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Scientists and scientific organizations can become involved in media production

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CAISE Admin
January 01, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.

Overview 

Several scientific organizations concerned about the impact of entertainment media on public perceptions of science have taken steps to directly improve the accuracy of science in entertainment media and boost interest in science. Scientists’ involvement in entertainment media production as science consultants is becoming a common informal science education (ISE) activity (Kirby, 2011). Formal initiatives on the increased use of science consultants to inform entertainment industry professionals include the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange, the American Film Institute’s Sloan Science Advisor program, USC’s Hollywood Health and Society program, and the Entertainment Industry Council’s Ready on the Set initiative. The U.S. National Institutes of Health also maintains a long running public film series involving scientists’ critiques of science in films. These organizations are undertaking these activities because the empirical evidence shows how entertainment media influences scientific literacy, public attitudes towards science, and raises awareness of scientific issues.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Scientists as Consultants for Film Projects

Many of the most financially successful films of all time have employed scientists as consultants including ‘‘Jurassic Park’’ (1993), ‘‘Finding Nemo’’ (2003), and ‘‘Avatar’’ (2009). Similarly, a significant number of the most popular television shows of the last decade are immersed in science and technology that required the advice of scientists including ‘‘CSI’’ (2000-), ‘‘House’’ (2005-), and ‘‘The Big Bang Theory’’ (2007-). Several scientists have written personal recollections about their consulting experiences such as Frederick Ordway for ‘‘2001: A Space Odyssey’’ (1968), Ian Lipkin for ‘‘Contagion’’ (2011), and Donna Nelson for ’‘Breaking Bad’’ (2008)David Kirby (2011) interviewed scientists and filmmakers about their experiences working together in the production of Hollywood films. Kirby finds that scientists assist filmmakers in a number of ways including fact checking, shaping visual iconography, advising actors, enhancing plausibility, creating dramatic situations, and placing science in its cultural contexts. He also finds that scientists and scientific organizations benefit from this arrangement as popular films can promote research agendas, stimulate technological development, contribute to scientific controversies, and even stir citizens into political action.

Filmmakers use of science consultants goes all the way back to the earliest days of cinema in films such as ‘‘A Blind Bargain’’ (1922) and ‘‘The Lost World’’ (1925) (Kirby, 2011). Several studies on scientists’ involvement in movies and television have looked at specific movies or television shows. Manhattan Project scientists exhibited substantial control over the final version of ‘‘The Beginning or the End’’ (1947), having the power to veto any portion of the script with which they disagreed (Reingold, 1985). There was also an examination of a failed attempt by physicist Leon Lederman to develop a science based drama for television in the 1990s focusing on a heroic scientific organization called GRALE (Greenberg, 2001).

Cinema, Television and Public Health

Much of the academic work done on this topic has focused on medicine and public health. Public health officials, physicians, and medical researchers frequently cooperated with filmmakers in making issue-based dramatic films. The US Surgeon General was involved in the making of the Paul Ehrlich bio-pic ‘‘Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet’’ (1940) (Lederer & Parascandola 1998). The film proved useful to the U.S. Public Health Service who convinced Warner Brothers to make a revised version of the film three years after its release for educational purposes.  Joseph Turow (2010) has also shown how the American Medical Association wielded significant power in determining the images of doctors on fictional television. Likewise, Martin (Pernick (1996) has explored the use of dramatic films as both pro- and anti-eugenic propaganda in early cinema with physicians and public health officials often serving as consultants. Overall, studies of scientific involvement in movie and television production reveal a tension not only between the narrative forms of media and those of science, but also between the needs of the entertainment industry and those of the scientific community (Kirby, 2003); (Frank, 2003).

References 

Frank, S. (2003) “Reel Reality: Science Consultants in Hollywood,” Science as Culture, 12: 427-69. Retrieved from http://online.itp.ucsb.edu/online/resident/ouellette4/pdf/s1.pdf

Greenberg, D. (2001) Science, Money and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Retrieved from http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr;=&id=JOPNR3IXS0MC&oi=fnd&pg=PA4&dq=Greenberg,+D.+(2001)+Science,+Money+and+Politics+&ots=yZML5BlGvi&sig=JUMqix_c_w-4tTZ6TuoMuHehRlw#v=onepage&q&f;=false]http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr;=&id=JOPNR3IXS0MC&oi=fnd&pg=PA4&dq=Greenberg,+D.+(2001)+Science,+Money+and+Politics+&ots=yZML5BlGvi&sig=JUMqix_c_w-4tTZ6TuoMuHehRlw#v=onepage&q&f;=false

Kirby, D.A. (2011) Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). Retrieved from: http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr;=&id=MhWWrfWmGAwC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=kirby+lab+coats&ots=Y1rpJMef4I&sig=DAKqXWpLDDos48Vn-aY2tY-AmSE#v=onepage&q=kirby lab coats&f=false

Kirby, D.A. (2003) “Scientists on the Set: Science Consultants and Communication of Science in Visual Fiction,” Public Understanding of Science, 12(3): 261-278.

Lederer, S.E. & J. Parascandola (1998) “Screening Syphilis: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet Meets the Public Health Service,” Journal of the History Of Medicine, 53(4): 345-370.

Pernick, M. (1996) The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915 (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Retrieved from: http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr;=&id=IJJVYrnImOsC&oi=fnd&pg=PR13&dq=Martin+Pernick+black+stork&ots=fnHp8gcNO5&sig=uuhhp9QyCH-jH9paDIrI0oxHcVE#v=onepage&q=Martin Pernick black stork&f=false

Reingold, N. (1985) “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Meets the Atom Bomb,” in Expository Science, Shinn, T. & R. Whitley, eds (Dordecht: D. Reidel): 229-245.

Turow, J. (2010) Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Accessed from: http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr;=&id=rSTDDua5zKMC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=turow+playing+doctor&ots=uanFiEFd3G&sig=UWBttg42ag7rV7OR_O_bN4wC3rM#v=onepage&q&f;=false