Hollywood, TV promoting ‘crazy’ science

27th January 2017 By: Kelvin Kemm

Something that irritates me is when there is crazy, impossible science in Hollywood movies. It happens a lot. It happens on TV all the time.

What I am talking about are things like when some fellow in a modern war movie picks up an infrared viewer and then looks clean through a concrete wall and watches people running around inside by seeing clear red figures. That is total bunk. You cannot see through a wall with infrared.

Imagine if one saw on TV a heart surgeon who, in a hurry, grabs a steak knife to carry out open-heart surgery. Imagine that he does not have the anaesthetic handy, so he just uses two double brandies on the patient. Note that I am not talking about comedy – I am talking about a movie which is supposed to be totally serious.

If people saw the heart operation scene that I mention, they would all laugh and say that it was nonsense and impossible. But a very similar science scene can be enacted at the same level of ‘dumbness’ and viewers do not notice. A case in point is seeing through concrete with infrared.

What is evident frequently is that the movie makers do not call in any scientist or engineer to advise them on the accuracy of the science in the video. A notable exception is the hit TV series Big Bang Theory, in which even the maths on the whiteboard in the background is accurate. If you look at the movie credits, you will see that a scientist with a PhD is credited in Big Bang Theory.

So, what happens with wrong science is that the viewers get used to accepting rubbish science, either as accurate or as feasible.
The snag, to my mind, is that the public then starts to accept bunk science in day-to-day real life as well. So, when people are told that the Antarctic is melting because of global warming, they accept it. But people should say: “Hold on; for melting, you have to have a temperature above zero.”

So, even if the Antarctic temperature was –20 ºC and now it has risen to –19 ºC, it is still a whole 19 ºC from melting point. Thus, it is totally impossible that a rise in atmospheric temperature in the Antarctic can lead to ice melting.

You regularly hear that the so-called climate change is leading to an increased incidence of extreme weather events. That too is totally untrue.

In 1913, Dr Hendrik van der Bijl developed the world’s first cathode ray tube, which would then become the basis of TV sets. Vanderbijlpark was named after him. In the same year, a North American temperature record was set when it reached 56.7 ºC in Death Valley, California. Two years later, in Mafikeng, the Guinness Book of Records notes that hailstones punched holes of 7.5 cm in diameter in corrugated iron roofs. Another two years later, in 1917, heavy rain in KwaZulu-Natal flooded the Umgeni railway bridge and swept it out to sea. On October 18, 1928, the most devastating rainstorm on record struck central Johannesburg, causing massive damage. Decades ago, snow fell in Pietermaritzburg and in Piet Retief.

There are many more such incidents worldwide. There are no increased severe weather events anywhere in the world. What has increased is the frequency that TV tells us about them. TV news collection has vastly improved in recent years.

But far too many people believe that there are. People are prepared to believe science told to them by any unqualified person.
I think that much of this attitude stems from TV and Hollywood movies in which the producers do not care how much nonsense they project as real. What is of particular concern is that public belief in nonsense science can lead to formal national policy on some matters, because stuff that is just not true becomes common wisdom. People then believe it.

We are trying to encourage maths and science training in schools, so, hopefully, that will lead to a public attitude that is a bit more critical when presented with wild, inaccurate science.