When I was in graduate school at Cornell, David Kirby was a course mate while he was working on a post-doc in science studies. Kirby was re-training from his former field as a geneticist, researching the influence of science consultants on major motion pictures.
One of his conclusions--published in a paper at the Social Studies of Science--was that science consultants are important to filmmakers because they can help lend a sense of realism and perceived legitimacy to a film, especially among the opinion-setting audience base who shape the success of a film via word-of-mouth and online buzz.
On the other hand, scientists benefit as consultants because the film offers a major vehicle for promoting to other scientists (and funders) their expertise and views on an area of emerging science, enable a consultant to argue for their own interpretations in an ongoing scientific debate (think dinosaurs-as-birds in Jurassic Park), and/or provide a consultant the opportunity to visualize ideas about future developments and technologies. In other words, scientists watch movies and read news coverage, so consulting on films can be an important way to influence colleagues.
I was thinking of David Kirby's line of research when my brother Erik sent me this excellent essay on the hit TV series Battlestar Galactica. The central premise of the essay is that the series-- which so delighted viewers and TV critics in its first few years--ended up disappointing its fan base precisely because it broke with its deep anchor in realism. As "Brad" the essayist explains, the series departed from realism on several key dimensions:
The confirmation/revelation of an intervening god as the driving force behind events
The use of that god to resolve large numbers of major plot points
A number of significant scientific mistakes on major plot points, including:
Twisting the whole story to fit a completely wrong idea of what Mitochondrial Eve is
To support that concept, an impossible-to-credit political shift among the characters
The use of concepts from Intelligent Design to resolve plot issues.
The introduction of the nonsense idea of "collective unconscious" to explain cultural similarities.
The use of "big secrets" to dominate what was supposed to be a character-driven story
Removing all connection to our reality by trying to build a poorly constructed one
Mistakes, one of them major and never corrected, which misled the audience
As a fan of BSG, that was a very interesting essay to read. I disagree with a lot of it; I do not think that an intervening God breaks from realism for everyone (including myself). But nonetheless it was valuable critique. Thanks for pointing it out. And as a researcher, I'll get my hands on some of Kirby's work on science communication! Cheers!
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