Artistic License and Scientific Truth

This Blog post is by Thalia R. Goldstein and cross posted on her blog. 

Science is concerned with finding the truth about the world. The best outcome in a scientific study is that it produces verifiable, replicable facts about the biological, chemical, physical, or psychological world. The same is not true in the theatre. While some works of theatre are concerned with the truth and presenting the world in verifiable ways, often the focus is elsewhere- on explaining a specific, particular human experience or in finding a universal similarity across a large variety of experiences. Theatre focuses on more playing with and understanding emotions, intentions, relationships, and experiences, and less on trying to explain the world exactly as it is.

Yet, sometimes theatre (and film and television) also uses scientific evidence and discusses scientific theories. In a recent chapter and response, I discussed what theatre owes its audience and “owes” science, and discussed some possible pitfalls when a work of theatre relies on a particular scientific theory or construct.

It is important that works of art do not present discredited or misapplied findings as fundamental truths. But, art does not owe its audience the same level of universal veracity as a peer-reviewed report in a scientific journal.  Art uses narrative, plot, time distortion and expansion, pauses for large tap-dancing musical numbers, flashbacks and red herrings, dramatic irony and information withholding, to provide its audience with the most interesting and fulfilling experience it can.

Scientific conferences?  Do not.

The audience for each does not expect the strengths of the other. (Can you imagine? A scientific conference which used red herrings and tap dancing! I would attend in a heartbeat!) Art needs to go over and around small details- otherwise, you end up with Cinéma vérité, which (for most people) is not so interesting to watch. Artists cannot be held to the same truth value as scientists.

The problem is when audiences expect that the art they are watching- the condensed, detail lacking narrative- holds the same truth value as a scientific report (and I’m not even going to get into stories told with purposeful narratives to deceive and put forward a false, politically motivated point, in order to convince others of a particular perspective regardless of truth). There have been a number of news articles and some handwringing around the so-called “CSI Effect”. This is the fear that members of juries will expect a higher level of technological prowess and solid evidence in order to convict someone because on the show CSI, the bad guy is always caught with rock solid biological or physical evidence. Such evidence is rarely, if ever, available in the real world of crime.

Yet research  (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2008; Mann, 2005; Schweitzer & Saks, 2007; Shelton, 2008; Thomas, 2006) seems to find that the so-called CSI effect is actually a generalized reliance and belief that technology and science can provide us with more definitive answers than it actually can. We expect technology and science to have the ability to explain every human behavior and solve mysteries and questions for us, regardless of whether it’s applied to crime or another field. Watching CSI in particular has little to do with jury decisions. Artists cannot present factually wrong science as truth- that’s propaganda. Artists must do a minimal amount of research in order to create a work that’s true, or they need to frame their work as pure fiction.

Furthering this problem is that audiences are rarely inspired to go and look for more truth about a show after they’ve seen it. While Hamilton inspired several news articles discussing where Lin-Manuel Miranda took artistic license (e.g. the Schyler sisters also had brothers), most works of theatre are not given such treatment. Therefore, if an audience member wants to do their own digging into the truth of the statements made in a play, they have to do it on their own, without the aid of professional journalists. There are differences by genre, of course. Science fiction and fantasy would be hard pressed to inspire audience members to take on their space ships and aliens as true (although people do go to Ireland now after Game of Thrones). And, one of the features of Science Fiction fandom is to discuss how “hard” the science in the science fiction is—how possible would it be for someone stranded on Mars to survive long enough for a rescue mission to get back to him?

Interesting to note too is how scientists are unlikely to be affected by artistic interpretation of their science — scientists are trained to follow exact methods of determining whether something is real or not.  Yet while scientists are unlikely to be convinced by bad science on television, the general public might be persuaded. This is where the popular press is a problem (Mehr, 2015). Often, in the search for a good headline, a newspaper or magazine will focus in on a simple explanation that simply does not hold water when discussed by scientists. But the narrative damage has been done. So, when creating an artistic work that holds scientific truth, it’s better that scientists consult on television and movies (and so do philosophers- on The Good Place!). This is a nod towards ensuring that what is shown to audiences, who may have no other exposure to these topics, is at least not wrong, even if it may be incomplete.

Finally, maybe the key to presenting scientific works on a stage is a focus instead on the people, not the facts. So particularly when dealing with a marginalized population, such as Autistic individuals or people with AIDS, a play is the best way to get to know more about the disorder or atypicality, by showing the story of a person, and by making it human, instead of a discussion of brain functioning, or biological changes. It’s the people who become real and whole and full by watching them in person in a theater.  It’s hard to really know someone unless you can get their story and a physical presence with them – humanizing the other.  Art and theatre allow for people to have experiences with experiences and cultures they may not otherwise be able to have.

There are a few related topics here not yet covered, but I recommend further reading for those interested: The first is that memory can play tricks on audiences members—they may think something is true, even though they know the information came from a fictional source.


Marsh, E. J., Meade, M. L., & Roediger III, H. L. (2003). Learning facts from fiction. Journal of Memory and Language, 49(4), 519-536.

Marsh, E. J., & Fazio, L. K. (2006). Learning errors from fiction: Difficulties in reducing reliance on fictional stories. Memory & Cognition, 34(5), 1140-1149.

Similarly, there’s evidence that people like and prefer narratives based in truth, but that’s for another blog.

In the meantime, I recommend:

Green, M. C., Garst, J., & Brock, T. C. (2004). The power of fiction: Determinants and boundaries. The psychology of entertainment media: Blurring the lines between entertainment and persuasion, 161-176.

LaMarre, H. L., & Landreville, K. D. (2009). When is fiction as good as fact? Comparing the influence of documentary and historical reenactment films on engagement, affect, issue interest, and learning. Mass Communication and Society, 12(4), 537-555.

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