Why Shouldn't Scientists Be Hollywood Heroes?

By Malcolm MacIver | July 6, 2010 11:15 am

dr_emmett_brownIn a column in the latest edition of Nature, Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, takes on the National Academy’s Science Entertainment Exchange (SEE). SEE seeks to enrich and improve the quality of science and the depiction of scientists in movies and TV. (Full disclosure: I sometimes consult for science fiction movies and TV shows through the Exchange.)

Sarewitz takes aim at the SEE’s interest in less stereotyped depictions of scientists by asserting those stereotypes are correct: “as biologist E. O. Wilson … has explained, scientists must work 80 hours a week if they hope to do important research. That doesn’t leave much time for developing social skills or shopping for nice clothes.” This is going to come as a shock to many top scientists I know, who manage to have a social life and dress fashionably all while working significantly less than 80 hours a week. His vision of the socially isolated and perennially unkempt scientist is out of touch, despite what he saw in Back to the Future a quarter-century ago.

Sarewitz believes that scientists are different from cops and morticians because we are “part of an enterprise that is continually transforming society, nature and even humanity in ways that everyone can experience but no one can truly understand.” Because of this fact, Sarewitz says “there’s a naivety bordering on the oblivious in the academy’s efforts to render science and scientists more familiar and palatable through mass entertainment.”

On several levels, this is a bizarre claim. I’ll focus on the most relevant point, which is that the SEE is not about sugar-coating the ultimately inexplicable work (!) of scientists to transform humanity. SEE is enabling story-makers to get to know real working scientists so that their dramatic depictions don’t just trade in stereotypes, but make contact with reality–in some ways more familiar and palatable, in others less so. That means richer characters that have more depth–just as a novelist who goes to the trouble of doing background research on what life as a journalist is like can write about a journalist character with more depth.

Finally, Sarewitz suggests that the aims of the SEE are at odds with the creation of good drama. That to make scientists more realistic and improve the quality of science in movies would sanitize great drama into insipid pedantry. This is the one part of the commentary which might resonate, if only it were true.

Scientists who work with SEE and the creatives that SEE connects them to come together in a collaborative spirit to enrich depictions of science and scientists. They are not there to consult on how a good drama should be constructed–which, as Sarewitz correctly points out, often includes elements of mystery, ambiguity, open-ended questions, and depictions of the kinds of hubris and will to power that affects us all, including scientists. As a consultant for a sci-fi show that is all about the hubris and will to power of scientists who develop robots (the Cylons) that try to annihilate humanity (a prequel to Battlestar Galactica called Caprica), I can make strong assurances on that score. As it should, the job of crafting a good story remains in the hands of the folks who are talented at it, while we stick with what we do well. Entertainment and science are two different worlds, and Sarewitz exhibits a naivety bordering on the oblivious to suggest that the people participating in the meeting of these two worlds aren’t acutely aware of what they bring to the table.

It’s unfortunate that Nature, one of the most widely read periodicals in science, has given Sarewitz a forum for these poorly considered remarks. No approach to improving science literacy in our society is without faults, and we should embrace critical examination of which approaches are the most effective. His piece fails to do so, instead giving voice to his own preconceptions and naivety about the process.


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