Science in Entertainment: Suspend Your Disbelief

Off-topic a little this blog post is.

(Beware contains minor spoilers for Lost in Space and Star Wars: The Last Jedi)


Pseudo-science in the entertainment industry is not a new thing, just look at the frequency of sound in space on film, but I recently got into a discussion with a colleague of mine over a TV programme that went down the pseudo-science rabbit hole, and I found myself disagreeing with him…

The programme in question is the new version of Lost in Space (which I am enjoying, it’s great!). Just in the first episode a person gets trapped in ice that freezes super-quick, it doesn’t prevent her from breathing (despite the fact she is only in a thin suit) and she is freed by using magnesium (which didn’t burn or damage to her or her suit). Not to mention later in the series it’s mentioned that one of the characters “has a PhD in engineering” – come on, we all know that’s an EngD!

Another recent example is the latest Star Wars offering, The Last Jedi, has widely received criticisms about some of its content – what exactly is it that makes the bombs fall? Can someone survive being out in space without a suit? And the “artistic” choice, you know that bit with Admiral Holdo that had people asking if there was a technical error? That. That’s actually fairly accurate. This video by Because Science goes a little way to explaining some of these.

During our discussion, my colleague went to great lengths to argue why sci-fi should be more realistic, and I agree with him to a certain degree, I do happen to think that the media in general (media reporting of actual science is a whole different discussion) has a duty to portray science in a way that is balanced and truthful but… entertainment has to be dramatic otherwise why would anybody watch? Sci-Fi stands for science FICTION for a reason.

Real-life science can be cool and it can be exciting, but more often than not it’s a lot of research, repetition (I once spent MONTHS testing the pH, weighing and drying soil samples) and a lot of maths.

Some forms of entertainment, whilst not necessarily accurate, do a really good job of raising the moral and ethical issues of scientific developments. Jurassic Park provides a stark warning about going too far with genetic technology, Avatar serves as an allegory for our own misuse of planet earth. And one of my favourite programmes ever, The 100 (maybe shouldn’t admit that as a full-grown woman), portrays the dangers of radiation, artificial intelligence and over-population (there are many more examples I can think of but this post would be more of a book if we got into those).

Entertainment can also inspire people. I also personally know a number of students who decided to study science because they love The Big Bang Theory or CSI, and that’s great! As long as the students are aware that the programmes, films, books etc. use artistic license and they are ok with the reality of the boring bits of science, they can go on to achieve fantastic, exciting things.

I am of the belief that if you over-analyse a story you take the magic away from it and most of us watch or read for a little escapism from real life. So when it comes to science in entertainment, and our ability to actually sit down enjoy that entertainment… we simply have to suspend our disbelief.

What do you think?


5 thoughts on “Science in Entertainment: Suspend Your Disbelief

  1. Hey, thanks for bringing this topic up! I think the value of popular culture for environmental communication – including the science of climate and ecology – needs more recognition. As for realism in sci-fi, I agree balance is key. It should be grounded in real science and be well researched, but also artistic license is totally okay!

    I think my favourite sci-fi film from an environmental messaging perspective is Wall-E. While it’s in some ways very unrealistic (if all life on Earth is wiped out, I doubt it would just come back like that) but I think it makes some really powerful points about sustainability and makes them in a compelling way for a mass market. I wrote this post analysing it actually:

    If you have any examples of other films that make a point about the environment I would love to know!

    Tegan x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points – I love Wall-E I’ll be sure to give your post a read!

      I find dystopias in general usually have at least some environmental themes. Not all films, but all of these have either overt or hidden environmental messages; The Handmaids Tale, The Day After Tomorrow (soooo unrealistic), Fern Gully, Erin Brockovich, Children of Men, The Lorax, The Hunger Games (more so in the books), The Lion King etc – there’s probably loads more too.

      Thanks for reading 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m doubly blessed: an almost perfect ability to achieve suspension of disbelief when I’m watching a movie, and only a layperson’s understanding of most scientific disciplines. Bring on the bombs falling through zero gravity. Bring on people surviving for varying lengths of time in space without pressure suits. Bring on Gorgo rising from the waves … only to be followed by Gorgo’s MOTHER, about 500 feet tall!
    But, for goodness’ sake, directors, get the basic facts of existence correct. Yes, I’m one of the picky ones who thinks Spielberg should’ve figured out a way to make his “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” gag use the CORRECT mirror that actually carries that warning. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

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