The Science in Fiction

Recently I read an (old) article that was complaining about the practice of pointing out scientific errors in movies. The author of the piece was quite worked up about it, and his basic argument was, “It’s fiction. Escapist entertainment. It doesn’t matter if the science is wrong! Shut up and enjoy the movie!”

Now, to a point, he’s right. Many films have scientifically inaccurate things that we can overlook because they’re minor and don’t affect the plot. But once scientific ignorance does affect the plot, that’s when we, as writers, should have a real problem with it.

A lot depends on the type of story you’re telling, of course. For example, superhero movies defy physics to a crazy degree. But the very idea of superheroes sets the tone for how much we’re going to ruin science. This is why we can accept that Tony Stark is not turned to mush inside his Iron Man suit during a nuclear explosion.

Iron Man: “What the hell?”

And more “serious” or “down to earth” stories should have limits that are even stricter, which is why we can’t (or shouldn’t) accept that Indiana Jones wasn’t turned to mush inside a refrigerator during a nuclear explosion.

Audience: “What the hell?”

The example I give in my fiction writing classes is the movie Jurassic Park. (Yes, I’ll suspend disbelief enough to accept that ancient DNA could still be viable, even though it degrades to be useless in about a million years.) What I’m talking about is a point, early in the film, where Dr. Grant is freaking out a kid in describing how velociraptors attack. And he says something to the effect of, “You freeze… because you think maybe the velociraptor’s visual acuity is based on movement, like the T-Rex. So if you’re not moving, it can’t see you.”

The first time I watched the film, I just sat there with my jaw hanging open. And in my head, I was screaming, “WTF are you talking about!? You cannot know that from studying bones!” Now, had this just been a throwaway line, I’d have been willing to let it go. But it wasn’t. Later in the film, this “fact” saved him from being eaten by a T-Rex.

Yes, stand still. I don’t like fast food.

The most unforgivable part of this shoddy writing is that it could have been shown that the T-Rex’s vision worked this way, since they’d been studying live dinosaurs. It could have been something they learned and Grant could have been advised of this when he arrived. So there was no need for the inaccuracy in the first place, which makes it all the more unforgivable, from a writing standpoint.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Jurassic Park’s scientific blunder is nothing compared to other films, some of which are ridiculously wrong on so many scientific things that they’re unwatchable. And yes, as a viewer/reader, I’m willing to suspend disbelief… but only so far. And as writers, we should respect our readers enough to care about keeping things accurate.

Posted by vmwales


Michael Suttkus, II

The Tyrannosaurus rex-thing came from scans of the brain case of Tyrannosaur skulls. It turns out that their visual lobe is much larger than that found in related theropods (the two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs), so they clearly evolved to make more use of vision than their relatives. This was taken by some as evidence that T. rex had to be an active predator since a scavenger would have depended more on the sense of smell. Of course, the olfactory lobe on the animal was also very well-developed so scavenging is hardly eliminated. Also, the other theropods are all active hunters with less dependence on vision so the T. rex’s increased visual acuity isn’t making the clear statement some think it is.

But at least one scientist went off describing a scene of the Tyrannosaur hunting with its eyesight linked heavily to movement like a cat. This was, as I recall, clearly labelled as speculation. It’s everyone inspired by his speculation that forget to label it such and then exaggerated it to “and they can’t see you if you don’t move”, a strategy I don’t suggest you try with a cat. : – )

As always, Michael, thanks for the background. There are so many instances of this exaggeration/speculation business, too. I know you and I both often shake our heads in amazement at the stupidity of many people. I wonder sometimes just how much of their ignorance is because they believe everything they see on TV and in movies.

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