Science

How to Scientifically Fact-Check a Work of Fiction Without Looking Like a Jerk

Does it matter if Frozen’s snowflake isn’t an accurate representation? Or if The Lion King should have been The Lion Queen?

Simba, Nala, and Zazu in The Lion King.
Actually, Nala should be the one in line for the throne.
Walt Disney Pictures

On Monday, Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most famous physicists of our time, took to Twitter to criticize the scientific accuracy of poster for Frozen 2, a children’s cartoon. “Dear @Disney, You got it right the first time,” he wrote above images of the Frozen and Frozen 2 promotional material. “Water crystals have hexagonal ‘six-fold’ symmetry. You still have a few months to fix your #Frozen2 Movie Poster, unless the sequel takes place in another universe, where water crystalizes to different laws of physics.”

The thing about Frozen 2 is that it does take place in a universe other than ours—the one in which a woman can shoot enough ice crystals out of her body to build a castle. To that, our intrepid fact-checker would explain, as he did on Twitter (where else?), that when it comes to all that fairy tale magic he is actually “ ‘cool’ with talking snowmen and roly-poly frozen trolls” and is only bothered by what is essentially a lack of “consistency of creative worlds within a story and across sequels,” he explained.

This isn’t even the first time Tyson has done such a thing. He also apparently complained to James Cameron, who reedited a scene for Titanic’s 3D release based on Tyson’s feedback. “Tyson sent me quite a snarky email saying that, at that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen,” Cameron said, as the Telegraph reported.

I am on the record as skeptical of Neil deGrasse Tyson (his response to sexual harassment allegations was inadequate, in my opinion), but I think we can all agree that this kind of pop-culture science fact checking is insufferable. In the right hands, though, the endeavor can be a lovely duo of fun and educational. So here is some guidance on how, and when, to fact-check the science in a movie.

Don’t demand that the studio change the movie on your behalf, as Tyson did with both Frozen and Titanic. For one thing, by the time you are seeing it, it’s a little late. But for another, it’s fine to point out “errors,” if you realize that your utility is largely in teaching about the difference between what’s shown and what’s in the real world. Should fiction movies aspire to mimic the real world accurately? Yes, to an extent. It’s necessary to the very mechanics of storytelling to ground even a fantastical plot in a world with rules that are consistent and at least largely familiar. (It would be deeply distracting if the Frozen characters didn’t experience gravity, for example.) But is there any real benefit to the constellation above Rose being historically accurate? It doesn’t add anything to the film beyond being a fun Easter egg, in my opinion. And I am skeptical that a beautified snowflake will have many ramifications for children’s understanding of water crystallization. On the flip side, demanding this level of scientific detail makes the bar for creating art perilously high.

Do allow for creative license. In Frozen, for example, the fantastical elements are the point. Often, inaccuracies (particularly extremely outlandish ones) are accepted in the name of narrative, for reasons that make sense. One of my favorite pop culture fact checks is a segment that aired in the original Magic School Bus series at the end of episodes. Called “Producer Says,” it features indignant “listeners” calling the supposed creators of the show with factual questions (this all happened in a cartoon). It maintained its sense of the show and the audience—in a segment at the end of the “Magic School Bus Gets Lost in Space” episode, the “caller” complains about inaccuracies like the fact that not even an actual spacecraft could visit all nine planets—this was made in the ’90s—in a single school day. The producer character explains that “if we did it in real time, you’d be a grown-up by the time we got to Pluto.” Educational!

Do suggest how deviating from the scientific reality reinforces harmful assumptions or stereotypes. If The Lion King adhered to the social structure of actual lion prides, for example, it would technically be The Lion Queen, a recent piece from National Geographic points out. That’s because, when it comes to lion communities, “females are the core. The heart and soul of the pride,” lion researcher Craig Packer told reporter Erin Biba. “The males come and go.” That the creators nonetheless took the license to make the story a coming-of-age tale about a dude, in both the original and the remake—because surely someone at least briefly glanced at a nonfiction book about lions at some point!—says a lot.

Don’t prioritize your field at the exclusion of everything else. Or at least acknowledge the limited scope of your critique. One of the frustrating things about Tyson is that he’s so selective about which facts matter and seems unable to acknowledge his own subjectivity in this. He didn’t have any criticism for The Lion King, because he only considered his own field. As he noted on Twitter: “In the current release of @DisneyLionKing, Earthshine was accurately captured (as was damn near everything else) in a scene containing the thin crescent Moon.” Earthshine is the subtle way that the moon glows when sunlight reflects off our planet and bounces off of the lunar surface—more of a pet detail here than a key plot point. Obviously scientists are more able to assess their areas of expertise, but this review ignores the main area of science featured in the film, which is particularly strange given that it was blaringly inaccurate.

Don’t be snarky about it. Honestly, isn’t the bottom line really that we’re all here to have fun?