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Fictitious science

One of the drawbacks to being a scientist is that science fiction becomes harder to enjoy. Storytelling requires a certain suspension of disbelief to work. But when your day-to-day job involves asking questions about how the natural world works, sci-fi movies are full of things that take you out of the story and leave you saying “Oh, come on“. I’ve been reminded of this after seeing Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, a prequel to his deservedly classic Alien. Some of the things I found myself thinking during the movie:

  • If the aliens seeded life on earth with DNA oligomers (PCR primers, basically) like this computer animation is showing us, why did they have to sacrifice one of themselves to do it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just chemically synthesize them the way we do?
  • If this is supposed to be the origins of life on earth, then why is it showing us metazoan zygotes? And didn’t they just show us a landscape full of plants, anyway?
  • Why aren’t any of these characters saying anything about how wierd it is for a rocky moon to have an atmosphere full of oxygen?
  • If this is a barren moon, then why are there earthworms? And why are the earthworms sometimes meal worms (plant-eating insect larvae)?
  • Why don’t any of these people act like real scientists, or at least like professionals?
  • Why is this movie rehashing trite 1950′s cliches about the difference between humans and robots being emotion and curiosity after just showing us the android character having feelings and being curious?
  • If the aliens engineered life on earth, then doesn’t making it look like a species of primate evolved to have the same genome as them seem wierdly narcissistic?
  • How did that alien get so big so fast without eating anything?

It’s okay for movies to leave things unexplained. I’m cool with that. Scientists live in a world full of unexplained things. I’d even prefer that movies to leave things unexplained and just chalk it up to alien technology or whatever. Their explanations are usually boring and stupid, anyway. But when the plot revolves around events that any undergrad biology major could poke holes in, well, it’s hard to get past that. Prometheus apparently did have a science consultant, though his involvement seems to have been limited a single conversation. Film makers hire people whose whole job it is to make sure that continuity of appearance is maintained from shot to shot. Can’t they hire someone to make sure the science makes sense, too? Or at least isn’t unnecessarily egregious? Please?

I don't understand, therefore aliens (and/or God)

The worst part of Prometheus for me, though, is that the movie is anti-science without even realizing it. Like, for example, the part where the main protagonist couple (archaeologists) claim that aliens engineered life on earth. One of the other characters reasonably asks what evidence they have for this, and the main protagonist says “It’s what I choose to believe”. Ugh. The movie presents this as a heroic act rather than, you know, pants-on-head retarded. To be clear here, this is the equivalent of a professional archaeologist saying that aliens built the pyramids of Egypt. The only response other characters have to this conspiracy idiocy is to whine that it goes against “Darwinism”—as if evolutionary biology were a philosophical belief rather than, you know, science supported by observable facts. In spite of this, the filmmakers inexplicably believe that one of their protagonists is a skeptic.

Dear Mr. Scott: Richard Feynman was right when he said “Science is a long history of learning how not to fool ourselves.” What you show us is self-deception of the worst kind.

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    5 comments

    1. Did you see that movie _Primer_? That was one of the few movies that rung true to me in its depiction of engineering culture & the vibe of doing R&D at a startup. Dunno what the good science movies are… nothing comes immediately to mind.

      • jeff

        It’d be interesting to make a list of the top five most scientifically accurate films. I didn’t see Primer, but I may need to. The space science in Sunshine isn’t accurate, but I was struck that the characters act like real scientists. I also really like how Moon just uses science to create a situation and lets the action and drama be human.

    2. jeff,
      I don’t think that it is sound to mix fiction and nonfiction. This is, for example, where scientists that step into the Biblical realm and Biblicists that enter the scientific realm become futile, as their epistemologies are very different. I have not seen the film (nor do I really know anything about it, as I have been removed from pop culture for a good while), but I do not see the reason to drag a fictitious work into the scientific arena to hold it to those standards. I personally do not like science fiction, but I can appreciate that it is (i) fiction and (ii) blur the lines of reality. Was your issue that it was a fictitious work posing as nonfiction? I guess I do not fully understand where you are coming from here.

      Chris

      • jeff

        I guess I have a few issues:

        • The movie presents a picture of science and scientists that’s just plain wrong.
        • Egregious unbelievability sabotages the movie-viewing experience when you’re constantly reminded of how the story is poorly constructed. The movie didn’t just blur the lines of reality, it took a big dump on them.
        • Thematically, the movie is all about the interaction of science and religion. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create scenes and events that reference Christian theology. Yet they seem to understand neither science nor religion except in the most superficial way. The main protagonist is a Christian, but my impression is that the movie’s portrayal of religiosity is as dumb and uninformed as its portrayal of science.

        I’d argue this means that the film fails in artistic terms, too.

    3. Owen

      There were lots of other things to nit-pick, and I was annoyed at the lack of attention to details. But my greatest concern was that we were not told either of the big questions:

      Why did the aliens start new life?

      Why did they want to kill the life they started?

      I think in general, avoiding answering questions like these is a cheap trick to avoid any complicated thinking. It allows you to build a storyline that does not require any coherence and can be extended in almost any imaginable way. Probably they don’t even know what the next movie will tell us.

      I thought a good storyline would be if the aliens were conducting a scientific experiment or some type of R&D. When they saw humans were becoming a threat, they decided to kill us off.

      At least, because the idiots that did this movie did not bother to make a plot, it is still possible someone could make a great sequel. But who wants to make a great sequel to a crappy movie?

      The most unrealistic thing about how the scientists were portrayed was how quickly they stated the beliefs guiding their research. I think it is true that scientists usually have these beliefs, but they usually do not state them or delude themselves into thinking they do not exist.

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