2007 Hamptons Int'l Film Festival - Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film Discussion - October 20, 2007
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film Discussion:
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
The Ross School – East Hampton, NY
October 20, 2007
Continuing with my science lesson, I attended the Alfred P. Sloan Film Discussion: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. In addition to discussing the film and its subject matter, the discussion went deeper into issues concerning science and the media with lots of impassioned audience interaction concerning the environment, stem cell research, medicine, PBS, and more.
(AB) Alec Baldwin – Movie & TV Star, Beetlejuice, The Cooler, 30 Rock
(PD) Phil Donahue – Co-Director, Body of War & Legendary TV Talk Show Host
(DS) David Schwartz – Museum of the Moving Image
(SF) Stuart Firestein, PhD - Professor, Biological Sciences, Columbia Neuroscience
Doran Weber of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation opened the panel by talking about the Foundation and its initiatives. He was followed by Hamptons Film Festival Programmer David Nugent who introduced everyone on the panel. Alec Baldwin, who moderated the discussion, joked and said, “I’m Alec Baldwin, noted neuroscientist.”
(AB) What was the significance of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? Is there a distinction between films dealing with education and science?
(DS) It’s a remarkable film. A portrait of Jean-Dominique Bauby who devised a way to write using his eye. What’s amazing is that it’s a movie about perception, looking at the world, and finding a way to communicate very much by art. What’s great about The Sloan Foundation is that it sees the connection between art and science. This film makes us question the old dictionary definition of the word “vegetation.”
(SF) Most of the science we don’t know. It’s a locked-in syndrome caused by a cerebrovascular accident (CVA). A bleed in the brain that can cause a great deal of collateral damage. These things are likely to be congenital in nature. They’re almost always fatal.
(AB) From a historical standpoint, at what point did society decide to care for these people?
(SF) Don’t know. Look at the case of Terry Schiavo a couple of years ago. There’s a great deal of work now where MRIs or FMRIs (Functional MRIs) look at the activity of the brain. Trying to map the brain in this way to learn whether or not it’s conscious. It’s difficult to work out.
(PD) No other nation on earth faces the issue of taking Darwin out of text books. Film is a way to change this. Film fills the void left by corporate media. If you don’t understand Darwinian theory, you will never contribute to science. There’s a challenge by independent filmmakers to stand up to right wingers. Stem cell research for spinal injuries is hugely complicated. We did our best to try to explain this in our documentary (Body of War), but regret that this is one area in the film that didn’t make it completely into the final cut. It didn’t move the rest of the story along.
(SF) Stem cell research is a critical issue. You can blame the religious right, but also on scientists and educators who haven’t taken the time to teach it. One of the greatest books is Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
(AB) Science and its relationship to the media seem to be eclipsed by environmental science. Do you agree that science through the media is too top-heavy with the environment instead of stem cell research?
(DS) With Terry Schiavo, we had politicians and people diagnose her based on how she looked in videos of her. She really was vegetated. Politicians were interpreting her, not science.
(SF) Research is done through taxpayer money. I used to get money from NIH to study the sense of smell in salamanders. Your nose is one of the very few parts in the brain where you make new brain cells.
Audience Question: Media and the environment is sexier. Stem cell research is a political hot potato. Why isn’t it represented in television and film as much?
(PD) The people who are rewarded in this business are those who draw the largest crowds. Science in the States has been silent. There are very few people of power to speak out against this phenomenon.
Audience Question: If Bauby had his stroke today, would we be able to take care of him?
(SF) There have been advances. We know there’s more mental capacity than we thought.
(AB) Does memory come back?
(SF) We don’t know. There’s a great deal of work now for neuralprosthetics.
Audience Question: Where do you see the great strides in medicine going?
(AB) People do look at medicine like it’s Detroit auto making.
(SF) It’s so hard to see. Popular science magazines always put out issues relating to what’s going to happen in the next 50 years. It’s difficult to tell. The big issue is basic/fundamental research versus translational research. Basic research is what’s made biomedical research in the U.S. so great.
(AB) For someone who works in the media, my greatest criticism is public television. It was the mission under Nixon’s administration to address issues not addressed by commercial network television. It’s so horrific what they’re doing with public television. What is your opinion?
(PD) PBS is totally politicized. You need a politically active young group to make media reform and saying that corporate media is ruining our democracy. On PBS, you couldn’t be on the air and talk against the war unless you’re funded. You couldn’t be Bill Moyers. There was a Darwin series on PBS narrated by Neil Armstrong that no one watched.
(AB) Funding for public television has been cut. I had a program called “The History of Food” about the copious examination of where your food comes from.
(Doran Weber) I disagree respectfully. The Sloan Foundation supports science. The bottom line for PBS is, is the show entertaining? They care about the audience. The Foundation co-funded a Frontline special on nuclear power. It works both ways. I don’t think PBS is controlled by the right. There’s a lot of science on PBS.
(AB) The New York Times has been very brave on issues of campaign finance reform, but it doesn’t make a dime in political advertising. NYT has been disgraceful on the issue of nuclear power.
Audience Question: TV is for old people. You want to get a large number of younger people to watch.
(AB) Public television is free television. Only about 40% of people in the U.S. have cable TV. Flyover America watches public TV.
(SF) The critical issue here is what we do with information and now how we access it.
(AB) Another issue today is how many drugs are given to children with juvenile emotional disorders. Is this scary?
(SF) We don’t worry enough about the side effects of drugs. Drugs have become a lifestyle issue.
(AB) Are we doping our kids as a better relationship than parenting skills?
(SF) Parenting is a hard thing to do.
(AB) Perhaps we should leave it at that.
(PD) Big Pharma is playing a large roll in our lives. 1 pill can net $2 billion a year. It can save or make a company. There’s pressure to get it out, forgetting the side effects.
Audience Question: Is it a challenge for the media to re-engage the industry?
(DS) The is some science on dramatic shows like CSI and Numbers.
(Audience Answer) I produced a news series on ABC called Hopkins 24/7. The media is doing it, once in a while. Hopefully, when you do it, you get good results. I understand Alec’s point that the political environment has geared the channels. Funding is so reduced.
(PD) I produced and hosted a five-part series for NBC in the 1980s called The Human Animal. We went to rat labs to learn how we’re behaving. First episode was about love and sex, which had the highest ratings. Second was ware and violence, third was nature and nurture, and I forget the other two. The shows made it into the Top 20 on network TV. I was hot then. I had more power than I’ll ever have again. If we can find someone current and hot, it can be done again. We need a star, but one that’s promoted and assembled cleverly.
(DS) It’s 50th Anniversary of Sputnik. Science brought the community together then. We should support real science.
(SF) I second that. There are plenty of cases where science is entertaining. Entertainment is something science provides. The public will watch. We’re a scientific civilization. People are genuinely interested.
(AB) I’ve helped raise money for The Ross School. People have the right to step outside the public school system. My point is that people have the means to go to private schools that pay taxes for public schools, too. People need to turn their attention to what’s going on in public schools. If the cure for cancer exists in the brain of an African-American girl in Alabama, we have to get it out of her brain. We have to make a college education free for people who qualify because society is going to benefit from that.
(PD) I had 16 years of Catholic school education. My science education was a leaf in the dictionary. We weren’t inspired to see the mystery and fascination of science. This curiosity came late in life to me. We have not turned our kids into the excitement of this exploration.