Based on a few suggestions, here are three more super-common mistakes film and television make when talking about science. As before, this isn’t some super-boring piece about factual errors that mistakes pedantry for intelligence – it’s about portraying science, and scientists, incorrectly and unrealistically.
After all, sci-fi with invisible lasers and perfectly silent spaceships would just suck.
You’re Constantly on the “Edge” of Your Big Breakthrough
In Movies and TV:
“I can’t leave now, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough!!” shouts the plucky young scientist. They hit keys and tap out code. The scratch their head and stare at a blackboard. Suddenly, the realisation strikes – they knew they just had to stare and scratch for a few more seconds. There! I’ve discovered it – the Osminium TetramethylBromaldehyde! They just had to find this mystery ingredient and add it to their 95% complete formula and now they can build their trans-dimensional portal array!
Science works in two ways.
Firstly, it’s a slow, steady, well-planned slog through the motions. You know what you have to do. You know how you’re going to collect your data. You know a handful of potential results could happen and what those signify – you just need the evidence to say one way or the other.
Or, secondly, you can do something and it unexpectedly slaps you in the face, causing you to casually swear and have a protracted shouting match with your supervisor while you then slowly migrate into doing exactly what the paragraph above states.
But there’s no real sense of being on the verge of a sudden breakthrough. Unfortunately, science doesn’t work like that. Your breakthroughs come after a lot of applied effort, or they come by accident – slightly unpredictably and serendipitously. But no matter how complex the task, you’ll find you always know what sort of solution you want. Even at the hard-core bleeding edge of physics, we know what grand unified theories of everything should look like – we know what we need to do to get there. It just requires the work and the time.
The Worst Offender: Every Comic Book Villain Ever
I can recommend the excellent James Kakalios book The Physics of Superheroes. While also using superheroes to explain concepts in physics and mechanics, Kakalios is also fond of pointing out how almost every other character seems to have worked out the exact workings of their shrink ray, or their death ray, or their super-plague, or their warp drive… except for one key, missing ingredient. They just need that one breakthrough and the last piece of the puzzle! They just don’t know what it is!! But then they find it, and boom origin story!
Science Is One Discipline
In Movies and TV:
General Sharpe: “We’ve collected the world’s top scientists for this project. Your expertise in this will-”
Scientist A: “Wait, what? Top scientists? In what field.”
General Sharpe: “Well, science. Obviously.”
Scientist B: “For what project?”
General Sharpe: “For this top-secret project to fend off an alien attack.”
Scientist A: “Hang on, I do nuclear physics – I work on fusion projects trying to increase the efficiency of those reactions from purely theoretical computer simulations.”
Scientist C: “I research influenza vaccine efficiency. I mostly work in statistical analysis.”
Scientist B: “I work in reactions catalysed by palladium. Occasionally I use platinum.”
General Sharpe: “But.. you’re scientists, right? You science the best. Like… you can develop a super-weapon to take down the alien mothership in the next five days, right?”
Scientist C: “Jesus H. Christ…”
Scientist A: “We’re so fucking doomed.”
Scientist B: “I suppose we could just lob stuff at it…?”
Science is broad. So broad, in fact, that there’s even an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to even defining it. It is, quite literally, impossible to specialise in everything. You can gain the broadest appreciation of as much of it as possible, but at the end of the day if you can find someone who can consider themselves as an expert on quantum mechanics, they’re unlikely to have the same expertise in general relativity – let alone a more distant subject like geology or biology. And the end of the day, you’re very broadly a “scientist” – but before that you’re a biologist, or a zoologist, or a chemist, or a geologist.
You can certainly learn the grammar of another discipline reasonably quickly. I can hold my end of the conversation with someone doing high-detail studies of the ring currents and magnetic fields within charge-separated potentially-aromatic cyclic chemical systems – but by heck I’m not going to be publishing a paper on that any time soon. I’ve got even less chance of making a chance discovery in nuclear physics, or plate tectonics or – in fact, let’s be honest here, even those two things right there are incredibly broad fields and I have no idea how deep the sub-divisions go.
Worst Offender: The Day The Earth Stood Still
Many, many examples to choose from (including every “whacky inventor” ever) but in this case I’m going to go with my gut and choose Barnhardt from The Day The Earth Stood Still. I’m still not quite sure what he’s supposed to be a professor of, really. There seems to be some astro-something involved, but he’s still pretty much the archetype for Generic B-Movie Scientist that seems to just be a… scientist.
The script/exchange from the above section basically sums up the first half hour of the 2008 remake, at which point I switched over declaring “contrary to popular belief, Keanu Reeves is not the problem with this film”.
It’s All About The IQ
In Movies and TV:
Your smart character comes on screen. Within a second he’s hacked into the super-computer using nothing but string and some tape. Ten seconds after that he’s NLP’d his way into the pants of the Hot Assistant. He’s then hypnotised a guard to get out of the prison. And finally he’s cured cancer in a rapid montage of test-tubes, Gilson pipettes and rotovaps – all in a day’s work. Now he’s off to bang the Hot Assistant, but it’ll be meaningless sex because he has no emotion.
It’s all because he’s got an IQ of 225 – the highest since Einstein, no less. So special, in fact, that they wheel him around in a glass box like the Pope when he’s not busy doing high-IQ things like reading at super-speed, drawing things from memory or banging the Hot Assistant in increasingly shallow and meaningless ways.
If you’re writing a fictional character who’s super-smart, you invariably have to write someone more intelligent than you. It shouldn’t take too long to realise this is pretty difficult. You effectively have to pass something like the Turing Test – you’re an inferior machine that needs to simulate a higher intelligence well enough for it to pass in conversation. Luckily, that conversation is with people probably less smart than you. So most writers will take the lazy way out and, if they don’t hold multiple doctorates, provide the character with a huge IQ.
The thing with IQ, though, is that it doesn’t really measure anything in particular… except IQ. In principle it measures your logical and spatial reasoning skills with an increasingly abstract and bizarre series of tests. BUT, and it’s a big BUT – contrary to popular belief it is possible to study for them and improve your score. When you get used to seeing logical patterns and can pick up where to look for keys and primers in the puzzles, you get better at the test, and get a better score. It certainly doesn’t mean you get smarter in a broader sense.
IQ does have its use, though. It’s a statistical proxy for intelligence across a population – hence adjusting for age and the Flynn effect. Arguably, yes, scientists will score highly. But that’s usually less to do with because scientist, and more because college-educated middle-class white male I’m sorry to say.
And when you can understand that, you’ll know why it’s pretty much useless when levelled at a single person, and be able to politely snigger when someone brags “135, BTW”.
Worst Offender: Hornet… Viper… Tarantula… Scorpion, that’s what it’s called!
The lead character has an IQ of 197. This should immediate elicit laughter from anyone who even remotely knows anything about the subject of the intelligence quotient. Yes, yes, it’s “based on” a real person with a claimed score of 197, but the response to that story should remain the same for much the same reasons.
The plan depicted in the screenshot above, where they drive under a plane to get a back-up of some software by lowering down an ethernet cable from the front landing gear and hooking it up to a laptop operated by a waitress in a sportscar, however, isn’t based on a real person or event. Because that makes no sense to anyone with an IQ. Not an IQ over something, just anyone with one.