Sticky fictions

Whether it’s forgetting feathers on dinosaurs, misconceptions about phases of the Moon, or growing resistance to antibiotics, sometimes false facts stick better than real ones.

 Illustration by Joanna Beckett

Illustration by Joanna Beckett

“It’s just a movie!” exclaimed my Aunty, exasperated. Turns out Jurassic World spurning feathers on their dinosaurs can spark intense Christmas discussions. My Aunty couldn't understand why - and perhaps she had a point.

I had seen similarly passionate arguments play out across the internet back when the first details of Jurassic World emerged in 2014.  Fans were happy that their terrifying reptilian monsters would remain un-fluffy, whereas scientists were indignant that their hard fought discoveries appeared to have been ignored. But do facts in fiction even matter? While the movie did end up explaining away the lack of feathers in its narrative, why do dinosaur feathers matter to us today?  It is ancient history, after all.

Feathers on dinosaurs provide clear evidence of the evolutionary relationship between ancient and modern dinosaurs. I can hear modern dinosaurs outside my window as I type - the chattering rainbow lorikeets, warbling magpies and the coos of pigeons. Some dinosaur species are the direct ancestors of birds. Since the original Jurassic Park movie was released in 1993, palaeontologists have established fossil evidence that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs during the Mesozoic period (252 to 66 million years ago). Yet the myth that all dinosaurs became extinct still prevails.

This link between birds and dinosaurs is a key example of evolution, a fundamental concept of all biological sciences (including medicine). But evolution is a concept that many people around the world still have trouble accepting.  Lack of understanding and disbelief in evolution can lead to people making ill informed decisions that have social, political and health implications beyond the individual making those decisions.  For example, the overuse of antibiotics in our societies that is leading to growing antibiotic resistance.  Without understanding that bacteria evolves to counter the effects of antibiotics, it’s hard to understand why we need to use them cautiously. It’s not easy to take the word of authority figures who abstractedly warn against their overuse, when personal experiences tell us that using them cleared up that infection. 

 
  It is not so common knowledge that modern day birds are descended from ancient dinosaurs, believed to have evolved from their ancient counterparts in the Mesozoic era.   realworkhard /Pixabay (CC0)

It is not so common knowledge that modern day birds are descended from ancient dinosaurs, believed to have evolved from their ancient counterparts in the Mesozoic era. realworkhard/Pixabay (CC0)

 

But popular culture is riddled with myths about evolution. One of the most prevalent being that evolution is linear and purposeful, instead of a series of accidental mutations filtered by natural selection. Even the movie called Evolution (2001) ignores the idea of natural selection by having aliens ‘evolve’ in a cave that lacks the selection pressures that would result in the complex vertebrate aliens depicted. And humans often seem be the pinnacle of evolution’s purpose, or somewhere along that mythical straight and un-branching path to becoming the ultimate life form, similar to the ideas of ascension in Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) and Childhood’s End (2015).

While it is true that these examples are just works of fiction, there is some indication that simple fictions can be stickier than facts.  Even those of us who have studied the science can find it easier to recall some straightforward myths over facts. The documentary A Private Universe (1988) shows that Harvard physics graduates believe the myth that the phases of the moon are caused by the earth's shadow.  This seems like a logical explanation, and it is a simple idea to understand.  But that's not how it happens in reality.  The phases of the moon are caused by the way the sunlight hits the moon, from the perspective of you as a viewer on the earth. This is a lot harder to get our heads around, but this diagram may help. 

 
  That the phases of the moon are caused by Earth’s shadow is one of the strongest prevailing myths today.   IB306660 /Pixabay (CC0)

That the phases of the moon are caused by Earth’s shadow is one of the strongest prevailing myths today. IB306660/Pixabay (CC0)

 

In 2006, a study by Michael Barnett and colleagues showed that students who watched a science fiction film involving fictional earth science were more likely to misunderstand earth science concepts than their counterparts who did not watch the film.

However, Dr Lindy Orthia from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University, has pointed out Barnett’s 2006 study is flawed: “The researchers made the assumption that showing a film in a classroom will have the same effect on students’ knowledge of earth science as if the students watched it casually on TV at home. But that is highly unlikely to be the case - there’s lots of other evidence that shows children, young people and adults watch fiction film and TV with a degree of critical scepticism.”

Studies in science education show us that regardless of if we’ve been told the truth, we all have a muddle of factual and fictional concepts tangled up in our understanding of the world. What sticks may be the first explanation we hear. While movies might contribute to these myths, they could come from anywhere, even our own intuition. The idea that need drives evolution (another incarnation of purposeful evolution), is a common intuitive way people interpret natural selection. For example, the idea that giraffes grow long necks to reach leaves on tall trees — this 2016 study, by Dr Andrew Shtulman and colleagues, shows that such ideas persists in both adults and young children even after lessons on evolution. And that they exist alongside the correct explanations of evolution. The authors suggest that rather than trying to replace myths with facts, it may be more effective to teach us how to recognise which is which.

 
  Humans are often depicted as the end result of evolution, the final goal. Of course, this is presuming that we’re following a mythical straight line to becoming the ultimate life form.   Alexey Dushutin /Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Humans are often depicted as the end result of evolution, the final goal. Of course, this is presuming that we’re following a mythical straight line to becoming the ultimate life form. Alexey Dushutin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Besides, many scientific facts are rather irrelevant to our daily lives. Now that you know how the phases of the moon work, is it going to change the choices you make tomorrow? I doubt it! And, even when we do know and understand facts, it doesn’t mean we will believe them. For example, this student displayed a perfect understanding of evolution in an exam, but still insists evolution is wrong. Professor Dan Kahan from Yale University has shown that what we believe is highly influenced by what the people we identify as part of our cultural group see as truth, rather than what facts we do or don’t understand.

Dr Orthia said there has not been enough research to indicate that misconceptions from fictional stories can get in the way of our understanding of science. She argued: “If we’re concerned about or interested in the relationship between fiction and science, we need to look at the big picture rather than fretting that something didn’t reflect the current scientific consensus.” Unless of course the science is directly about health, safety or the environment; in that case she said getting the facts right is pretty important.

While the impact of science misconceptions in fiction is still unclear, Dr Orthia’s research with Dr Raschel Li suggests that broader ideas, such as understanding the nature of science, can be enhanced through watching fiction such as The Big Bang Theory (2007-). Dr Orthia also pointed out examples where fictional narratives have been used as effective tools for communicating and teaching science, including raising public awareness of health issues through an African television soap opera about HIV and a community theatre production in Tanzania on the same topic. Teachers have used fictions to explore how science interacts with our societies and ethics. And Dr Christopher Matthews, of Griffith University, is even using narrative dances to teach maths by encouraging students to create narratives that explain equations.

These examples recognise that understanding science is not about filling gaps in our knowledge with missing facts. Narratives are more memorable than isolated facts (like a list of words) as well as more emotionally engaging, which can inspire greater interest in a topic. Research on the way we learn suggests it can take multiple encounters with a concept in different contexts to first build an interest and an understanding of it.  So, popular culture can play a role in helping our understanding of science by sparking interest and creating culturally common memories and experiences through which we can explore and build understanding of science.

 
  Fictional narratives, from classroom televisions to the theatre, can be an effective tool for communicating science and raising public awareness.   kaykaybarrie /Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Fictional narratives, from classroom televisions to the theatre, can be an effective tool for communicating science and raising public awareness. kaykaybarrie/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

“Fiction can be a great communication and education tool when it's used well,” said Dr Orthia. “Researchers can help practitioners figure out what its strengths and weaknesses are, what it enables us to do that other mediums can’t, and what its particular pitfalls are as a medium, so we can all use it as effectively as possible.”

Despite their inaccuracies, many fictional stories do expose people to ideas in science, such as evolution. As popular fiction can reach audiences far larger than most scientists can, we can use these fictions as a gateway to catalyse conversations about science.  The Jurassic Park franchise certainly succeeded in that. It has also inspired generations of scientists and even funding for science.

Entertaining movies about scary reptilian monsters and other stories of inaccurate science will continue to inspire the next generation of scientists, and allow us to broach scientific subjects with a wider audience.  We can then embrace the opportunity to nudge people towards facts, and in the case of Jurassic World, remind people that many dinosaurs still live among us. They just, well… look a little different.

Edited by Sara Nyhuis and Jessica Herrington