bad science v. dumb science

May 9, 2014

So we got to talking about big explody science fiction movies, and overly self-important science fiction movies, and how rare it is to actually see good, solid, accurate science in any of them.  I find when describing these movies I use two phrases — bad science, and dumb science — and I realized those are two different things.  Here are my definitions:

Bad Science:  This is actually less bad than dumb science.  For me, this is the inaccurate, sloppy way that a lot of movies use scientific terms without really understanding them, like “quantum” or “nanotech.”  It’s when movies play fast and loose with scientific concepts to make their plots sound moderately smarter, or when they need a plot device that sounds clever.  An example of bad science is the bit in Europa Report where what’s-his-face can’t go back in the capsule because he’s gotten hydrazine spilled on his suit and hydrazine is poisonous.  And during that whole scene I’m thinking, “Well yeah, hydrazine is poisonous, but for heaven’s sake it’s not going to instantly kill everyone and I think there’s another solution to this before you go off and kill yourself.  Geez.”

Dumb Science:  This is so-called science or some kind of so-called scientific “principle” that is just so far off the wall and not at all credible, but the movie expects us to be dumb enough not to care.  The one that’s bugging us all now is the trailer for the upcoming movie Lucy, which trots out the old “we only use 10% of our brains” idea, which has been so thoroughly debunked as to be laughable, yet movies keep using it as a plot springboard.  And I can’t even take them seriously at this point.  (As much as I disliked Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and as idiotic as every single scientist character in that movie was, at least they came up with a semi-plausible explanation for increasing intelligence as a side-effect of research into Alzheimer’s treatments.)  Another example of really dumb science is the through the earth tunnel nonsense in the Total Recall remake.

Dumb science is when a movie expects its audience to be just that dumb to accept something like that without question.  Sorry, dumb science movie — I’m not buying it.

7 Responses to “bad science v. dumb science”

  1. Joseph Charpak Says:

    I think of Bad Science as 1930/1940’s science. The common man/woman/sci-fi writer didn’t know that nuclear power had a lot of downsides and so in 40s sci-fi you have “portable” nuclear reactors in cars or even backpacks. Or movies about life on the Moon or Mars. You look back on it now and you go “aw…the things they didn’t know”

    Dumb Science is when someone writes plots as if science has stopped since the 30s. Essentially 30s science that has overstayed its welcome/sell by date.

    So in the 30s “10 % of your brain” (actually a misrepresentation of what was actually said) would be Bad Science, but as early as the 80s it had turned into Dumb Science

    An exception to this is a story that is obviously designed to be retro/an homage to 1930s sci fi stories such as Star Trek Voyager’s “Captain Proton”

  2. carriev Says:

    And cold fusion — that’s the other common example of bad science I was trying to think of. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie use “cold fusion” correctly.


  3. Speaking of sci-fi movies, what’s your impression of the new Godzilla movie thus far?

  4. mousegoddess Says:

    …i like dumb science…and bad science…I just love B-movies, what can I say? If they’ve got monsters, even better. But i’ll settle for cheesetastic and implausible solutions.

  5. carriev Says:

    I’m very impressed with the trailers for the new Godzilla movie. It looks like they’re going for actually scary, and I’m looking forward to it. (*Very* impressed stylistically with the version of the trailer that uses the Ligeti choral music from “2001.” That there’s some effective film.)

    I finally caught “The Core” a couple of years ago, and I’d say that one has lots of bad *and* dumb science.

  6. Martin Frid Says:

    I think you’ve missed something, which Joseph is circling around – aged science!
    Was the earth tunnel in Total Recall as implausible when Heinlein wrote about it and how close to the original should a remake go when the science of the original is no longer plausible?
    Do we really want modern takes on classics, such as Jules Verne, to be re-written just so that they become plausible without regard as to what that does with the original story?
    Should there never be remakes of stories that are completely unrealistic such as Gulliver’s travels?


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