Steven Spielberg, E.T., and the mistrust of science

With Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new science fiction movie opening this week, I can’t help but recall my childhood introduction to America’s most famous living director.

It was 1982. My parents crammed their three kids into the back of a tiny Dodge Omni and drove to the Showcase Cinema in Swansea, Massachusetts to watch E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. I was six years-old. I recall some details of that day: it was summertime, I got popcorn, I immediately loved E.T., I connected deeply with Elliot, and the scientists were the bad guys.

I remember being terrified of the scientists in their astronaut suits. They were faceless and eerily silent. They were trespassing. And they were coming to steal E.T.

The unwelcome invasion of Elliot’s house is a traumatic scene in one of the most beloved and watched movies ever made — mine was one of over 120 million tickets sold for the Spielberg blockbuster. But, this unforgettable moment in an over 35 year-old movie has had unintended consequences. Current mistrust and denial of science by the American public traces some of its roots back to those terrifying minutes in which the scientists barged in on Elliot’s home and stole E.T.

I joined Elliot when he screamed “you’re scaring him” at the invading and probing monsters in their space suits as they hooked E.T. up to machines I didn’t recognize, and didn’t understand. “You’re killing him!!” I thought as defibrillation paddles caused E.T.’s chest to spasm and surge upward. I recoiled and cried, like Gertie did. I still do.

“Look at what they’ve done to you.”

The scientists didn’t care about E.T., they just wanted to cut him up. The message was clear: we couldn’t, and shouldn’t, trust them. Spielberg’s classic was released during a groundswell of anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific movements in this country — a surge of disdain for evidence-based thinking that continues today. Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” gained considerable influence with those on the right as the evangelical movement pushed back against secular humanism and scientific reasoning. But the anti-science didn’t only come from conservatives. During this time at the height of the Cold War, liberals easily connected science and technology with the military and nuclear proliferation.

To be sure, not all of us had such a traumatic experience watching E.T. that we rejected science and scientists. And, of course I’m not suggesting that the besieging scene in E.T. is the sole reason so many Americans reject science. In fact, Spielberg may have done more good than harm to science. Another Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is a shout-out to citizen science. And a generation of fedora-wearing archaeologists and dinosaur paleontologists likely can trace their initial inspiration to Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.

But, E.T. exposed something about our relationship with science and, more accurately, with scientists. Despite the extraordinary scientific accomplishments of the last few decades, many Americans simply don’t trust scientists. According to a recent survey, only 40% of the public find actual scientists “very trustworthy” as spokespersons for — wait for it — science. Most participants regard scientists as only somewhat trustworthy or not trustworthy at all. Unsurprisingly, and as a direct result of rejecting science, Americans are poorly informed about the natural world and how it works.

Yet, we seek answers, and the void in our understanding of the world produced by the rejection of evidence-based, scientifically sound ideas has been filled by pseudoscientific nonsense. Ironically, this misinformation is rapidly and effectively spread using the very tools — iPhones and the internet — created as technical applications of scientific breakthroughs. When Elon Musk launched his Tesla into space aboard the extraordinary Heavy Falcon rocket last month, flat-Earthers cried hoax. The anti-vaxxers have been so effective at spreading fear and false information that once rare diseases, like mumps and whooping cough, are a threat to our children for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. We are told by conspiracy theorists with a digital bullhorn and a worldwide platform that the moon landing was fake and that Smithsonian scientists are hiding the bones of giant human skeletons in the museum basement. Many claim that climate change is a hoax and that scientists lack evidence documenting the evolutionary history of the human lineage — these last uninformed statements coming out of the mouths of the three of most powerful men in Washington: the President, Vice President, and head of the EPA.

As Harrison Ford recently said in an interview, “Today’s greatest threat is not climate change, not pollution, not flood or fire. It’s that we’ve got people in charge of important shit who don’t believe in science.”

Indiana Jones is right, and it is easy to place blame elsewhere. Scientists have been quick to blame the media and the failure of the public education system. But, as public mistrust of science has grown in the last 35 years, and funding has stalled, scientists themselves have retreated back into their labs and have become nameless and faceless. Science teachers, museum educators, and a very few visible scientists have held the front lines against a surge of science illiteracy.

In general, scientists have not seen it as their responsibility to have a public presence, and are now paying the price. There has been an unfortunate, even irresponsible, anonymity to the scientific community. In E.T., Spielberg responded accordingly. Even Peter Coyote’s character — the only scientist who showed a sliver of empathy for Elliot and for E.T. — had no name. He was just called “keys” in the credits, in reference to the many scenes that identified him solely by the keys dangling from his belt. For the last 35 years, many scientists have become mysterious, anonymous individuals doing something few understand, behind closed doors. How else can one explain the results of a recent survey which found that a shocking 81% of Americans cannot name a living scientist? This number is surely to rise with the death of Stephen Hawking — the most recognized scientist by the 19% who could actually produce a name.

Since the election results of November, 2016, we scientists have begun taking off our scary masks. We are marching, embracing #scicomm, even running for public office. Our half century long absence from public view has fostered suspicion and has caused considerable damage and mistrust — wounds to our profession that may take a generation to heal. We have lost the trust of the E.T. generation — one now well-populated with individuals unable to think critically, to use reason, to embrace science (or even basic facts), and all too quick to “like” or retweet unsubstantiated falsehoods that give comfort to their worldview. Given how difficult it is for adults to change their minds, I fear we’ve lost them permanently. And, as with other challenges facing our world, I suspect we will be relying on Generation Z to make science and scientists trusted once again. But, this won’t happen unless we scientists play an active role in inspiring this next generation of scientists and science enthusiasts.

Photo by Marcos Stafne

We must inspire them with tales of scientific discovery. We must open our labs, and invite future scientists into our world. We must share with them all of the things we don’t know, in addition to what we do know. We must show them that we are as curious about the world and awed by it as they are. To my fellow scientists, if you are already doing this, keep it up. If you are not, start now. The future of science and evidence-based thinking in this country depend on it.