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  • Reckless Science and the Fall of Man
Aug 2011
Aug. 31, 2011 — So, I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a friend the other day. As I watched, wondering how long it took to train all those simians to overturn cars even as they conveyed complex human emotions through furrowed brows and far-off looks, I was struck by a major subtext of the movie: When mankind is finally overrun by hordes of liberated animal testing subjects, or when the Earth finally collapses into a black hole generated somewhere in the suburbs of Geneva, or name your favorite apocalyptic fate, it will probably be scientists’ fault.

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, proceed with caution. In the next couple of paragraphs I talk about stuff that happens in it.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes stars James Franco as a scientist with a heart of gold working to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. When an experiment goes awry and he is ordered to destroy all of his simian subjects, he rescues one of the genetically enhanced apes’ newborns and raises it as his own. Later, when his father’s own Alzheimer’s takes a turn for the worse, he treats him with an unapproved drug — the same drug he was testing in the apes. Both of these decisions precipitate the cataclysmic rise referenced in the movie’s title.

If you find it difficult to blame James Franco for these reckless, occasionally unethical acts — and really, who wouldn’t (“he was just his usual cute self,” my friend later said, with big, moony eyes) — you’ll have no problem vilifying another character. David Oyelowo plays the money-grubbing head of the pharmaceutical company for which Franco’s character works, who hastily orders stepped-up experiments when he learns of the latter’s successful but uncontrolled tests of the drug in his father. These, of course, produce a number of additional super-smart, crazy-strong apes who really don’t like the way we humans treat them.

Hollywood movies often track the fears and anxieties of society at large, and occasionally help to perpetuate certain prejudices. What’s interesting here is that the fears are not of industrialization (as in the 1927 film Metropolis) or the dehumanizing effects of technology (see the rash of dystopian movies made in the 1990s and set somewhere in the near future), but rather of scientists themselves: those who apply technological and other innovations to develop and test hypotheses about the world all around us, often in the hopes of somehow making it better.

This is not altogether surprising. The reputation of scientists as a whole has taken its share of hits in recent years, often due to charges of misconduct and falsification of data – as with Harvard psychology researcher Marc Hauser, who took a leave from the university last year after an internal investigation uncovered evidence of misconduct (See: Retractions and Besmirched Reputationsand the Climactic Research Unit email controversy (‘Climategate’) at East Anglia University in 2009 (ultimately, no evidence of fraud or misconduct was found there). To a certain extent, these cases have reflected upon the research community generally.

And of course many politicians in the US are happy to stoke a mistrust of scientists and of science itself. Rick Perry, Governor of Texas and a leading contender for the G.O.P. nomination for president, recently dismissed the findings and recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences as well as of the vast majority of climate change researchers by citing the example of a few investigators who, as it turned out, were exonerated of the charges of misconduct.

“I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” he said a couple of weeks ago at the Politics and Eggs breakfast in Bedford, N.H. “I do not buy into a group of scientists who have in some cases [been] found to be manipulating this information.”

Exactly why so many in the US are suspicious and even downright scornful of science is a topic for another time. The fact remains: They are. And by playing to such prejudices, Hollywood movies might unwittingly contribute to the denigration of science in this country. Image is everything, and in the current battle for the rhetorical high ground, the research community is losing.

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