You call that science!?

We are all fans of science here, and most of us are fans of pop culture (I assume.) So it’s always fun to see science captured or involved in popular media. Unfortunately, that often leads to bad science information.

We’ve all seen it: rush orders on lab samples making them finish faster, adding detail to images when the protagonist zooms in, a lion dragging its kill up into a tree; heck, there is a whole Tumblr page dedicated to improper use of a pipettor.

Anymore tv shows and movies have at least one real scientist on board as a consultant, and that does wonders, but I think we have all seen it enough to know it still happens.

That is why when we go into science fiction books, or super hero movies, or basically any fictional work; we have to enable certain suspensions of disbelief. And in the big picture that goes swimmingly, but what about the little things? Are you fine with accepting that gamma radiation can turn a scientist into a giant green monster, but not when the same scientist wants to put gamma radiation spectrometers on the roofs of labs around the globe to find something; when as a professional in the field, he should have known that most of the worlds gamma radiation spectrometers are located in space (because our atmosphere blocks gamma rays).

Do you get mad at the show/movie/video game/book, when they do this? Do you laugh and go on? Or do you manage to complete turn off your BS detector and just revel in the show, not even picking up on these mistakes? Personally I can generally get past them, but not without a moment or two of verbal complaint. Something I am sure my partner would wish I didn’t need to do. I enjoy having the bad science pointed out. I loved when Neild DeGrasseTyson went on the Daily Show and was all, “Your Earth is spinning in the wrong direction.” I didn’t notice, but I was happy when it got called out. For me those little details are what spread the misinformation; nobody is going to think that Star Wars is real, but they could be forgiven if they thought (based on the Star Wars space battles) that there is sound in space.

So when I was in a local Natural History Museum and happened upon a small movie screen in the entomology room (Bugtown), I was delighted to see a couple of movie clips from old sci-fi movies… But with figures in the foreground, much like MST3K, mocking the movies’ bad science. Well, I emailed the museum display manager to get a copy to share with you for this post and his response was, “I think I have that disk somewhere under a stack of stuff, but the easiest way would be for you to just go record them with your camera.” So that is what I did, because they are only about 3 minutes each and you need to enjoy them like I did. So I present to you the KU Natural History Museum’s presentation of “Them”, and “The Wasp Woman.” (Also, I’m sorry if you can’t handle my cam versions.)

Now, how about you? What are the little details that get under your skin? Do they ruin things for you, or do you let them slide?

Chris T.

Chris is a microbiologist with a passion for nature. He has a degree in Natural History and spends his time taking pictures of mushrooms, riding his bike, painting, and watching tv.

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  1. I enjoy movies more unironically when the science is feasible. But if a big budget film has a glaring flaw that ruins the whole plot–forget it. It was fun to see all the sets on real orbiters and space ships in Gravity but I couldn’t get past the impossibility of surfing between all of those different orbits.

    Terrible low-budget sci fi is so wrong and goofy it is fun. Sometimes it takes a couple of decades to be able to enjoy them on that different level, though.


  2. Yeah, those are the exact things that get to me. *Confession* I missed Gravity in the Theater and just haven’t been interested in it on small screen. It always seems like they do some level of research into the science to get the big picture right and then just go “Eh, the rest is probably just details.”  Another example would be the tv show Wayward Pines. They went with the concept that evolution happens even to people and leapt to: “Ooo its 2000 years in the future what if humans evolved into raging monsters with claws, and teeth, and super strength, and speed, and…” Nope not the speed or manner in which evolution works.

    And I do totally agree that when it comes to B movies cheese is good. Sometimes I still need the MST3K/Rifftrax group though.

  3. The many, many misrepresentations of DNA structures bug me to no end, while no one I know outside structural biology generally cares 🙂

  4. This kind of show the cyclical nature of the problem too. We are at a point that tv and movies can’t show anything different, because DNA has been represented poorly for so long that nobody would recognize it, if it were shown correctly.
    I think that is kind of the end problem of the situation too. People get bad information ingrained and then propagate that instead of reality. I mean, when was the last time you heard an eagle in a movie? The answer is of course never, because they use the sound of a red-tailed hawk. Because of that people think eagles sound majestic instead of like a wet chortle.

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