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Knowing & Not Knowing

by Michael Shermer, Apr 14 2009

The willing suspension of disbelief takes over Shermer’s brain

I confess — when it comes to writing a film review I’m not much of a skeptic. I wrote my first review about the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still for Scientific American, a film I really enjoyed … until all my science fiction friends and scientist colleagues told me that they thought the filmed sucked! Wow, how did I miss that? The answer: the willing suspension of disbelief.

When it comes to films and television movies, I suspend my skepticism in order to enjoy the experience. When I watch movies with my daughter she’s constantly pointing out scenery inconsistencies, plot anomalies, and the like, and I’m always telling her that I don’t want to know because it takes me out of the scene and plops me back into my living room, which tends to be a far less interesting place than being on the bridge of the Titanic, inside the pod trying to get HAL to open the pod bay doors, or face to face with Gort the robot, trying desperately to remember what it was I am suppose to tell him so that he doesn’t zap me with his lazar helmet. For the record, it’s “Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto,” which I translated as “Gort, Klaatu says don’t destroy Earth just yet … and come get me and bring me back to life, because these idiot humans shot me again.”

My cycling buddy Steve, who writes film reviews for a living (half the people on our Tuesday/Thursday morning training ride work in the entertainment industry or are self-employed — how else to explain why we are all out playing on a weekday morning?!), tells me that I should leave film reviewing to the professionals (the same thing my magician and comedian friends tell me when I feebly attempt magic or comedy) and instead just focus on the ideas.

Okay, I will. Last week I saw the new Nicolas Cage film Knowing, an apocalyptic end-of-the-world Sci-Fi thriller during which I alternated between willingly suspending my skepticism and getting goose bumps when the spooky aliens showed up at the bedroom window of Cage’s on-screen kid, and thinking how I would review the film, which without the willing suspension of disbelief leads me to conclude what most other reviewers thought about it, which is to say “DVD rental at best” (i.e., don’t waste your bail out money on it in a theater).

The plot in a nutshell: Aliens foresee that in half a century’s time Earth’s inhabitants are going to be fried by a massive solar flare, so to warn and save us, instead of landing a spaceship in the heart of Washington D.C. with a giant robot standing guard and a representative calling for a meeting at the United Nations and telling us point-blank that if we don’t do something soon we’re doomed, these aliens decide to be far more subtle. They channel their message through a grammar-school age kid by “whispering” to her a series of numbers without any apparent meaning, which she pencils onto a piece of paper that then gets put into a time-capsule to be opened 50 years hence at the William Dawes Elementary School in Lexington, MA. Wow, what could go wrong? We’re sure to get that warning, right? Cage, fresh off his conspiratorial good will hunting in the National Treasure films (the less said the better, even by my uncritical standards), spends most of the film decoding what the numbers mean—every major disaster throughout the half century, including dates, numbers killed, and Latitude/Longitude coordinates. Except the last two numbers — 33 — are actually backwards: EE, which stands for Everyone Else. As in, Everyone Else is going to die on Earth. Right. Can’t miss that doomsday warning!

In the end the aliens arrive in the nick of time to rapture the children in their spaceships and whisk them away to a new planet, apparently sans adults (Cage is left waving farewell to his kidlet just before he’s turned into carbon cinder), where the human species can start anew. Presumably, with children only on the new planet, it will not dissolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario — perhaps this would make a fine sequel.

Okay, the filmed sucked. But what about the ideas in it? They also sucked. What extra-terrestrial intelligence worth it’s weight in cerebral tissue is going to telegraph its warning through a child’s elementary school time-capsule project, and then just hope that it happens to get opened by the kid of an MIT astrophysicist who happens to be good with numbers, and that this guy — a skeptic to start — suspends his own skepticism in time to decipher the code and save the species? Ridiculous squared.

But the biggest idea problem I have with the concept is that this presumes that the universe is fully determined in a predictable way. It isn’t. Chaos and complexity scientists have discovered that even though the universe is governed by deterministic laws, the systems within it are so complex that they are unpredictable. It is simply not possible — no matter how big and powerful your computer is — to know the position and location of every single particle in the universe and then run a time series forward, say 50 years, and predict that at this exact spot (and not some other spot) a plane will crash and kill this many people (no more no less). So even the fundamental premise of Knowing is false. The film should be retitled Unknowing. Unknowing is the ultimate state of the universe in terms of precise predictability.

35 Responses to “Knowing & Not Knowing”

  1. Brian says:

    I’m also all too willing to suspend disbelief while watching a film (unless it’s really really not good). As a result I pretty much refuse to offer any opinion about a movie for about three days, by which time hopefully any wildly-undeserved suspensions will have faded enough for me to marshal a more mature reflection.

  2. atimetorend says:

    Watch out, or you might unintentionally throw Hari Seldon’s theory of psychohistory under the bus too.

  3. Matt says:

    You should probably stick a big ‘spoiler alert’ at the start of that.

  4. Michael – I too saw Knowing this past weekend. I liked it. As a film (hey, I took a film class in college so I reserve the right to be a film critic :)) I think it worked. It had a creepy feel, and the emotion worked. I also loved the disaster scenes – good eye candy. One might complain that the ending was too tidy and did not leave enough mystery, but that did not bother me.

    But I think you contradict yourself above. The one gimmie of the plot (sci fi stories are allowed one gimmie) is that the universe is deterministic. That was the point of the discussion in the physics class, and that was the central conflict of Cage’s character, which largely focused around the the death of his wife. If we grant the movie that one plot element – determinism – then the plot makes more sense.

    Therefore the aliens did not have to hope that everything worked out the way they wanted – they knew that it would because they ran the simulation forward at least 50 years and saw how everything would play out.

    Also – they were not trying to warn the earth. It was never their intention to warn us or save the planet. Their only desire was to rescue a number of paired children (and presumably other animals), and that obviously worked. Their elaborate interventions seem to derive from their requirement that the children come of their own free will – which is interesting given the determinism premise. But the aliens are allowed to be mysterious in their exact motives and philosophy. I think it was a great idea to have them emotionless and not talk at all.

    I admit this movie required the suspension of disbelief, and there were plot problems, but it was a fun ride and basically worked, IMHO.

  5. catgirl says:

    I actually saw this movie with my mom while she was visiting for a weekend, just because we had nothing better to do. It was the first time I had gone to the movies in over 6 years. It seemed like it would be the least bad of all the available movies. I actually enjoyed it even though I had a few problems with it, and it turned out to be better than I expected.

    At the beginning of the movie, I predicted that it would be about a “skeptical” guy who learns through experience to believe in what he is “skeptical” about. It really wasn’t like that and the religious theme wasn’t pushed very much past that scene in the beginning.

    The ending was vague enough in a good way. I thought those guys were aliens that took the kids to their own planet, and my mom that they were angels that took the children to a different planet. I also really enjoyed the crashes and explosions scenes.

    If I can enjoy Star Trek without getting too caught up in the ridiculous improbability that so many planets would evolve humanoid species that are similar enough to mate with each other, I can think “what if?” about determinism and enjoy this movie.

  6. llewelly says:

    Steven Novella :

    If we grant the movie that one plot element – determinism – then the plot makes more sense.

    Weather is deterministic. Yet it is extremely difficult to forecast more than 5-7 days in advance. In fact – nearly all of chaos theory is about deterministic systems whose behavior is nonetheless extremely hard to predict, and effectively impossible to predict when fine details are required.

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I don’t think determinism is anywhere near sufficient to make the predictions described by Michael believable.

  7. llewelly – I completely agree. I was not arguing that the premise of the movie is believable. It is pure fantasy. That is why I characterized it as a plot “gimmie” – you suspend your disbelief about that one plot element and accept it as a given.

    It is like the “dust” of the Golden Compass trilogy – don’t try to make scientific sense of it.

  8. Patrick says:

    I love the show Lost. It has a little bit of woo and I think we’re in for more, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief because it is such a well written show.

  9. Joe says:

    I agree that there is a “gimmie” or as I like to call it, a “fairy” (from the way it’s used by astrophysicists). You get one fairy (vampirism, elfs, aliens, psychic powers, magic, time travel, etc) and try your best not to add too much (a time travel device used by magicians to defeat alien vampires.. wha?).

    Anyway, what get’s me worried about this movie is the whole Skeptic turned True-believer. I like sci-fi and fantasy, but this formula gets on my nerves.

    If these aliens are soooo advanced, couldn’t they put up a magnetic field or solar shield to protect the Earth? When things like this crop up I just repeat to myself “Deus Ex Machina”. Why doesn’t Dr. No just kill Bond? Because the writer wants it this way… but does he have to be so obvious?

    I’ll suspend all of my disbelief for Star Trek, though… we all have are exceptions :)

  10. It’s like I Dream Of Jeanne. Why didn’t she magic up some warmer clothes for herself? Or Bewitched. Why not blink it into being that you don’t have to blink to make magic? Because of these unsuspendable quibbles, I never could believe either show.

  11. Jor-L5150 says:

    i enjoy fantasy/adventure films so long as they are well-written and dont club me over the head with politics .

    richard donner had a principle for fantasy films : ” verisimilitude ” , a rule that basically means an audience is WILLING to suspend the disbelief IF , the story is engaging and has a consistant premise. once you set the ” rules ” of the premise you have to stay within those boundaries, this is why his ” SUPERMAN : THE MOVIE ” was so well-recieved and the sequels were not.

    we enjoyed ” national treasure ” for the same reason we liked ” goonies ” – its just a fun adventure story, like an indiana jones flick w/out the supernatural overtones. its fun, and besides at least the freemasons werent ” evil” in those ! LOL

    LOST is an excellent show altogether, it is fantasy , but they keep it on the level. its really good.

    i have not seen ” knowing ” , the trailer made the movie look so innane i skipped it. didnt nic cage do a film called ” next ” where he played a psychic ?

    as to bewitched , i just never thought it was that funny, it didnt bother me that she had to twitch her nose, that was just a gimmick like ” magic words ” or spells or what have you . why not have a spell that makes it so you don’t have ot make spells ?
    because the character in a fiction needs to have a formula and a modus operendi to articulate the architecture of the fiction. its a storytelling thing. thats all.

  12. OK, then. Explain My Mother The Car or Mr. Ed. ALF.

  13. Kimpatsu says:

    What extra-terrestrial intelligence worth it’s weight in cerebral tissue is going to telegraph its warning through a child’s elementary school time-capsule project…?
    I don’t know about your skepticism, Mike, but your abuse of the apostrophe absolutely sucks as bad as the Nick Cage movie…

  14. Kevin Murphy says:

    My problem with Knowing was that the magic numbers only seemed to predict relatively small numbers of white people dying in explosions.

    Rather than, say, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnam or Iraq wars, the Ethiopian famines, or AIDS.

  15. Michael says:

    When I see a movie I am totally capable of enjoying it without concern of trying to determine if it is possible or pure fiction. Movies are for fun, just like the “Blue Man” in “Watchmen” is excellent fodder to make jokes at adult gatherings. My costume at Halloween is blueman, I just need some dye and male enhancement products.

  16. Rafael says:

    Beautiful review from Shermer!

  17. badrescher says:

    I, for one, really enjoyed your review of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. It was part review, part plot analysis.

    Movies are entertainment, not education, so I have no trouble suspending reality for a couple of hours if the story is told well and makes sense if I swallow a few premises I know to be false.

    What I cannot enjoy is a story that defied logic – one that is so self-contradictory that I cannot even pretend that it makes sense.

  18. Jeff says:

    I see someone beat me to the punch about your use of “it’s” instead of the correct “its.” Here’s how to remember the rule: possessive adjectives (mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs and *its*) don’t got no apostrophes!

    Otherwise a very good bit of writing, as usual.

  19. Jeff says:

    Oops, I meant possessive pronouns…

  20. And it’s “don’t got any” not don’t got no apostrophes. We would also accept “ain’t got no”.

  21. Philipus says:

    This effort is rather amateurish; a rehash of the obvious while
    ignoring the fundamental question: “Does expectation change outcomes?”. There is little doubt that expectation changes behaviour
    so the follow on question is ” does behaviour change outcomes?”.
    Is there an edge associated with mindset?
    No dwelling on the foibles of Polyana, please.

  22. Perspective says:

    Star Trek the next Generation was science fiction and did present some scientific possibilities as premises, but I believe its greatest merits were that it took problems that we are trying to deal with and put them in a context such that you could not rely on your prejudices. R.E. The show where Riker was returning from a planet of people where there was only a single gender. His pilot had feminine leanings and the authorities on its planet had a “cure” for this problem. It kept me switching my viewpoint and ultimately rethink my views of homosexuality and be a lot more tolerant. Good Science fiction needs to be consistent within the rules of its universe and let us see problems without the normal clutter.

  23. Carol says:

    I liked your review, except you gave a major spoiler by saying Cage dies at the end. Good reviewers give a spoiler warning at the beginning of their review, or at least when they get close to the spoiler, so that people who don’t want to know the ending in advance can choose not to read the rest of the review. Given what an intelligent person you are, I’m surprised you ignored this rule!

  24. Eric says:

    Nice review, Michael. I see where you’re coming from, but I’m with Steven: I enjoyed it, was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoyed the creepiness and special effects. As a hardened skeptic, maybe I should be offended/outraged/dismissive of the movie’s premise and execution, but I wasn’t in the theater as a skeptic. It’s just a movie, and kind of depressing, but well done, I believe. And I also must admit that Nic Cage (and most of his crappy films) are a guilty pleasure of mine … despite that chinchilla on his head. Yikes.

  25. Dan Parker says:

    I only read part of this I just wanted to get thru to Michael. I am a skeptic too. But hey, The thing I have the most trouble with is the big bang. I mean really, something out of nothing hah. Before which time did not exist?? Zillions of tons of roiling boiling atoms out of thin air??? Sounds a wee bit like a bible story. Why have all the scientists abandoned logical empiricism? And while I am talking to the head skeptic, what about the blatant major conflict between quantum hocus pocus and relativety? (Yeah well I am not a good speller.) You know, local, nonlocal, action at a distance, We need to focus on an explanation guys.
    I believe that reality is infinitely fine in the Zen sense. That the so called laws of physics or whatever conform to reality and not the other way around. Explain it to me Lucy. Dan

  26. Jor-L5150 says:

    re: devil’s advocate ,post 13

    LOL! i wasn’t saying ALL shows about magic/fantasy were fact , adding magic/fantasy makes it HARDER to be handled intellegently.

  27. tink says:

    Even though “Knowing” was a very average film (apart from the disaster sequences), I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days afterwards. The reason for this was the overtly, not-one-bit-subtle, religious message. Bodily assention to heaven by angels (aliens with massive white angel wings)? The rapture of innocents? Noah’s Ark, two-by-two? And the prodigal son skeptic who falls into the arms (literally) of his estranged preacher father and mutely embraces belief (moments before they all get blown to smithereens)?

    And what about the chosen children? I couldn’t help thinking about all the other children (the ones the audience never saw in any of the disaster scenes; my own children, for instance, terrified and confused in the turmoil of Earth’s demise)- what about them?

    And I have to agree with Kevin Murphy; disaster means more than just planes crashing with middle-class white Americans on board.

    A Christian fantasy flick if ever I saw one. Ugh.

  28. Nihilodei says:

    Let me get this straight… from your review the aliens are sneaky enough to implant ideas in peoples heads and be altruistic enough not to start eating the kiddies?

    Why would an alien race take all those bacteria filled people to a planet that obviously would have life forms evolving in their own right?

    Were issues like religion adressed? It would not bode well for the aliens if the god of the big three saw a massive part of his chosen population escaping a right royal smiting.

    It sounds about as hilarious as independence day!

  29. kennwrite says:

    There’s too much info on the movie, Michael … you’re not supposed to give away the ending when you write a review ?!

    There’s the precept that Sagan gave us … make the art consistent with the laws of physics … it bugs me when I see people running around in the hollow earth, for instance, when they should be crushed or melt.

    Some movies just work because of the “willing suspension of disbelief” — the first Butterfly Effect, for instance, even though the science is suspect.

    Why is historical theology so fascinating … and the biting gospel stories … the story as it evolves from Mark to Matthew to Luke (or for some, Luke to Matthew) is fascinating, even if it’s just a story. God, what a boring world without stories and magic and deception. Scientific methodology, evolution, pure science … all remarkable pursuits. But nothing beats “willing suspension of disbelief” while sitting on a recliner with a good beer.

  30. Try New Orleans on a summer Saturday night.

  31. jdac says:

    I’m willing to suspend disbelief for fantasy, given that the writers plays by their own rules, a la Donner’s verisimilitude principle. Good characters whose motives and decisions I can relate to are also a plus.

    Bring science fiction elements into a movie, though, and I want a REASON to suspend my disbelief. I become skeptical; I want to be impressed. I want a movie I can think about on the drive home and not rage about.

    Basically I’ll accept a lot of fantastic stuff, but when your plot hinges on reasoned investigation by the protagonists or is supposed to show things that, “could happen,” It’s a harder sell.

    In general, I find it hard to be uncritical of movies and TV shows. Am I supposed to just accept crappy writing because the writers were so enamored of a plot point as to strain credulity to accomplish it? Even suspension of disbelief doesn’t help in the face of such idiocy as Mr. Shermer described above.

    I recently ran across the show Primeval, rebroadcast on the SciFi (soon to be “SyFy” *shudder*) Channel. The main characters in the show are scientists, with the exception of a few bureaucrats and a token conspiracy theorist/sci-fi geek (who balances his odiousness with an machine-enhanced encyclopedic knowledge of paleontology). The remarkable thing is that our scientist heroes don’t become credulous believers after they meet dinosaurs in a British forest. Plus, there’s a two-fisted ACTION LAB ASSISTANT. Who does that anymore?

    Looking back, maybe that’s all because the movies/shows I’ve liked obeyed the “you get one fairy” rule that Joe mentioned in post 10. I’ll have to think about it.

  32. Andrew says:

    This is a bit off topic, but is there a global warming section to this blog? Or am i just completely missing it. Hey, Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still are all about doomsday scenarios, aliens, and our responsibilities. Why not plop the debate of whether or not the Earth is warming, or cooling, or etc. (Maybe it’s the aliens.) I’ve seen science on both sides outlinge that it is either inevitable, or that it’s nothing but bunk. This is a skeptics site, right? Well, bring in one of the most contested “known facts” of our time and have a go. Besides, I trust what you guys say more than Al Gore or, on the other side, Lindzen (especially Lindzen).

  33. Janis Chambers says:

    I have a limit to just how much I’m willing to suspend my belief, and Knowing went way past that tolerance. Things like super powers and gadgets with made-up mechanisims are fine.. but are we really supposed to believe that a space-fairing race with technology enough to send multiple space ships and predict events 50 years into the future can’t just tow a huge rock or something to deflect the solar flair? If Earth had 50 years warning and giant super-fast space ships then I imagine we would have come up with something. And I certainly hope that the other space ships are implication that more than two children were taken to “Planet Eden”. I may not be all sharp in my knowledge of Genetics, but two humans does not a stable breeding population make.