Infected with Meaning

Image: Dr. Tom Geisbert/microbeworld

I love a good virus movie. From the cold war fancies of ‘The Andromeda Strain‘ to the zombie romp ‘28 days later‘ – show me a face mask, latex gloves and a quarantine riot and I’m munching away happily on my cinema popcorn.

Yet Steven Soderbergh’s new virus drama ‘Contagion‘ has injected a whole new strain of scientific reality into my fictional pandemic apocalypse. The film is painstakingly researched, personally focused yet global in political and social reach. It draws on recent virus scares such as SARS and H1N1, and boasts an eminent epidemiologist as a technical adviser. I found the film absorbing, intelligent and thought provoking. But most of all, I found it a compelling piece of science communication.

Science communication? A big-budget Hollywood film crammed with stars – and not a slide, lectern or expert speaker in sight? Absolutely.

Contagion is the story of a deadly new virus that is contracted by a US businesswoman in Hong Kong, and rapidly spreads across the globe, transmitted by human contact. The action follows attempts by epidemiologists, governments, community leaders and medics to control the rising crisis, while scientists struggle to find a vaccine.

The virus kills quickly – infecting the overworked star medic as quickly as it does the anonymous schoolchild or the office commuter. The fragile social order that binds global society begins to fall apart under the strain. Panic, looting and murder creep into middle-class streets, while military planners struggle to understand a brutal enemy that lacks an identifiable ideology. It is sobering stuff, and feels all-too-plausible.

That’s certainly what Dr Ian Lipkin – professor of epidemiology, neurology and pathology at New York’s Columbia University – wanted. Dr Lipkin worked as a Senior Technical Advisor on the film, and had also been an assistant to the World Health Organisation and the Chinese government during the SARS outbreak. He had first-hand experience of the personal costs of a pandemic, having witnessed the fear and isolation of quarantine after falling ill in Beijing. Dr Lipkin believes the film is a wake-up call to a world sleepwalking into disaster. He feels we need to invest in adequate bio-surveillance – and that films such as Contagion are a great way to raise scientific awareness.

Fictional drama as a vehicle for a serious science message? The notion would have many scientists snorting with derision. Hollywood is the perennial target of criticism for its use of wildly implausible science, and a caricatured portrayal of science practitioners. Besides, haven’t we already had far more authoritative science communication on epidemics? Serious documentaries, government speeches, academic conferences?

Certainly. Yet in my view, drama has its own unique contribution to make to the public’s perception of science and – dare I say it – for science’s understanding of the public. A reason for this lies in its power to convey human meanings and motivations through the depiction of character. It connects with an audience not simply through plot and action – the headline ‘message’ – but via an examination of consequences – emotional, political, personal. Drama infects us with an insight into what material realities might mean for different people in different situations. And ultimately this tells us about ourselves. A fictional multiverse of our own possible futures.

One of Soderbergh’s skills in Contagion – as displayed in his earlier film ‘Traffic’ – is to interweave big political stories with very intimate and personal human details. The individual costs of larger things. It features scientists doing authentic science – yet is light on cliché and reassuringly full of ethical and political discomfort. In other words scientists look like people and act like the rest of us. Out of fear, familial love, or tainted by personal compromise. And because of this we care for those we are watching and what they do. We see their imperfections not as a stain on their authority, but as a guide to the wider wisdom of their dispassionate methods. Science communicates to us as one of us. Flawed, yet brilliant.

At Imperial College London, the Science Communication Group includes the study of narrative in its postgraduate Science Communication and Science Media Production courses. Story is a way we make sense of our world and what it means, while science is a means for us to understand the world we wish to make sense of. Understanding how science can connect an audience to a message through drama is therefore an important element of effective and meaningful science communication.

But does it work? Well, as I left the cinema, I stopped off in the men’s restroom. I was amused to find an unusually long queue of men stood by the sinks, assiduously washing their hands to kill bacteria. Soderbergh’s drama had infected them with Dr Lipkin’s scientific message more surely than any virus.

Steve McGann is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College.

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