The Character of science: can what we see on a reel be translated to real-life?

The accuracy of science in movies can be a contentious topic. For those “in the know”, suspending your disbelief (and overlooking inaccuracies) is the key to enjoying science fiction. At its core, the genre is entertainment, but, can movies like Contagion, The Martian, and Gattaca provide a pathway to reach disengaged audiences? Even better, can we use as them to make complex science relatable for students and the public?

“Real science can be far stranger than science fiction and much more satisfying.” 

Stephen Hawking

Character of science podcast: tools to translate complex scientific principles for mainstream audiences.

The Character of Science” podcast, is produced by our Engagement, Society and Enrichment team: will launch on 23 June 2022.

Jon Roberts (Podcast presenter) describes the aim of the podcast, as follows:

“This is a podcast on how we can use science-fiction TV/movies as a barometer for how we feel about science. In each episode, our guests touch on the implications of fiction becoming reality, and how movies can be used to communicate the science that is changing our world.”

The 4 episode series attempts to explore how pop culture can get people outside of academia talking about genomics. In doing so, Jon and his guests tackle some of the more challenging ethical questions that science fiction on the big-screen raises:

  • Prenatal testing, eugenics, the creation of a genes-based caste system
  • The commercialisation, and subsequent potential for the ghettoisation of genetics
  • Should there be limits to what a scientist can do?
  • Does accuracy matter in how science is portrayed in fictional films?
Dr Adam Kucharski breaks down Contagion’s (2011) depiction of a world-wide viral pandemic

Breaking down Contagion (2011)

The first episode, Life Imitating Art, looks at Steven Soderbegh and Scott Z. Burns’ movie, Contagion, a Hollywood production that depicts the global fallout of a viral outbreak. It is certain to be a topic that has strong resonance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recorded during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in 2021, the podcast panel contains expert analysis from:

Together, Jon and his guests highlight a number of issues raised by Contagion’s portrayal of a worldwide pandemic:

  • Can pop-culture enable a clearer dialogue between scientists, policy makers, and the public?
  • Do relatable characters in a virus outbreak movie help us to process our pre-conceptions, fears and emotions around the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • Should have taken more notice of Contagion’s cautionary story?
  • Could fictional Hollywood movies be used as a tool to guide the way we learn to live with Covid-19? Can it even be used to predict the impact of novel viruses and pandemics in future?
  • Does Contagion provide a template to combat the scepticism and misinformation that we have seen with COVID-19 science, vaccines and research?
“Uncomfortable, uncanny but also arguably cathartic… watching the film is like a portal to re-live the trauma and anxiety brought on by the uncertainty of the early days of Covid, even from our science and political leaders.” 

Jon Roberts describes re-watching Contagion after the removal of COVID-19 restrictions in 2021.
Jon Roberts describes re-watching Contagion after the removal of COVID-19 restrictions in 2021.

Heroes and villains

Episode two, Heroes and Villains, will be released in July 2022. It studies how characterising scientists as either good or evil can impact on public trust, and perception of how ‘real science’ works. The panel then go further, confronting the messages movies can send about who can “do science”.

Jon, Dr Kanta Dihali, and Stuart Vyse will discuss ethical issues via Ex-Machina (2013) and The Martian (2015). One movie portrays the role of a lone, genius scientist, the other is an example of a team effort to reach a common goal. Each film has the potential to affect the impression of how scientific goals are achieved – and the people behind them.

Dr Kanta Dihal gives her view of The Martian (2015) to Jon Roberts and Stuart Vyse

What do we think of scientists?

When thinking about how the public could be influenced by how scientists appear in movies, it is worth considering the data. A report from The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) points to improving levels of trust in the relationship between the public and science since the COVID-19 pandemic. Going further, the report suggests: “a new window of opportunity to accelerate ongoing reforms to reinforce trust in science.”

While the LSE report is promising, the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Wellcome Monitor’ in August 2020, is a reminder of the challenges ahead: “BAME people were less likely than White people to trust information on coronavirus from a wide range of sources, including healthcare professionals, health scientists, the NHS, the government (including scientific advisers) and the WHO.”

Fifty-seven per cent of people in BAME groups reported having ‘complete’ or a ‘great
deal’ of trust in information from health scientists compared to 75% of White people,
and 45% of people in BAME groups reported having ‘complete’ or a ‘great deal’ of trust
in information from government scientific advisers compared to 65% of White people.

The Character of Science considers the openings identified by reports like these, and asks:

  • Should we use pop-culture as a tool to make science relatable to audiences that are difficult to reach?
  • Can science-fiction movies teach and inform on complex scientific issues?

Given the above, and the evidence that it shows; it is important to realise that opening up the discussion with hard-to-reach groups is not an easy task. Over time, we will need to build trust and relationships. This means finding fresh ways to reach people and generate interest in science – one of which, could be through pop-culture. It could take time to see improved diversity in the field, and a shared perception that science is for everyone: striving to achieve this goal collectively, will get us there a lot faster.

The launch date

If you are an educator or scientist who would like to make science relatable to audiences that are difficult to reach, The Character of Science is an excellent entry point.

Download each episode and absorb a wealth of hints and tips. Highlight key points you can use as conversation starters, and use them as a segue to talk about ethical issues in science. Join us for episode 1, and open the door to making complex scientific principles easier to understand.

Download The Character of Science, Episode 1 on 23 June 2022. Episodes 2, 3, and 4 will follow in July, August and September 2022 on all podcast platforms.

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