If you can't blame Canada, blame Hollywood!

Rob sent me this article.

Hollywood Blamed For Scientific Ignorance

Some scientists are slack-jawed at the thought that people believe sinking in lava is even possible, not to mention leaping onto the wings of a hovering fighter jet.

Hollywood gets the blame for all manner of ills in today's society, from promiscuity to violence to reckless driving. Seldom is there evidence for such claims beyond that which has been cherry-picked and packaged to fit a political agenda.

To the list of grievances against Hollywood, add scientific illiteracy.

In an article published in the German journal "Praxis der Naturwissenschaften Physik," two University of Central Florida professors argue that the disregard for the laws of physics evident in Hollywood films is contributing to students' poor understanding of science.

The paper, "Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun But Limited Science Literacy," by UCF professor Costas J. Efthimiou and former UCF physics chair R. A. Llewellyn, makes no effort to establish a causal link between viewing impossible physics and believing the world works the same way. Rather, it assumes exposure leads to ignorance.

"Sometimes the scene is so profoundly wrong that it is hard to be missed," the paper concludes. "However, often the absurdity is hard to detect by people not very fluent in science literacy and untrained in critical thinking. In this way, Hollywood is reinforcing (or even creating) incorrect scientific attitudes that can have negative results for the society. This is a good reason to recommend that all citizens be taught critical thinking and be required to develop basic science and quantitative literacy."

Despite the absence of evidence of a connection between bad film physics and real-world ignorance, the paper provides an entertaining analysis of scientific flaws in recent films.

For example, a scene in the 2003 movie "The Core" depicts a person in a protective suit sinking in lava. As Efthimiou and Llewellyn explain, people would not sink completely in molten stone: "The human body is made mainly of water, thus its density will be almost equal to that of water, pwater [parts per water] = 1000kg/m3. The lava is mostly molten rock; surface rocks have an approximate density of 3300kg/m3. So plava [parts per lava] = 3300kg/m3. Therefore, for the human body, once a third of it submerges in lava, the two forces become equal and the body stops sinking. Even more, sinking (in lava) will happen at a slower rate compared to the rate on the surface of the Earth since gravity is weaker at that depth."

Efthimiou has been using Hollywood films in physics courses since 2002, when he and Llewellyn created a course called "Physics in Film" that he continues to teach.

In a 2006 paper by the same name, Efthimiou and his three co-authors state, "Hollywood is often willing to sacrifice scientific accuracy for the sake of drama. The problem with this is that many people, without the tools for critical analysis, accept what they see on-screen as realistic and accurate."

Consider the 1996 film Independence Day, which features alien spaceships crashing into the Earth. "The spaceships crash over every major city in the world with what would be the energy release of tens of thousands of atomic bombs, yet people celebrate this as a victory," Efthimiou and his co-authors lament.

While such arguments may suggest a rationale for public service warnings to dissuade viewers of films like Live Free or Die Hard from leaping John McClane-style off collapsing highways onto the wings of hovering fighter jets, they also underscore the real concern in the technical community that the U.S. can't compete in science.

As the Association for Computing Machinery observed in a 2006 report on globalization, "the United States educational system is still trying to understand how to change its curriculum to address application domain knowledge, a global workplace, and maintaining its innovative edge. In addition, the United States faces long-term challenges from falling interest and skills in math and science programs in its primary education system."

The Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 report appears to support Efthimiou's position, at least in part. It shows that average science scores among U.S. 12th graders declined from the year before and that only a third of students tested demonstrated proficiency in science.

At the same time, the 2006 report indicates that the number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the United States at all levels is rising. And the number of doctoral degrees rose in 2003 for both U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders.

Complicating the picture is whether those scientists and engineers end up leaving the U.S. Since 1995, the number of temporary residents obtaining doctoral degrees has been growing at a faster rate than the number of U.S citizens and permanent residents obtaining doctoral degrees. If an increasing number of those temporary residents end up leaving the U.S., that brain emigration could affect U.S. competitiveness.

Kevin Scott, a member of the education board at the Association for Computing Machinery, the VP of engineering and operations at AdMob, and a former senior engineer at Google, doesn't worry about the Hollywood as a vector of scientific ignorance.

"From my perspective, I think movies are helpful and encouraging to make kids think about science and technology in good ways," Scott said, noting that a film like Shrek might instill curiosity about computer graphics. "This was the way I got interested in computing and chose it as a career. I really wanted to understand from an entertainment perspective how these things are done."

Scott said there are two different issues with regard to technical education. One is whether the U.S. education system is competitive with education systems in other countries; the other involves the talent needs of technology companies.

While technology companies may not have as much access to affordable technical talent as they might like, Scott said that the U.S. university system is doing a pretty good job. "The Ph.D. candidates I see at AdMob and Google are really, really quite good," he said. "Our first choices for candidates are still the top computer science schools in the U.S."


Ed Wood might respond: "haven't you ever heard of the suspension of disbelief?". Of course the scientists are arguing against the 'creation of ignorance'.

The same issue has come up in forensic science with arm chair idiots believing every thing they see on "CSI", a show I find unwatchable (give me 'Columbo' any day). The high tech gadgetry and lack of lab coats have given the audience a false sense of what is actually possible. Does this matter? The other hand says that these are works of fiction and the makers of fiction don't have the responsibility to cater to reality. It's not their fault the audience is so damn gullible.

The problem with the scientist is that he doesn't see the lack of dramatic value in having the guy float along in the lava.

The problem with the filmmaker is that they've fallen in love with computer graphics and are using them to try to up the ante on every action film. I'll take 'Fitzcarraldo' any day.

I'm reminded of the story in Jaws where the effects guys had gone to the morgue and studied what corpses really look like. They were creating an arm and hand that had floated up on the beach after the first shark attack and they were precise to how it would actually look. However, Spielberg saw the hand and said it looked fake. They responded that this is how it really looks to which Spielberg made them change it saying that he wasn't interested in whether the three physicians in the audience loved the verisimilitude, he was more interested in what the audience thought a corpse would look like. They changed it.

And now for a Simpsons quote:

Homer: "Hey, mister. How come you're painting those horses to look like cows?"

Movie Guy: "Cows don't look like cows on film. You gotta use horses."

Homer: "What do you use if you want horses?"

Movie Guy: "We just duct tape a bunch of cats together."


Bijoy said...

hi there, i stumbled across your blog while randomly searching the blogosphere, nice one you have here, i also find the design to my liking. do keep up the good work.

warm regards from the other side of planet earth. i'll be back for more.

Deep Regards

Biby Cletus

Mark said...

Thanks for the coming by and enjoying the blog Biby. It's nice to get a bit of feedback once in a while!


Anonymous said...

All Americans aren't hopeless though...I just watched Independence Day and had to pause it a few times to look up various masses (of Earth, Moon, Pyramid at Gaza, Statue of Liberty...) in order to check how many major landmarks should have left Earth's surface and been pulled towards the alien flotilla. Some of us teenagers watch Hollywood films and then enjoy finding scientific flaws :D [although I am willing to consider the possibility that it's just me among teenagedom doing this].

G'day! -Jamie