Attending San Diego’s famous annual Comic Con is a breeze — when you’re an STS grad student, at least. The lines for the Netflix trailers and movie sneak-peeks and TV cast conversations? Long, like crazy-long. The lines for the science panels? What lines?
This year’s Comic Con program was well-stocked in the latter, featuring panels of experts from both of the “two cultures” knocking at the wall that allegedly divides them, as well as how, when, and why that boundary is effectively crossed or bumbled through. Friday’s “The Future Is Now” panel featured authors and scientists examining different ways science fiction frequently pre-empts actual technological developments (literature as laboratory!). “The Science of ‘Star Wars,’” earlier that day, again mixed real-life tech developers with special-effects experts for a discussion of how feasible light sabers and other imaginary media really are.
Thursday evening’s “Hollyweird Science: Information Versus Motivation” was particularly interesting for its conversation between scientists and those writing narratives comprised of scientific elements. In many cases, these were the same people, i.e. scientists who’d written a script. But most of the panelists were “science advisers,” the people called upon by Hollywood writers and producers to answer questions about the feasibility of their script’s violent seismology or the appearance of their space-based tech effects or, as one panelist said she was asked, “So, dragons — how do those work?”
Answers to these questions — when they’re heeded — determine not only the depth of immersion possible for viewers of the narratives but also, to some degree, public opinion of and education about science itself.
Moderator Gia Mora opened the panel by positing that excessive fan nitpicking over whether the “sci” part of a sci-fi narrative is accurate actually has a chilling effect on young people. That is, focused fussiness in this context might deter them from an interest in actual science. (Interesting warrant there: is one of sci-fi’s goals to proselytize for STEM careers?) Jessica Cail — who has one intriguing job title: neuropsychologist/stuntwoman — suggested the chilling effect goes both ways. She cited personal experience advising Hollywood fiction programming: “If the show doesn’t get the science just right, it gets so slammed by the [online] comments” that maybe producers in the future opt to avoid repeating that experience by avoiding scientific content at all. Colin Campbell, who’s directed science-entertainment series such as “The Universe” and “Life After People,” added that network executives remain skittish about most controversy, particularly political. “At the network level,” he said of one project, “there was fear about using those two words, ‘climate’ and ‘change,’ in the same sentence.”
Cail also pointed out an important fact: anyone advising on a TV show’s or movie’s scientific content is way down the totem pole of script influence and overall responsibility to the narrative. Most of the panel agreed that their advice was sometimes acted upon, sometimes not, and Amy Berg noted that technical reason often loses out in the writers’ room when “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” brainstorming can’t be reined in.
Nonetheless, everyone agreed that accuracy was worth fighting for. The resulting question was interesting: What are the benefits to the public by not only having science present within entertainment but by making sure it’s relatively correct?
Kevin Grazier, a planetary physicist who’s advised on numerous space-based shows and movies, pointed out that keeping the science correct fosters immersion in the narrative — that if readers or viewers stop to question the science, that allows them an exit from the narrative. This implies, though, that the depicted science need not be actually correct but merely seem correct — that intuitive explanations foster the main goal, which is immersion and continuance. Tiffany Loverd noted, “Even ‘Star Trek’ would be considered bad science.” Indeed, beaming a human being from the surface of Ceti Alpha V to the interior of a starship remains a fairly ludicrous technical concept, but it sure feels right when it moves those scripts along.
“But in narrative, even bad science can be a win,” added Rick Loverd. He runs the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program within the National Academy of Sciences that connects Hollywood creators with scientists to answer technical questions. (Fascinating project running nearly a decade, complete with a hotline: 844-NEED-SCI.) Loverd cited the film “San Andreas,” a disaster movie with a plot driven by typically questionable science. Subsequent reporting and reviews of the film, however, focused on that shortcoming — and, in so doing, placed valuable, accurate scientific information before a readership perhaps not normally or widely reached by it. “The story added, ‘Here’s what you need to have in your “go kit,”’ and that was on the front page,” Loverd said. “So that bad science was a teachable moment.”
The panel closed with a question that ended on a personal note here. Mora asked what science the panelists wanted to see sci-fi narratives focusing on more in the future. Tiffany Loverd (she and Rick are married) answered augmented-reality tech. Huzzah! She works with Daqri, a company with an intriguing-looking suite of AR hardware. “AR is here today,” she said. “Soon we won’t have screens — what’s that going to look like? How does that change your relationship with the information and each other and the geopolitical environment?” Hey, those are some of my research questions!
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I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.