Making dinosaurs is merely a fantasy; Podium

From a speech to the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, in Anaheim, California
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The Independent Culture
SCIENTISTS OFTEN complain to me that the media misunderstands their work. But I would suggest that, in fact, the reality is just the opposite, and that it is science which misunderstands media.

Let's be clear: all professions look bad in the movies. And there's a good reason for this. Movies don't portray career paths, they conscript interesting lifestyles to serve a plot. So lawyers are all unscrupulous and doctors are all uncaring. Psychiatrists are all crazy, and politicians are all corrupt. All cops are psychopaths, and all businessmen are crooks. Even moviemakers come off badly: directors are megalomaniacs, actors are spoilt brats. Since all occupations are portrayed negatively, why expect scientists to be treated differently?

But wait, you may be thinking. Don't these movie images provide some insight into the attitudes of the wider society? Don't they reflect society in some way? No, they do not; for proof of that, you need only look at images of women in the last 50 years. Fifty years ago, movies were characterised by strong women - Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis. Women of intelligence and substance, women to be reckoned with. Since then, during a time of dramatic change for women in society, the movies have portrayed women primarily as giggling idiots or as prostitutes.

I've said that scientists don't understand media, and one form of misunderstanding concerns why stories about the scientific method are as they are. I hear several principal complaints: unnecessary added plot (sex, violence, explosions, etc); inaccurate and implausible plot devices and images. Fear-based and negative.

Let's take these in order. Why are unnecessary razzle-dazzle and exaggerated plot elements meretriciously added? Well, because it's a movie. Movies tell larger-than-life, exaggerated stories. Most feature sex and violence, and explosions whenever possible. As the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn said, "sex will outlive us all".

A variant complaint is to say the story doesn't need one or another element. The Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, whom I very much admire, is quoted as saying "the natural world is fascinating in its own right. It really doesn't need human drama to be fascinating." Of course the natural world is fascinating in its own right, but Jurassic Park isn't the natural world. The jungle is on a sound-stage at Universal. It has been built to suit the action; if an actor has to climb a tree, the Fiberglas bark is supported inside with metal girders. It is lit by artificial light.

And, for the most part, the dinosaurs aren't on this set at all; they're added later, by computer. Professor Dawkins said he didn't know why you needed the people in the story. The answer is that the person who dreamt up this particular fiction wanted it to be that way. It was written to revive the corny movies of people and dinosaurs together that I had loved in childhood. King Kong, One Million Years BC, all of that. Jurassic Park is meant to stand in a long line of related movies. It is thus explicitly a work of fiction. The natural world is irrelevant.

Let's go to the second point: inaccuracy and made-up plot devices. In a story such as Jurassic Park, to complain of inaccuracy is downright weird. Nobody can make a dinosaur. Therefore the story is a fantasy. How can accuracy have any meaning in a fantasy? It's like the reporters who asked me whether I had visited genetic engineering firms while doing my research. Why should I? They don't know how to make a dinosaur, either.

Point three: why are the stories about science always so negative? We've already discussed that characters in every profession are shown negatively. But what about the stories themselves? Why can't we have positive stories? One answer is that people like scary movies. They enjoy being frightened. But the more important answer is that we live in a culture of relentless, round-the-clock boosterism for science and technology. With each new discovery and invention, the virtues are always oversold, the drawbacks understated. Who can forget the freely mobile society of the automobile, the friendly atom, the paperless office, the impending crisis of too much leisure time, or the era of universal education ushered in by television? We now hear the same Utopian claims about the Internet. But everyone knows science and technology are inevitably a mixed blessing.

How then will the fears, the concerns, the downside of technology be expressed? Because it has to appear somewhere. So it appears in movies and in stories - which I would argue is a good place for it to appear.

The edited speech appears in the latest `Science Journal'