Making good use of Hollywood’s bad science

Maybe it was destiny, but when I was a freshman in high school in 1997 the movie Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan, was released.  Why was it destiny?  For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it was about a seemingly quiet volcano near a small town, which begins to be become active and subsequently produces a cataclysmic eruption that decimates the town.  I went on to get my M.S. in geology, focusing on volcanic hazards.

I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  Pierce played a volcanologist from the United States Geological Survey, who despite his boss’s insistence that the volcanic activity was nothing more than a stomach rumble, had a gut feeling that the volcano was going to be the next Mt. St. Helens.  And of course, he was right.

Movie poster for Dante's Peak, the movie which might have caused me to pursue volcanology, perhaps under false pretenses.  Image Fair Use through Wiki.

Movie poster for Dante’s Peak, the movie which might have caused me to pursue volcanology, perhaps under false pretenses. Image Fair Use through Wiki.

However correct Pierce was in predicting the eruption of Dante’s Peak, it was years later that I learned the movie was not the most scientifically accurate.  I left the theater believing that all volcanoes had hot springs that would boil people alive, erupt basaltic lava flows (think Hawaii) and dacitic pyroclastic flows (a la Mt. St. Helens) at the same time, and cause a lake to become so acidic that it would dissolve a grandmother’s legs as she pushes her family to safety in a boat.  Granted, many of the events that happened in the movie might happen at a given volcano, but not all at the same time.

Just two and half month later Volcano was released.  In this movie a volcano erupts in Los Angeles along a transform fault (unheard of), not a convergent of divergent tectonic settings, like the Cascades and Dante’s Peak or the East African Rift, respectively.

Sure, movies have that creative license to add drama, but not everyone knows where the line is between truth and fiction.  This is a great teaching moment to point out inaccuracies, because left unattended these moments will lead to misconceptions.

Benefiting from Science Misconceptions in Movies

More recently on our radars is probably The Core, released in theaters in 2003 during my junior year in college.  By the time I saw this flick, I had taken a number of geology courses and knew a few things about how the Earth functions.

As geology students, we were obviously curious what this movie was about.  When the movie made it to DVD, we got together and watched it as a group, laughing about giant diamonds and how seismic waves would actually travel through a molten core.  As fun as the movie was to watch in a group, drinking some beers of course, it was a great learning experience.  Each of us would try to be the first to identify something as inaccurate or wrong, and if we were wrong, shame on us.  Where we weren’t exactly sure how accurate something was, we would debate it, using the knowledge we had learned in class.  Here is a little overview of the good and bad science in The Core.

For those of you interested in the astronomical side of science misconceptions, Phil Plait comments on several examples on his webpage Phil Plaits’ Bad Astronomy.

Not a misconception: these giant gypsum crystals were found in Mexico, not on the set of The Core. Photo by Alexander Van Driessche

Not a misconception: these giant gypsum crystals were found in Mexico, not on the set of The Core. Photo by Alexander Van Driessche

Over the decades, there have been a number of other science-inspired movies.  Having a geology background, it’s a little easier to for me to pick out the instances in geology-themed movies where there is something wrong or inaccurate.  Unfortunately, it’s not the same when I watch a movie like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister, Outbreak, or Contagion.  I know there is at least some truth to these movies, but for any non-specialist, identifying where creative liberties were taken, if any, is very difficult.  I imagine that for someone with a minimal science background it is even more difficult.  Nonetheless, these are just a few movies in a near-endless list where learning opportunities abound in identifying and correcting misconceptions.

In schools, why not have biology students write a report about the inaccuracies in Anaconda (although just a few years ago titanaboa was unearthed).  Open the semester of a climate science course with a discussion about misconceptions in The Day After Tomorrow.  Finish a course on paleontology with a competition of who can identify the most dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1, 2, or 3) that were not from the Jurassic period.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex happens to be from the Cretaceous period, after the Jurassic.

Science and Science Fiction

About two months ago, fellow Sci-Ed blogger Atif Kukaswadia, posted a great piece about using science fiction movies as opportunities to learn science.  In particular, I enjoyed Atif’s reference to an MIT paper on comic book superhero physics.  Both science-based and science fiction movies have their place in learning environments for identifying the right, wrong, plausible, impossible and inaccurate.  Some questions that science fiction movies offer are “Is that possible?” or “What is required to make that possible?” Science-based movies let us ask “Is that true?” and “How do we know that is correct or incorrect?”

Cristina Russo, also a Sci-Ed blogger, commented on how documentaries and nature films may also create some misconceptions or be misleading.  Among other points, this piece takes a closer look at pieces meant to promote conservation, yet use storytelling techniques to make a more compelling movie.

Scientific inaccuracies abound in movies and TV, and all for the sake of good entertainment.  This is fine.  Although they do inspire students be become scientists, there are also unintended consequences.  After watching The Core, it’s not likely that someone out there is going to try to get to the Earth’s core by building some supposedly indestructible vessel, but it is likely to leave the idea in impressionable minds that the Earth is something it is not.  This is where we need to identify these misconceptions and turn them into learning opportunities.

If you have any favorite scientific inaccuracies in movies, I would love to hear about them.

 

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Making good use of Hollywood’s bad science by Sci-Ed, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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