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Attack of the Nerds from Outer Space

Science Reaches Out to Hollywood, and Both Sides Are the Wiser

The Day the Earth Stood Still movie poster SOURCE: Twentieth Century-Fox The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a new departure for the scientific community, but precisely the sort of outreach measure that can help it better connect with our broader society.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is author author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo:

Last week, along with fellow blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum, ScienceDebate2008 CEO and screenwriter Shawn Otto, and many other usual suspects from the Los Angeles science world, I attended the debut event for a very new sort of venture: The Science and Entertainment Exchange. Sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based National Academy of Sciences, but with entertainment industry might behind it as well—most centrally Jerry and Janet Zucker, the director/producer couple who also backed Proposition 71, the successful California stem cell ballot initiative, in 2004—it was perhaps the most significant merger of minds from two utterly different spheres that I’ve ever witnessed.

It’s no secret that scientists have had their problems with Hollywood in the past. I’ve written here about the troublesome mad scientist trope that appears regularly on television and the screen; and blockbuster films are also constantly being blasted for containingbad physics, bad biology, bad epidemiology, and so on. Not to mention all the ridiculous technobabble that occurs in sci-fi and disaster flicks, which invariably feature a set-piece in which someone wearing a white coat (surprisingly often it is Jeff Goldblum) explains why all hell is about to break loose.

Much of this was deliciously spoofed in a hilarious short film by Zucker Productions that opened the Exchange event in Los Angeles—a parody of The Day the Earth Stood Still in which it is scientists, not aliens, who arrive in Hollywood in a flying saucer, and warn the entertainment community that they’re in big trouble if they don’t mend their ways. I devoutly hope someone puts this video up on YouTube; the million views it would likely draw would go farther than any single event to bring scientists and entertainers together, joined by belly laughs.

In reality, of course, the tone of the Science and Entertainment Exchange is not hectoring in nature, and scientists aren’t going to blast Hollywood types with lasers if they get the facts wrong. Quite the opposite. The point of the Exchange is to create more collaboration, rather than the standard wagon-circling or ritual denunciation. As recently hired Exchange director and science writer Jennifer Ouellete (author of The Physics of the Buffyverse) puts it:

Let’s face it: ragging on the depiction of science in film and TV is a time-honored tradition on the Interwebs. There’s an entire Website devoted to Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, and io9 just put up a poll asking readers to vote on which technical inaccuracies in science fiction annoy them the most….That said, I’m convinced that while the constant snark directed at science in movies and TV might be entertaining to those in the “geek clique,” it is not, in the long run, constructive, or conducive to fostering change in how science is portrayed in Hollywood. It’s easy to point fingers and toss off zingy crowd-pleasing one-liners; it’s a lot more difficult to actually offer well-considered workable alternatives in a format that is easily accessible to those in the entertainment industry.

National Academies president Ralph Cicerone echoed this point in Los Angeles. “We understand stories trump science in Hollywood,” he observed, and reassured the assembled audience—of what appeared to be over 300 people—that the goal of the Exchange was certainly not to turn every fiction film into a documentary. That would be, like, boring; the utter opposite of entertainment.

And just as scientists are trying to better understand the entertainment world, it’s not like everybody in the “industry” despises science. Far from it. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy and emcee of the Los Angeles event, confessed himself a total geekophile: He said he’d seen Carl Sagan’s Cosmos “100 times” and added that he felt Scooby Doo is in many ways the best thing on TV, because it glorifies the use of reason and problem solving, rather than just letting the supernatural resolve any plot difficulties. Later on in the afternoon, I watched a full room of rapt writers and other industry creatives sit through a fascinating breakout session in which neuroscientists David Poeppel and Eric Haseltine explained “The Mysteries of the Brain and Mind,” where reality is definitely stranger than fiction—and the potential fodder for entertainment plots abounds.

So how well did the Exchange succeed in its debut, and what does the future hold? So far I’m hearing virtually unqualified applause—see for instance University of Southern California physicist Clifford Johnson’s take—and for scientists to pack a house in Hollywood is no small feat. Let me add to the accolades: This is a new departure for the scientific community, but precisely the sort of outreach measure that can help it better connect with our broader society. And as MacFarlane emphasized, these are two communities that need each other—the scientists can provide amazing (and also realistic) story ideas, and the entertainers can help spread the word about science to massive audiences through the medium of fictional film and television.

As this project moves forward, however, I’d like to end with a word of caution. For this kind of experiment to work, it is absolutely critical that the dialogue be fully two-directional. Scientists can’t just lecture, they also have to listen. They know the facts better than anyone, and no one disputes this. But they don’t necessarily understand how those facts can best fit into a story—something entertainers eminently excel at.

Attending an Exchange salon on “The Frontiers of Genomics” that featured J. Craig Venter, Lawrence Goldstein, and Gene E. Robinson, for instance, I heard a ton of science, but could only think of two movie plots. One would be a retread of 1997′s GATTACA—but Hollywood has already been there and done that. The other would be a story in which the synthetic bacteria that Venter hopes to create run rampant and threaten to destroy the world—in short, yet another retread of the Frankenstein myth. This is most emphatically not the kind of story that scientists want entertainers to tell. But the problem is, Venter didn’t give me (or the audience) anything better.

That’s a very minor criticism: The Exchange is just beginning, and I’m sure it’s already inspiring fruitful collaborations. And Jennifer Ouellette, who I know a little, is an ideal person to set up shop in Hollywood and start merging two very different worlds, something she has been doing anyway for some time. So suspend your disbelief, scientists—and I’ll see you at the movies.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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