The relationship between the work of science and works of fiction has gone on for a long time. It's time to put a ring on that finger.
It's no secret that fiction writers have been pilfering ideas from science for generations. Verne did it. Wells, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Matheson, and of course Crichton, had a lot of success by finding out what was hot in science, taking an imaginary leap to the next step (or next hundred steps), and then turning it into a story, and a profit.
This trend has continued with movies, which routinely feature scientific factoids that have been Googled, copied and pasted from dubious or legitimate sites. Let's face it. Fiction needs Science in order to thrive.
But what does Science get out of it?
One could argue that having science in stories makes it more accessible to people, so therefore, stories serve a role in communicating science to the public in a way that scientists aren't capable of on their own. That's true, to an extent, but a lot of times the facts aren't communicated very faithfully. If you don't believe me, ask a kid what happens to someone who gets hit with gamma radiation. And yet, it is likely that the public perception of the current state of scientific knowledge is defined not by the journals, but by the science portrayed in entertainment, and that doesn't seem fair.
The point is, fiction writers have been mooching off of scientists for a long time. And who pays the scientist for that? No one. You think Stephen Hawking gets a check every time a black hole is used to explain a plot point in a Star Trek movie? Nope.
So, scientists, how can you turn around this one-way food chain and make it go both ways? The next time you have a big idea that won't be immediately and readily accepted, be proactive. Pay a producer to put it in a movie as a form of product placement.
Why? Because research is funded by taxes (at least, for a few more days). The more public opinion is behind something, the more likely it is to get funded. And the best way to sway public opinion is to make sure that a cinema hero believes in your idea, too. So put your idea out to the public and let the debate about the veracity of your claim take place place on Rotten Tomatoes before it occurs between your peer reviewers and grant study groups, and if you're lucky, then your peers will have seen the movie and unconsciously think, "How can I reject this? Matt Damon believed in it, and it saved the world!"
The truth is, fictional media is the perfect place to put half-baked scientific ideas because there is no other place for them. Science is too competitive. Most academics, and a good deal of industrial scientists, won't state an idea publicly unless it's a sure thing, because if they put out an idea that ends up being false, it could hurt their careers. Public speculation is a dangerous, dangerous thing in the academic science system, and to be fair, there's a good reason for it. Scientists who have put out unproven and irresponsible theories have done a lot of damage (see for example, people who believe that vaccines cause autism or that women have innate defenses against pregnancies incurred from rape).
But ideas placed in media fiction overcome that risk, because true things in fictional stories can be observed with some cautious objectivity. You can put out a crazy notion and it won't have to be defended. When you report that what was in the movie actually is the truth, it makes the truth seem that much cooler, and that much more fundable. The movie gets the money, and the scientist who wisely inserted the idea into the movie gets to write papers that reference the movie in order to back up the hipness of his/her claim. That's a win-win.
So why wouldn't scientists pay to have their ideas put into theaters before they are put into journals? There are four arguments against it. One, and this bears repeating, scientists might not have money. Two, the movie could be bad. You could find out that the line of dialogue containing your ingenious idea will not be delivered with gravitas by Morgan Freeman, but will instead be shouted by a supermodel in a lab coat in a movie by Michael Bay (not that supermodels aren't perfectly capable of understanding science- I'm just saying that, well, you know what I'm saying.) Third, the strategy could backfire. Just ask people who think it would be cool to try and clone prehistoric creatures. The odds are that someone who looks at that possibility and thinks, "That can't be allowed to happen! Jeff Goldblum is never wrong." (that's actually true.) And fourth, once the idea is out there, there's always the possibility that another scientist will see the idea's potential and steal it, and all scientists are paranoid about getting scooped.
Those risks aside, the upside for certain fields can't be ignored. A prime example of people who should jump on this idea are those in the field of neuroethics. Neuroethicists routinely point to movies as a way of introducing their ideas to the public. Why? Because it's harder to have a real discussion about the ethical implications of cognitive enhancement than it is to engage in a debate about whether it's worse to make a chimpanzee smarter or Bradley Cooper smarter. (And who's hotter?) A neuroethicist could make a solid living writing about the real-world implications of movies that the neuroethicist pitched. Additionally, the upside for theoretical physicists is obvious. And the upside for zoologists? I'm not sure, but what does a zoologist have to lose?
Had this system been in place a long time ago, it might have helped a few idea releases go more smoothly. Maybe people would have been quicker to accept the risk of concussions in football if Rudy had had one. Maybe the Higgs-Boson would have been discovered a lot sooner if Spock had used to blast a few Romulons. And seriously people, why don't we have clones dinosaurs yet?
So listen up, bold-thinking scientists with edgy ideas. Your work may receive scathing reviews by the intellectual establishment until you're proven right, but ticket buyers may give it two thumbs up right away! Advertising companies, make this option available. And you might want to hurry-- wallets are tough to open if they're falling off cliffs.
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