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8/15/2007
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Hollywood Blamed For Scientific Ignorance

Some scientists are slack-jawed at the thought that people believe sinking in lava is even possible, not to mention leaping onto the wings of a hovering fighter jet.

Hollywood gets the blame for all manner of ills in today's society, from promiscuity to violence to reckless driving. Seldom is there evidence for such claims beyond that which has been cherry-picked and packaged to fit a political agenda.

To the list of grievances against Hollywood, add scientific illiteracy.

In an article published in the German journal "Praxis der Naturwissenschaften Physik," two University of Central Florida professors argue that the disregard for the laws of physics evident in Hollywood films is contributing to students' poor understanding of science.

The paper, "Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun But Limited Science Literacy," by UCF professor Costas J. Efthimiou and former UCF physics chair R. A. Llewellyn, makes no effort to establish a causal link between viewing impossible physics and believing the world works the same way. Rather, it assumes exposure leads to ignorance.

"Sometimes the scene is so profoundly wrong that it is hard to be missed," the paper concludes. "However, often the absurdity is hard to detect by people not very fluent in science literacy and untrained in critical thinking. In this way, Hollywood is reinforcing (or even creating) incorrect scientific attitudes that can have negative results for the society. This is a good reason to recommend that all citizens be taught critical thinking and be required to develop basic science and quantitative literacy."

Despite the absence of evidence of a connection between bad film physics and real-world ignorance, the paper provides an entertaining analysis of scientific flaws in recent films.

For example, a scene in the 2003 movie "The Core" depicts a person in a protective suit sinking in lava. As Efthimiou and Llewellyn explain, people would not sink completely in molten stone: "The human body is made mainly of water, thus its density will be almost equal to that of water, pwater [parts per water] = 1000kg/m3. The lava is mostly molten rock; surface rocks have an approximate density of 3300kg/m3. So plava [parts per lava] = 3300kg/m3. Therefore, for the human body, once a third of it submerges in lava, the two forces become equal and the body stops sinking. Even more, sinking (in lava) will happen at a slower rate compared to the rate on the surface of the Earth since gravity is weaker at that depth."

Efthimiou has been using Hollywood films in physics courses since 2002, when he and Llewellyn created a course called "Physics in Film" that he continues to teach.

In a 2006 paper by the same name, Efthimiou and his three co-authors state, "Hollywood is often willing to sacrifice scientific accuracy for the sake of drama. The problem with this is that many people, without the tools for critical analysis, accept what they see on-screen as realistic and accurate."

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