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Science - Fact and Fiction

Everyone has a general understanding of what science is and what scientists do - they seek to solve unanswered questions about the world, be those questions physical, chemical, biological, psychological, or otherwise in their origin. What many people likely don't understand, is what it is truly like to be a research scientist at an academic institution. The hope of this article is to convey some of the reality of science to readers, and to dispel the absurd if romanticized notions of the capabilities of science that modern society seems to have generated.

While there are the occasional works of fiction that try to convey scientific works in a fairly even and realistic manner, by and large there is a huge disconnect between real science and movie science. Obviously works that take place in the future or that are by nature science fiction films are exempt from such examinations, as by necessity they rely on fantastical elements and inventions that are likely impossible and are clearly more important for the plot, as in the case of the time machine of the Back to the Future franchise.

Keeping Up Appearances

Perhaps the most amusing belief the entertainment industry seems to hold is the extent to which science relies on colors. Perhaps harkening back to their years titrating acid solutions in chemistry lab, screen writers tend to show almost all scientific assays as though they involved sudden changes between bright colors as a readout for their data. This is most egregiously (and probably intentionally) demonstrated in low budget films like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, where “scientists” mix together various beakers of brightly colored liquid seemingly at random, before shortly announcing they have developed exactly the compound they need to stop their aquatic foes. Even when the colors aren't so belligerent, there are still an excessive number of feature films and TV shows in which colorimetric readouts are the only way science is done.

This is not to say that some scientific assays don't rely on color changes, and indeed certain assays will produce a color change that will correspond to the amount of a desired material present, meaning that color is an exact readout for the data they are interested in. Still other assays use colors as contrast in order to highlight the cells or other structures they are interested in. Sometimes, bright colors are even used within individual cells to point out different types of proteins or other microscopic features (see inset picture). However these colorimetric assays make up only a small fraction of the types of data one might generate when working in a scientific discipline. A lot of scientific data comes out as nothing more than raw numbers (as in the case of quantitiative PCR, which lets you determine how much of a given type of nucleic acid is present in your sample). These numbers then have to be graphed and analyzed to yield any interesting results. It is no surprise that the entertainment industry shies away from this sort of science - it is not entertaining, and if you are not invested in the result it will not prove to be interesting to you.

Movies and film aren't the only ones that fall victim to these oversimplifications of what science looks like, however. Whenever you see a photograph of scientists in a lab as part of a press release and a personal biography or even a news story, that photo has been staged and does not represent true scientific research. For example, a former advisor of mine was being interviewed for an award, and as part of the interview they wanted him to pose for some photos while doing science. Now, many senior faculty members, himself included, do not actively do science on the benchtop any more, and instead focus on generating ideas and analyzing the data that their lab members bring to them. Even so, they had him put on a lab coat, and grab a pipettor. For further absurdity, they had him pipette up some of a dark blue liquid that no doubt looked quite vivid on camera, but that looked ludicrous to anyone that knew what it was, as it was a substance that you would never ever need in such large quantities in a lab. Similarly, one may often see pictures of people holding gels covered with bands of DNA, which are familiar to any viewer of CSI. In my experience, when being photographed professors will grab a thrown out gel from the trash can and will point at it while their lab members stare at the gel inquisitively, even though in reality there is nothing that can be learned from such an activity.

So even the science press will alter real science to better fit with the public perception of what science should look like, thus creating positive feedback that science only falls within a narrow window of types of analysis. This is no doubt largely done to create an image that science is a well reasoned and collaborative discipline with immediately clear results, and while the first two parts of that statement are true, the latter rarely is. Indeed, science is messy, and most of the time the results do not pan out the way people hope that they will.

Great Expectations

While colors and other appearances may prove very entertaining and visually appealing, on the whole they do not do much to negatively impact people's reactions to finding out what scientists normally do. Fiction does, on the other hand, tend to greatly exaggerate the capacity of science to produce specific and rapid results, to the point that many people in the general public will no doubt have vastly overblown opinions of the capabilities of science. Whether or not this is truly harmful or not is certainly up for debate, but it does prevent people from appreciating the true amount of time and effort scientists put into identifying and confirming their studies.

There is a great XKCD comic that epitomizes the difference between real and fake science, and the gist of it is something like this: In a TV science lab, a quick science assay will allow the intrepid researchers to determine that a particular paint chip found on a victim originated at one specific paint producing factory located in Norway, enabling them to rapidly catch the criminal. In the same amount of time in an actual science lab, analysis of a paint chip would allow you to determine that it most likely does not contain certain chemicals. Whether this analysis might eventually lead you to the same conclusion or not is obviously not possible to say for this fictional example, but the point is this: science takes time. Lots and lots of time, generally speaking. Indeed, many assays that are conducted in the lab, such as those to determine amounts of a specific protein in someone's blood, for example, may require hours or even days of waiting between each step. After all that waiting, you may have a result, but only if the experiment was carefully designed to prevent the occurrence of false negatives or false positives. Even then, the result will most likely not be earth-shattering in and of itself. Instead, it will suggest interesting ideas, which will then require many more experiments to test.

For every major scientific article that is published, many graduate students, post doctoral researchers, and professors likely poured months or even years of their time into producing that paper. Even if they were able to at one point produce a ground breaking result, they needed to go back and confirm that that result remains true over time, and then they typically try to explain why it is that that result came to be in the first place. As such, with rare exceptions for extreme phenomena and certain disciplines of science, no scientist will be able to spend a single day in the lab to produce a cure for a disease or a piece of irrefutable evidence convicting a criminal.

The recent popular movie Contagion made an effort to provide a realistic look into how the world and the scientific community might respond to a new outbreak of a serious disease. In many ways, the movie was more accurate than most scientific fiction and it portrayed many of the necessary components of an epidemic outbreak. Even so, the movie massively condensed the time scale involved, and cut several scientific corners in a way that would not be acceptable in the real world. For example, when a vaccine has been developed, rather than test it in animals first, the scientists in the film immediately inject it into themselves and save the world. In real life, even if a vaccine could be developed so quickly after a new disease appears, it would requires many rounds of expedited animal testing and small scale human trials to determine if it is truly safe and effective for human use before releasing it to the general population.

Fiction is not the only source that creates these beliefs about the immense and immediate potential of scientific research. Much of this problem stems from the public relations departments of universities, that are tasked with translating the scientific research of their employees into exciting information that the public wants to hear. As the PR departments are not impartial observers, they will often exaggerate the implications of a study or fail to mention certain qualifying factors that indicate the need for significant future study. As a result, a study that suggests that a specific drug might be worth investigating to treat the pancreatic cancer in patients under the age of 20 may become “potential new treatment for pancreatic cancer identified”. The news media then has a tendency to further exaggerate these press releases in order to shape them in such a way as to garner more readership, resulting in the story becoming something to the effect of “Scientists cure pancreatic cancer”. Such reporting is irresponsible, and it creates the illusion that science is moving more quickly than it truly is. This, in turn, creates unrealistic expectations among the general public, which has the potential to lead to a backlash against what may be viewed by some as a dearth of scientific progress. More impartial reporting of scientific discoveries is essential to promote a proper understanding of the current state of scientific affairs for those outside the scientific disciplines.

Conclusions

Science is a collaborative discipline that requires a large investment of time and energy, and it is driven by the curiosity of the researchers that are conducting the experiments. Most people are not scientists, and they only encounter new scientific information in the form of press releases and new drugs that are released to market. Many of the beliefs that the general public has about how science is conducted are drawn from fictional sources, and are reinforced by the way scientists are portrayed in the press, creating the illusion that time moves quickly on the scientific stage, and that a new miracle cure for a given disease is never too far in the future. While this may help generate enthusiasm and promote donations to scientific funding charities, it prevents the public from appreciating the true magnitude of the problems that scientists face on a daily basis. Only with careful planning, extensive support, and sufficient time can scientists produce the results that help drive research forward and ultimately empower society as a whole.


Science in Society


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