In the Realm of Possibility: Scientific Accuracy in Fiction

Every once in a while you’ll watch a movie and you’ll think to yourself “well that’s not really possible”.  It’s a common thought, because on some level we are aware that movies take place outside the realm of our world.  They may try to imitate our reality, but they will never be our reality.  It’s all a fake.

Scientific accuracy within these fictional worlds is oftentimes nebulous.  These places often take unrealistic or improbable routes for the sake of their stories.  As it so happens, people really enjoy catching onto these inaccuracies or improbabilities and pointing them out.  Usually, it doesn’t affect them too much.  It’s one of those little things that they’ll notice and just kind of chuckle at.  But then there are those other people, the ones that will hold every little inaccuracy against the movie.  They’re the type of people who will go online and write an entire forum, blog, or social media post about it.  This is the kind of thing I take issue with.

First off, how important is scientific accuracy really?  Well it depends.  Some movies/television shows/books will tout their scientific accuracy as one of the main selling points, which can end up being a double-edged sword.  It might draw people in, but it makes any inaccuracies that exist much more glaring and harder to forgive.  I would argue that most of the time, it isn’t nearly as important as some people seem to think it is.

I remember going to see the movie Gravity with a friend of mine when it first came out in theaters.  We both really enjoyed it.  It was epic and intense.  It had great effects.  It was beautifully shot.  We both left the theater incredibly satisfied with it, and talked a lot about it on the car ride back.  And then a few days later I was hearing that some people didn’t enjoy the movie because it wasn’t perfectly scientifically accurate.  Some were even complaining about (get this) how the paper Sandra Bullock’s character reads in the pod doesn’t behave the way it would in real space.

All I could think to myself was “really, THAT’S your problem with the movie?  Some pieces of paper?”

Now I won’t profess to be the most scientifically literate person on the planet, as I’m sure there are other scientific issues with the movie.  But I honestly don’t care.  So the paper didn’t behave the way it should have?  Who cares?  Does it really impact the movie that much?  No, no it doesn’t.

Besides, actually simulating that while an actor is holding the paper would be next to impossible unless they were actually in space, which wasn’t going to happen by a long shot.

I think the question we really have to be asking ourselves isn’t “is this movie scientifically accurate” but rather “would scientific inaccuracy detract from the movie in some way?”  And oftentimes, I don’t think the answer would be yes.

Do the scientific inaccuracies make Gravity any less thrilling, any less of a spectacle?  No.  Do the scientific inaccuracies detract from the actor’s performances?  No.  Do they somehow muddy up the themes that the movie engages with?  No.  It does none of those things.  The inaccuracies have no impact on the movie whatsoever.  The only reason they’re a big deal is because some people decided to make it a big deal.

I mean think about it.  If we demanded absolute perfect science every single time, so many great movies would never have been made.  The Star Wars franchise would never have existed period, along with Star Trek.

Time travel is supposed to be scientifically impossible, and yet we still have hundreds of stories dealing with traveling through time.  So why are pieces of freaking paper such a big deal?

I realize I’m probably simplifying the issue, but that’s honestly how I feel about it.  The way some people approach scientific accuracy is so limiting to writers.  Why should we want to write anything if we’re just going to be blasted for any little inaccuracy we might have, even if the rest of what we create is pure gold?  Why are people so intent on finding the tiny flaws, in highlighting them so that they appear worse than they actually are?  I hear people complain about scientific accuracy in superhero movies for crying out loud.

Hey man, if a guy just got powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider, I think scientific accuracy is out the window on this one.

If stories had to pass some scientific fact-checking test before they could be created, I think you’d find that a great deal of them would never come to be.  Writers sometimes need to stretch and bend the rules in order to make a story work.  I mean The Martian by Andy Weir is a great little book, and the scientific accuracy is a neat detail, but I would argue that it would have been just as possible to write the same kind of story without all that.  Like I said, it’s a good detail, but it doesn’t enhance the story as much as people like to think it does.  Honestly, I found myself slightly annoyed on a few occasions when the book took several pages to explain all the science behind it.  I mean I like the detail, but really, enough is enough.

It’s called science-fiction, not science-fact.  And there’s a reason for that.


That’s all I have for you this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and until then, have a great week.


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