How Movies Have Conditioned Us to Hate Science and the Future

According to film, science and technology solve nothing. Either one of two things occur: (1) the exact same social problems will happen in the future even with significantly advanced technology, or (2) social problems will be even worse than they are today.

The perspective I am writing this from is that of concern with the future of American education with particular interest in math and science. There are many voices in the STEM discussion. I just hope to contribute in fleshing out the relation between the public sentiment towards science and Hollywood’s portrayal of science.

1. The Future Sucks

HungerGamesPoster

I have not read the books, but The Hunger Games is quite dystopic: a society where young people are randomly selected and put to a grandiose battle to the death, as entertainment for the upper classes. But the stadium is an extraordinary technological feat: the environment can be changed at will, fires can be triggered anywhere, and cameras are hidden in every location. Of course, those with advanced technology are bad. Those with poor technology are good.

Elysium

Elysium makes the technological divide even more blatant. The rich, bad guys are in a utopian, ultra-technologically advanced ship experiencing luxurious lives with all-powerful healing chambers, leaving the rest of humanity, i.e. the good guys, to rot away on a dystopic Earth.

terminator_salvation

With the Terminator franchise, the message is clear: Artificial intelligence is super evil! Don’t let the machines ever have power, else they will kill you.

The_Matrix

Yeah.

Intime

And that.

Dredd-Poster

And that.

The-island

Also that. And many, many more. Every time, technological advances lead to a terrible world devoid of any current notion of morality.

2. Scientists Are Evil Murderers

Alien-poster

The premise of Alien is massively disheartening. The off-camera scientists want to study an alien creature at all costs, disregarding all morality, i.e., letting a killer alien parasite on board and massacre everyone (almost). Of course, a backstabbing android was in on the conspiracy from the start.

Prometheus

Yes, Prometheus is part of the Alien franchise, but it is so insulting to scientists that it deserves its own rant. The scientists in this movie are so stupid that no one would ever want to be a scientist after seeing this movie. From Cracked:

“Instead of a worthy follow-up to the best sci-fi action movie ever, we got an attempt at a stand-alone plot that wouldn’t have even happened if the characters weren’t stupid enough to pet alien snakes, get lost in tunnels that they themselves had mapped, and take their helmets off on an alien planet most likely so full of dangerous microbes that they’d be shitting their intestines out within the hour. Seriously, they’re like the dumbest scientists ever.”

Last_Days_on_Mars_Poster

Regarding The Last Days on Mars:

“Another Prometheus basically. In the way that the world’s most prominent scientists are trusted to be the first to search for life on Mars, then they turn out to be a bunch of emotion driven morons making the most ridiculous and rash nonsensical decisions they could make time and time again. I really don’t see why the people making these types of movies feel the need to have these people constantly being petty emotion driven morons. Things can go wrong even when the people are making the right decisions.”

The “emotion driven moron” depiction of scientists is superbly ironic. Are they trying to criticize scientists in general, i.e. criticizing rationality and intelligence, and supporting emotion and ignorance? Or are they trying to criticize emotions and idiocy, i.e. supporting scientists?

Jurassic_Park

Dammit scientists, stop sciencing!

the-host_

Chemistry = monsters!

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

Seriously, stop it, scientists.

Godzilla_poster

We give up.

3. Zombie Apocalypse, or Any Man-Made Apocalypse

Resident_evil

The Umbrella Corporation makes us really hate science. When not creating zombie viruses, it does… whatever the heck it does, making other viruses and figuring out how to murder people. Good job, Resident Evil.

28-days-later

While the release of the virus in 28 Days Later subverts the typical trope in that it was caused by animal rights activists, the blame is on the scientists for having those caged infected animals stuck at a research lab in the first place.

World_War_Z

I don’t remember World War Z too well, but I remember the scientist was practically useless and accidentally killed himself in a hilariously undignified fashion.

Either science will cause the apocalypse, or given the apocalypse, it is old-fashioned values that triumph over science.

4. Nature/Magic/Tradition/Spirituality/Irrationality/Emotion vs Science

avatar

Avatar is basically the ultimate nature vs technology film ever made, and of course, nature trumps technology easily. In addition, nature is good and technology is bad. You could argue that the message of this movie, or any of the ones above, is good: technology is not automatically good, and we should not take technological superiority as an excuse to exploit others. But the message of “science is not necessarily good,” hammered into our brains again and again and again, that “science is not necessarily good,” eventually translates to “science is evil.” In addition, these types of movies always depict science as in conflict with something like nature or emotions, when in reality, science tries to help them.

Equilibrium

A man with some emotion (good) vs a society where emotion is forbidden (evil). It assumes that advancements in science automatically lead to its being used for totalitarian control somehow.

Minority_Report_Poster

A man with good conscience (good) vs a cold rational police force (evil).

Fifth_element_poster

The answer is always love.

StarWarsMoviePoster

An ancient traditional religion (Jedi, The Force, lightsaber resembling a sword) triumphs over technology (Death Star, droids, and laser guns). And yes, this happens a long time ago, but it pragmatically fits into our analysis of sentiments of the future.

StarTrekIntoDarkness

Even in an age of interstellar space exploration, people still are adversely affected by notions like revenge, anger, self-interest, massive-scale conspiracy, and the pursuit of personal power. (On the other hand, the original TV series were quite optimistic. Such negative “human” traits were mostly absent, and when they did appear, it was because the crew was observing a less advanced civilization that still had them.)

As a caveat, I’d like to point out that I think most of the movies above are individually great. But if you combine all the anti-technology, anti-future sentiments, you get an extremely negative, if not socially dangerous, depiction of the future.

Poll Results on Technological Optimism

Because of the linearity of scientific progress, much of anti-science sentiment is related to anti-future sentiment. According to one poll, 48% think that America’s best days are in the past (Rasmussen, 2014). Another poll reports that 30% of Americans believe that future technological changes will cause people’s lives to be mostly worse (Pew, 2014). From the site’s own findings:

  • “66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.
  • 65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53% of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them. Women are especially wary of a future in which these devices are widespread.”

These percentages are affected by many factors. For instance, wealthier people are generally more optimistic about the future of technology: 52% of those with an income of $30,000 or less think technology will be for the better, but 67% of those with an income of $75,000 or more do.

TechFuture_better_or_worse

According to Gallup, there is also a significant partisan gap in optimism, with Democrats significantly more optimistic: 74% of Republicans have positive views of America 5 years in the past, whereas 75% of Democrats have positive views of America 5 years in the future.

This post was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s argument that science fiction is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios and that sci-fi should dream more optimistically. From the Smithsonian Mag website: “He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world.” These are legitimate fears. If we as a society abandon science now, what kind of Dark Ages will we slip back into?

The Construction of Social Progress: Can Civilization Move Forward?

International_Space_Station

In the past year, I have used the term “social progress” in 6 different blog posts. It referred to various topics, including LGBT rights, women’s rights, and views on race, not to mention advances in medicine and technology. Implicit were the assumptions that civilization can move forward, and that having having a more equal society does constitute social progress.

Progress and Postmodernism

As it turns out, this type of thinking is not a given. Under postmodernist thought (whatever this phrase means), the idea of social progress is taken skeptically and questioned. Granted, the questioning is done with the noblest intention. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives of progress have, in the past, led to the cruelties of European colonialism, Fascism, and Communism. In each case, those who thought they were more civilized or who thought they could bring about a more civilized society ended up being brutal tyrants. Progress was thus a tool by which the rulers ruled the oppressed. Progress was and is, in the extreme, nothing more than a social construct.

I wonder if this fervent skepticism toward social progress is an overreaction. While I could write an entire post or more specifically about this, I reject postmodernism overall and consider myself under post-postmodernism, remodernism, metamodernism, or whatever word you prefer to describe the cultural state after postmodernism. Admittedly, I recognize that my own thoughts cannot be fully disentangled from postmodernist thought (which is itself a postmodernist way of thinking), but I can try to move forward.

The reason I bring this up is that postmodernism and progress are more intricately tied than just a loose sentiment that progress doesn’t exist. Postmodernism also rejects objective truth (either to some degree or often all-out); if you have been in an English class, you’ve probably learned that all truth is subjective. Herein lies another issue, as the concept of progress entails that society is objectively moving forward, that there is some objective truth, a conflict with postmodernism.

To add one more grain to the heap, there is a modernist vs postmodernist dichotomy between prescription and description. The significance of this is that modernism and progress are inherently compatible: modernism tried not only to describe the world, but also to prescribe that we should try to achieve social progress (even if it did not reveal how). Postmodernism, however, as a purely descriptive framework, is incompatible with the concept of progress; it could not advocate for social progress even if it were not a social construction. (This leads to a chicken and egg problem: Does postmodernism reject progress because it rejects prescription, or does it reject prescription because it rejects progress?)

The Existence of Social Progress

Despite the postmodern rejection of progress, it is very easy to show that progress does exist. Ask any postmodernist if they would rather contract polio or measles or chicken pox right now, or not contract any of them. Clearly, everyone agrees there is some objective truth and an objective scale of progress on health and medicine. “But that’s falling into the technology trap,” one might object, “you cannot tie together technology and progress because of nukes.” But this is like saying Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity was was the cause of the Cold War. This type of thinking misses the big picture, and it misses the fact that technological advancements have made the world a much better place.

Even then, supposing you are still against technology despite medical or other technological advances, say you are not a heterosexual, white male. Would you rather live in the United States of 2014 or 1814? Does your answer not signify the existence of progress?

What about even if you are a heterosexual, white male, would you rather live in the England of 2014 or 1314? That is, would you rather live in a society with the homicide rate of 1314, or in a society with a 95% lower homicide rate? (p. 61 of this book)

Here is the Social Progress Index, which ranks countries based on aggregate scores on Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity:

SocialProgressIndex

Using numerical data is a modernist approach, and a caricature postmodernist might flinch upon seeing the United Kingdom as being considered more “progressed” than Nigeria. Of course, we must be very cautious at how we interpret this data. For instance, the UK’s higher position than Nigeria does not constitute grounds for invasion and colonization as it may have in the modernist era. But these numbers do form grounds for critical analysis.

Yes, much of progress is socially constructed. Many of the earlier (i.e. modern) approaches were naive and led to atrocious results. But the solution is not to forsake progress altogether, but rather, to gain a matured understanding of it. This first step towards true progress requires the acceptance of progress, the rejection of postmodernism.