Adventures in Ethics and Science

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session’s wiki page.)

This was sort of an odd session for me — not so much because of the topics taken up by session leaders Tamara Krinsky and Jennifer Ouellette, but because of my own sense of ambivalence about a lot of “entertainment” these days.

The session itself had lots of interesting glimpses of the work scientists are doing to help support filmmakers (and television producers, and game designers, and producers of other kinds of entertainment) who want to get the science right in the stories they’re trying to tell. We heard about the efforts of the Science & Entertainment Exchange to connect makers of entertainment with scientists and engineers “to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines”. We saw the Routes website, produced in association with the Wellcome Trust, which included “a set of minigames, a documentary and a murder mystery which explore the fascinating world of genetics.” (In one of those minigames, you get to be the virus and move to the next level by infecting the target proportion of potential carriers — but you get just one sneeze per level to make that happen!) We learned that the drive to add “extras” when movies are released on DVD is creating something like a demand for real science content to complement science fiction.

In other words, it sounded like producers of entertainment were aware that a science-y angle can hold appeal for the audiences they are trying to reach, and were generally enthusiastic about (or at least open to) the idea of drawing on the expertise of actual scientists.

Of course, there were caveats.

While Hollywood can tell an amazing (and sometimes scientifically accurate) story, accuracy and entertainment value are separable. It’s true that scientists are creative, too (in their strategies for getting the information from the world to answer their questions, for example), and that they work with their theories and data to tell compelling stories, but their creativity and storytelling is constrained by different views. Thus, the producers of entertainment may be happy for the scientists’ help with peripheral fact checking but much less willing to “fix” a scientific error which is a central plot point. In case of a conflict, for Hollywood story will always win out over real science.

Indeed, it sounded an awful lot like some of the positive things scientifically-informed Hollywood films can achieve is tenuous — so peripheral to the central aims of the movie industry that counting on these outcomes would be a huge mistake. Hollywood isn’t interested in teaching science, but Hollywood films can inspire kids to want to be scientists, promote positive perceptions of science and scientists, or embed teaching moments. But even challenging the mad scientist (or nerdy scientist, or boring scientist) stereotype is only going to happen in the service of the story Hollywood wants to tell (and the audience Hollywood wants to reach with that story). Well-adjusted characters may do less to move a story than characters with issues — which means that there’s a good chance that if some of those characters are scientists, they will be scientists with issues. Programs like the CSI franchise may be driving student interests in college majors and career paths, an issue that led someone in the room to ask the panelists if Hollywood realized it had this kind of power. The response was that while a positive societal impact can be a welcome side effect, job one is attending to the story. Going into the project with an agenda (either as the filmmaker or the scientists consulting with the filmmaker) was described as a really risky move.

Predictably, some folks at the session pointed out that there’s something a little weird about asserting that storytelling trumps all other considerations (including scientific ones) in light of the steady stream of wretched storytelling coming from some Hollywood filmmakers (*cough*Michael Bay*cough*). Obviously, there are some selection pressures on the “blockbuster” niche in the movie ecosystem that track something closer to likelihood of selling movie tickets than propensity to entertain. (Or maybe folks like the ScienceOnline2010 crowd are simply not the people Hollywood is most interested in entertaining.) But it seems like the pressures have some filmmakers unwilling to reexamine the “tried and true” storytelling conventions in favor of something fresher and more creative. Possibly new approaches to storytelling would entertain better and accommodate better contact with the relevant scientific facts.

Possibly it will only be economic pressures within the movie ecosystem that press filmmakers to explore this possibility.

And here’s where my general ambivalence about big studio entertainment rears its head.

I enjoy an entertaining movie or television program as much as the next person, but there’s a whole lot out there that does not entertain me. Perhaps I’m just nowhere near the target audience for most of what’s produced. Just my age, and my recollection of what movie tickets used to cost, makes it hard for me to pony up the cash to see a movie in the theater unless it has very good reviews from reviewers I trust and a visual component that’s likely to suffer on a TV screen. But perhaps I’ve been spoiled by good movies — ones that challenge storytelling conventions, or that create a world parallel to our real one in a way that opens up an intriguing space of possibilities.

I’ve mentioned before that, personally, I’m happy to spot filmmakers some suspension of disbelief — even on the science — if they bother to develop a compelling world peopled with characters that we recognize, a world interestingly different from our own, but close enough to it that I can imagine my way into the story. Give me a fictional world with an intelligible trajectory from the world we inhabit now, but one where the differences in circumstances or base assumptions (maybe about human nature, what is inborn and what is learned, what kinds of societal structures are in force, etc.) have a big impact on how the characters live.

In other words, I’m not looking to movies and TV to tell me what the physical or biological world is or could be. Rather, I like movies and TV shows that explore what it means to be human, to be part of a family or a society, to be an individual, to be vulnerable, to be strong. I want them to function as art, where the viewer plays an active role in making the meaning rather than just plugging in and letting the entertainment wash over my brain for 93 minutes.

This may not be what Hollywood is interested in selling me. Even if it were, it’s not clear that such an entertainment would also be the ideal vehicle to boost public interest in science or improve images of scientists in the public imagination.

It’s better, of course, if entertainment doesn’t propagate scientific misunderstandings that then need to be remedied, or reinforce negative stereotypes that make it harder for non-scientists to take scientists seriously. But even with huge Hollywood budgets, I don’t think it’s fair to expect filmmakers to do the heavy lifting here. The question of why it seems so crucial to get the producers of entertainment on board with consulting scientists points to larger questions about how society in the U.S. works. If movies are the last best chance to get some science into people who are no longer in school (not to mention into some of the folks who are still in school but aren’t necessarily going to take a science class if it’s not required), what does that say about the sources of information adults can be expected to access? What does it say about the limitations of newspapers, magazines, television and radio programming, and websites and blogs when it comes to delivering information about science? What does it say about the sorts of information most people seek out?

Is there something about the pattern of American life today that makes people much more likely to reach for escapist entertainment than to engage with the world in which we purportedly live, together?

I recognize that I’m gesturing in the direction of a problem that’s much harder to solve, one that would take more than light scientific fact-checking to address. But I think it’s that problem, looming in the background, that keeps me from fully immersing myself in all the entertainment the television and film industry (not to mention the video game industry) have to offer. So I’m happy to take entertainment that’s more scientifically informed, but I’ll be keeping one foot on the floor.