Sunday, July 26, 2009


Bastards On the Beach

The Fifteenth Carnival of Elitist Bastards is lounging about the beach at The Coffee-Stained Writer.

Stephanie Zvan at Quiche Moraine has an interesting take on the framing/accommodationist/incompatiblist debate that centers on the claim by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future:

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.

Stephanie, like I, has not read the book, so caveats apply that nuances may exist in Mooney's and Kirshenbaum's treatment not conveyed by the quote. But Stephanie recalls a wonderful rejection letter phrase used by Marion Zimmer Bradley:

Willing suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by its neck until dead.

As Stephanie explains:

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.

Now, the problem may well be that religion is that summer action extravaganza, with heroes who are all good, despite or even because of their faults, villains who are all evil, and nothing in between. Action is paramount, while doubt and introspection are weaknesses to be avoided. Therefore, consistency and accuracy are superfluous and can be not only hanged but drawn and quartered, as is the case with young-Earth creationism.

Can science match the allure of a summer blockbuster or, more importantly, does it need to?

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.

If that is not enough to match the box office that religion generates, that may just be a fact of human economy. As Stephanie says:

There's very little Richard Dawkins or any other scientist will have to say about it, no matter accommodating they are.


"Now, the problem may well be that religion is that summer action extravaganza, with heroes who are all good, despite or even because of their faults, villains who are all evil, and nothing in between."

Actually, the chapter from which the quote about drama versus accuracy doesn't discuss religion at all, so it doesn't really factor into the debate about accommodationism.
My point didn't depend on it referring to religion or even accommodationism, though. We are, perhaps by evolution, a story-telling species. It's how we learn and pass on our learning to future generations. It's how we organize ourselves (explaining how "we" -- in whatever form that takes -- originated and why "we" are special, and, therefore, worth preserving). Hagiographies are as prevalent in science as they are in other social activities.

Science, rationalism, whatever you want to call it, may never be able to match the visceral attraction of the stories told by religion. But however we approach the problem, knowing the nature of the problem is the first step.
I think Zvan didn't understand the quote in context. It was a response to a Dawkins quote about why "Jurassic Park" required a cast that included human beings, since it already had dinosaurs.
Actually, the chapter fits well with the theme of the book: That an existing communication method where some people glean their understanding of science (in this case popular media coming from Hollywood) isn't adequate by itself to promote science literacy. It's one area that we need scientists to be involved.
When you do get around to reading the book I strongly recommend you read the endnotes. The most valid criticism I can give is the endnotes are at least as if not more informative than the main text.
For instance, in this chapter, there's an extended bit on the Hollywood Health and Society project apparently funded by the CDC and NIH. Which provides great support for the authors' thesis.
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