So on Friday, I risked getting my geek card taken away by saying that, for the most part, I don’t care if the science in a movie is bad so long as it tells me a sufficiently good story. This was a point I tried to make at one of the Mile Hi Con panels I was on, actually. And at that panel, someone in the audience asked a very pertinent question – but don’t you think it’s the responsibility of a movie to present good science?
No, actually. I don’t.
But people see things in movies and think they’re true! What about all of the stupid shit about 2012? And so on!
The responsibility of a movie, as I said before, is to tell me a good story and make sure I don’t leave the theater feeling like I just got fucked out of the $10 I paid for my ticket.
Movies are supposed to entertain, not educate. And I think most of us are damn glad for that. While I enjoy a good episode of Nova as much as the next person, you’ll notice that’s not where my primary consumption of media lies.
If someone goes into a movie and comes out with the misconception that the world is ending in 2012 or geologists wear white labcoats or exposing someone to a lot of gamma radiation is going to do anything but kill them, I frankly do not consider that the fault of the movie. I consider it a fault of the education that person received, and to a lesser extent the fault of media that actually has the responsibility of being truthful rather than entertaining.
Critical thinking skills have always gotten short shrift in education, and in the US that’s only become worse with the advent of No Child Left Behind and the emphasis on gross skills such as reading speed uncoupled from the ability to process and critically assess what has been read. (Because those things are much harder to assess with a standardized test, I suppose.) Teaching kids science (something that low income schools particularly struggle to do), how to tell good data from bad, how to tell who is an expert who probably knows what they’re talking about and who is just some jackass that the local TV station dug up in the pursuit of false balance would go a long, long way to closing that gap.
And that’s not even touching on things like, say, the Texas GOP platform attacking the teaching of critical thinking skills.
The problem is not that a movie includes a ridiculous scene where the spaceships make noise and turn like airplanes instead of spaceships. The problem is that the audience lacks the necessary basis to question the truth of that statement.
And frankly, fixing this problem has nothing to do with requiring those who make their living in the arts to hew to scientific fact and never deviate. (We won’t even touch on the question of how the hell you’d begin to enforce that, free speech issues, etc.) Ultimately, enforcing scientific fact through the arts still does nothing to fix the base problem. You are still presenting entertainment as a fact that should be accepted unquestioningly upon its consumption by a passive audience.
The real answer is simple to state and difficult to execute. We need to teach people to think critically and question and understand the difference in data quality depending upon the source. We need to stop pretending that education is only about reciting times tables and reading X number of words per minute.
We need to stop failing the education system and the kids who rely upon it.
Because yes, it is us failing the schools, not the other way around. It’s us refusing to pass bond issues, and us obsessing about standardized testing, and us not paying attention to who the hell we’re electing to the board of education for our county or state, and us allowing political affiliation to interfere with objective scientific truth, and even some wacky part of us actively fighting against teaching kids how to even think to begin with.
Us. We did this. Not the people who make movies.