Raising mass awareness through a lack of scientific accuracy

There have been some spectacular scientific blunders in feature films over the years. If you’re in for a giggle check out the Telegraphs 20 worst science and technology errors in films (or even Evie’s post). In particular if I can draw your attention to numbers 4, 6, 12, 15 and 19 on that list I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. However its the final sci-fi film no-no, ‘Eco Worriers’ (# 20) that is of the greatest interest to me…

The 2004 movie extravaganza The Day After Tomorrow was a massive success (in monetary terms). If you didn’t get a chance to see the movie, I highly recommend that you check it out from the video store; however the trailer (above) gives a pretty good summary of what happens. To briefly explain the ‘science’ behind the movie’s plot, the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation shuts down due to global warming. This triggers abrupt and catastrophic climate change with extreme storms and weather events around the world and eventually (as in a few days later) the next ice age.

This blockbuster had scientists, politicians, advocacy groups and many others in heated discussions before it was even released. There were concerns that the public would see climate change as a far fetched concept and dismiss it completely. These groups should have given the US public a little more credit! Dr Anthony Leiserowitz, from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University studied the effects that this climatic disaster movie had on the US public that watched it (Leiserowitz, 2004). I was surprised to find that movie-viewers were much more likely to rate climate change as a higher national priority than those that hadn’t seen it, yet they didn’t tend to then think that it was a ridiculous issue. The public were able to ascertain that climate change is a gradual model and abrupt changes like in the movie were unlikely.

In Burns, et al. (2003), there is mention that promoting action through science communication is a process:

Raise Awareness Develop Understanding Cause & Promote Action

Personally I feel that some people were reading a little too much into the movies intentions. A Hollywood movie is always going to aim to gain large profits despite the social ramifications. Climate change has been a hot topic for many years now & as its nature is to be surrounded in a lot of uncertainty, its a prime target for a Hollywood movie plot. However despite the lack of scientific truth, I doubt half as many people would have paid to watch Jake Gyllenhaal sitting on the beach for 100 years watching the sea level rise less than a metre. The gross exaggeration of the truth in this film has therefore been a useful science communication tool as its been proven to raise public awareness (in the short-term) and even convinced people to positively change their actions in relation to preventing climate change (Leiserowitz, 2004).

But maybe public awareness about climate change is well and truly established by now. Should media stop clouding up an already confusing and overcrowded area of science to try and develop public understanding and actions against the issue?

Image 1: The many confusing components of global warming

Would love to hear your thoughts about scientific inaccuracies promoting public interest & awareness…


Burns, T. W., O’Connor, D. J., and Stocklmayer, S. M.  (2003) Science Communication: A contemporary definition. Public Understandings of Science, 12: 183 – 202

Leiserowitz, A. (2004) Before and after the day after tomorrow: A U.S. study of climate change risk perception. Environment, 46 (9): 22-37. Retrieved from Proquest.

Image 1: Warming Cartoon (2010) Orion Energy. Available from http://www.oriones.com/blog/tag/energy-efficiency/

By ashfonty

10 comments on “Raising mass awareness through a lack of scientific accuracy

  1. Films at one time tended to be for entertainment and for the majority of movie goes this might still be the case. If the director stuck to hard facts the film might not have an impact. Providing there is some kind of a consistent message being given, does it really matter about blowing things out of proportion.

    Being made aware of aspects in science will develop either a curiosity for some of the audience. From my point of view, I do not always want to review or put the film in context. I just want to have time to be in a fantasy world, which might be the case for most people. However, at a later date I may reflect on a film and start to debate the merits. The mere fact we are reviewing the film might steer the thoughts to its science content.

    Movies are a great way of capturing the imagination of young and old. Lets use it to our advantage, even if it means stretching the facts.

    • Sparti08 – I didn’t think about just enjoying being in a ‘fantasy world’ and enjoying the movie, but I have to agree that when I see most sci-fi movies I tend to get immersed in them and miss all the ‘problems’ until I think about it later or watch it again.
      I wonder if most people start to question the issues with movies afterward or if its just us as we’re clearly into science!

  2. Day afther tommorrow is one of my favorite movie.
    This is because I think this is one of the 1st movie which raised the awareness of people about the global warming. Even though not everything is ture, or they are too focused on some of the topics, this movie definitely grabed the attention from audiences and infuluenced them.
    Climate change has been a hot topic for many years and now they started to focus on the GENETICS. “Biohazard” and “Apes” are good example.
    Knowing every single gene, is it bad thing? Would you make your perfect baby with the perfect genes you choose? Are we getting too far? What if it goes out of our control? Those questions are focused on.
    The aim of a Hollywood movie is always to gain large profits. I agree with you on that point.
    But some of them are good start for people’s plobrem recognition.
    I think this is why we need science communicator working between scientists and media.
    We are the one have to know the turuth and speak out to them.

    • KeikoKishi have you seen ‘The Rise of the Planet Apes’ yet? I think you’ll really enjoy it. I have done a small amount of research on Alzheimer’s and I have to say while I was watching the movie the miracle drug made sense to me!
      As for going to far with our science, I think we often only know we’ve gone too far when its too late! Unfortunately I feel like these are the things popular media tend to jump on. Do you agree?

      • Ashfonty, you pointed out exactly what I meant!
        “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is the newest movie talking about the gene.
        Unfotunately, I have not seen it yet, but Im pretty sure that those subject is the next target of Hollywood.
        I totally agree with that point. We never stop stepping forward until we realise making mistake. But it is also ture that it is hard to recognize the problem beforehand.
        May be to rase awareness of those problems is also our job for science communicator!
        In that point, do you think the Hollywood firm makers are also science communicator?

  3. Thanks ashfonty for your post! I would like to propose that there are two main categories of science fiction films:

    I remember our high school teacher letting us watch Gattaca and following it up with discussions about the ethics of genetic screening and designer babies. The movie itself was fiction and there were some pretty improbable things in it, but at the end of the day I think we all got the message. Gattaca, The Day After Tomorrow, and Avatar are examples of films intended to raise awareness and create discussion about an important, often current, scientific or ethical issue.

    On the other hand, movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Independence Day are purely for entertainment and not education – and I’d like them to remain that way. Like sparti08, I sometimes like to be lost in fantasy and forget about picking on scientific errors. My view is that science fiction movies like these are more about the fantasy than the science, and I believe the public generally sees it that way. They know that what is portrayed in the movie is not real, that it is impossible, or exaggerated. I have not met anyone who came out of a cinema after watching Star Wars or Avatar thinking that we might one day meet a wookie or transform into a blue creature in our sleep.

  4. I don’t mind a bit scientific innacuracy in films. If the films purpose is to raise awareness of an issue then, as long as the message is clear and accurate, maybe we can overlook the science that was forsaken to make a box office hit. However, I start to disagree when the film creators try to explain the movie outside of the cinema through dodgy science which is what happened with The Day After Tomorrow. If the science is innacurate in the film for the sake of higher ratings then so be it, but if the public ask let them know that the science may not be accurate and that it was altered to get the point across whilst still keeping the film interesting.

  5. Any film that promotes or brings to people’s conscious mind the major issue of climate change
    is a good thing, regardless of the outlandish exaggeration of science included as part of the suspension of belief that many good stories require to be entertaining.

    I was surprised to see that a prestigious university would be so out of touch with the general population that they would presume that ordinary people don’t understand that movies exaggerate elements for the sake of entertainment. So out of touch that they would even waste money commissioning a study to determine whether people would believe the science presented in the movie. Educational institution should focus their resources on providing responsible information regarding the effects of global warming.

    Science in film and fiction has always been a potential window to the future. That is why it is so popular. It gives people hope and understanding that great things may be achieved and a prescience to avoid potential catastrophes. People who enjoy science fiction come from many diverse backgrounds and credit needs to be given to all of them regarding their ability to sort the chaff from the wheat.

    • In all fairness to Yale the study was quite comprehensive. It looked at whether people were more or less likely to vote for the Bush government after seeing the movie. In ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ the Bush administration were perceived as the ones to blame for not acting sooner and heading scientists advice. They also looked at whether the public were then more likely to trust scientists, politicians, the media etc. So there was a lot more to the study than just whether people rated global warming as a higher national priority.
      They also presented the viewers with a few different models of climate change and asked them to choose which was most likely to occur. They were model of whether it would be sudden and catastrophic, or if it would gradually change until a irreversible point, or that it was completely unpredictable etc.

  6. Pingback: Highlighting the plight of marine animals to assist conservation « Science and the Media

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