Mere Factual Accuracy

The framing wars, which never really went away, are back with a vengeance. If you need to catch up, start with Abbie’s snarktastic linkfest. If that’s not enough, you can find additional recent history here. Links to many of the older posts are available here. Educated, confused and disgusted? All right, then we can go on.

Generally, my take on the whole question is similar to my take on religion in general: Don’t we have something more interesting to talk about, and if not, can we at least refrain from misrepresenting each other’s points of view?

Now, having said that, I’ll admit up front that I haven’t read the book that’s raising so many hackles. However, in PZ Myers’ general review, he pulled a quote that I have to address:

Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.

I write science fiction. I read science fiction. I watch it on television and in the theater. I read and write and watch in other genres too. This statement is one of those gross oversimplifications that makes me cringe. Maybe it’s better in context, covered in caveats, but an awful lot of people aren’t seeing it in context right now.

There is some truth to the assertion, of course. You never see a “real-life drama” that hasn’t been trimmed to fit the length of a feature film. Locations stand in for one another. Behavior that would result in lockdowns or restraining orders is played for laughs or romance. Bad guys can’t shoot, but good guys have perfect aim. Explosions require far more fuel than would be available, and people still walk away from them.

Accuracy does get cast aside in moviemaking. However, the fact that decisions like these are made in the writing or the production doesn’t make them good decisions.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was an editor who was famous for having a standard rejection letter that gave the following reason for rejection (I paraphrase), “Willing suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by its neck until dead.” In addition to plot, pacing and character development, a story also requires a setting, a “world” in speculative fiction terms. That world–and plot and characters, for that matter–are made up of details.

Accuracy has an important role to play in building world, plot and character. Every time we flub or cheat a detail, we’re making our audience, at least part of which will catch any inaccuracy, do more work. In writerly terms, it’s called throwing our audience out of the story. It means that something has gone wrong enough to remind an audience that the story is only a story. In order to get back to the point where the story is a world that the audience is visiting, the process of suspending disbelief has to start all over again.

Every time another inaccuracy is noticed, the process starts once more, and upholding that disbelief gets harder and harder. Some readers or viewers will give up on us completely. They’ll give up on the story because it asks too much of them–not in thinking but in forgiveness.

Yes, there is a kind of movie that can get away with flubbing all the details. Details aren’t why people go to summer action extravaganzas, those movies in which everything explodes, even the water. They’re not looking for accuracy. On the other hand, they’re not going to these movies looking for story either.

Setting up story and accuracy as a dichotomy also ignores the richness that accuracy can add to a story. In fact, whole stories can be built from closely observed detail. Juno is one of those stories. It doesn’t have a suspenseful plot. The characters don’t change much from beginning to end, although a few of the relationships do. What we get instead is messy, accurate observations of the complexities of life, and that was enough to win Diablo Cody an Oscar to garner an impressive return for the movie.

To bring this back to science, one of the excellent parts of the new Star Trek movie (along with the opening and Simon Pegg) was the fact that the ships weren’t all oriented on a single plane. Nobody would have noticed if they had been. Pretending there’s an absolute up and down in space is the norm in movies. Instead, we were treated to unrestrained cameras and dizzying angles, which created the sensation in the viewer of truly escaping gravity in the way a more conventional film couldn’t.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

There is wonder in science, and solid, grounding reality. If Hollywood prefers to do another remake that no one was asking for instead of telling wondrous, solid stories…well, three things actually.

  1. No one will be remotely surprised, as this is business as usual and not just in relation to science.
  2. The blockbuster cinema of lowered expectations will continue to boom.
  3. There’s very little Richard Dawkins or any other scientist will have to say about it, no matter accommodating they are.

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28 Responses to “Mere Factual Accuracy”

  1. July 10th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Dan J says:

    I love this take on the situation, particularly since I’m also a science fiction fan. I love a good fantasy too. I play a lot of video games as well.

    One of the things that frustrates me with some novels, some movies, and some video games is internal inconsistencies. We expect each “world” to have it sown set of rules, and to always apply those rules in the same manner. When something happens that breaks out of those rules that we’ve come to expect, the suspension of disbelief gets strung up by its neck.

    Could it be that the generations brought up with science fiction universes and video game sandbox worlds have taught people that regardless of the world you’re in, the rules you have discovered should apply to everything? Could these generations now be applying this premise to the world we all live in? Do these people see fundamentalist religion as “breaking the rules” because the guidelines the religions dictate don’t fit the rules that the people have learned from their experience of the real world?

  2. July 10th, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Kelly McCullough says:

    The MZB reject was actually a macro rather than a form which gave it the appearance of being personal, but that’s primarily a quibble.

  3. July 10th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Dan, interesting take. I’ll have to think about that. I do know that the skeptics track at the SF convention I was at last weekend did have a much larger audience and get a more welcoming response than anybody expected. You may be onto something.

    Kelly, fixed. Thanks.

  4. July 10th, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I don’t think that’s THAT unexpected, at least not to me, Stephanie — I’ve noticed that people who are skeptical are much more likely to also be sci-fi fans than the average folk. I do know some non-skeptical skiffys who compartmentalize easily as much as people like Ken Miller, but they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of freethinkers / secularists / skeptics in the sci-fi fandom.

    As for people’s expectations that a world has to follow its own rules, look at how unforgiving Star Trek fans are with retconning or internal inconsistencies. They’re the first ones to scream bloody murder if Kirk’s hair part switches sides.

  5. July 10th, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Blake Stacey says:

    Except in the case of Star Trek V, which millions of fans agree Just. Never. Happened.

    It struck me today that several of the people who thought Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s statement about “mere factual accuracy” was completely uncontroversial would be the first to get up in arms if, say, a Hollywood movie had a bunch of lesbian characters who turned out to just have not met the right man, or which portrayed all male homosexuals as paedophiles. Suddenly, an exciting or tear-jerking storyline doesn’t seem good enough. . . .

  6. July 10th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Jason, there is that part of fandom, but there is also the space opera contingent, parts of which are really just looking for a bigger place to have their explosions. Then there are the Doctor Who fans, many of whom treat their science fantasy as science fiction. And the…well, you get the idea.

    Blake, excellent point. I don’t think I’m done with the topic of “mere factual accuracy.” After all, stories aren’t only being told in Hollywood. Yeah, I think I’ll be writing more about this.

  7. July 10th, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    There’s science in Doctor Who?? A series where Satan exists and he’s trapped next to a black hole, which the Time Lords invented one day on a lark?

    Bah. The point is, those universes are internally consistent, and people (to Dan’s point) freak out if the consistency breaks such that it pulls you out of the story. And since reality is the greatest and grandest story of them all, having people misinterpret it (and go on to pass along those misinterpretations to the next generation) is probably fundamental to science’s distaste for religion.

    Blake, you’re absolutely right. Those people pooh-poohing facts in the story of science as being unnecessary for drawing people in, are absolutely the same people who would get offended if the proffered non-facts in a piece of fiction conflicted too heavily with their own worldview.

  8. July 10th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    foolfodder says:

    “Educated, confused and disgusted?” Yes, but mainly confused with the whole thing, as I was with the framing thing.

    Stuff that I didn’t really mean to write and isn’t directly relevant to this thread follows:

    There was a point when Mooney said that he would try and set out the whole framing thing from first principles to try to get everyone on board, but he never answered people’s criticisms of his position, so the whole thing didn’t seem to go anywhere. Again he said he would do a series of posts about why accommodationism was a good idea. Those seemed to just peter out as far as I can tell and again he doesn’t seem interested in answering many of the (seemingly reasonable) questions.

    It’s like he gets bored as soon as it looks like people don’t actually agree with him straight away and then has a go at PZ (or his commenters) instead. I find the whole thing baffling, I’m sure that Mooney has some good points to make I just can’t work out what they are beyond “don’t be mean to those whom you want to convince” (something he fails to abide by by calling people like Jerry Coyne uncivil).

    And then there’s the whole thing where a discussion of strategy is embarked upon without trying to understand what the different parties are actually trying to achieve. My speculation is that there is probably a difference along the lines of short-term acquiescence by the public to the opinion of science versus wanting the public to have a genuine understanding of science, but I could have that completely wrong.

    Anyway, on to the topic at hand. Surely, for the reasons you’ve mentioned, the only reason Hollywood can produce unrealistic movies is because of a general, pre-existing, level of apathy / ignorance of the relevant issues. This doesn’t just affect science but also things like history. Also, whilst an inaccuracy in a film might trip up one person it might actually help another to enjoy the film, in fact, more accuracy in some contexts could have more of a “throwing our audience out of the story” effect. E.g. if you were to play proper delays in sound reaching the audience (a bomb going off a mile away will be seen well before it is heard) might it actually have a greater throwing out effect than some inaccuracies?

    Also, as others have mentioned, surely Dawkins couldn’t have written those books without an appreciation of the power of narrative.

  9. July 10th, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    foolfodder, this kerfuffle is in no way separate from the framing argument (as in the position that the pro-framing faction took rather the blog wars). This is the logical extension of a strict framing argument, in which connecting strongly and positively with the audience is the paramount thing. I also have some concerns about how the discussion doesn’t seem to advance, which are probably going to end up in a separate post. I think there is a story to be told here.

    There are some reasons to be concerned about accuracy pulling people out of the story. However, truth in a story often has an advantage in getting people to stick around in that it really is more interesting than the convention. In terms of explosions, how much cooler is it to see the light, then hear the bang, then watch the shockwave come. I’ve seen it done, and it extends the experience of the explosion (more explosion!) plus adds drama because you can see what’s coming before it hits. It may remind you that you’re watching a film, but it does it in a very rewarding way.

  10. July 10th, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Glendon Mellow says:

    Well said, Stephanie! Sometimes a statement is not just wrong. It is wrong in multiple dimensions, time zones and genres. In a cultural tug of war, it’s not wise to drop the rope to gain ground.

  11. July 10th, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    José says:

    Could it be that the generations brought up with science fiction universes and video game sandbox worlds have taught people that regardless of the world you’re in, the rules you have discovered should apply to everything?

    Here’s my unscientific take. I’m personally somebody who’s really bothered by internal inconsistency, but I’m also bothered by people who aren’t bothered by internal inconsistency. Looking at everyone I’ve been close to for long periods of time, I don’t think anyone I know has actually changed from being not being bothered, to being bothered, regardless of the movies and video games they’re exposed to. My guess is that it’s more of a personality trait. You either are, or you aren’t. That being said, I definitely see a positive correlation between people who need internal consistency and distaste towards religion.

    I also wanted to quickly point out that there’s a difference between internal consistency and continuity errors. A continuity error would be an instance where in one episode Mr. Sulu was born in San Francisco, but in another episode he’s said to be from San Diego. They’re fun to catch, and might make some hardcore geeks mad, but they don’t break the rules of the world.

  12. July 11th, 2009 at 4:19 am

    foolfodder says:

    “In terms of explosions, how much cooler is it to see the light, then hear the bang, then watch the shockwave come.”

    Lots. But that might just be because I’m a bit of a geek.

  13. July 11th, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Jason Thibeault says:

    The Mythbusters Demolition Derby episode caught such a shockwave on the highspeed camera, and I have to say, seeing the explosion start, then a blast radius shockwave that was visible and scary, then all the flames and smoke and stuff, was super-cool. If only movie explosions weren’t simply a game of “create the largest fireball”, they’d be so much more amazing. But you’d first have to turn on the studio execs to this fact. And that requires educating them in the real physics behind an explosion.

  14. July 11th, 2009 at 8:28 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Sometimes a statement is not just wrong. It is wrong in multiple dimensions, time zones and genres.

    Dude, I am so stealing that.

    José, thanks. More to chew on.

    foolfodder, I think anyone (or almost anyone) who enjoys explosions is going to enjoy them more done right. I think there are just a lot of things that are done a particular way in the movies because of limits in knowledge or technology among the people who set the standards. I mean, the reason spaceships all meet on a single plane is that they used to be models suspended by fishing line against a dark background. The reason they move like ships or planes in atmosphere is because those are the battles that people were used to filming.

    To go back to a point Blake made, there are lots of social conventions used in movie scripts that were originally put into place to avoid censorship. There are others that exist because the people who make movies are mostly rich white guys. Fixing these may temporarily throw someone out of a story too, but it creates a richer, more compelling world to draw people back into. And if those aren’t fixed, there are plenty of people who will be thrown out of the story because the world of the story is flat and pale and doesn’t look like their world.

    (Not arguing with you, just using the opportunity to riff a bit.)

  15. July 11th, 2009 at 8:29 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    I enjoy a willing suspension of disbelief – but only to a point. Years back there was a TV show call Seaquest DSV, different enough that I watched several episodes with enjoyment and would have loved more, until the day they kicked me out of watching forever with a “mere factual inaccuracy” so glaring that I still resent, now, the whole series. Some kind of crocodilian megamonster was eating up all the sea life. It wasn’t silly enough that it revived after hundreds of thousands of years of being frozen in ice, now suddenly melted. But the way they solved the problem was an outrage. When the creature swam under an ice shelf, they bombed the ice until it broke off, fell down through the water, and covered the monster up again, presumably buried for thousands more years.

    Anybody who thinks their viewing audience is stupid enough to buy the idea that ice sinks, or even that it wouldn’t melt surrounded by water, deserves to be fed to their own sea monster. Or perhaps, a trifle more realistically, drawn and quartered? Now that’s a fantasy I could support! I know someone with four horses….

  16. July 11th, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Kristjan Wager says:

    Drawn and quartered doesn’t involve getting pulled apart by horses – it’s the similar French punishment of quartering which involves horses.

    The wikipedia article on hanged, drawn and quatered is quite good.

    I have nothing to add to the article and other comments – I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed here.

  17. July 11th, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Kristjan, thanks for the correction. It wouldn’t do to be factually inaccurate here, now, would it? I do note, however, that you haven’t disagreed with the sentiment. Did such awful TV make it over to your part of the world?

  18. July 12th, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Kristjan Wager says:

    Oh, yes – American TV series are quite common here in Denmark (and European TV series are often as bad, but more low-budget). It’s one of the reasons I don’t own a TV.

  19. July 12th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    foolfodder says:

    Stephanie, what about sound in space? I can’t think of any movies, off the top of my head, that didn’t use sound in space, yet that would have been very easy to achieve, I would have thought. :)

  20. July 12th, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Kubrick did it famously in 2001, but then it was dropped for a while.

    There were a few scenes in the new Star Trek movie that used silence appropriately (the drop from space into atmosphere) and were quite powerful for it. Serenity too. I think we’re seeing a testing of the waters, moviemakers trying to make sure that their audiences won’t fault them for doing it right. The last thing to go, of course, will be the explosions. :)

  21. July 13th, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I have found that in scenes which don’t use sound or explosions, in which matter just “shatters” and drifts, the effect can be much more visceral. It’s more shocking because it conveys a sudden change of state. I hope that more and more shows do this. Also, sudden freezing when water gets expelled into space. That’s cool.

  22. July 13th, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    foolfodder says:

    I think I that bit in Star Trek actually, but then I think there were other points where they did have sound in space. I really like the no sound in space effect, it makes it feel much emptier and lonelier.

    Ok, next one. (Might not actually be accurate, but seems right to me.)

    Deep space, very little light. Ships should be hard to see. I imagine that in a real ship to ship encounter you’d mostly be using infra-red and radar or you’d need to really boost the gain on the image, in which case the background stars would be very bright. (I actually have a sci-fi scenario in the back of my head where this forms part of the plot.)

  23. July 13th, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    foolfodder says:

    Fourth word was supposed to be remember.

  24. July 14th, 2009 at 3:16 am

    Peggy says:

    So I went and read the entire chapter about Hollywood in Unscientific America and found it very frustrating. On the one hand it acknowledges that many people are indeed influenced by the science and the portrayal of scientists in the movies. On the other hand, they keep harping on scientists (like Dawkins) who criticize or “denounce” the science in the movies, and who just don’t get that plot and characters are important too. On the gripping hand, they note that many filmmakers believe accurate depiction of science is antithetical to creativity. The take home message seems to be that scientists and science communicators should ignore “minor” issues like loud explosions in space and work behind the scenes in the hope that some of their suggestions might be accepted by the creative types. Overall I was annoyed enough to make a long blog post about it (linked to my name if you are interested).

    Dan J: I think it’s a really interesting point that video games might be influencing the expectations of gamer movie-goers. It will be a few years before the gaming generation displaces the current big name directors, but it could very well change the way worldbuilding is approached in the movies.

  25. July 14th, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Sean Craven says:

    There’s one very good reason for maintaining scientific accuracy in works of fiction that I’m not seeing discussed here. It may be beside the point, but here goes…

    Creativity thrives on rules and limitations. When you know what you want to do with a narrative and there are issues of internal consistency that block that story direction, there are four things that you can do.

    You can forget about internal consistency and just do what you want.

    Or you can find a way to make your story work within the framework you’ve put up.

    Or you can change the rules — and then go through your narrative and make sure that it’s compatible with the new rules.

    Or you can go in a new and unexpected direction.

    The last three tactics will enrich your world and provide creative satisfaction. The first tactic is the golden road to garbage.

    At least that’s my take on it. And when science is part of the ground rules of your narrative, there is a whole new level of intellectual rigor and relevance introduced. In a comment on another blog I recently mentioned the story Tiny Tango by Judith Moffett. That story has resonated through my mind over the years, and one of the reasons why is that good science enhanced the humanity of the story. If Ms. Moffett had been lazy about the science, the story wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it is.

  26. July 26th, 2009 at 9:19 am

    george.w says:

    At the store yesterday I saw a Blu-Ray demo which featured Spider-Man rescuing a pretty girl as she fell from a building. He jumped downward, caught up with her, thwipped his webbing onto some high anchor a block away and swung to ground with her in his arms. They swung to a comfortable stop at the perigee of their arc, instead of traveling horizontally at high speed.

    You gots to do something with all that velocity, Hollywood.

    Anyway, what Jose said: some people aren’t bothered by inconsistency, and there will probably always be an enmity between them and people who are. I actually do enjoy watching movies in which brave oil riggers ride a space shuttle (orbital ceiling 400 miles) to plant a single nuke into an asteroid the size of Texas and so forth… but it’s to laugh at them. The problem with religion for me is it starts to sound like Spiderman’s pendulum arc or a Hollywood disaster movie. Hardly the basis of 9th-grade biology curriculum, and I don’t know how to be nice to people who think it should be.

  27. July 26th, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    It’s very hard to say, “If you don’t stop talking about that, I’m going to have to laugh at you, and neither one of us will be very happy,” isn’t it?

  28. July 26th, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Or, scientists such as Lawrence Krauss and Jim Kakalios can write books using comic books, graphic novels and television/movies as a way to get people to read and learn about physics and science.

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