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Learning Science from the Movies

November 10, 2010 When it comes to bad science in movies, there are two main camps; those who hate it, and those who hate it but will put up with it.

Some say even horrid films can make the audience enthusiastic about science and make them want to learn. Then there are those who think bad science is always atrocious, causing movie-goers to misunderstand science, the process of science, and create negative stereotypes.

What nanotechnology looks like, according to G. I. Joe

Let us imagine an alternative reality where G. I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra hadn’t been such an abysmal flop. According to the “we hate it” camp, it’s possible that there could have been a shift in public opinion about the safety of nanotechnology. But, in order to sort out how cranky with Hollywood scientists are realistically allowed to be, it’s important to understand how people learn science from the movies.

A new study suggests men and women differ in their ability to detect bad science in fictional movies, and the results go past a simple “yes they can,” or “no, they can’t.” It turns out men are more likely to notice science faux pas when they are central to the plot, whereas women pick up more factual flaws when they deal with things peripheral to the focus of the film.

“It may well be the case that women are highly influenced by mistaken science facts in a science fiction thriller set in space, whereas men are not. A different set of interests might result in mistaken medical information given in passing in a melodrama influencing a man’s beliefs more than a woman’s,” wrote the authors of the new study.

The analysis, carried out by Claudia A. Barriga, Michael A. Shapiro, and Marissa L. Fernandez, all from Cornell University, used 97 shopping-mall-goers with a penchant for sweet treats as their test subjects. Fifty-one men and 46 women, ranging from 18 to 68 years old, were asked to watch a series of four film clips and then answer a series of scientific questions before finally being “rewarded for their collaboration with a coupon for ice cream.”

The researcher’s original assumption was that bad science, when seen as a main component of the film, would be weeded out more effectively by the audience. The theory was that if the science was central to the plot, then people would remember where they had learned it, and realise it wasn’t necessarily true. However, if the incorrect science came as an offhand remark, the researchers assumed people would be less likely to remember where they had heard it, and might hold on to the incorrect idea.

“People appear to misattribute the origin of the new information to a more reliable source and “forget” its fictional source,” they wrote.

It turns out Unobtanium isn't a real element. Sorry, Avatar.

To test their idea, the researchers presented the same film clip to the test subjects in one of two ways, with either the science, or the interpersonal relationships between the characters, being played up. So for the same clip, the participant would either be watching a group of heroes heading off to save the earth from an impending asteroid, or a lovey-dovey mush-fest that happens to take place in space. (In the goal of journalistic integrity, my personal bias should by now be clear.)

Barriga, Shapiro and Fernandez found that when the science was presented as the main focus of the clip, men caught 3.23 +/- 0.28 (out of 8) of the errors, while women found 2.46 +/- .30 of the flaws. When the participants were told the story was a tale of love and lust, with lasers filling in as the sidekick, men detected 2.68 +/- 0.28 scientific inaccuracies, and women dismissed 3.14 +/- 0.31 of the errors. The men and women tested caught about the same number of errors, it just depended on how they were presented – even after controlling for things like general science knowledge and level of education.

The researchers weren’t exactly sure what to make of the fact that their data overthrew their main theory, but like any good scientist, finding the opposite of what they wanted just means they get to ask more questions. The researchers thought of at least one problem for their study, however, which my obvious movie bias should attest to.

“One possibility is that, for these science movies, the context manipulation may also have cued the participants to preferred or not-preferred content and genre. Men are known to prefer action adventure movies, whereas women prefer content about interpersonal relations and conflict. The manipulation that made science central or peripheral also may have cued participants that this was or was not going to be the kind of story they liked. As a result, men may have paid more attention in the context central condition, women more attention in the context peripheral condition.”

So it might be that men and women simply caught more scientific errors because they were paying better attention.

In any case, Barriga, Shapiro and Fernandez’s findings will be fantastic fodder the next time I need to weasel my way out of watching Grey’s Anatomy.

Barriga, C., Shapiro, M., & Fernandez, M. (2010). Science Information in Fictional Movies: Effects of Context and Gender Science Communication, 32 (1), 3-24 DOI: 10.1177/1075547009340338

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    November 10, 2010 11:19 pm

    Maybe priming the men and women to think they’d be more interested in the film made them pay closer attention. (Or maybe that’s why I liked Avatar and not Matrix…)

    • November 10, 2010 11:23 pm

      Hi Amy,

      The researchers didn’t intentionality make the clips out to be more or less interesting, rather they randomly selected the participants to get one of two primers for an identical clip:

      – either the clip was set up so that it seemed like the story was all about the science
      – or, the clip was introduced as a story about the relationships between the characters on screen

      The researchers came up with the idea that it might have been an issue of men and women traditionally preferring different styles of movies to try to explain why their observations disagreed with their original hypothesis – that all participants should be able to catch more of the fake science of it was tied to the main plot of the movie.

  2. November 11, 2010 5:49 pm

    So wait. Are you saying “The Core” could, or could not, actually happen?

    • November 11, 2010 5:52 pm

      Having never actually had the pleasure of watching The Core, I can’t really say ;)

  3. November 12, 2010 12:12 am

    Wow, excellent post. I automatically assumed science wasn’t portrayed properly in movies. It’s good to know there’s a bunch of science behind it all.

  4. Kroeghe permalink
    January 25, 2013 3:34 pm

    As interesting as it might be – that’s a quite terrible way to get your test group. People who went to a mall, and weren’t in a hurry, and can be bribed with sweets, etc.

    • Tim maguire permalink
      January 26, 2013 4:41 pm

      All of which adds weight to the explanatory hypothesis. I think it is likely simply that, as they theorize, when the clip was an adventure, men paid more attention while the women checked their nails. When it was a romance, the women paid attention while the men went to sleep.

    • AntiSlice permalink
      January 27, 2013 4:01 pm

      Better or worse than a bunch of college students with free time looking for $10? That’s where a lot of psych studies get participants.

      • January 28, 2013 9:15 pm

        Or college students required to participate in experiments or write papers. Yup, ‘research participation’ is required at some unis. :P

  5. February 6, 2013 11:22 am

    I really hate “men vs women” pieces because it falls a bit too neatly into binary stereotypes (as opposed to a continuum), and too many people too readily jump way ahead of the evidence to date. Yes, different PEOPLE respond differently to information presented in preferred or non-preferred contexts/genres. (The same is true for learning styles and what makes a given person more likely to recall information.) It’s true that culturally, many men prefer action/adventure/sci-fi while many women prefer romance or stories about relationships. You could also say that men are also more likely to want to correct or Mansplain the science in a film. :) But there are plenty of outliers for all of these stereotypes, many of which are heavily influenced by social and cultural factors. It’s well nigh impossible to control for social/cultural conditioning in such studies; it’s also impossible to take into account the unique backgrounds and experiences of all those individuals.

    Not denying there are likely to be some innate gender differences; the hormones alone see to that. But the further one gets from sex-related or reproductive behavior, the less likely such differences are to be innate, and more likely to be the result of conditioning. It’s biopsychosocial, if you will. By all means, vive la difference, but let’s be careful about the kinds of conclusions we draw from these studies. People are complex, even when it comes to stereotypical gender-related behavior.


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