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Reflected light

October 31, 2011

mad scientistI’ve just written a post for Imperial College’s Science Communication blog, Refractive Index, in which I review Steven Soderbergh’s new virus thriller Contagion, and its portrayal of medical practitioners. In particular, I discuss the power of narrative drama to deliver a meaningful science message – not something film is usually credited with doing well.

You can read the post here.

Most scientists, in my modest experience, are pretty critical about how they are portrayed in drama. With some justification. Yet they may be surprised at just how common their complaints can sound. Years spent portraying other people as an actor has taught me that few – if any – professionals in our society are happy to see themselves on screen. Scientists, policemen, lawyers, priests, journalists –  you name it, most have collared me at some point to complain that a drama I appeared in bore no relation to “how things really were” in their world. This was often in spite of painstaking script research – on-set advisers – legal checks. Given the amount of criticism, it’s remarkable that drama ever manages to make anyone in society suspend disbelief long enough to tell a story.

Yet it does. Time and time again. How?

Well, interestingly, people don’t seem nearly so critical of the dramatic portrayal of professions in which they don’t have a personal stake. And most don’t seem to transfer their scepticism about the portrayal of their own profession to the portrayal of others. As a result, you don’t hear scientists complaining about – say – inaccurate portrayals of politicians – or vice versa. Does that mean that all portrayals in drama are acceptable if not informed by direct personal experience?

I’ve often pondered this effect – and feel there may be some other interesting social effect at work besides the failure by a film maker to adhere to some standard of professional ‘truth.’ Maybe it’s a discomfort with seeing ourselves reflected back in society’s subjective mirror – without the rose-tint of our own professional conceit to soften the image.

That’s not to say that drama is always ‘right.’ Or even good. It isn’t! But when so much in society seems highly rhetorical – some would say misleading – such as tabloid journalism, the law, big business, party politics, advertising – why do we expect drama be an exact likeness of society, rather than a conversation with it?

Personally, I think ‘truth’ in drama – like truth in science – is a slippery concept. Is a screenwriter’s creative projection of a scientist invalid if it doesn’t closely match a real scientist somewhere in the real world, as agreed by other real scientists? If so, is Van Gogh equally at fault for his ‘unrealistic’ representation of a sunflower? If I am a working policeman, does that give me a unique ability to judge all creative work which references the concept of ‘policeman?’ Does a scientist in a contemporary screen drama need to be more ‘real’ than a comic book scientist, or a sitcom scientist, or a sci-fi scientist, or a child’s cartoon scientist, or a scientist in an experimental dance? Why? Where is the boundary between artistic license and unacceptable fake? Who draws it?

It can be annoying for science practitioners to see drama portray the tired old cliche of the evil or mad white-coated scientist. But is this any more prevalent than the ‘sleazy journalist,’ or the ‘corrupt policeman,’ or the ‘lying politician,’ or the ‘cynical lawyer?’ I don’t think so. More importantly, I think the perceived effects of these stereotypes on the audience are greatly exaggerated. From the minute we’re born we are bombarded with messages trying to persuade us of truths framed by those who tell them. Advertising billboards. Election broadcasts. Tabloid headlines, and, yes, film dramas. A key skill acquired by citizens is a necessary agency over one’s belief. A discernment regarding suggested realities. We choose where to bestow this belief – and we suspend it most often as a willing journey into imagination or hypothesis, rather than in ignorance or passive receipt.

Drama is far more Van Gogh than verité. But it is no less enlightening for its subjectivity. A dramatic mirror held to the face of science doesn’t have to be photo-realistic in order to shed light on the society that sustains it.

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