What Disaster Experts Really Think of Disaster Movies

Each science-based blockbuster provides new chances for scientists to squirm: They’re glad that the occasionally arcane topic they’ve devoted their lives to studying is getting some public attention, but the misconstruals of science that big-screen treatment often entails undermine the educational effect.

While reporting my story on the biggest disasters that threaten the U.S., I heard similar sentiments from seismologists. The problem is particularly acute for them—their worry isn’t just that people will have the wrong idea about space, but that they’ll die or be injured because they don’t understand how earthquakes work.

Take San Andreas, this year’s vehicle for action star The Rock.

Real-life Lucy Jones, a USGS seismologist, has been particularly vocal about trying to get Angelenos to prepare for a big quake, and she spent the last year working on a project with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to better prepare the city. Her work snagged her an invite to the premiere of the film in May, where she walked the red carpet and posed with The Rock. That didn’t stop her from a Tyson-esque tweetstorm factchecking the film, with generous portions of both plaudits and facepalms:

In the end, she hoped that the movie might at least spur some preparedness.

By the time I talked to Dr. Jones in August, she seemed a bit more glum about the movie’s message of total collapse. “You either believe it, and then it’s impossible to prepare—it’s all going to be armageddon—or else you don’t believe, and you dismiss the whole thing,” she told me. “In that sense I think it wasn’t that useful to have a movie like that.”

John Vidale, a professor at the University of Washington who also leads the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, had a similar experience.“The San Andreas movie, it was really fun. We took the whole seismic network over and watched it,” he told me. “We were kind of giggling through the whole thing. You know, it’s spectacular.”

Even if much of the film is fantasy, he said, the general feeling in the seismic community is that it’s acceptable, or even important, to exaggerate in the service of awareness: “These long-term risks are something people won’t adequately prepare for if they don’t have a fire lit under them from time to time.”

Meanwhile, The Rock has been busy averting other disasters:

Here's a fun Labor Day weekend story... We just decided to add two new members to our Johnson family. Baby French Bulldogs. In my right hand is BRUTUS and in my left hand is HOBBS. Bring them home and immediately take them outside so they can start learning how to "handle their business and potty like big boys". I set them both down and they both take off in a full sprint and fall right into the deep end of our pool. HOBBS immediately starts doggy paddling while BRUTUS (like a brick) sink heads first to the bottom of the pool. I take off into a full sprint, fully clothed, dive in the pool, swim to the bottom, rescue my brick, I mean BRUTUS and bring him back to the edge of the pool. He was a little delirious.. took a moment, threw up all the water he swallowed and looked up at me as if to say, "Thank God you didn't have to give me mouth to mouth!" and then ran off to play with his brother. A few lessons I've learned today.. A) Not all puppies have the instinct to doggie paddle. B) Some puppies (like BRUTUS) will be so in shock by experiencing water they will sink extremely fast so react quick. C) While spiriting to save your puppies life, before you dive in, try and throw your cel phone to safety. Don't keep it in your pocket... like I did. #BRUTUSLives #HOBBSCanSwim #MyCelPhonesDead #AndNoMouthToMouthNeeded #HappyLaborDay

A photo posted by therock (@therock) on