In the past two postings I’ve talked about my experience working with the Science Entertainment Exchange, which aims to improve the quality of science in movies and other forms of entertainment by connecting movie and TV people with scientists who have expertise in something related to their story lines. In my last posting, I addressed some creative ways in which scientists and engineers can be helpful in this endeavor. In this posting, I will address how the entertainment industry can further the agenda of scientists and engineers.
Ten years ago, while I was doing my PhD in neuroscience at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, the ABC TV news show “Primetime Live” decided to do an exposé on wasteful government funding of science. Their strategy was to ask the main funding agencies for a list of the titles of currently funded projects and pick the ones that sounded the most “out there.” Since my lab was studying prey capture in weakly-electric fish, the project I was working on got picked. Luckily, the executive producer was well informed about science and after trips to several of the labs, where he found that the selected projects had excellent justifications, they switched the tone of the show. It became about how seemingly strange and obscure basic science projects have led to revolutions in our understanding of everything from genetics to brain plasticity.
Amusingly, it seems like they didn’t tell their main wasteful-spending critic about the shift in tone. Former congressmen Ernest Istook from Oklahoma (a Republican) dismissed each research project in turn. For our project, Sam Donaldson (who’s toupee sits as a reminder of one neglected corner of scientific research) said to Istook: “How electric fish attack their prey, we’re spending money looking at that” Istook shook his head and responded “You know, that is really curious….humans don’t go around making attacks with electricity underwater….it just doesn’t work that way” (click here to view the video).
This kind of populist anti-science pandering is a recurring phenomenon. One recent example is Sarah Palin’s remarks during a speech in October: “Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”
The entire genetics revolution occurred because of research on fruit flies started over 50 years ago. Given that her child has a genetic disorder that scientists do research on using fruit flies (I kid you not), her attack is darkly ironic. Professor John Carlson from Yale University, who organized the 50th Annual Fly Meeting in Chicago that just finished on Sunday, told me over dinner last week that he had invited Palin to the meeting. Her staff was to get back to him on that, but not surprisingly never did.
The fact that such attacks can gain traction (45.7% of traction, if you count the popular vote for McCain-Palin this past election) shows how far we have to go in terms of educating the public about research. Increasing the quality and content of science in entertainment is one small part of the solution. One of the areas of research we told the TRON-2 producers about--to help with difficult but key dramatic transition in the movie--is a new branch of physics which several investigators at Northwestern work on. Should that make it into the movie, this will increase the awareness of the public for this kind of work and make it slightly less likely to become the target of ignorant political attacks.
By increasing the quality of the portrayed science, one can foresee a slow process of increased scientific "situation awareness" in mass culture. In such a climate, people may be able to think more critically about Palinesque pseudo-expose's of scientific programs. The short-sighted turn away from basic science to translational research, which represents a failure of science education on a large scale, may be helped. Massively irrational practices and beliefs, such as creationism and homeopathy, may be less likely to spread.
For these reasons, I hope that the National Academy’s Science and Entertainment Exchange is successful in getting a mutually beneficial dialogue started between scientists and story tellers. Having recently heard that our input to the makers of TRON 2 has had a significant impact on the storyline, I’m optimistic that the effort will pay off.