This week, someone sent me a message asking for some more specific examples of scientifically inaccurate things in films and media. Here’s a list of some random specific examples that don’t really merit their own column:
In Batman Begins, the plot (sort of, eventually) revolves around a top secret military weapon: a microwave emitter that evaoprates water rapidly. Liam Neeson pumps a fear toxin into Gotham City’s water supply and then uses the emitter to evaporate the water and release the toxin in order to get back his daughter from Batman (it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie). The problem is, the human body is 80% water by cell and that microwave radiation is not selective. It’d be like standing inside a microwave, you would fry long before the toxin would start to seriously affect you.
So many things get evolution wrong: Pokemon, Evolution, Prometheus, pretty much most movies that deal with it. Listen, evolution isn’t directed towards some ultimate goal. There is no “apex” of evolution. In fact, Darwin didn’t even use the term “evolution.” He didn’t want to, because it carried with it the implications of goal-oriented change. Natural Selection is the proper term. At certain times in the history of the world (maybe universe) situations arise that favor one small difference in a creature over the other. So say some terribly deadly virus arises that is extremely lethal to 80% of the world’s population, those 80% will die and probably not reproduce, at least not as well as those 20% who are immune to the virus. Eventually, given enough time, the whole world’s human population will be the offspring of those 20% and the virus will no longer affect people. NATURE SELECTED that gene that made them immune to the virus to carry on to the next generation. Nothing is changing, really, certain things are just getting weeded out.
In some of the older comics, Spider-man would travel cross-country by webslinging onto planes and riding them. Most people forget that things change when the altitude does. For one, the air is very thin, there is much less oxygen up there. Web-head could never breath 30,000 feet up into the air. That’s why people who climb really tall mountains use oxygen tanks. Two, it’s cold as bigfoot’s dick up there. When I was flying home from Denmark, you could check out the flight’s status on the little screens. The temperature outside was -40 degrees farenheit. That’s goddamn cold. Spiderman would arrive as your friendly neighborhood popsicle. Oddly enough, the first Iron Man movie gets it spot-on correct. When Tony goes for the first flight test of his suit, he starts to freeze in the upper atmosphere- this even becomes somewhat of a Chekov’s gun in the climactic battle with the Iron Monger.
Birth scenes also piss me off. I’ve seen a birth, and that shit’s gorier than any horror film I’ve ever watched. Any woman who goes through that is a goddamn badass. In movies, births are clean, neat, pretty, and not very painful (enough to produce a few grunts and groans). The baby comes out looking clean and neat and not a placenta in sight. In reality, births are messy, gross, bloody, almost unimaginably painful, and most ladies poo themselves. Babies are covered in blood and amniotic fluid and looking rather ugly.
One of the biggest ones and perhaps the trope most likely to russle my jimmies is the whole “people only use 10% of their brains.” Everyone uses all of their brain, just not all parts all the time. In the movie Limitless starring Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper, Bradley Cooper uses a drug that supposedly allows the user to use 100% of their brain. This is utter horseshit and infuriates me to a bloodboiling degree. The brain is like a car, each part does a specific job-a spark-plug can’t be used for the radio. Likewise, the hypothalamus can’t processes visual stimuli or executive control. Limitless would be like if in the next Fast & Furious movie, Vin Diesel uses every part of the car (including the air freshener) to make it go faster.
Wounds in media are not nearly as painful or damaging as they are in real life. I’ve been fucked up a couple times in my life. My grandmother’s Dachshund bit half my face off when I was 6, I’ve had boxing fractures, I’ve been stabbed before. Shit fucking hurts. Nothing is quite as painful as getting punched in the nose. Oh my god, it’s the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, you just want to go home and cry. The Rocky movies are especially heinous in their violation of common medical knowledge. Injuries have long-lasting effects, even after years of physical therapy they can still impede or inhibit your daily life. In pretty much every single Rocky movie, he has some kind of life-threatening injury. In Rocky III, it’s mentioned that the beatings he took in prior movies should have killed him. In Rocky V, his trainer mentions that he might die if he takes another blow to the head. But he goes on fighting for another two movies! Rocky would probably have hit the mat after the first film and never gotten up. But then we’d miss Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago.
I may not be a big biology person, but even I know that there are a shitload of species in the natural world. And it can take weeks to narrow down exactly which one it is. This is a certain trope known as “Science At The Speed of Plot”. Science is (for the most part) probably the best tool ever devised for learning about and understanding the natural world. The problem is, science is a slow process. It is ever evolving and ever revising and it can take a long time for science to come up with a consensus. Even when science comes up with an explanation, it is rarely a convenient or easy explanation–especially to the generally scientific illiterate public. Humans are mostly cognitive misers, they’re lazy thinkers that will look for mental shortcuts (heuristics) whenever they can. Like in the movie Jurassic Park, paleobotanist Elle Sattler takes a two second glance at a plant and concludes that it’s an extinct species. How would you know? You can tell just by glancing? Now, maybe it’s a species that she has studied extensively. Maybe she’s just cocky- in which case that’s just bad science. As mentioned in my column on Sunshine and The Core what Hollywood scientists lack is something called “scientific modesty.” Scientific modesty is when scientists don’t open their mouths until the data is in and processed. What she’s doing is speculating on the color of socks before taking off the shoes.
I don’t know what I’ll be talking about next week, so I’ll leave it up to you guys to ask me about something:
Be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
Have a science-related question? Ask it!
If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.