In recent years, fact-checking sites have become ubiquitous on the Internet, assessing the veracity of everything from conspiracy theories and rumors to respected news media and political speeches. Our culture worries that mediated information, the kind we continuously consume, doesn’t accord with reality. This social concern, however, is not limited to media that intends its assertions to be taken literally. Movies, for example, are now fact-checked as well, especially for historical accuracy where culturally significant events and figures serve as their subject matter. This anxiety over the relationship between the real world and its artistic representation is nothing new, having long roots indeed. In his Republic, Plato famously warns his audience that art is dangerous because of its distance from the truth.
While history is the usual standard used to critique cinema for its lack of realism, science has also become the object of critical concern as worries arise that the content of films isn’t adhering to reality. As David Kirby puts it: “Many in the scientific community believe that scientific depictions in fictional media have been detrimental to science literacy and attitudes toward science. In fact, television and movie science has become something of a cultural ‘bogeyman’ for scientists [who believe] that more often than not the science in these texts is factually wrong, that scientists are portrayed as evil or socially apathetic, and that scientific knowledge is misused” (23). But, as Kirby indicates, given how much influence movies have over “public attitudes,” (23) these misgivings are not entirely misplaced: “Popular films impact scientific culture by effecting public controversies, enhancing funding opportunities, promoting research agendas, and stimulating the public into political action” (15). Still most reasonable thinkers, including Kirby, understand that entertainment endeavors have their own worthwhile agendas, which mustn’t merely kowtow to the demands of reality. And so, the debate over the proper relationship between between art and the world continues, or perhaps it would be better to say stalls in a standoff between those who are allergic to inaccurate representations and those who find their protestations silly.
Kirby, David. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.
Your job in this essay is to enter the ongoing discussion regarding the relationship between science and popular culture in a way that will garner the attention and sustained interest of an educated lay reader. You’ll want to be sure that your audience understands the discursive context for your entry into this conversation. That is, they will need to be made aware of what the cultural conversation looks like so that they can be assured that you are adding something new and significant to it.
In a thesis driven essay of around 2000 words (+/- 10%) address the following:
As a way of contributing to the discussion referenced above, form an argument concerning the (social and/or aesthetic) significance of the level of scientific** “accuracy” evident in one piece of popular culture. In other words, choose a piece of popular culture from movies, television, fiction etc. determine how well science supports what the piece presents, and argue the degree to which its fidelity to scientific principles matters, either to the piece’s artistic value or its social value or both. However, since the level of “accuracy” might in some cases be interpretive, ambiguous, difficult, even impossible to determine, or uninteresting, you might instead want to draw on such concepts as verisimilitude, plausibility, authenticity, realism, reality effect, and perceptual reality (all of which are discussed in Kirby).
**You may want to replace “scientific” with your own area of expertise.
Be sure to:
1. Contextualize your argument as part of the larger discussion, probably in or near your introduction.
2. Include a thesis that responds to the prompt.
3. Keep the needs of your lay audience in mind as you write.
4. Deploy the scientific principles to assess the accuracy of the piece(s) of popular culture
5. Deal with counterarguments appropriately.
6. Overall, contribute a thought-provoking argument, one that transcends the conventional wisdom. That is, break outside the box of standard arguments: From the pro-accuracy side: 1) inaccurate representations are significant because they mislead audiences 2) inaccurate representations are significant because they create audience disenchantment 3) accurate representations are significant because they inform audiences 4) accurate representations are significant because they prevent audience disenchantment; from the anti-accuracy side: 1) accurate representations are significant because they are boring and prevent entertainment 2) inaccurate representations are significant because they entertain audiences.
Two more caveats:
1) The pro-accuracy camp doesn’t object to fiction per se, just inaccurate representations of reality. Thus, a made-up storyline that doesn’t violate a specific history or biography would likely be all right with them whereas technology not supported by scientific principles included in those same stories probably wouldn’t.
2) The argument that we don’t go to movies to learn things, or that a theater is not a science class is a common refrain in the comments section of editorials. If you want to make an argument like that, you’ll need to deal with Kirby’s Chapter 2, which shows, with comprehensive rigor, that movies do impact our sense of what’s real, whether we watch them for that reason or not.