A while back I read Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema by David Kirby. It’s about how scientific consultants shape the portrayal of scientists and science in Hollywood movies, and how the movies feed back to affect public perceptions of science and occasionally even the direction of science itself. Here’s my review. Links to other reviews here.
tl;dr: If you like movies, like science, and and are all curious about how science ends up on screen, you need to read this book. It’s a lot of fun, and you’ll learn something.
Author David Kirby knows whereof he speaks. He holds a Ph.D. in molecular evolution from the University of Maryland, but left a tenure-track biology professorship to retrain in science and technology studies at Cornell. He’s now a senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Manchester. And as background research for the book, he appears to have spoken at great length to every scientist who’s ever advised on a Hollywood film, and to every filmmaker who’s ever hired a science consultant. Ok, not really.* But I’ve never read a book that packs in so many examples to illustrate its points.
Those examples are the biggest strength of the book. They’re entertaining—Kirby dug up scads of great anecdotes, about films ranging from Contact to Finding Nemo to The Nutty Professor.** They’re fascinating—I loved learning about all the little decisions and moving parts that go into making a movie. They’re organized—Kirby doesn’t just string together anecdotes, he’s got a sensible framework in which they all fit. And they’re informative—the book disabused me of my over-simplified view of how science feeds into Hollywood movies.
Some of big takeaways of the book for me:
- It’s often said that the need to make a film entertaining ultimately trumps scientific realism. That was my view before I read the book, and at some level it’s true. But that broad-brush picture is tremendously oversimplified. “Entertainment” is an umbrella term for a huge range of considerations—everything from the difficulty of filming people on a dark comet in Deep Impact, to the boring sound that a “realistic” extraterrestrial signal in Contact would actually make, and so on. There are so many judgement calls, so many moving parts, and so many difficult tradeoffs involved in filmmaking!
- That broad-brush picture also misses the rich cinematic possibilities created by scientific uncertainty, and the complex challenges created by what scientists think is true vs. what the general public thinks is true. For instance, Jurassic Park succeeded in part by pushing back against what was at the time the common public image of dinosaurs as slow, dumb, tail-dragging reptiles. What films need isn’t necessarily to be realistic, or even necessarily to be seen as realistic because they’re consistent with what the general public thinks is true. What they need is to be plausible, and that’s a more complicated notion than you might think. For instance, the Hulk isn’t plausible in any ordinary scientific sense. But there is absolutely is such a thing as a more or less plausible explanation for the Hulk, in the context of the narrative and themes of Ang Lee’s Hulk.
- Following on from that last remark: films, and filmmakers, vary in their goals. A treatment of science that would work in one sort of movie might not work in a different sort of movie–or even in a seemingly-identical sort of movie! Kirby makes this point by contrasting the treatment of science in different Hulk movies, and in different asteroid/comet-based disaster movies.
- Science consultants vary, in all sorts of ways. In what they’re asked to advise on (their job is not just to check accuracy in most cases). In their reasons for consulting. In what scientific matters they’re prepared to compromise on. And more. In general, the science consultants who are most successful seem to be the ones who understand what filmmakers are trying to do. Who help filmmakers overcome constraints and spot opportunities, rather than just trying to impose constraints by saying “that’s not realistic”. The most successful science consultants also seem to be the ones with a healthy sense of what battles to pick. Paleontologist Jack Horner, who consulted on Jurassic Park, is a good example here. He’s sensible enough to realize that a movie that puts evolution front and center (by making “birds are dinosaurs” a central theme), and that portrays paleontology as an exciting career and paleontologists as brilliant heroes, is a godsend for science. In contrast, it doesn’t matter one whit for public understanding of science that Jurassic Park gave Dilophosaurus a neck frill it didn’t actually have. (If you as a scientist insist on worrying about some aspect of the science in Jurassic Park, worry about how it reinforces the popular notion that genetic engineering is inherently dangerous.)
- Filmmakers don’t get enough credit from scientists for the details they get right, relative to how much they get ripped for the details they get wrong. Did you notice how Russell Crowe writes equations in A Beautiful Mind? Probably not—which means the filmmakers did their job. If you’d noticed, it would’ve been because the writing somehow looked “wrong”. As soon as viewers notice that sort of thing, they become conscious that they’re watching a movie, rather than just watching the movie. Which is why the filmmakers employed a real mathematician as a hand double to write the equations.
- All sorts of behind the scenes stuff you’ve probably never thought about. Like what determines who gets to be a science consultant. It’s often less about your expertise and more about “Can you spend a month on set in LA?”
Here are a couple more teasers from the book, to encourage you to read it:
- Kirby begins the book with an extended discussion of the Hollywood film that paid much more attention to scientific realism than any movie before or since. Try to guess it in the comments!
- You’ll have to read the book to find out what caused Ang Lee to say to his science consultant, “So, Hulk is a plant?” 🙂
I liked that the book isn’t overstated. Kirby doesn’t overrate the importance of his subject, noting that it’s hard to identify any movie that suffered at the box office because of its portrayal of science. I do think Kirby slightly overrates the effect that movie science has on science funding and science policy. I think he may be overgeneralizing from a few exceptional cases. I also think he slightly overrates the potential for movies to affect debates among scientists. Yes, there are scientists who’ve been quite keen to get their pet hypotheses into films: Jack Horner in Jurassic Park, fringey geophysicist J. Marvin Herndon in The Core, others. But that doesn’t imply that those films actually affected internal scientific debates in any important way, and Kirby doesn’t suggest any mechanism by which they could’ve done so. I suspect the hypothesis that birds are dinosaurs would’ve won the day in scientific circles, and done so just as fast as it actually did, even if Jurassic Park had never been made, or had had an opponent of the hypothesis as its scientific consultant. But that’s just a gut feeling on my part, I could be wrong.
In summary, Lab Coats in Hollywood is worth your time, I recommend it.
*As an ecologist, you might be a little disappointed that Kirby has very few examples involving ecology–Finding Nemo is the only one I recall. I was curious if any ecologists consulted on Avatar, but that movie doesn’t come up.
**Yes, The Nutty Professor had science consultants. You’d be surprised at some of the films that did.