Tales From The Industry XXVI – Science and Entertainment Exchange

Well, I probably am not worthy of the press credentials I was carrying around with me on Wednesday, as several days later I had still not done my “report” on the event. Well, here it is.

science  entertainment exchange

I went to a press conference and a symposium that relates directly to the issues I was talking about in my Tuesday post and its comment stream. All the things I was talking about with regards better contact between the science community and the filmmaking community so as to make films (and shows) that better represent science and scientists more accurately through something closer to a collaborative mode were brought up in these meetings and discussions. It was great to see this issue being taken seriously, and a well-meant effort being made. The core of the idea is to set up an office that will coordinate things – acting as a sort of clearing house that will put filmmakers (of all aspects of the process whether screenwriter, producer, director, etc) in touch with willing scientists who can be helpful in various topics. This is the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

A key thing that I have mentioned here many times before is the issue of it being about more than just fact-checking near-completed work. If scientists are involved at that stage of the process only, we won’t get much further than we already are in terms of the completely variable quality of material you see out there. (Also, there’s really little incentive for filmmakers to involve scientists at that stage, and – given the poor results that are so common – little incentive for scientists to get involved.) Further, many opportunities are simply missed by story tellers not really knowing much of the science they are tapping into – chatting with scientists about what’s “out there” in the world of science as a matter of course is a great way for us to develop a better understanding of each other (yes, it runs both ways – scientists would do well to learn a thing or two about story telling to better communicate their results and ideas) and can open up a whole new wealth of story ideas for “Hollywood” to tap into. (Lord knows it sometimes looks like they could do with many more stories). It is vital to get across the message that the science itself is quite wonderful: if only we scientists could get the chance to communicate it to the filmmakers they’d see that it’s much more interesting (and sometimes weird and wonderful) than what’s usually dreamed up. It’s excellent storytelling material.

science  entertainment exchangeThere are serious players on both sides in this new (and in my opinion, long overdue) endeavour. On the science side, it is the National Academy of Sciences who is sponsoring the office, and no less than the president of the NAS, Ralph Cicerone, came to the press conference and to launch the symposium. science  entertainment exchangeOn the “entertainment” side, it is endorsed by the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, and Women in Film, and the driving force seems to be Janet Zucker and Jerry Zucker, with enthusiastic support from several others, including Seth MacFarlane (of Family Guy fame) who actually hosted the event, and spoke very wisely and entertainingly at the press conference and the symposium. Here’s who was at the press conference (grabbed from the briefing papers):

  • National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone
  • Producer Janet Zucker
  • Director Jerry Zucker
  • Lawrence Kasden ( “Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi,””The Big Chill”)
  • Seth McFarlane (“Family Guy”)
  • Valerie Plame Wilson (former CIA officer)
  • Kimberly Pierce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop Loss”)
  • Rick Carter (Production Designer, “Avatar,” “War of the Worlds,” “Jurassic Park,” “Artificial Intelligence: AI”)
  • Chris Weitz (Director/Writer, “Golden Compass,” “About a Boy”)
  • Jocelyn Moorhouse (Writer/Director, “Proof,” “How to Make an
    American Quilt”)

Cicerone, the Zuckers, and others spoke very well about the key issues, and I get a good sense that there’s some real seriousness there. I’m particularly pleased to see that there’s understanding and appreciation of the wide range of matters this touches on, from the obvious ones of producing better entertainment products to education of the general public about science (key for the strength of a democracy if a society is founded and dependent in many ways upon science) to inspiration and education of the young (key for the previous reasons and also for future strength of science).

Seth was energetic and eloquent on the subject during the press conference and the symposium. He is a super-smart guy (as is well known) who is passionate about science and knowledge for its own sake it turns out (as I confirmed by chatting with him at length afterwards) and it was really great to find this much enthusiasm about this in such an influential (in terms of the quality and popularity of the work he does) person. stewie from Family Guy at Seex(There’s Stewie from Family Guy on the left, making an appearance to talk about the issue in a hilarious short film.) I’m happy about this, but not surprised. I’ve been finding in my own social and other contacts with people in the industry that there’s a lot of enthusiasm – a real thirst – for knowing more science that is maybe just as strong as the often dismaying thirst for pseudo-science and mysticism that Hollywood is sometimes thought to be known for. Somehow (as I’ve said before) we need a way to get scientists to be more accessible for when these people are interested in knowing more. (Many -most?- of the people writing scripts for these pieces of work have never had any contact with an actual scientist – so how can we expect them to get things even close to right?)

The new office (which will be coordinated by Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics – please read more about them here) will be trying to work on several of these aspects, putting people in touch with each other through their database, but also organizing events, such as the series of “salons” that constituted the rest of the afternoon’s symposium.

science  entertainment exchangeSalons? – There were scientists of various sorts presenting overviews of the exciting things going on in their subjects in a variety of fields in comfortable settings in various rooms at the conferencing centre in Century City where this all took place.

The Salons were actually preceded by 12 science  entertainment exchangeminute presentations from each of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Craig Venter, Bonnie Bassler, Steve Chu, V. S. Ramachandran, and Rodney Brooks to the entire gathering of Industry people – with a number of scientists and science writers (hey, I got to catch up with The Intersection‘s Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney. There were other bloggers such as Sean Carroll there as well.) sprinkled in the audience as well. These were, on balance, rather exciting and a good taste of some of the kind of conversation we can hope to see, showcasing not just the science, but the variety of types of people doing science as well (i.e. not just mad scientists, or socially awkward people with no empathy, or any of the standard cliches…). Good to see this on show to a room full of filmmakers of various sorts. Later on, in the salons (several in parallel on various subjects), there were more scientists involved, bringing the number taking part and presenting and chatting to about 20, I think.

I am hopeful that some lasting good will come of this. This day alone might have been useful – I made some contacts, and made an arrangement to chat more about helping with some fun topics for a program idea or two – including on a certain program that’s loved by many (more on this later perhaps). I’m sure others made similar contacts, and started various conversations that will continue. With the office in place, there could be more days like this. Let’s hope to see great results up on screen soon (i.e., through collaboration, less of this and more of this), with all the benefits to society (education, reduced lack of fear and ignorance about science, improved quality of dialogue about science, a society that places high value on reason and inquiry…) that can result from it.


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3 Responses to Tales From The Industry XXVI – Science and Entertainment Exchange

  1. Elliot Tarabour says:


    Thanks for the report. I agree completely with your assessment that scientifically literate people need to be involved at the earliest stages of a project. (like when it is being developed/written!) After the fact it is too late to ensure that the full value of the scientific content is reflected in the work. I hope this effort will facilitate that type of engagement rather than using scientists after the fact to just do an accuracy check.


  2. Belizean says:

    What mystifies me is this: Scientific knowledge is so cheaply available that it seems that if Hollywood types had the slightest desire to write scientifically accurate stories, they would be doing so.

    Say you, Clifford, wanted to write a screenplay about a French literature professor who makes a startling discovery in her field. Would it not immediately occur to you to pick the brains of a grad student, post doc, or prof in French literature? Would it not be obvious to you that you could do this for no more than the price of dinner at a good restaurant?

    I hope the Exchange succeeds. But I don’t see how it possibly can.

  3. Gandalf says:

    Interesting initiative, thanks for the writeup. I really, really wish I could see that family guy stewie video clip though! 😀