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Bashing Science December 28, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, science.

I’ve not seen the new Will Smith movie, I am a Legend. I’d had no real plans to see it. My mother-in-law handed me a Dan Gardner column on the movie (warning: it contains spoilers). I’m even less inclined to see the movie now.

But Gardner’s thesis is interesting: bashing science in a popular movie doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Bashing religion does:

As the controversy over The Golden Compass amply demonstrated, it’s impossible for a major movie to include even veiled criticisms of Church and Faith without generating angry denunciations and calls for boycotts. But release a movie that explicitly scorns Science and Reason, a movie that vilifies technology, a movie that claims there is superior wisdom in prophecy and superstition – do that and there won’t be a peep of protest.

The plot of this movie sounds a lot like Jurassic Park — arrogant scientist tries to over rule the “natural order” and is wiped aside. However, unlike JP, this movie sounds like faith and religion and belief there-in are what saves (read the column to find out more if you aren’t planning on seeing the movie).

In the first place, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to have the same sort of protests and calls for boycott when a movie like this comes out. Science can stand on its own two feet — it must be, by its very nature, self consistent, and so should be able to withstand any sort of attack like this. Besides, this is a movie. It is entertainment. I like science fiction – even Star Trek. Warp speed? Clearly a fiction (warp speed is faster than the speed of light). Star wars? Same thing.

On the other hand, I’m uneasy. Look at the doubt that the Bush administration has been able to sow in the USA by repeating over and over, very loudly, that climate change is not a problem. There is no scientific evidence for that position. Yet, a good fraction of the US believes it (fortunately, that fraction is dwindling by the minute).

Gardner has another good point, which matches both Paula and my readings of the various movie reviews out there:

Reviewers often mentioned that the movie touches on deep themes but none that I know of spelled them out.

I think the reviewers could easily have brought up the “themes” without spoiling the ending: science and religion and their roll in society, or similar. Why not (ex: NYTimes)?

In the end, I love entertainment. Movies, TV shows, the web, stories, fiction, etc. And I don’t really care what people write or film – but as a society we have to keep them separate from real life. Science is science, and sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell us what we want to hear.

Have you seen the show House? A seriously dysfunctional pain-killer-popping diagnostician goes around solving those cases that no one else can — he sees patients only after everyone else has given up? I think of that as a science-positive show. House and his team uses science, logic, and sometimes gut instinct to solve various medical cases. They don’t always make it. And they leave room for faith in there too – there was one episode (which I can’t find) where shear faith by another doctor (Cuddy) saved the day. I remember the end of that when Cuddy says something like “see — I was right” and House responds with something to the effect of “No, that was a bad decision – the statistics all go against what you did; I was right all along; you were lucky.” That is keeping science in its proper place.

Or maybe I’m taking this waaaay to seriously. 🙂

I’ll end with another quote from Gardner:

Of course, it probably didn’t occur to the makers of I Am Legend that many of them would be dead – or would never have been born – if it weren’t for those well-meaning but foolish scientists. Ditto for the audience. Our ingratitude for the bounty of science is boundless.



1. John S. Wilkins - December 28, 2007

Note that the storyline is an old one in science fiction, going back of course to Mary Shelley, but in this case it is a standard example of the SF genre. It was written at a time when antimodernism was getting started under the threat of a nuclear apocalypse, and the fact that it is reviving now indicates that people are scared of science. Mostly for very bad and politico-religiously motivated reasons, but they are indeed scared by it. To ignore that is to make a very bad mistake.

2. gordonwatts - December 28, 2007

John, I think you make an excellent point.

I guess the new stuff we are scared of is all the bio developments: cloning, genetic engineering, etc. (heck, this movie follows that script to a tee — and my impression is that the movie’s plot is different from the book — they altered this to have this theme).

3. Alejandro Rivero - December 30, 2007

Just a note: The Golden Compass trilogy is not veiled but explicit. In the third part, the forces of Azrael attack and win the celestial castle and God, who actually was reduced to be a puppet of Gabriel (or Metatron?), is finally allowed to die.

4. Alejandro Rivero - December 30, 2007

As for “I am a Legend”, it is a pity that the book (I havent see the film yet) fails to develop the main idea of the title: that this “last man of the earth” is, for a whole population of vampires, as the “last vampire” should be for humans.

5. irratzo - January 7, 2008

Thanks for this text, Gordon! I had fears of people pickung the movie up the wrong way. It is easily imaginable that Ned Flanders, after watching I Am Legend with his kids, says to them: “And that’s what you get if scientists go meddling around with human life, kids. So what do you want to become?” “Preachers.” “Doodeligood!”
It’s like Hollywood often retreats to romanticism and never goes further along the philosophical development timescale.
Often I hoped that Nevill would say “Right, stop here.” and every cg effect, including the vampires, becomes technically visible, and he goes on rambling about questions of “Why would we do this movie? Why should we do it? What’s the fear about?” and goes out of the movie studio into labs and religions talking with people, stating things, sort of a deconstroctuvistic approach..

I have the desire to recommend to you the book “Challenging Nature” by Lee M. Silver of 2006. It anticipates exactly this and explains, from the view of a very far-travelled molecular biologist, the fears arising in western Christian and post-Christian cultures in respect to new biotechnologies.

(sorry if my response doesn’t always fit to your post)

6. irratzo - January 7, 2008

Just btw, in one forum I found a memorable quote:

Its quite rare that advances in science are displayed in a positive light in film.


Though I guess a movie about cancer being cured and everyone living happily ever after might not be so entertaining.


7. gordonwatts - January 7, 2008

Irratzo – thanks. I’ll take a look at the book. I also read, today, an interview in the latest Seed magazine talking about this. The point was made that Star Trek, at the time, was unique – because it wasn’t scary science – science could be good. 🙂

8. Frank - April 3, 2008

Gordon, I’m only now reading this entry and I wanted to respond, despite the 4 month time lag.

I just happened to watch this movie last night in disc. Yeah, it was kinda one-dimensional and much less interesting with nothing more than an animalistic viciousness driving the cg infected.

However, i did not sense that the movie was a pot-shot at science. I saw it more as a cautionary tale about technology. It did remind me that our civilization is approaching another critical technological crossroad. This one’s the biggest one yet. One path could propel us well beyond the limits of our bioware, another knock us back centuries or millenia, or, worst of all, convert the planet’s biomass into gray goo. This next crossroad is like the nuclear annihilation fear of an earlier generation — it’s a real concern.

Technological advancements have their benefits and hazards. US nukes saved a million or more American and Japanese lives (perhaps hundreds of millions more by ensuring the Nazis did not get it first). The downside was that we had to endure MAD until the Soviet system collapsed. In retrospect, do we wish that the US was not the first to unleash and tame that genie? I’m not. I think things have turned out pretty well for humanity so far.

I do feel that nuclear annihilation movies of that time (Failsafe, Dr. Strangelove, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and others) served a purpose to remind us of how fragile our path to the future was. They reminded us of what hung in the balance.

Now, there is also the more superficial consideration of what entertains and draws money. How many viewers would have lined up to a movie about a possible future where a repressive and despotic superpower is gradually whittled away over the course of a 4 decade cold war? Or, imagine a different IAL that instead explores the impact of a disease-free world. Zzzzzzz.

9. gordonwatts - April 3, 2008

Frank – thanks for the comment. And no problem with 4 month lag. That is the great thing about the modern search engine. People can still find these old blog entries.

Your point about sciecne v technology may be right. However, for the purposes of this movie they seem like they are the same to me. What worries me is the general trend towards thinking that every advancement could unleash some huge disaster. And what you do with science and science itself are very different things, I agree.

The arrogant scientist…

I really should go and rent the thing. Well, I’ll wait until I return to the USA when I can get it “cheap” from Netflix.

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