Of Schemes and Memes Blog

How Can Hollywood Help? #sciamlearning

This post originally appeared on Digital Science’s Event Blog: http://www.digital-science.com/blog/events/how-can-hollywood-help-sciamlearning/

By Laura Wheeler


On August 4th, I was honored to be invited to the 3rd annual STEM Summit, co-sponsored by Scientific American and Macmillan Education in New York. It proved to be an inspiring day discussing issues around women in STEM and today’s educational landscape.

If you want to see what was discussed during the event, I urge you to check out the active social media hashtag #sciamlearning, or to read Laura Wind’s summary of the Summit here. The hosts, Mariette DiChristina and Susan Winslow, did a phenomenal job at creating an interactive and thought-provoking day with real outputs.

I could pick out many highlights from the discussions, but for the purpose of this blog, I am going to concentrate on just one subject that was touched upon during the day- the role of Hollywood in portraying science:

Should scientists have a role in helping Hollywood portray science and the image of scientists? 

We were fortunate enough to hear from two inspirational scientists, Dr. Jon Sotos and Dr. Donna J. Nelson, the scientific advisors for the hit TV shows House and Breaking Bad. Their session was titled, “Changing The Idea Of Who Is STEM” and focused on how Hollywood can help.

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Jon and Donna

Popular media does have an impact on society and behaviors, but not all examples prove to be accurate. For instance, we were told during the Summit that applications for library cards went up by 500% after “The Fonz” said he was going to the library to pick up girls in the 1970s hit TV show “Happy Days.” It seems that this is actually a popular myth. Nevertheless, the sentiment remains and it’s certainly unsurprising to think that a TV show might have such an impact.

It would be encouraging if the impact of TV could be more positive. In contrast to the Happy Days’ story, an article in The Telegraph featuring Professor Ellis Cashmore, an author on celebrity and media culture, claims the global success of Breaking Bad could be to blame for the surge in crystal meth suggesting that the hit show instantly makes people “curious” about crystal meth. The inevitable question is: to what extent should the popular media be expected to balance its intended creativity and entertainment with its responsibility to society in general?

One recent controversial example is the film “Gravity” which received acclaim for raising the profile of certain areas of science while at the same time enduring criticism for its lack of scientific accuracy. In order to achieve its main aim of providing an exciting and original piece of entertainment, it seems that certain realities had to be sacrificed. In defence of it, Kevin Grazier, the science adviser for the film, reminded its critics that “No one said it was a documentary.” Is this an acceptable excuse? Does the plus side of engaging an audience’s interest in a science themed area make up for the many inaccuracies in the facts?

In contrast, the film Interstellar won praise for its attention to detail in the physics of the piece. It has been heralded as inspirational to young people who can gain real insight into topics such as black holes and wormholes without losing any pleasure in the drama of the story. The director of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan, feels that there is no excuse for getting the science wrong in a dramatic presentation, believing that the facts of science can only add to the audience’s fascination with the vast possibilities of the universe.

It’s clear Hollywood has a responsibility not only to portray science accurately and alongside that, to support the images of women in STEM. We need to have positive images of scientists in popular media and move away from the perpetuating stereotypes. The session concluded that what we need to do is reveal real scientists and women in STEM, while making sure we don’t romanticise and fictionalise them in the process.

One comforting fact, however, is that real scientists are being used to advise the scripts of hit Hollywood shows. Although advice can easily be ignored, explained Donna playfully; pure meth would certainly not be blue – perhaps advice the Breaking Bad directors overlooked? But of course, Walt needed a trademark – now that’s Hollywood!


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