British scientific research policies are not dictated by a film

by Suw on May 18, 2004

I’m getting increasingly cross with the media here as we approach the release of The Day After Tomorrow, the latest disaster-laden SFX-fest by Independence Day‘s Roland Emmerich.

Exploring the effects of rapid and extreme climate change, The Day After Tomorrow will probably be nominated for a new category of Oscar, Best Dramatic Weather. By all accounts, it includes multiple hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, floods and the beginning of the next Ice Age, along with the somewhat confusing spectre of earthquakes.

(Ok, so at a push it might be that a drop in atmospheric pressure could trigger earthquakes, but not quite sure that that’s solid science, so I can’t see how you fit earthquakes into the climate change jigsaw. But let’s not get into the science. Not just yet.)
From the clips I’ve seen on TV, and the trailer, it looks like a good action adventure romp along the lines of Deep Impact or Armeggddon. Towering tidal waves destroy New York, snowstorms overwhelm New Delhi, tornadoes decimate LA, earthquakes rock, er somewhere. Lots of SFX, lots of fun. Can’t beat a good tsunami, after all.

So far, so good.

Well? good-ish. Apparently the script is a bit dodgy, the acting a bit iffy and the whole thing rather moralistic and preachy. Can’t really say for sure as I haven’t seen it, but I can let a film get away with a lot of things if it’s fun.

Problem I have is not so much with the film (yet), but with the way that the BBC prime-time news has picked up on this and run with the angle of ‘New film shows climate change disaster: Could this really happen? We ask some poor bemused climatologist/oceanographist who looks like he’s got a pencil rammed up his arse’.

Twice in two days I’ve seen that exact same report, done by different programmes (main news and local), with different bemused scientists trying to explain the complexities of climatology to different journomorons, both of whom appeared to totally fail to understand any of the science under discussion.

Now, I can’t here comment in detail on the science of the movie (yet), but I have little doubt that there are going to be what we should probably at this stage call ‘inaccuracies’. It’s a movie, after all, not a doctoral thesis. We should also remember that it’s a movie from the pen of Roland Emmerich and let’s face it, Independence Day has plot holes you could drive a tank through. Several tanks. Abreast.

Much as I get annoyed at bad movie science (or physics), I understand that most scriptwriters are not scientists and they don’t really care all that much about science. They may have done a bit of research, but they’re looking for a story not accuracy. Yes, it’s frustrating, but I can live with it. Just.

However, what I really didn’t like was the way that the news story I saw this evening on South Today appeared to be saying ‘This film shows what will happen; the government have therefore given £20 million to research climate change’. The link was implicit in the way that the report was put together, but it was there, and it was completely unjustified.

The scientific research agenda in this country is not dictated by a film. Just because there’s some big blockbuster out about climatic disaster does not mean that suddenly a bunch of scientists have sat up and said ‘You know what? That looks interesting. I think I’ll just pop along to the government and get 20 mil for a quick research project’.

Thankfully, The Guardian goes for a more balanced piece, with a wonderful footnote section regarding the likelihood of each of the scenarios depicted in the film: “Los Angeles is destroyed by tornadoes. We don’t think so, say climate scientists.”

But I do worry, because climate is an important issue and by carelessly jumping on the filmic bandwagon, journalists risk doing two things: denigrating the real science by associating it too strongly with the pseudoscience of the movies; devaluing the issues through comparison with the hype of the film.

If people who are not convinced that climate is important see the trailer and all the hype that surrounds the film, they may well be more dismissive of the real issues. The possibility is that they will think ‘it’ll never happen like that’ and then just switch off completely. Although they’d be right that it’ll never happen like that, they aren’t right to think that because it’ll never happen like that that there aren’t serious issues around the subject of climate and pollution that need to be considered far more carefully and with more scientific rigour than at present.

Of course, opening up discussion and dialectic around the subject is good, but journalists have to be careful how they do that. They have to be careful that they balance out the bad science of the movie with real science in an interesting and engaging way. But they have to do it without hype, without tenuous or inaccurate claims, and without subjecting us to scientists who look like they’ve got a pencil rammed up their arse.

I shall certainly go and see The Day After Tomorrow – it looks like fun. But I shan’t be coming away from the film with any ‘message’, other than, perhaps that Jake Gyllenhaal is unbearably cute. But I knew that already.

Anonymous May 19, 2004 at 10:46 am

You said that low atmospheric pressure can trigger earthquakes. I was wondering if you would take the time and effort to explain this, or post up some link as to where I can read about it myself. I'm just sitting my final exams of a degree in Physical Geography and Sports Science. I've herd a few theories about tectonic activity being linked to atmospheirc changes and vice-versa, but this is a new one on me, and i'm indeed interested. =)
Thanks for your time.

Anonymous May 19, 2004 at 11:11 am

I wouldn't put any stock in that theory at all. I can't remember precisely where I heard that posited, hence the statement that it's not solid science (because it isn't).
Further research in the New Scientist archives throws up a letter which suggests that a drop in pressure associated with a depression could be a trigger for volcanic eruptions (and hence, I suppose, earthquakes as the two are related), but a rebuttal of that letter says that rainfall would be more likely. So it could just be that I'm getting my geological processes mixed up. Or that I read something elsewhere. I'm sorry, that's not much use is it?
Either which way, the point is that trying to tie real science in with the plot of a film is prone to failure. I think I just proved that point rather well by my own failure to research one statement thoroughly.
(I think I just has my ass factchecked. Bargain.)

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