While on-screen depictions of stretchy mutants Where a dinosaur that terrorizes the toilet may seem completely unrelated to actual research, film and television production crews have spent decades seeking out scientists to verify scripts and special effects.
Propelled by the science fiction boom beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood has since sought expert knowledge to make the scenes more plausible.
It turns out that even the most outlandish storylines can benefit from expert knowledge. For example, Anne-Simonvirologist at the University of Maryland and consultant on the X-Filesbroke it at the streak creator that a virus could not, in theory, transform into a monster. (It could, however, turn the cells into terrifying creatures.)
The benefits go both ways: conversely, popular media have even helped stimulate research developments and obtain funding in scientific fields. And over the past decade, it’s become much easier to bridge the worlds of science and fiction:
How Hollywood Finds Advisors
Since the National Academy of Sciences established it in 2008, the Science & Entertainment Exchange has paired filmmakers with researchers in specific fields.
Previously, the entertainment industry had to find experts on its own, says David A. Kirby, author of Lab coats in Hollywood: science, science and cinema.
Special effects artists have long sought out researchers for help with highly specialized visuals, like the appearance of certain chemical elements, says Kirby, professor of science and technology studies at California Polytechnic State University. Television and film creators have also forged ties with universities close to their filming locations. Physicist Clifford Johnson and other scientists at the University of Southern California are often called upon for consultation, in part due to their proximity to the studios.
Now, the Science & Entertainment Exchange simplifies finding advisors and helps facilitate on-set technical knowledge. However, the pool of experts is reduced when the directors begin to prefer certain researchers. “Some of the scientists have consulted enough and understand what the filmmakers want, which is fine,” says Kirby. “But it’s become a kind of self-selection…the number of consultants they send is going down a bit.”
Generally, Kirby said science advisers tend to fall into three categories: first, there are publicity-generating names like physicist Brian Greene (he worked on the time travel film with Denzel Washington in 2006, Already seen). There are also readily available researchers who can keep tabs on a variety of topics, such as geneticist Adam Rutherford, who lent his expertise at Alex Garland movies Annihilation (2017) and Ex-Machina (2015). Finally, some academics stand out for their niche specialties. For the movie 2020 Palm Springs, Time travel enthusiast Clifford Johnson helped iron out the physics behind the film groundhog day-typical situation. Johnson also worked on several Marvel projects.
Simon, meanwhile, came across X files coincidently. She started working with creator Chris Carter, who is a friend of the family, after meeting her mother at a party. At the time, Carter lamented that he had already found a physics consultant (his brother), but needed a biologist to review his scripts. Her mother suggested that Carter call her. “I was so excited,” Simon says. “Before X filesit was really bad the way science – and scientists – were presented.
Hollywood’s (Improving) Science Problem
Until relatively recently, the popular media neglected fact-checking and mostly offered negative stereotypes focused on mad scientists. A survey of over a thousand horror films from 1931 to 1984 found that a third portray “scientists or their creations as villains or monsters,” while only 11% describe them as heroes. Later, a 2003 study concluded in the same way that even “good” movie scientists (of any genre) generally succumbed to evil and corruption.
On-screen seekers also generally lacked complex storylines, or even details of their personal life, the 2003 article found. It’s a problem because most people don’t know scientists themselves and form opinions based on the media they consume, Simon says, which has a dehumanizing effect. “You want people to realize that scientists are just people who like to solve puzzles,” she says.
Factual errors and one-dimensional representations have real-world consequences. From 1981, frequent television viewers were more likely than occasional television viewers to distrust science, view it as dangerous, and reject the entire career path. This is the main reason why researchers like Simon and Carl Sagan say they work on Hollywood projects: to counter these received ideas.
Representation has improved over the past few decades, according to Kirby, likely because it’s much more common to recruit scientific consultants. Now, audiences expect more sophisticated explanations behind distant plots. “You can’t really get away with the goofy stereotypes you used to,” he says. He finds that Hollywood now tends to heroize scientists, but glorifying the profession has its drawbacks: it can obscure the fact that researchers are human and can make mistakes.
And while the concept of scientific precision may seem like a black-and-white problem, there’s nothing simple about dealing with imaginary creatures and other extraordinary scenarios. Supernatural events in X files are not supported by hard data, but Simon was able to offer his best explanation for a fishman mutant (a human egg that has fused with a fish cell).
Even with unlikely events, like a “Mt. Everest-sized comet heading for Earth, filmmakers can recognize hard facts — albeit with artistic license. Although the 1998 film deep impact mentionned the delay of video signals between Mars and Earth, the 20 second delay of the film is much shorter than in reality (about 20 minutes).
Often, production teams can’t afford to get all the details right or think specific facts could derail the script, Kirby says. As a result, some TV shows and movies gloss over errors because they would only be obvious to certain experts.
To navigate murky fictional waters, advisors typically draw a line they’re not willing to cross — most of the time, these are scenarios that clearly violate current conclusions. Additionally, Simon says she would never associate with productions that promote harmful misinformation, such as the plague against vaccines or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Experts should exercise particular caution when script narratives include health-related myths, such as the eugenics belief that criminality is a genetic trait, notes Kirby.
On-screen representations and real-life research
Yet Kirby has found that the scientific community is more open to on-screen speculation than to the discovery of outlandish ideas in academic journals. In fact, some outside theories injected by film consultants have sparked scholarly debate outside of theaters. jurassic park Paleontology consultant Jack Horner encouraged the filmmakers to hint that birds evolved from dinosaurs, a controversial idea at the time but one that since gaining ground.
Read more: Did all dinosaurs have feathers?
Popular media can also raise awareness in certain areas and indirectly increase their funding. Epidemic (1995) and Contagion (2011) have brought pandemics to viewers’ attention, Kirby says, and the CDC has leveraged them in meetings to demonstrate why its work matters. deep impact and Armageddon (1998), meanwhile, may have helped government officials rally NASA’s Near-Earth-Object (NEO) program.
Hollywood has also directly funded studies. Although scientific advisers generally work for free, they accept sometimes studio donations to their academic research. Production Companies also paid museums and laboratories to film on site.
The scientific council can even help with grant applications. National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to require that a project’s impact goes beyond the laboratory, so applicants can claim that their consultancy work helps advance the science literacy of the public. The NSF therefore adopted Simon’s X-Files work – but she initially hid her consultation because she feared it would threaten her career.
Although it may have been stigmatized decades ago, Kirby has found that media advisory work is now “a mark of honor” among scientists. “They all want to do it,” he says. “Every time I give a talk, I have at least half a dozen scientists saying, ‘How can I do this?'”
The “Scully Effect”
Multidimensional representations of scientists and their work can also inspire young people to enter STEM fields. This is evident in the Scully effect, which theorizes that X files motivated Dana Scully character young women to pursue scientific careers. As one of the first prominent female scientists on screen, the skeptical doctor and FBI agent also had ripple effects in the entertainment industry, allegedly influencing the characters like forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan of Bones.
As a result, more than 60% of women familiar with Dana Scully say she “increased their belief in the importance of STEM,” according to one. survey 2018 by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The show’s most dedicated viewers were more likely to respond that girls “should be encouraged to study STEM,” the survey also reported.
Simon has seen the effect of assertive yet nuanced representations play out in his own classroom. She once asked her introductory freshman biology class if X files inspired them to study science – about two-thirds of students raised their hands. “They see a positive image of science and that affects the people who get into it,” she says. “It was great that a TV series literally influenced a generation.”