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Jurassic Snark: When it comes to critique and enjoyment, you can have your cake and eat it too

The Jurassic World trailer hit the internet a few days back. Many scientists have critiqued it already, like we have always done. But not everyone’s happy with hearing critique, and who wants to let pesky science get in the way?

It’s possible to be a massive fan of something and still have the ability to critique it. In my case, Jurassic Park was one of the things that motivated me to study geology. Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill’s character) was my absolute hero, and sort of still is. I went on to get a degree and, instead of studying dinosaurs, I ended up studying natural disasters, because you can’t travel back in time yet, and volcanoes have got a real element of danger to them. Plus they kind of destroyed the dinosaurs (with a little help from an asteroid) so I think they win.

From XKCD. I was one of these graduates.
From XKCD. I was one of these graduates of which they speak.

So I was one of the recent generation who got into the subject area after Jurassic Park, and I still love the series to bits, and have retained the capacity to critique it. I’m going to be watching Jurassic World when it comes out, regardless of how accurate it is, or how much it misrepresents me and my friends. And I am going to enjoy it. But god help me, I will comment on whatever I wish to regarding its accuracy, because why would anyone with a passion like mine pass up the chance to put some real knowledge out there? Knowledge is awesome, guys.

So with that in mind, it’s worrying that the author of the latest most vocal diatribe (published in The Mary Sue, an otherwise outstanding pinnacle of inclusivity) has taken to publicising critical tweets by real scientists in much the same derogatory fashion that is usually reserved for sexists and racists. The main gist of their argument is that scientists are criticising in, like, a really horrible way, guys (which as I go on to explain below, really isn’t what it seems). And as both a geoscience major and a multimedia tech major, I take slight umbrage at the divisive idea that scientists don’t understand CGI. The mindset typified in this article is basically a really good way to create divides where there should be none. I should have good faith that the article is just written due to a personal disagreement with a particular scientist and not an actual belief that scientists are the stereotypes of old – because a lot of movie geeks I know are far more clued up than this. But it’s not the only opinion piece to come out and have a moan at scientists stating the truth in what the opinion writers feel is an angry way. All of this is quite uncomfortable to read, because it smacks of one group of nerds having a bash at another group of nerds for being factual about their topic. So because we here at Renegade are very much focused on inclusivity, this opinion piece is intended to bridge that gap.

Why Scientists Love Critique.

I think there is something that the non-scientific geek might not realise about scientists. We love to critique. Critique forms part of healthy debate. Critique helps move knowledge forward. And critique is just too damn fun. Saying ‘FFS, that mosasaur has no forked tongue tip’ does not mean we are actually angry in the way a racist might be about a new immigrant influx. More often than not, we’re being lighthearted, because what else can you do? We aren’t such killjoy sticklers for constant accuracy: my own desk sports a total of nine inaccurate plastic dinosaurs, and my keepsake mug from the world’s largest conference on mass extinctions features an unfeathered dinosaur, in space, riding an asteroid. And most of us understand that we can have these things and still make critique on them. We’re not bitching and whining – we’re actually glad that so many movies give us the chance to play our favourite drinking game of all time – namely, drink every time something is inaccurate. And let me tell you, we get very, very drunk.

Inaccurate but lovely. image © holly ferrie
Inaccurate but lovely. Image © holly ferrie

But it’s not just about how much fun the scientists are having. We make light of situations like this because we experience resistance to science almost every day – that’s nothing new. What’s more important is the notion that a community shouldn’t be allowed to critique the way they and their subject is being represented in the media, or indeed the notion that any community who does so is being unreasonable and bad-mannered. For many of my friends who are paleontologists, they are allowed to weigh in on how the media represents their field of study, in just the same way as women are allowed to weigh in on how they are represented in films, in the same way that geeks are allowed to weigh in when yet another newspaper or organisation tries to blame videogames for mass shootings. It’s our facts and our culture being discussed, so of course we should be part of it.

This is in no way saying that everything has to be 100% accurate, it’s more the realisation that writing about something (especially something you know is going to have a large reach) and blocking your ears to the experts on that particular thing is counterproductive. A really good example is the creators of Man of Steel promoting the idea that sheltering under overpasses protects you from tornadoes. It actually has the opposite effect, which led to massive vehicle pile-ups and highway closures during the May 31, 2013 tornado in Oklahoma. No meteorologists were consulted on the film, and while a person can understand that it’s okay for fantasy worlds to be ridiculous, we also have to remember that the media does influence our perception. Man of Steel is a particularly life-threatening example, and it’s obvious that with Jurassic World, dinosaurs aren’t actually going to be threatening our lives any time soon in reality, so one could argue that this particular point is meaningless. Plus there are a ton of good portrayals in the original Jurassic Park movies (Dr Alan Grant is a wonderful example of a paleontologist – from being appropriately skeptical to shouting at his coworkers for not approaching the dig site properly).

I would like to say it’s meaningless to worry about portrayals. Except I’ve experienced die-hard fans actually take this to the next level and refute the science itself – denying the overwhelming evidence that while some dinosaurs remain (to our current understanding) unfeathered, many dinosaurs had feathers or indeed hair-like barbs on their skins. This is why we need to have critique. This is why we need to have dialogue. And we can’t fall into the trap of mistaking critique for ad hominems (personal attacks or insults on character), nor of responding to critique with such ad hominems.

Changeability is a pinnacle of geekdom.

What is most troubling to me is the idea that a few members of a community which prides itself on the changeability of fandom, from making Sherlocks’ sidekick a woman in the recent American reboot to making Final Fantasy monsters mismatch their mythological namesakes (turning Shiva from fire god to ice woman is a great example), will harden up when that same changeability seems to threaten something they like. We’ve gotten used to our dinosaurs looking a certain way, behaving a certain way. We don’t want scientific progress to get in the way. We argue that it’s truer to the series’ nature to step back three decades in paleontological knowledge. But the world’s creator, Michael Crichton, himself a doctor of physical anthropology, made his dinosaur descriptions as scientifically accurate as possible for the time in which they were written, so one could make the counterpoint that it would be truer to his spirit to move forward with scientific advancement in each new Jurassic Park related medium. However, I’m not interested in making too many counterpoints to this argument – what I really want to talk about is genre stagnancy.

If we really are going to be open to the idea that fandoms, series, fantasy worlds, and interpretations of those fantasy worlds can and should change as we progress, then it seems a bit anachronistic to cherry-pick which things we want to accept and which things we don’t. It’s like the Pluto/planet debate all over again. Science is not a reboot movie, nor should it be treated as such. You can’t say that because you prefer Pluto as a ‘big planet’, that this ‘remake’ of dwarf planet science is wrong. That’s not how it works. Science changes according to the current limit of our understanding, and will likely keep changing as those limits are continually passed.

It’s not just the odd movie geek that cherry-picks, though. Some scientists themselves are very closed to change as well, which kind of goes against the main point of science. Both movie geeks and science geeks have the ability to fall short when it comes to embracing the fluidity of genre and avoiding stagnancy.

Harryhausen's dinos were cool.  image © Legatus Wargames Armies
Harryhausen’s dinos were cool. Image © Legatus Wargames Armies

Where did we reach the changing point with science fiction that means we no longer leap from the pinnacle of our current understanding and create beautiful visions with it, but instead clip the wings of scientific progress in order to maintain a limited world that relies only on nostalgia? Sure, nostalgia has a place and I adore some good old-fashioned Harryhausen dinosaurs any day of the week, but we need to remember something. At its heart, science fiction is all about change and challenging the status quo, and in that way it mirrors science itself.

Science geeks and movie geeks can be very compatible.

I do not understand why we can’t coexist alongside a scientist who might say something isn’t accurate. I mean, at the end of the day, a truth is a truth is a truth. Nobody is bringing this truth to light because they’re demanding something has to be absolutely 100% accurate. Nobody is making you aware of this truth because they hate the movie or because they think you’re an idiot. It’s just that it’s the truth. Being antagonistic towards someone pointing out a truth runs the risk of coming across as overly defensive and is creating this mythical gap between two sets of people that are, in reality, among the most compatible with each other.

The core of geekdom is knowing something inside out. As actor and cosplayer Olivia Munn said, ‘Being a geek just means you’re passionate about something’. Passion involves knowing something intimately, knowing everything about that thing, and reveling in it. But, just like in a real human relationship, there’s a line a person can cross, after which the passion devolves into an obsession where we project our own desires onto the other, and suddenly become unable to listen to criticism, or willing to accept that the object, or person, that we love is subject to change. This is an unhealthy relationship, and it achieves the opposite of our original outflow of passion – by cutting off any further knowledge.

A geek is someone who should be proud to know lots about their subject. We should be open to avenues that lead to further knowledge. We shouldn’t be afraid to cut off what we don’t like just because it might make something change. And we should certainly stop infighting just because another geek knows their subject area better than we do. This goes for everything from Batman fans to Trekkies to dinosaur geeks. Because if we decide to divide, don’t we just become more like the people that many of us became geeks to get away from?

With that in mind, roll on Jurassic World!

 

main image © Jurassic World on Facebook

 

Comments

  1. I admit that, right now, I am most annoyed at the paleo-enthusiasts who are writing this movie off as just a “dumb monster flick” just because its dinosaurs kept their 1990s aesthetic. But this is a refreshingly level-headed presentation of the scientific perspective without dissing the film as a whole or its fans. And I actually think this year is a good opportunity for scientists to bring the public up to speed as long as they’re going to have dinosaurs on the mind. I just wish both sides would cut out the invective.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brandon. As you say, misunderstandings come from all sides, absolutely, so I hope this piece at least goes some way into lowering peoples’ hackles over the issue!
      I hope you’re right in that this is a good year for education, I agree it’s a perfect opportunity! Hope you’re looking forward to the film, I certainly am 🙂

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