What I learned from Gravity

17 10 2013

How do we know what we know, and does it matter where we learned it?

The movie Gravity just premiered to wild acclaim, along with a slew of articles about the science shown in the movie (in the LA Times, NY Times, etc. etc.), and a spate of tweets from Neil DeGrasse Tyson good-humored-ly raking it over the coals for inaccuracies.  This media narrative is pretty common when new movies come out that have any clear basis in real-world science or history; there were a bunch about the accuracy of Lincoln when it appeared last year, too.

Why the apprehension over what’s accurate and what’s not in these things?  They’re just movies.  The fact that we’re concerned about what is reality in these movies shows an admission that we know that many people get information about the world from them (or a fear that they do, at least).


Neil wants you to know that in real life, satellites orbit west to east, not east to west like in the movie. Though from this picture, stuff seems to just sort of whiz around all over the place, right?

There’s a lot of debate about the effects of media on people’s behavior – do violent movies and videogames make people more prone to acts of violence?  (studies actually do show a consistent correlation – but they do not show a consistent causation).  That issue is far beyond the scope of this blog.  But what is incontrovertible is that while we may not know how much media influences behavior, we do know that it influences knowledge.  A lot.

In anthropological terms, this kind of information is called declarative knowledge (i.e. “Annapolis is the capital of Maryland”  “Mars is red”).  Some of the things we think we know, of course, we’ve really learned from movies and TV, and we’ve been misinformed: ask what a plane sounds like when it lands, and most people will probably tell you about the wheels screeching as they hit the tarmac, just like they’ve seen onscreen a million times – but that sound was created by a foley artist a couple of decades ago, from the sound of his car’s tires; it’s not really a plane at all.  Almost everybody knows a few common conceptions shown in the mass media that they know aren’t true, usually something from their realm of expertise (for example, Dr. Tyson’s tweet about Gravity; or if you know one, go ask a cop about the tv-bred misunderstandings people have about their Miranda rights).

But while its easy to rail against the many misconceptions that arise from media watching, we shouldn’t ignore the positive ones, either – if you asked me to describe what the African savannah looks like, I could tell you.  But I’ve never been there, how do I know?  ‘Cause I saw it on  National Geographic documentary.  And actually, I probably DO have a pretty good idea of what the African savannah looks like, not just because of that long ago documentary from from every time I’ve seen it portrayed in movies or on TV since.

This declarative knowledge that we get from TV and movies isn’t just from nonfiction or documentary shows; we probably have in fact seen many, many places, people, and things that we would not otherwise have had the opportunity to become acquainted with if not for seeing them in movies and on TV.  How many more people have seen the short movie-in-a-movie about DNA in Jurassic Park than ever took an actual college genetics class?  On the balance, I’d say all the things I’ve learned about the world and what is in it from TV and movies that are true probably solidly outweigh the things I have learned that are false.  Now, that’s ignoring things that are supposed to be false, like the fictional stories, etc.  But you can learn what Berlin looks like from watching The Bourne Supremacy without actually thinking that amnesic super-assassins are roaming the streets of Europe.


noted Berlin travel documentary

What’s interesting is that the declarative knowledge people have – both directly factual knowledge and about beliefs about how the world works – can have real-world effects.  There are a number of research studies show that peoples’ knowledge of how forensic and criminal science works has been so skewed by watching CSI and other shows that it may actually be affecting the pursuit of justice; this is called “the CSI effect” (really – go look it up).

The overall question that we want to ask about this is “how do we know what we know?”  And then – does it matter where you learned it?  Is it better, or worse (or neither), if you learned what Berlin looks like from an action movie, a documentary, or a book?  Think about all of the things you know, and then consider where the knowledge came from, and how much of it may have originated with films or TV.    When we think of what we see on screen, we rarely think of the buildup of declarative knowledge we generate from the media we consume – and hey, when you’re binge watching Breaking Bad, you may be picking up more than you think.

— Scott

Fictionalized Reality, and Real-ized Fictions

29 03 2013

So, two seemingly unrelated stories, that are actually about the same thing:

1)A couple of months ago, the movie Zero Dark Thirty came under some heat for showing that torture (in this case waterboarding) was responsible for the info that led to finding Osama Bin Laden; per the Senate Intelligence Committee, this wasn’t the case.  Before the movie came out, it’s screenwriter said “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history” – but after questions were raised, he admitted that some artistic license was taken and said “it’s only a movie.”

2) A recent article in the Los Angeles Times told the story of real-life shipwreck survivor Stephen Callahan, who because of that experience became a consultant on the movie Life of Pi.  He coached the actor who played Pi on the psychological implications of being adrift, and crafted some of the props for the film based on his shipwreck experiences.

Both of these situations are talking about the line between fiction and reality, though from opposite sides of the coin: for the first (torture in Afghanistan), it’s taking a real situation and fictionalizing it, and the for the latter (shipwreck survivors), it’s taking a fictionalized situation and “real-izing” it.  It’s all part of the facinating tradeoff between reality and fiction in movies and on TV: how much reality do people want?  Where is okay to take dramatic license?  How much of each (real facts and dramatic license) is a good balance?


Fictionalized reality and Reali-zed fiction: two sides of the same coin.  (metaphorically)

Obviously, there’s sort of a base level of reality that people require from their entertainment: if you turned on Hawaii Five-O and saw the guys running around on a glacier, you’d call foul – obviously, it’s not Hawai’i.  If an onscreen lion opened its mouth to roar, and a parakeet sound came out, they’d have to explain – people know that isn’t what a lion really sounds like.  At the same time, most movies and TV shows are telling a story, and stories have a right to dramatic license – to make things up. So they flow better, are more exciting, etc.  So how do we talk about the place where reality and fiction meet?

To talk about these issues, it’s good to have a set of terms that conveys these ideas: the ones I like to use come from a somewhat obscure historical source. During the production of  MGM’s 1946 movie The Beginning or the End, screenwriter James McGuinness wrote a letter to Louis B. Mayer.*  In it, McGuinness wrote that “it must be realized that dramatic truth is just as compelling a requirement on us as veritable truth is on a scientist.”  So “Veritable truth” is real factual information about the world or events, and  “dramatic truth” is the version of that truth that is entertaining and commercially viable—in other words, the veritable truth that appears on screen once it is filtered through the limitations imposed upon it by the filming process. These limitations can include everything from studios’ time and budgetary constraints to personal preferences of the director or the dramatic requirement to keep things visually exciting.

All movies and TV shows present some mixture of veritable and dramatic truth.  Sometimes the mixture is heavily tilted towards dramatic truth (as in most fictional dramas and sitcoms), sometimes it is tilted heavily towards veritable truth (more documentary shows, like Nova, for example); but even the cheesiest sitcom has parts of the real world in it, and even the most documentary of shows has some element of dramatic truth – like when they dramatize or put scientific progress into a narrative.


Veritable Truth, Dramatic Truth – or Truthiness?? Thanks, Stephen.

So is it “better” to have more vertiable or dramatic truth in any given show or movie?  It really depends on the venue (you might expect more vertiable truth from a show on the History Channel, for example) and type (more dramatic truth in a sitcom or clearly fictional drama).  Issues arise, however, when the line becomes too blurred.  Writing about factual errors in HBO’s made-for-TV movie about Phil Spector, Harriet Ryan wrote “The problem here is that the movie blends fact and fiction into a misinformation smoothie. Characters bear the actual names of participants, dialogue is lifted directly from trial transcripts, and Al Pacino nails Spector’s shuffle and rasp. But when the movie jets off to the land of make believe — as it often does — there’s no red flashing light to warn the audience.”

Things like Zero Dark Thirty run into problems because they’re playing with the line: purporting to be a depiction of a real event makes people have high expectations that it contains more veritable truth than dramatic.  While interestingly, a totally fictional story (Life of Pi) is lauded for including any veritable truth at all.

— Scott

  • What makes this anthropology?  Anthropologists think a lot about what’s real and what’s fiction: do the natives you’re studying really believe their origin myth, or do they just tell it as a story?  Does it make a difference in their lives, or yours?  Is one culture’s origin story better or more important than another’s?  (the answer to the last one, of course, is no: anthropologists consider all cultures’ stories equally valid; though we must recognize that the cultures themselves do not)
  • Interestingly, a copy of the letter sent to Albert Einstein (probably because he had to sign a release concerning his portrayal).  It’s unrecorded what he thought of it.