Monday, July 13, 2009

Are Movies Responsible for Anti-Intellectualism?

This article on explores why Americans have a negative attitude toward science and scientific inquiry, looking at scientists with fear or disdain and regarding their work as dangerous. The article, written by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, argues that popular culture, namely film and television, has conditioned Americans to be fearful of science. The article pays considerable attention to the work of Michael Crichton, whose novels and their film adaptations fed into and propagated this fear of science:

An M.D. who became a phenomenal entertainment industry success, Crichton was very much science's man in Hollywood. Even with his many science-centered hits, ranging from "Jurassic Park" to "ER," he still found time to lecture to scientific institutions and compose numerous nonfiction essays sharing his views on matters ranging from science in entertainment to climate change. He was, through and through, a paradox. His plots were meticulously researched and filled with science; yet at the same time — and most memorably in "Jurassic Park" — they depicted science going out of control, running amok, so that before long the bodies begin to pile up (or get digested).

And then toward the end of his career, Crichton produced a book that, for many in science, will live in infamy: 2004's "State of Fear," whose plot involves eco-terrorists trying to create natural disasters that will scare the public about global warming — which doesn't, in the view of the novel's heroic scientist-protagonist, even exist.

Let's take these two halves of Crichton in sequence, as both embody important lessons about science in our culture. First, science in the entertainment media. Crichton had little patience for scientists' complaints about ridiculous sci-fi plots and wild scientist stereotyping. In a 1999 lecture before the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he countered such gripes with his own perspective on why scientists will probably never be very happy with the products of Hollywood. As Crichton advised, there are at least four important rules of movies that just don't mesh with the real process of research: "(i) Movie characters must be compelled to act. (ii) Movies need villains. (iii) Movie searches are dull. (iv) Movies must move." Crichton argued that real science, with its long, drawn-out intellectual processes and frequent dead ends, simply can't be reconciled with such exigencies. "The problems lie with the limitations of film as a visual storytelling medium," he concluded. "You aren't going to beat it."

Crichton's words are worth heeding. People who care about science and want it to come off better in the mass media can't ignore his four rules of movie storytelling. They can't ask for entertainment products in which the characters do actual research (or at least not much of it). They can't ask for entertainment products that will be boring — a contradiction in terms. Rather, the goal must be to work toward finding ways of conveying information about science through film and other entertainment media without rendering them dull or unpalatable to audiences.
This is a good example of storytelling coming into conflict and with other parts of the culture and it supports my argument for a wider appreciation of cinema, which I've tried to do with Sounds of Cinema. A critical public would be more inclined to hold films to a higher standard both aesthetically and thematically. Contemporary audiences would not stand for the racist revisionist history of Birth of a Nation (I hope) because they would recognize it as such. Similarly, a public more educated in film as well as science would reject anti-intellectual crap like The Exorcism of Emily Rose or Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

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