Does sci-fi need to be accurate?

Does it matter when the movies get the science wrong?
16 January 2017

Interview with 

David Kirby, University of Manchester, Sara Kenney, Surgeon-X


Sci-fi space ship


Scientific inaccuracies in film and fiction: artistic licence or a serious problem? Liam Messin has been finding out…

Liam - do you get annoyed when Hollywood gets science wrong? Well our followers on Twitter certainly do:

Any film that has sound in space because, in space, nobody can hear you scream.

The plot of 2012 relies entirely on the phrase “the neutrinos are mutating.”

When a power surge causes all the fuses to blow.

I find radiation in films is rarely portrayed accurately. It generally seems to fill in as -  insert nebulous evil sounding sciency thing here. And that tends to be the thing that bugs me the most with films about science because I suspect it further colours people’s opinion of anything labelled nuclear, or involving radiation in reality.

Liam - Some of our listeners there. The last of which raises an interesting point - can inaccuracies be damaging? I spoke to David Kirby, a senior lecturers in science communication studies at the University of Manchester, and asked him if movie mistakes can be harmful?

David - Yeah well. If you think about let’s say health, medicine, or genetics. Having something that inaccurate is a problem because it can affect the way in which people approach decisions about their health. So, for example, the ways in which comas are depicted in movies, that’s been shown to have an impact on ways in which people think about the notion of a coma - how long it goes on, what’s your chances of actually recovering...

Liam - Should we then be making our fiction as scientifically accurate as possible? Meet Wellcome Trust funded comic book writer Sara Kenney. Her latest project “Surgeon X” is set in a world in which the antibiotic apocalypse we’ve been be fearing has indeed come to pass, and bacterial infections are no longer treatable. I asked Sara to tell me exactly what is Surgeon X? 

Sara - First and foremost it’s a comic book, and it’s a comic book that’s set about 20 years in the future in London in the midst of an antibiotic apocalypse. It’s also an app, and on the app you can read the comic, but on certain panels you can click on the speech balloon and you’ll have interviews from experts who’ll tell you a bit more. We’re calling it “behind the scenes speech balloons.”

Liam - What do you mean by an expert - a comic book expert?

Sara - It’s set in a medical future so we have surgeons, microbiologists. We have, obviously, all the scientists that have formed the story but also we have a historian, we have a philosopher, ethicist, somebody who’s working in surgical education. So the experts are kind of a range of people who have an interest in medicine but they’re each looking at it through a different lense, if you like.

Liam - Do you see what you do as in any way as educational? It’s littered with documentaries and these are actual experts you’re speaking to. Was there any hope to maybe raise awareness or understanding to the public through what you’re doing?

Sara - Yeah, definitely. One of the big questions people ask is: is this possible, is this future that you’ve painted just a really extreme future? But, the more I’ve researched this, the more I’ve had a lot of experts saying to me actually, you’re not being extreme at all. We could go in this direction. And I like to think of the story as a bit of a thought experiment if you like, so in this thought experiment I’m imagining what if we don’t come up with new antibiotics in time. And in this sort of thought experiment as well I have this sort of firework government that have brought in what’s called an antibiotic austerity act.

So rather than medical judgements, it's more of a sort of societal benefit and individual has and so, therefore, you get elderly people, disabled people, maybe drug addicts, people on the fringes, who are not qualifying for antibiotics and that gives you quite a fierce and unjust environment.

Liam - Work like Sara’s might help us have these discussions. But does it really matter if we don’t get the science right - David?

David - Sometimes a movie can be very useful for science, even if it’s full of inaccuracies. For example, the film “The Day After Tomorrow,” widely seen by many scientists as an example of a bad science movie. It has a lot of visually exciting things like super tornados that destroy Los Angeles and New York being swamped by a giant tidal wave - clearly things that are inaccurate. But if we think back to the time period, 2004, the film was incredibly useful in raising public awareness about the idea of climate change and global warming.

Some people were able to do surveys before and after the movie came out, and showed that the movie actually raised awareness, pretty significantly, amongst the population about global warming and about climate change. And especially about the political implications, given that it was an election year in the U.S. So, despite all those inaccuracies, the film was incredibly useful for the scientific community.

Liam - We opened this question up to twitter recently. We had one user tweet us that film inaccuracies can be an opportunity to educate the public. Is there any truth to this?

David - Oh yeah! Certainly, film inaccuracies can play a major role in education and a lot of teachers are using films. You can, essentially, show it to students and say, what’s wrong with that? And allow them to try and figure it out based on what they may have learned previously. So they can apply their knowledge to a particular situation so it develops those sort of critical thinking skills or problem solving skills.

Liam - Over time has media got more or less scientifically accurate?

David - Well, it’s gotten much more scientifically accurate, especially in the last ten to fifteen years. You’ve had an increase in the number of scientists who’ve worked as consultants on movies because filmmakers realise that audiences nowadays are really sophisticated. We’ve grown up in the world of CGI and so there’s a desire for more, and more, and more realism and realism has historically been tied to science. So one of the ways to add realism is to add some scientific plausibility. Also with our internet age, if you don’t get it scientifically accurate people will let you know pretty quickly and that’s not good publicity for your movie.

Liam - Thanks David. So, scientifically accurate or not, it seems the main thing is they get us talking about science.

In the movie War Games, they hack the Pentagon using an Atari.

 I’m sure I remember a scene in Blade II where the vampires all duck to avoid the effects of an ultraviolet grenade because they could see the light coming.


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