Science in the Movies and Real Life

In the current smash hit, The Martian, Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist who is stranded and has to find a way to survive on Mars using his scientific skills, aided by the inventiveness of earth-bound rocket scientists and other experts. In addition to its engaging story and cinematography, The Martian pays homage to the power of science to conceive of grand visions and solve seeming insurmountable problems.

Science -- and scientists -- in real life often get much less respect. In the world outside the multiplex, they are often subjected to criticism or outright disbelief. While science skeptics are rarely a majority of Americans, they attract attention and wield cultural and political influence well beyond their numbers. On climate change, only fifty percent of the public believes it is caused by human activity (compared to 87 percent of scientists). Combined with the nine percent who believe it does not exist, they have helped stymie accepting responsibility to address the problem. On evolution, only 65 percent believe that humans have evolved over time (compared to 98 percent of scientists), and the 33 percent who believe humans have always existed in their present form claim that evolution is "just one theory," a profound misinterpretation of what a theory means in science. In regard to vaccinations, 24 percent of Americans believe they are a likely cause of autism. Their impact results in only 68 percent of the public saying that vaccinations should be required (compared to 86 percent of scientists), threatening not only the health of their children but of others as well. On some issues, scientists are even barred from applying their methods, such as the long-standing Congressional opposition to funding for research on the causes of gun violence.

How can we explain this disconnect between life on the screen and on the street? This is not a trivial question. The techniques of science have been instrumental in raising the standard of living of billions, which includes relieving the world of diseases, hunger, and poverty. They have ameliorated many social problems, and they hold the promise of untold future benefits. Yet disdain for science and scientists, especially when incorporated into political movements, threatens scientific funding, progress, and a rational approach to decision making on critical issues.

One source of the distrust in science has roots in the disconnect between comforting ideologies and the discomfort inherent in the scientific process. The role of science is to subject beliefs -- the heart and soul of ideology -- to questions about assumptions, data, and conclusions. Another source of distrust in the anti-intellectualism that lurks in the background of American culture. For some, scientists are ivory-tower elitists who don't understand real life. "Joe the Plumber," not "Joe the Chemist" was chosen to represent this view, which, when unchecked, entails a willful ignorance of facts, a kind of contemporary "book burning." (It also ignored the contributions of science to modern plumbing.)

For still others, science is viewed as inherently flawed and unreliable because new results contradict earlier findings. That scientists change their conclusions based on further research is viewed as a reason to distrust science rather than as the natural result of applying the scientific method. Science's driving force is to criticize itself, an uncomfortable, unwelcome intrusion into the lives of those who seek certainty.

Trust in science is also impacted by those who misuse it to win arguments, or who stay silent when others do, solely for political advantage. In the second Republican Presidential Candidate debate, Donald Trump charged that vaccines cause autism in some children. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, the assertion went mostly unchallenged by two physicians, Ben Carson and Rand Paul, standing just feet away on the stage.

Admittedly, science itself can play a part in its own credibility gap. Some scientists have weakened the public's trust when they have manipulated data in service to fame, career advancement, or their own hypotheses. Yet, in a wholly unscientific conclusion, these exceptions are treated by many as typical of scientific practice rather than as outliers in an otherwise carefully self-monitored profession. Scientists also have too often failed to communicate adequately with the public at large, as if making their work and methods accessible to a general audience is someone else's responsibility.

One doubts that The Martian would have thrilled audiences if Matt Damon had belittled NASA, if those trying to rescue him had ignored the scientific facts of the situation they faced, if the public had turned into a witch-hunting crowd instead of cheering for science to save him, or if the director had made the science so complex and hard to understand that the audience would have been unable to follow the story. There just might be a lesson here from the movies that could be useful in real life.