Wednesday, 25 May 2016

From Dr Strangelove to Dr Evil: Hollywood's anti-science stance

Despite the decades of hard work by the likes of Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould etal, there is still an enormous amount of public suspicion surrounding scientists and their work. From wavering opinion concerning climate change to the negative publicity revolving around genetically-modified crops (A.K.A. 'Frankenfoods') it seems that popular opinion of scientists isn't far above that meted out in recent years to politicians and merchant bankers.

Tabloid media cannot be solely to blame for this, although the ridiculous scaremongering stories given front page attention, frequently involving medical science, are certainly no help. Instead, I would argue that some of the blame for the public attitude to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) comes from that ubiquitous global communicator, mainstream Hollywood. So where did the world's movie capital get its ideas from?

It seems that the denigration of science and its technological applications has probably existed as long as modern science itself. Before there were films to spread the negativity, literature had a mixed opinion of the discipline. Could some of the most famous apparently anti-scientific publications from Europe have inspired Hollywood's pioneers, many of whom were European emigrés?

Jonathan Swift's third book of Gulliver's Travels concerns the scientific elite of a floating island called Laputa. First published in 1726 during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the book is typical of Swift's no holds barred approach to satire, making much use of the learning of the day. Despite being far more concerned with social and political issues rather than an anti-scientific stance, the material is still echoed today in the popular media.

Granted, many would agree that some of the more expensive STEM research projects such as the Large Hadron Collider could wait until global issues concerning hunger, medicine, environmental degradation - and poverty in general - are solved, but then wealth is rarely evenly distributed. After all, the USA apparently spends twice as much on pet grooming as it does on nuclear fusion research. Incidentally, isn't this bizarre in itself: it's not just that we consider ourselves so much more rational than all other animals, but that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. That's a pretty scary thought!

As for Mary Shelley's classic novel whose title is evoked during criticism of GM foods, she may have been inspired by the general feeling of doom then in the air; almost literally in fact, due to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, with volcanic dust creating 1816's 'Year without a Summer'. As an aside, the astonishingly lurid colours of J.M.W. Turner's sunsets of the period were another artistic response associated with the high-altitude volcanic aerosols.

In addition to the extremely cold, wet conditions of that year, Shelley is thought to have stopped near to the original Frankenstein Castle in Germany, where alchemy and other dubious dark arts were reputed to have been practiced. Combined with Luigi Galvani's experiments on frogs' legs - originally performed several decades earlier but much imitated still in Shelley's time, including on human cadavers - the novel is clearly a reflection of widespread anxieties of the time.

With the expansion of industrial cities and their associated squalor, the mid-Nineteenth Century saw the origin of philosophies that associated technological advances (and their scientific underpinnings) with a debasement of humanity. William Blake's description of 'satanic mills' epitomises this mode of thought, seen in as diverse a range of expression as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, the Arts and Crafts movement, even the political writings of Marx and Engels. To blame the greed of the new captains of industry on science is obviously unfair, but then the latter were a far easier target. After all, the English chemist and political radical Joseph Priestley fled to the United States after an authority-sponsored mob burnt down his house in 1791.

Blake's over-wraught emoting ("Science is the Tree of Death") is amongst the strongest negativity of the period, but can we blame him, considering science was, as it is today, often wrongly blamed as the root cause of the widespread destruction of nature to make way for a soulless, artificial environment? But it wasn't just a response to the changes to society and landscape that Blake took exception to: he detested the mechanistic vision of the universe built upon the work of Galileo and Newton, believing that too much knowledge destroyed wonder and awe.

This is clearly as subjective a viewpoint as any discussion of a work of art; it can be easily rebuffed, although the attitude behind it should be treated seriously. Happily, today's plethora of glossy coffee table books on such scientifically-gleaned wonders as Hubble Space Telescope imagery show there is still plenty to be in awe of.

Mainstream cinema frequently paints a very A versus B picture of the world (think classic westerns or war films). But science can rarely fit into such neat parcels: consider how the more accurate general theory of relativity can live alongside its predecessor from Newton. In addition, it's very tricky to make interesting drama within a traditional narrative structure that utilises scientist protagonists unless it's a disaster movie (even the likes of Jurassic Park falls within this category.)

It isn't difficult to recall many negative examples of scientists in Hollywood movies, from at best those too wrapped up in their own work to notice its wider effects, to at worst insane megalomaniacs intent on either world domination or destruction. In contrast, how many sympathetic movie scientists are there?

It seems such a shame that such a ubiquitous form of entertainment consistently portrays such a lack of sympathy towards science. Even the film version of Carl Sagan's novel Contact lacked the cosmic spiritual elements of the source material, as if afraid that a combination of astrophysics and the mystical wouldn't be comprehensible to audiences (2001 syndrome, perhaps?) Science fiction films these days often seem keen to boast of their technical consultants, so what about a more sympathetic attitude to the practitioners of science itself? After all, most scientists don't live with their private armies in secret headquarters bases, planning to takeover the world...