“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:
- 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)
- The main character seemed to have scientific authority
- 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?
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.