HOLLYWOOD’S PORTRAYAL OF GEOLOGISTS – Earth Scientists on Celluloid (Geotime, May 1990)

In addition to providing entertainment to millions around the world, movies help develop the general public’s perception of the world. Knowledge of how the earth sciences, and earth scientists, are portrayed in films can help the geoscientific community in presenting important messages to the public on such topics as global change, volvanic- and earthquake-hazard mitigation, land use, and the environment.

How effective are movies in forming public opinion? Probably much more than we realize. Current movie releases are often accompanied by major marketing efforts that can set trends and fads. The plethora of Batman paraphernalia and public awareness that accompanied the release of that film in 1989 is an example of how effective such marketing can be.

Similarly, films that have social messages, for example, “Rainman’s” treatment of autism and the current film “Stanley and Iris,” which deals with the issue of adult illiteracy, commonly help raise the general public’s awareness of a variety of subjects. However, such effects are difficult to quantify, particularly among professionals who commonly do not want to admit that they actually spend time on such diversionary pursuits as watching the “boob tube” or watching anything other than “critically acclaimed” art films.

For the past several years, the editors of Geolog, a geological newsmagazine published by the Geological Association of Canada, we have run a series called At the Movies/On TV, which reviews popular films, television programs, and documentaries designed for the public. A similar series called Reading On The Rocks looks at geology in popular literature. At The Movies/On TV has provided us with a compendium of information of the way earth science and earth scientists are portrayed by Hollywood. We would like to share some of these insights with you. A survey of some of the more widely known movies, featuring geoscientists in major roles, shows no one stereotype for earth scientists. With few exceptions, earth scientists – mainly geologists – are shown in a favorable light, typically being well-informed, concerned, ethical individuals, often working as integral members of a team of scientists.

They typically have outdoor roles (as do many true geoscientists), and are down-to-earth people. Female geologists are fairly common in films, and are often the star geologist for the film. When earth scientists are portrayed in an unfavorable light – that is, being involved in a destructive plot – they are often misguided souls who have been corrupted by others rather than being truly evil.

In contrast, other groups of scientists are often portrayed more negatively in films. In a study published in the June 1988 issue of Physics Today, the newspaper of the American Institute of Physics, Spencer Weart found that physicists and chemists are usually portrayed as “mad scientists,” commonly involved in plots endangering humanity either through the creation of destructive weapons or hideous creatures. Weart found that this stereotype is deeply rooted in 20th century culture, and arose from a variety of sources. For the most part, films repeat the existing stereotype rather than creating it, however, over time they do reinforce it.

Thus, physicists and chemists are generally perceived to be evil geniuses, crazed weapons makers, or absent-minded, but misguided, geniuses. They are typically male, inhabit a lab filled with all sorts of bubbling chemicals, and white lab coats are “de rigeur.” Unlike geoscientists in the movies, they are not the types of guys you can go down to the local tavern and relax with and have a beer. This is best illustrated in the recent horror film “Tremors”. In one scene a female graduate student in seismology, one of the star characters of the film, is explaining, in very plain English, to the local residents what is happening.

However, she does not fit the stereotype that the locals have of scientists, and they are quite taken aback by this. The fact that this scene works is a reflection of how well defined the image of a “scientist” is in the public’s eye. In “Tremors,” the seismologist, apart from her expert knowledge, is one of the community and is not pompous, aloof, out for glory, or out-of-touch with the rest of the population. She is portrayed as a typical earth scientist, not as a “scientist.”

Mining Industry Bad Image

In addition to the scientists themselves, the organizations they work for are also portrayed in different ways. One area of the geosciences that has an extremely negative image in films is the mining industry; this area or geoscience is always seen as villainous, and considerable public education is needed to reverse this image. A recent public opinion poll, conducted by Angus-Reid for the Mining Association of Canada, shows that the movie industry if reflecting public opinion. For example 61 percent of those polled felt that mining-industry executives were not trustworthy, and 66 percent that the mines are a major source of pollution.

As in the case of the mad-scientist stereotype, the initial image was probably not created by Hollywood, but the negative image is constantly being reinforced. It is interesting to note that, in the latest issue of Greenpeace magazine, an article on driftnet fishing refers to “strip mining the seas.” This title immediately conjures up images of terrible devastation, and its effectiveness as a title highlights the negative perception in which the industry is generally held.

In contrast, the petroleum industry is portrayed both favorably and unfavorably. When oil exploration was booming and OPEC was seen as a villain, the oil industry was generally seen in a positive light. It will be interesting to see if, after the Valdez oil spill and a number of other recent oil spills, the industry will once again be portrayed negatively.

However, in both instances, geologists working for either mining or petroleum companies generally retain their favorable image, and are typically shown as forces of good battling against evil or inhuman corporate executives, for example, as in the recent film “Leviathan.”

Although geoscientists are well portrayed by Hollywood, geologic facts generally are not. The co-existence of man and dinosaurs, geological landscapes totally at odds with known geological processes, and outlandish special effects are common errors. In a recent survey exploring science literacy in Canada, only 45.9 percent of those queried knew that dinosaurs and humans did not co-exist – one of the lowest response rates on the survey. Most questions received 60-95 percent correct responses. One can speculate that films such as “Caveman” and “One Million Years B.C.” have played a major role in reinforcing the idea that humans and dinosaurs did co-exist.

In summary, earth scientists and the earth sciences are generally shown in a positive light by Hollywood. Compared with other areas of science, this positive image should make it easier for earth scientists to get their message to the public, and to be believed. We must take care to guard this image, as it is only an image, and images are easily destroyed. The negative perception of the mining industry should be of concern to the industry, particularly as the public becomes more concerned about environmental issues.

There is public interest in earth science, particularly in dinosaurs, volcanoes and earthquakes, so we can expect to see more geological based films in the future. The recent Loma Prieta earthquake has already increased interest in the earth sciences, and is bound to inspire film-makers. This has already started to take place. A recent episode of the TV series “Midnight Caller” dealt with fictional individuals coping with the earthquake, and two episodes of “Mission Impossible” have featured earth-science plots (one of gold mining and volcanology and another on the use of salt domes for waste disposal). If we, as earth scientists, can in any way improve the quality of geologic data presented in films, then we may have the best of two worlds: a favorable public perception and wide dissemination of basic geological facts.

Michael Easton

Precambrian Geology Section

Ontario Geological Survey, Room 910-77 Grenville St.

Toronto, ON M7A 1W4

Monica Easton

c/o Ontario Geological Survey, Room 1032-77 Grenville St.

Toronto, ON M7A 1W4

T. Testudo

A pseudonym for a frequent contributor to the At The Movies/On TV series. He/she wishes to remain unknown as some people do not regard such activities as being worthy of a professional earth scientist.