Verisimilitude. Good word, isn’t it? It’s one of my favourites.
It means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. It’s not just a term for people who study semiotics: philosophers of science use it too (or at least Popper does), as a way comparing theories’ claims to closeness to truth. It’s more ‘truthlikeness’, than truthiness, but has a range of uses and applications, many of which get somewhat intermingled when it comes to actually putting science to work in society at large.
Top tip: After much swearing at my laptop while writing up my PhD thesis, I discovered typing verysimilartude into Word gets you the correct spelling prompt.
This is a slightly abstract way of introducing a great new book I’ve just finished reading: David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood. The book is the product of several years of Kirby’s sociological research uncovering the backstage role some scientists play in the film industry, as consultants on the depiction of scientists and scientific ideas on screen. Kirby also seems to love the word verisimilitude, and the occasional messiness of its uses. It’s even on the dust-jacket. But this isn’t an esoteric tome of jargon-filled social science. It’s a neat little book for a generally interested reader; direct, clear, thoughtful and communicated with a genuine interest in the people it studies.
Although the bulk of his examples are films of the last decade or so, in some respects, there is a long history to this sort of work. Kirby refers to my favourite example here: the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (pictured). In particular, the way Richard Owen, back in the 1850s, jumped at the chance to be the scientific advisor, so these models would match his ideas of what they looked like, not those of his rival, Gideon Mandell (Kirby, 2011: 15-16). As Kirby stresses, the construction of a movie is a very complex business, one which involves a huge number of specialists and has some rather unequal power structures. Arguably, Owen had more clout over the Crystal Palace dinosaur models than the scientists involved in the Jurassic Park films did. A scientific consultant may well be listened to at times, and in places within the making of a film, and then later ignored. Indeed, in some respects it’s an odd fluke that any films have scientific consultants at all, and there is no standardised method for integrating them into the film-making process (Kirby, 2011: 42-3).
It’d be wrong to think of film-makers as dismissive of a scientist’s point of view though. They wouldn’t invite them on set in the first place if so. Indeed, one of the key points Kirby makes is how important a scientist’s version of verisimilitude is to the film industry. The book has loads of examples of this (seriously, the number of films that have used advisors might surprise you) but my favorite example is Finding Nemo‘s missing kelp. As Kirby tells it, marine biologist Mike Graham was asked by the animators if there was one thing in the film that might disturb him, what would it be. Graham replied that he’d hate to see kelp in a coral reef (it only grows in cold waters). There was an uncomfortable shuffling in the audience. But go check your DVD: there is no kelp in Finding Nemo. Each frond was carefully removed, at a considerable cost (Kirby, 2011: 102-3). Even films which sell themselves on fantasy (e.g. talking fish) rely on a certain sense of reality too: they need to be credible even in their love of the incredible, and science can help them do this. There’s a lot film-makers can find inspiring in scientific research too; a lot of visual beauty and novel ideas, a lot to make people go ‘wow’. That’s all good material for movie-making. Kirby has a lovely example of a visual used in the 2009 Star Trek movie, inspired by input from astronomer Carolyn Porto (Kirby, 2011: 12).
Kirby also stresses how it important the verisimilitude of films is to scientists, something you can see very well from the fact that remuneration is not simply financial, and often relates to their work. Some do get paid for their work. Some feel this as inappropriate and so take alternative payment like tickets to premiers, some ask for funding for research programmes. Some see it as part of their responsibility to the public understanding of science, some want to promote their ideas, or see them realised with movie-technology, some find it simply fun (Kirby, 2011: 56-63). The National Academy of Sciences has a project to connect scientists and engineers with professionals in the entertainment industry ‘to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV’. Personally I’m not entirely sure if this is a constructive approach to the perceived ‘problem’ of science in fiction or a giant red herring compared to less showy education and public engagement work (? genuine question mark here, I don’t know. Kirby refers to audience research, but conclusions and comparisons are very hard to draw here), though it may well make professional scientists feel a bit happier; to let off a bit of steam.
Kirby has some constructive advice for anyone who does want to try promoting science through Hollywood: worry less about how you might make the science in entertainment products more accurate, and more about showing filmmakers that accurate science could actually make their film better (Kirby, 2011: 10). Other advice for scientists include get involved early on, and respect the filmmakers’ expertise too. Kirby further invites the reader to think about what scientific accuracy might mean within the necessary shortcuts and sometimes fantastical contexts of the film business. Yeah, there’s Finding Nemo‘s coral, but there’s also Brian Cox’s role in Sunshine, a scientific consultant who was brought in to talk to actors about a scientist’s psychological motivations as much as scientific ideas (Kirby, 2011: 71, 73). Those wanting to have an impact on the public discourse about science through movies would do well to think beyond a narrow sense of ‘scientific literacy’. As Kirby stresses in his conclusion, based on what we know from the fossil record, the representation of Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park is completely inaccurate, but the film had much greater public impact (for good or bad) in terms of its depiction of scientists as heroes, as paleontology as exciting, and as genetic engineering as potentially dangerous (Kirby, 2011: 230).
I’ve been recommending Kirby’s research to students for years (links on his site), and I’m glad I can now recommend a whole book to a much wider audience too. If you are interested in the politics of science fiction, some of the oddities of the film industry, scientific accuracy in popular science or simply an interesting mix of cultures, it’s worth a read.