Monday 20 December 2010

Research Bulletin: Detecting Scientific Inaccuracies in Movies

In a recent study conducted at Cornell University researchers working with 96 participants found that men and women differ in their detection rates of inaccurate science facts presented in clips from movies. Claudia A. Barriga, Michael A. Shapiro, and Marissa L. Fernandez (2010) show that men are better at detecting such inaccuracies when they believe that science is central to the plot of the film, while women detect more inaccuracies when they believe that science is peripheral to the film’s plot.

The study was based on psychological theory that opposes two different types of response to information presented through the medium of fiction. A reader or viewer may “incorporate” incoming information from a fictional source, such that it is tagged as true and used as a scaffold for new incoming information and a link to information stored in long-term memory, or “compartmentalize” it, such that it is not tagged as true nor entered into the bank of one’s world knowledge (Gerrig & Prentice, 1991). This theory further proposes that information presented in a fictional context may seem, nevertheless, to be context-free; and such information should be more readily incorporated, and less readily compartmentalized, a claim that has been supported empirically (Gerrig & Prentice, 1991). Barriga et al had thus expected to find a main effect for the centrality/periphery factor, in which incorrect information presented peripherally to the plot would be less likely to be compartmentalized and labeled as false, a pattern that only the males in the study demonstrated. The authors note that their result may be attributable to gender differences in interest in science, confidence in scientific ability, and attitudes toward science – factors not accounted for by their use of the general science knowledge control. The authors note, “The most intriguing result, and one worthy of exploration, is that people who are not usually attuned to science may be less likely to be influenced by faulty science, and more able to detect mistakes, when they are focused on other elements of the plot and consider the science secondary” (p. 19).

Another intriguing result, however, and one not directly addressed by the authors, is that, averaging across all viewers, out of a possible eight incorrect scientific “facts” that could have been detected, only a grand mean of about 2.75 (judging by the figure on p. 16) were detected. Doesn’t this suggest that it’s likely that most of us walk out of the cinema having subconsciously filed away as “true” 5 of the 8 incorrect scientific facts to which we were exposed? A sobering statistic to reflect upon...

Barriga, C. A., Shapiro, M. A., & Fernandez, M. L. (2010). Science information in fictional movies: Effects of context and gender. Science Communication, 32, 3-24.

Gerrig, R., & Prentice, D. (1991). The representation of fictional information. Psychological Science, 2, 336-340.


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Scott said...

You're right that the participants answered < 3/8 of the target questions. I doubt means the viewers "filed away" 5 incorrect science facts, since it isn't likely that they knew all 8 facts to begin with.

Assuming the movie science questions were the same difficulty as the general science questions(5.07/8), which may not be true, we're looking at more like an average of 2 incorrect facts adopted.

no_slappz said...

Seems to me the study touches on a larger issue, which is the issue of visual power.

If, in a movie, a seemingly credible figure speaks about a topic, then viewers will accept what is said. Movies based on Michael Crichton novels are good examples. Jurassic Park, for one. Crichton, an MD turned writer, mixed science with science fiction in just the right proportions to convince his fans that his stories were within the realm of the possible.

But the willingness of viewers to accept as true the statements made in movies is hardly limited to science. As we know, Oliver Stone has taken millions of viewers for a ride in many films. When it comes to "facts" and what viewers come to believe, his JFK movie added more fuel to the conspiracy-theory fire.

I thought using Donald Sutherland to play an unnamed "deep throat" character was a nifty bit of cinema trickery. Had Stone filled the role with an unknown face, the character would have had no power to persuade.

Then there are outright cinematic liars like Michael Moore who fool people into thinking their films are documentary truth simply because they say so.

If you consider the con job perpetrated on movie-goers who watched The Sting, you see how easy it is to manipulate people's perceptions.

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