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Science and Hollywood

by Kirsten Sanford, Feb 20 2009

Hollywood isn’t too worried about getting the science in its movies right. It’s more concerned about finding useful publicity angles. Case in point:

A couple of weeks ago I recevied a PR email from Summit/Zoom Werks, the production company responsible for the movie Push (which was quite thoroughly reviewed by Mark last week).

“I wanted to touch base with you to see if you might have any interest in the subject of “Remote Viewing”? We are working on a motion picture about this subject and we have a professional Remote Viewer, Jack Rourke, who is consulting with us. Mr. Rourke has had extensive experience in this arena and has conducted work for government and law enforcement agencies.

As you may know, Remote Viewing (RV) refers to the attempt to gather information about a distant or unseen target using paranormal means or extra-sensory perception. Typically a remote viewer is expected to give information about an object that is hidden from physical view and separated at some distance.

It is a fascinating subject and apparently governments around the world employ individuals with this ability. I don’t know what the success ratio is for a Remote Viewer in accomplishing his/her assignments but it triggers a most interesting debate.”

So, off the bat, the email addressed my scientific interests, claiming Push to be a movie based in fact, promoting remote viewing as a credible practice. This approach immediately raised my hackles, since, as far as I know, there is no conclusive evidence supporting the viability of this ESP technique. Just because “governments around the world employ individuals with this ability” doesn’t mean it actually works.

A 1995 review of the literature concludes that although remote viewing experiments resulted in better than chance results (termed “small to medium” effects), there was no way of confirming the result was due to a psi phenomenon. The review also argues against the usefulness of remote viewing for intelligence gathering purposes.

Verdict? The science fails to back-up the claims. Did they really think it was a good idea to try to sell me on the film using this kind of an unsupported pitch? It wouldn’t be worth my radio time because there really is no debate. People who believe in this psychic phenomenon would present anecdotes, and I would have to keep repeating myself… “There is no convincing experimental evidence published in major peer-reviewed journals.” Boooring!

However, don’t get me wrong. I love a good science fiction story. So, I grabbed a girlfriend and went to the movies.

I won’t review the film itself because Mark did a great job of that. I will say that despite the flimsy plot, I did enjoy myself. The film itself is cinematically interesting with unique lighting, color, and pacing. It was difficult to “suspend my disbelief” given my initial bias due to the email, which made the plot even harder to choke down.

I think part of the problem with Push is a problem for many movies these days. They don’t create the make-believe world well enough for the audience to completely let go of the real world. Or, they place unbelievable things into the real world without giving them enough support. Just saying, “well, that’s the way it is,” doesn’t really fly anymore.

That said, there are people in Hollywood really trying to make more believable films. Astrophysicists are consulting on films about outer space. Scientists are talking to film makers. Scientists are even starting to write scripts.

Science is getting more and more visibility as more and more scientists start using the media to their advantage. This makes it a useful vector for the publicists who know little to nothing about science, but need to find an angle to get their people into the TV and radio interviews. This is how Jack Rourke becomes the possible interview subject rather than a scientist. And, after seeing the film, I’m not exactly sure what he possibly could have added to the production of the film as a consultant aside from his name.

I am looking forward to many more such PR efforts, but publicists be warned to use the science angle at their peril.

15 Responses to “Science and Hollywood”

  1. MadScientist says:

    Forget about using peer-reviewed journals as a benchmark of sorts. Something doesn’t have to be published in a peer-reviewed journal to be true, so that’s a red herring. I would simply say that there is no convincing evidence whatsoever and that there is no claim which withstands even the most mediocre scrutiny. Also keep in mind that scientists really are fairly easily fooled with magic tricks and for the most part it’s folks like Randi and Mark Edwards who can pick the problems with any claimed ‘experiment’. I usually start with the idea that the claim is false and then try to look for the trick – in my case if I can’t discover the trick I won’t become a believer – I’ll assume that I’m just not clever enough and I’ve been had by a capable trickster. It’s not that I could never believe, but I need to see some extraordinary proof. :)

  2. Rogue Medic says:

    There was an earlier movie about remote viewing, Suspect Zero, that was a nice noir entertainment. Ben Kingsley is always worth watching. The plot is pretty predictable, but with any of these movies, it isn’t really any different from watching Harry Potter. There isn’t any reason to believe that the magic is real.

    Occasionally I do some remote viewing, but i use TV, or the internet. I am confident that I can accurately describe what I am seeing at rates that are much better than chance would suggest. Too bad that this is entirely due to the science involved and not some magic power. I really could use a million Randi dollars, or any kind of dollars – except Zimbabwe dollars.

  3. Cambias says:

    I confess I’m mystified why the studio bothered to hire a professional “remote viewer” as an advisor. What’s the point? This is a superhero movie. Was he giving the actors suggestions on how to scrunch up your face and look like you’re really concentrating hard? Surely the actors could do that already.

  4. Shawn S. says:

    My friends and I are working on a film project right now that is an homage to the old serials of the 40s and 50s. Since I’m writing it I get to be the one to make sure the situations are plausible barring certain little items (like artificial gravity and FTL travel) that make things easier on our budget (near zero) and for storytelling purposes. Case in point was the hero ejecting a black hole bomb off the ship, which explodes some distance away. I did some homework, worked some equations to find out if a tiny black hole could actually impart enough acceleration on the ship to get it moving into a nearby asteroid. This black hole turned out to be small enough to be the kind that dissipate into a burst of gamma rays (frying our heroes’ communications). If there wasn’t even a tiny amount of plausibility I would’ve figured another way to do this scene. I also insisted that our ships move realistically in space. The battles are more like naval battles. None of this whooshing around. We’re also trying to make a silent space dramatic and not look like we forgot to run sound.

    So there are those of us, granted non-hollywood, who are trying to make good, fun sci-fi, that keeps the basic laws running in our scenes.

  5. Dr. Dave says:

    They do the same with musicians. Any (responsible) musicologist will tell you that most movie portrayals of, say, Beethoven trade on long-debunked myths of his anti-social behavior, but the romantic view of the mad composer puts bums in seats. So does “the paranormal that scientists want to hide from you!” So good for those movie makers that actually do aim for some small snippet of truth.

  6. Pat in Montreal says:

    Why would hollywood be concerned with getting science right in movies when many of the hit shows on TV today are nothing but pure woowoo garbage? (Ghost hunters, ufo hunters, psychic kids…)

  7. Mastriani says:

    Actually, I’m rather disappointed here.

    Why wouldn’t they ask for you to be on the show, directly? An intelligent, highly educated, attractive female … actively use a science professional to make the case?

    Ratings bump maybe?

    Just because “governments around the world employ individuals with this ability” doesn’t mean it actually works.


    Lies, lies!!! Damnable and accursed lies. That’s it, get David Icke on the phone, she refuses to believe. She needs “re-educated”. Definitely.

    Next she’s going to come off with something about how governments don’t have societies best interests in mind at all times. Pffft.

    {/exit sarcasm.exe}

  8. Greg Taylor says:

    Kirsten Sanford wrote:

    “A 1995 review of the literature concludes that although remote viewing experiments resulted in better than chance results (termed “small to medium” effects), there was no way of confirming the result was due to a psi phenomenon. The review also argues against the usefulness of remote viewing for intelligence gathering purposes.

    Verdict? The science fails to back-up the claims.”

    So, better-than-chance results, but “the science fails to back-up the claims”? I’m not sure I understand the thinking there. Sure, you could say that “more research is needed”, but you can’t say that the science *failed* to back-up the claim.

    To be more precise, the evidence was looked at by statistician Jessica Utts, and well-known skeptic Ray Hyman. Utts’ conclusion was:

    “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established…Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude to those found in government-sponsored research at SRI and SAIC have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud.”

    Ray Hyman, as would be expected, was more guarded. Nevertheless, one would have to say that he was struggling for a valid explanation:

    “I accept Professor Utts’ assertion that the statistical results of the SAIC and other parapsychological experiments “are far beyond what is expected by chance.” Parapsychologists, of course, realize that the truth of this claim does not constitute proof of anomalous cognition. Numerous factors can produce significant statistical results.

    …In the present discussion I am not considering fraud or statistical errors. This leaves only methodological oversight as the source for a plausible alternative to psychic functioning. Utts has concluded that “arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws are soundly refuted.” If she is correct, then I would have to agree with her bottom line “that psychic functioning has been well established.”

    Obviously I do not agree that all possibilities for alternative explanations of the non-chance results have been eliminated. The SAIC experiments are well-designed and the investigators have taken pains to eliminate the known weaknesses in previous parapsychological research. In addition, I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present. Just the same, it is impossible in principle to say that any particular experiment or experimental series is completely free from possible flaws. An experimenter cannot control for every possibility–especially for potential flaws that have not yet been discovered.”

    As such, I respectfully disagree with your summation that “the science fails to back-up the claims”. At this stage, it has.

  9. labrador says:

    Ok, but let’s remember that the purpose of movies is for entertainment. Unless is it is a documentary than the accuracy of certain areas will most certainly suffer at the expense of creative license and overall appeal. This said, this can be a good thing. How many current paleontologists can trace the development of desire for paleo-knowledge to a “Jurassic Park” production? How many professionals in the medical field owe their career path in some degree to an interest cultivated or sparked by “ER”? How many marine biologists watched “Jaws” when they were just young pups? Hell, we may have an aspiring astronaut in the current space program that may never admit to it, but may deep inside credit Will Smith & “Independence Day” as their inspiration. There have always been inaccuracies and always will. Did anyone else wonder why nobody ever called 911 when they happened to see people walking the streets with Katana’s strapped to their back or 12 gauge shot guns visible under an ankle length pleather coat? Does anyone else ever wonder “Wow, that was about 33 rounds fired out of a handgun with a standard clip, hmmmm, don’t they have to reload”? Or is there really a record of “Jack Dawson” on the Titanic’s passenger list? Did W.A. Mozart really laugh like that? Did a former US Cavalry officer really play such a crucial part in the development of Japan in the 19th century?
    Either way, each of the films mentioned certainly generated interest in diverse subject matter such as Marine Biology, US Space Program, Titanic and Salvage Operations, Japanese Weaponry and Metallurgy, US 7th Cavalry, etc.
    If we sacrifice some accuracy for entertainment and spark interest is this always a bad thing? Imagine “Jurassic Park” if it were 100% accurate..It might have been fairly dull. However, someone could still compose an extremely accurate feature length script called “Edinburgh Park”. The story of a cloned sheep that goes terribly wrong.

  10. Beelzebud says:

    Isn’t it a given that movies are entertainment, and usually works of fiction? So what is there to debunk?

    I’m all for being skeptically minded, but I don’t let it ruin the fun of a good piece of fiction.

  11. A professional remote viewer. How interesting. I wonder if they’ll hire me as a vending machine psychic.

  12. ElasticPlanet says:

    For Sci-Fi movies, as well as books, etc., I think the real important thing is that the filmmakers setup their own reality and then work within the bounds of that reality. I good sci-fi story first sets up their universes rules, and then adheres to them.

    Bearing this in mind, a poor sci-fi story would either fail to set those rules, or introduce an idea/plot twist that violates it’s own rules.

    I haven’t seen “Push” yet, but based on Kristen’s brief review, it looks like the filmmakers failed to set up their story’s reality.

    “Just saying, ‘well, that’s the way it is,’ doesn’t really fly anymore.” It not only doesn’t fly, it’s also lazy storytelling.

  13. BillDarryl says:

    I wonder… did the “professional remote viewer” they hired as an advisor actually come to the set, or would he just call in from wherever he was during shooting and say, “I see what you’re doing wrong.”

  14. Maria Marques says:

    The global economic crisis looks “constructed” . Can Skeptics comment about it?

  15. Maria Marques looks “constructed”. Can Spammers comment about it?