Watching sci-fi movies can blur understanding of science

“Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” 
― Susan Sontag

A group of 38 students in 8th grade were tested on their understanding of earth science concepts after going through 4 weeks of classroom study and then watching the movie The Core.

Why do this study?

Because research has shown that watching science fiction movies and television shows distorts the viewer’s ability to distinguish scientific facts from fiction

Specifically, this study was designed to find out the potential impacts of watching a popular science fiction movie on a student’s understanding of previously learned science concepts.

What did they find?

Surprisingly the study found that a large percentage of students explained their ideas using examples from the movie and with great confidence, even though they were wrong!

A single viewing of a science fiction movie had a negative impact on the students understanding of science concepts they had learnt before.

Why did the fictitious movie have such an impact?

The researchers believed that 3 main themes could explain why the students took on the ideas from the fictional movie:

  1. The concepts were believable and realistic (eg. Generally students know that microwave ovens are used to heat food, so they believed that microwaves as depicted in the movie could burn and destroy)
  2. The main character seemed to have scientific authority
  3. Images are more memorable than hands-on classroom experience

Sci-fi movies are made to be entertaining and while it is known to be fictional, it remains a powerful tool for influencing minds and provoking the imagination. They seem very plausible and real, often the result of subtle mixing of fact and fiction which blurs the line between reality and imagination.

What can we do with this information?

Teachers and science educators should be familiar with popular science movies to understand the misconceptions their students may have. Review such movies with critique to enable students to identify what elements were correct or wrong and explain why.

Be more selective of sci-fi movies especially if they seem very real, perhaps it is better to go for absolute fiction than something seemingly scientific?

Have you ever believed something in a movie which made sense but was not actually true? How did you respond to it?

As a science communicator how will you make use of this knowledge about the impact of sci-fi movies?

References:

Barnett, M. et al. (2006) The impact of science fiction film on student understanding of science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(2): 179-191.

Image 1: http://jackasscritics.com/movie.php?movie_key=266

Image 2: http://bagelandamovie.blogspot.com.au/2009/02/flicks-are-for-kids.html

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4 comments on “Watching sci-fi movies can blur understanding of science

  1. Great post, it really makes me feel like watching/re-watching movies now! 🙂
    I am pretty naive and will believe anything that seems rather scientific. However, when I watch movies I do focus on the storyline more than the “facts” that they might have been trying to emphasize on. I feel that as an adult now, I think that movies are just stories and are actors/actresses acting based on scripts rather than facts, so it’s harder for me to believe everything I see. However, as a kid, I believed everything I saw on TV or in the movies. Having said that, we can see how impactful media can be on younger people who have less knowledge and understanding or less critical analytical abilities.

  2. Although I’ve been studying in media for a few years and even worked for a while, I still have some funny stereotype about it. Like Jess said, I always feel everything is true on the screen. It seems like TV or movie has the authority, that everything should be accurate enough so that they can be showed on TV. I know it’s wrong! But, I agree with Jess, kids don’t know! Should we set levels on sci-fi movies to control them? I don’t know if it’s a good idea. But they certainly have a big impact on kids who are not able to judge what’s exaggerated or not.

  3. I think you guys have made a good point, that kids will be easier to influence with information since they may be not able to tell the difference between reality and fiction. A believable story acted out in movies is very powerful in influencing perceptions, and in young people, even if they have already learned the exact opposite. Now i feel that movies are one of the most powerful tools for spreading ideas (no wonder YouTube is so popular!) and i think in the future more people will express themselves through videos rather than print, and the science community should be looking in that direction too!

  4. Good post! I am guilty of remembering interesting events or facts from a movie even though it lacks scientific truth. I believe that the entertainment value outweighs the scientific truth in this area. It is easier for us to remember what was being said in the movie because it was entertaining (as compared to a lecture).

    I think that movies are impactful because we can remember details of what the character says, especially if our favourite actor or actress is starring in the show. I agree with Jess that kids tend to believe what is shown on tv. It is easier for kids to be influenced and they might eventually not be able to tell between fact and fiction.

    I guess movies nowadays serve more for entertainment purposes. That is why we do not use movies as a literature review, or relevant article when doing our essays or lab reports.

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