Category: Hollywood and Science

Deb Blum's Great New Book, The Poisoner's Handbook

By Chris Mooney | March 21, 2010 11:12 am

Poisoners HandbookI am currently reading The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by one of our great science writers, Deborah Blum. She will, I hope, be a guest on Point of Inquiry at some point.

Blum weaves a masterful tale of how modern forensic medicine emerged during the era of Prohibition as a doctor-toxicologist team hunt down murderers who use arsenic, mercury, and cyanide, and try to protect the public health from threats like tetraethyl lead, wood alcohol, and carbon monoxide. Move over, CSI Miami–here’s CSI 1920s New York. Just amazing stuff; no wonder Blum is at around # 240 0n Amazon right now….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Culture, Hollywood and Science

Reflections from ScienceOnline 2010

By Chris Mooney | January 18, 2010 10:52 am

I was thrilled to attend this fast-growing conference and get to see great peeps like Sheril K, Darlene Cavalier, Carl Zimmer, Tom Levenson, Isis, SciCurious, Jennifer Ouellette, and many, many more.

I didn’t always attend the panels (and only spoke on one, last minute) but I did have some reflections:

1. Science and Entertainment: Beyond Blogging – Tamara Krinsky and Jennifer Ouellette: Hollywood getting into science = definitely cool. But will Hollywood’s ace marketers ever see a real need to court science bloggers to get the word out about films, given the relatively small size of our audiences and the vastness of their ad budgets? Not clear to me how much *we* matter, at least so far.

2. Trust and Critical Thinking – Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, Desiree Schell, Greg Laden, Kirsten Sanford. Yes, science on the web is a total mess. But trying to “certify” good/accurate science bloggers, vs. bad/biased ones, is an idea that poses more problems than solutions. And anyway, bloggers aren’t the gold standard of scientific accuracy–scientific societies, the NAS, the IPCC, etc, are. Science bloggers should raise the profile of these organizations, and prop up the sense of their credibility, rather than slapping quality labels on various science blogs.

3. Broader Impact Done Right – Karen James, Kevin Zelnio, Miriam Goldstein, Jeff Ives and Beth Beck. It is exciting to learn how some recipients of federal research grants have built websites that have been effective at public outreach and thus at fulfilling the “broader impacts” stipulation of the grant. However, I seriously doubt that most grant recipients are innovating in these ways. Throwing up a website is not, generally, a good way of publicizing research, unless you really know what you’re doing, and plan to carefully measure your traffic and influence. More generally, why on earth do we have vast scores of different grant recipients all called upon to publicize their individual research projects separately? Why isn’t there some joining of forces, and some decisionmaking about what science really needs highlighting before the public, and which scientific teams are best equipped to do so?

Those are my semi-random opinions from ScienceOnline 2010. I’m so glad that I attended, and hope to do so again next year!

Unscientific America on KPBS San Diego

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 13, 2009 8:22 am

these-days.pngTuesday morning I was delighted to chat with Maureen Cavanaugh on KPBS San Diego’s These Days. We covered a lot of the central themes in Unscientific America and I especially enjoyed hearing from callers!

The full interview is now available online here.

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!

PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Part II

By The Intersection | July 14, 2009 11:30 am

In this post, we continue our response to PZ Myers’ review of our book, Unscientific America. For those who’ve just arrived, we previously laid out the course our response would take here, and began to respond here. This is the third post, and there will be one more after it.

5. American Anti-Science. Myers claims the book “entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces.” This is false.

First, Chris wrote an entire book dealing with this problem. That book, The Republican War on Science, dealt very extensively with the anti-science forces and put them in their place.

Unscientific America tries not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to go beyond its predecessor–and indeed, we’ve been describing it as the sequel to The Republican War on Science. This time around, we don’t structure the book by scientific topic, so you won’t find chapter-length refutations of the creationists, the global warming deniers, and so on. However, Chris has refuted them all at great length elsewhere, and they get more than adequate licks in the new book as well. (Indeed, we’ve added some smackdowns of the anti-vaccinationists this time around!)

Perhaps Myers would have preferred a book that contained nothing more than entertaining skewerings of anti-science idiocy–but Chris wrote that book already. Unscientific America tries to take the next step and explore the reasons for the disconnects between science and society, because understanding the true nature of anti-science sentiment and its causes is no less important than debunking it. They’re both important.

6. Root Causes. Myers claims the book “demands we avoid addressing the structural roots” of the problem of science in society. That’s false.

A more charitable reading would be that we differ with Myers about what the root causes are, or place different emphases upon them. Clearly, he thinks religion is a much bigger root cause–if not the only root cause–than we do. But why then doesn’t he just say that we differ, instead of mischaracterizing our position?

We too want to address root causes–we just don’t think religion is the root of all our problems. It is one cause of anti-science sentiment, to be sure–a very prominent one. But not the only one. Our book also deals with many others: The nature of the media; the nature of politics; the nature of the scientific community, and so on. It may be easier to simply single out religion, but we’re not convinced it gets us where we need to be.

7. Science in the Entertainment Industry. Chris spent a month out in LA meeting with experts on the entertainment industry or talking with them by phone, trying to work out why science often gets such a bad shake in film and on television. The result was a report on how the entertainment industry works, and why scientists are often unhappy with the result–and what can be done to change this. (Some of this content is now reiterated in our adaptation from the book.)

From this chapter, Myers finds a single sentence about Richard Dawkins to quote [his emphasis]:

Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.

This Myers dubs “exasperating nonsense, in which Mooney and Kirshenbaum are discussing how to get science into the popular media.”

Myers is quoting out of context in order to criticize us. Here’s what he (and all of his readers who have not read our book) are missing.

Dawkins was quoted in the New York Times saying that the film Jurassic Park didn’t even need to have human characters in it, because the dinosaurs were so stunning. His words were: “The natural world is fascinating in its own right. It really doesn’t need human drama to be fascinating.” We provide this quotation, and the accompanying context, in the book. Myers does not.

Assuming Dawkins was quoted accurately, these words shows how little he understands about mass entertainment. A film with just dinosaurs running around would never have been so successful (and would never have been made). That was our point. Dawkins’ statement about Hollywood and Jurassic Park epitomizes the type of mindset that has kept scientists from having more productive encounters with the entertainment industry.

Now look at how Myers strives to defend Dawkins against us:

What Mooney and Kirshenbaum fail to grasp is that to a scientist, factual accuracy must be paramount; it is not a matter on which we can compromise. Further, what they fail to recognize, and what they excuse for Hollywood, as that accuracy does not have to compromise narrative, drama, and character! They berate Dawkins as if he has no awareness of the basics of what makes a good story, which makes me wonder if they’ve read any of his books at all — do they think he simply drily recites a body of abstract thoughts at the reader? Perhaps they should take a look at The Ancestor’s Tale(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) to discover that he actually has addressed this imaginary deficit.

But of course, in context, it is absurd to think that factual accuracy would be paramount in a movie like Jurassic Park.

And for that matter, what can Myers possibly be saying about Dawkins’ admittedly very good writing? That The Ancestor’s Tale could be made into just as successful a movie as Jurassic Park, which grossed nearly $ 1 billion worldwide? Again, that’s pretty hard to believe.

8. Solutions. Myers claims the book “offers no new solutions.” That’s false–the book is brimming with solutions. Chad Orzel even found one we couldn’t fit into the main text–the idea of forming a Science PAC to get more scientists elected to Congress–buried in an endnote, and built an entire discussion around it.

There are solutions in each chapter of the main body of the book, broken down by sector–politics, media, entertainment, religion. And then there is the grand solution in Chapter 10–which emerged from our collaboration, and which we don’t think either of us would have come up with on our own. So far as we know, it really is new in its particular way of analyzing the academic pipeline and finding, in it, a solution to our problems at the science-society interface.

Again, we would ask that readers consult the book, rather than Myers’ review, to determine whether it really offers “no new solutions.” And we’d also direct them over to the review at RealClimate, where a productive discussion about solutions has, indeed, been sparked by the book.

This difference in perceptions in these reviews is certainly remarkable. It’s clear that those who are invested in the “New Atheism” have a strong negative reaction to the book–but is that surprising, in that the book strongly criticizes the “New Atheism”?

But for those who do not have such a strong investment, yet care about the promotion and communication of science–like Michael Mann of Real Climate, Darksyde of Daily Kos, and many others–the book has prompted much valuable thought, response, and commentary. We’re very honored to see that it is having this effect.

In our final post, tomorrow, we will conclude our responses to the claims in PZ’s review.

PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Summary

By The Intersection | July 13, 2009 10:23 am

We’ve thoroughly read, and now plan to respond in detail to PZ Myers’ review of our book.

But first, some throat clearing. It may seem odd for authors to respond so extensively to their critics. In the olden days, such exchanges happened very slowly, if at all, through letters to the editor, and usually they weren’t very long. But this is the Internet age, and there are very different circumstances here:

The People Want It. Hordes of commenters are demanding that we respond to PZ.

PZ Asked For It. Myers did not write a balanced review, an indifferent review, or even a negative review. Rather, he misrepresented our book, got its arguments wrong, assaulted its authors (“their hypocritical and ignorant paean to mealy-mouthedness”), and finally ended by concluding that our labor of over a year is “utterly useless.”

We may not be capable of objectivity judging our own work. But we’re also receiving many supportive emails from people who like the book, are seeing it spark constructive dialogue about solutions on places like Chad Orzel’s blog or, and are witnessing the careful weighing of its arguments’ strengths and weaknesses at places like Neurotopia. How could a book that is prompting thought and dialogue be “utterly useless”? Myers may disagree with our book in many respects, but debate itself is useful, is it not?

We Wrote a Contempt-Free Book. Myers’ charges come from someone who is directly criticized in the book, and who admits that his opinion “is colored by the palpable contempt [its authors] hold for me.” But there’s no “contempt” here–just entirely fair criticism of Myers based on his freely chosen actions.

But we’ll get to that.

In answering Myers, we will proceed in 10 points, spread across 3 posts to control their length. We will first summarize them here, and then elaborate in the next three posts until we’re done:

1. Getting Personal? Myers claims that our book contains “very direct and personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.” We do not agree that we have launched any personal attacks.

2.  Pluto. Myers doesn’t appear to understand our argument here, as we will show.

3. What the Book Actually Says. Starting with Chapter 1, Myers gives little if any sense of the book’s real contents and argument.

4. Carl Sagan. This is virtually the only thing Myers seems to agree with us on. But he doesn’t grasp the nature of Sagan’s uniqueness, or why Richard Dawkins is no Carl Sagan.

5.  American Anti-Science. Myers claims the book “entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces.” This is false.

6. Root Causes. Myers claims the book “demands we avoid addressing the structural roots” of the problem of science in society. That’s false.

7. Science in the Entertainment Industry. By taking a single sentence about Richard Dawkins vastly out of context, Myers misrepresents our chapter on this subject.

8. Solutions. Myers claims our book “offers no new solutions.” This is false.

9. Bigotry. Myers flings this baseless, inflammatory charge at us.

10. The Problem with PZ Myers. Curiously, Myers doesn’t even address our criticisms of…him. But they’re serious and fair, and we will end by elaborating upon why, in the wake of the communion wafer desecration, we decided we had to speak out about them.

That’s how we’ll proceed, and we’ll begin with the first post in a few hours. The entirety of what we’ve written will carry over into tomorrow–but never fear, it is already drafted, and you will see it all soon enough.

While we welcome comment here, we ask that you do not pre-judge our rebuttals on the points above until they have actually been posted.

The first post is now up and can be found here. Adaptation of Unscientific America

By Chris Mooney | July 13, 2009 5:33 am

Today is the official publication date of Unscientific America, and the first of our articles related to the book is out, in It’s a piece focused on the entertainment industry and its role in perpetrating negative images of science–with a central focus on Michael Crichton, who also perpetrated outright misinformation about global warming.

The article starts with the film Angels & Demons, and the story of CERN, wrongly thought to be carrying out all manner of dangerous science–and then gets to the big thesis:

The experience of CERN is, more broadly, the experience of science in our culture today. It is simultaneously admired and yet viewed as dangerously powerful and slightly malevolent — an uneasiness that comes across repeatedly in Hollywood depictions. As science-fiction film director James Cameron (“Aliens,” “Terminator,” “Titanic”) has observed, the movies tend to depict scientists “as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains.” That’s not only unfair to scientists: It’s unhealthy for the place of science in our culture — no small matter at a time of climate crisis, bioweapon threats, pandemic diseases and untold future controversies that will surely erupt as science continues to dramatically change our world and our politics. To begin to counter this problem, though, we need to wake up to a new recognition: Fixing the problem of science education in our schools, although very important, is not the sole solution. We also have to do something about the cultural standing of science — heavily influenced by politics and mass media — and that’s a very different matter.

You can read the full piece here….

Unscientific America on Bloggingheads With Carl Zimmer

By Chris Mooney | July 11, 2009 6:56 am

Here it is, and I think it may be the best diavlog we’ve done yet:

These are the different segments of the conversation, and we actually had some significant disagreements about the role of education in solving our problem, and other matters. I think it was a great talk:

Science Saturday: The War on Ignorance
Chris’s new book, “Unscientific America” (02:23)
Carl vs. Chris on how to fight scientific illiteracy (16:03)
A brief history of science’s image problem (09:10)
Do we need another Carl Sagan? (04:46)
If bloggers can’t make science cool again, who can? (09:17)
The culture gap between Hollywood and the scientific community (08:38)

Carl is also going to be introducing me when I give a book talk in New Haven, CT, on July 21. Details here.

UP With Pixar!

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 21, 2009 12:35 pm

As if this marine biologist needed any more reason to adore the folks that brought us one of the greatest ocean themed films of all time… 

I not only thoroughly enjoyed UP, but must also commend Pixar for the distance they went to help little Colby Curtin. So on the summer solstice, we celebrate the amazing animation studio with a clip from Finding Nemo. (Watch for the shout out to sea cucumbers):

Randy Olson's Forthcoming Book: Don't Be Such a Scientist

By Chris Mooney | May 30, 2009 12:59 pm

Olson, a scientist and filmmaker whose work we much admire, has a book coming out in September that dovetails with many of the things we’ve also been saying about the problem of science communication. It has this provocative title: Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. A book website has just gone up, and the table of contents are thusly described:

Introduction – The need for a new approach to science communication in an age of information overload. In the words of communication theorist Richard Lanham (“The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information,” 2007), “style and substance, and our expectations for them, have changed places.” It’s not about “dumbing down,” it’s about using style as a means of communicating substance.

Chapter 1 – Don’t Be So Cerebral – The need to draw on other organs of the body than just the brain.

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