film, go to http://naturallyobsessed.com/blog/category/science-on-film

  22. Alain d.

    Like most of the rest of the class, I found Jennifer’s presentation on how science consulting finds its way into movies and television stimulating. I, for one, was surprised by her comment on the recent advances in physics finding their way into the tv set. While I don’t claim to be much of a physicist, I still studied it for my undergrad and try to keep abreast of the weird and fun aspects of modern physical science, quantum and otherwise. The teleportation of atom clouds caught my attention and awe, as well as demonstrating the advantage of having the best researchers in the field directly consulting the writers of these shows. If cutting-edge science and its curiosities can escape a relatively informed amateur, then the potential for show writers to tantalize an entire segment of the audience with brand new science is truly remarkable. Also, the possibility remains that these scientist consultants can help with idea generation for future episodes with their vast knowledge in a given subject area; remember that many of the best science fiction writers have been scientists in their own right. I would suggest that maybe periodically the NAS Science and Entertainment Exchange perhaps host panels where scientists showcase their research’s interesting implications for the producers in Hollywood.

  23. MadScientist

    I see no need for fantasy to match reality. What I object to is nonsense being passed off as reality. So for me the kooky stuff on Start Trek is just fine, but John Edward is full of crap. Anti-vax? Pooh! Darth Vader and the force? OK. Star Wars 1-3? They suck for different reasons, but I don’t mind their physics being all whacky.

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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 Salon.com 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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