Making stupidity a virtue in Hollywood is dumb

Hollywood has a lot to answer for in its demonisation of experts.

In a Hollywood film there’s a good chance that if somebody knows what they are talking about then they will turn out to be the villain.

Consider the family-friendly blockbuster Mr. Popper’s Penguins. The hero is a wealthy real estate agent who wants to keep the penguins his late father left him so he can bond with his children. The bad guy is an experienced and knowledgeable zookeeper who wants to remove the penguins to care for them properly. In Hollywood, experts like the zookeeper have secret agendas while average dads just want to rediscover family values. We are living in an era in which expressions such as “over-educated” are used to mock those who have conducted years of research in a specific area and words such as “intellectual” and “academic” are terms of abuse.

Hollywood has a history of representing experts as the baddies, especially during the Cold War. Occasionally, in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the professors wisely heeded the precautionary message from outer space. However, there were many more films in the vein of The Thing from Another World (1951), where the scientist is presented as a pointy head who prizes scientific inquiry over human life.

So why does so much popular culture demonise experts? Shouldn’t we be grateful that they have done the hard work in particular fields so that we don’t have to?

The innocent explanation is that experts are boring. Tales about an everyday person saving the world make compelling stories, feeding the myth that anybody can achieve greatness. Stories about studying really hard for long periods without any semblance of a social life are not nearly as sexy.

The fantasy of the heroic average person is further fuelled by reality television, in which people with no real talent are catapulted into the fame and fortune stratosphere for doing very little of actual merit.

Even in the original Harry Potter films the naturally gifted Harry was the hero while Hermione was a source of derision for being so studious. This reveals one of the notable exceptions to the rule. Being born talented is not seen as elitist as you can’t help it, unlike working extremely hard to understand, analyse or master something above the capabilities of other people. “Street smarts” or excelling at sport are also acceptable forms of expertise.

Being trained in the art of war is one form of disciplined study Hollywood has no qualms with. Take the treatment of experts in the ideologically poisonous Transformers franchise. All government personnel are portrayed as egg-headed, bureaucratic fools. Attempts to understand a situation in order to respond with diplomacy and level-headedness are mocked and depicted as catastrophic. The heroes in Michael Bay’s trilogy are good ol’ soldier boys, an everyday kid and a generic hot chick.

This widespread discrediting of non-militaristic expert opinion in mainstream cinema is worrying and suggests the prevalent distrust of people who know what they are talking about. No wonder some commentators who were used to such values accused Avatar (2009) of left-wing bias simply because it made villains out of its ill-informed corporate and private security firm characters for trying to commit genocide.

Only in a climate where rational debate is stifled by appeals to be less smart could a centralist film like Avatar be seen as subversive.

Forrest Gump (1994) has a lot to answer for in terms of popularising ideas of stupidity being a virtue. Gump’s simplistic and naive view of the world sets him up as a fictionalised pivotal figure in how American identity has been shaped. He is also obedient and happy to throw the occasional punch. Dumb, dutiful and violent – that’s the Everyman that Hollywood served up to great acclaim in the ’90s and he’s been plaguing us since.

Expert opinion is seen as untrustworthy, as if it is out of touch with how the person on the street perceives issues. And to be fair, experts do often differ in how they perceive issues in their field when compared with the majority. That’s because they have an insight that the rest of us lack since we don’t have the time, resources or capacity to develop it ourselves.

So when somebody dismisses the findings of 97 per cent of the world’s peer-reviewed climate scientists or claims sentencing by experienced judges is too lenient, challenge them as to why. There is a good chance that their refusal to trust the experts may be because they are far too impressionable when going to the movies.

Original published in Fairfax newspapers and online on 21 September 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011