Where Science and Story Meet
Scott Z. Burns Visits Stanford


As the Information Age marches onward, creating ever-smaller platforms and an ever-expanding network of accessible resources, a dark irony of human nature stands out against the digital glow. Despite the intensifying emphasis on rationality and logic in our modern world–computerized thinking, basically–humankind remains a fundamentally irrational group. Emotion and subjective reasoning drive our belief systems and how we create them, just as they did in the time of the sundial.

For Scott Z. Burns, this fact is at the core of his passionate ambivalence toward technology, and his career-defining desire to explore it through story. Burns, the producer and screenwriter behind such acclaimed tech-aware films as An Inconvenient Truth, Contagion, and Side Effects, visited Stanford recently and spoke about the frustrating yet fascinating paradox of our tech-infused world: that scientific advancement has the potential to dramatically improve lives, but at the same time offers more efficient means through which we can fall victim to our own human nature.

Unlike many storytellers of technology and science, Burns–whose films run the gamut from documentary to drama–views science as a good thing, or at least a neutral thing. Science is a tool, imbued with a profound, positive potential. Yet, it is also one that can be abused, misused, and misunderstood to disastrous effect by humans.

“Science has an interesting relationship with literature and film,” Burns said. “Films like Frankenstein, Her, Soylent Green–these are all about science run amok. But really, if you think about it, it’s usually the human that’s run amok and the science is just kind of hanging out.”

Burns’s films expertly capture that existential tension that arises when the timelessness of human fallibility intersects with the forward pull of scientific progress. In Contagion, which charts the spread of a devastating pandemic and health officials’ race to contain the virus, the terror arises from realizing just how ill-equipped current societal structures are to handle such a disaster. The scientific capability is there–doctors work furiously, using the latest advances in medical technology–but its effectiveness is muted by the inevitable manifestations of human frailty.

As the virus courses through society, a conspiracy theorist uses his blog to spread government distrust, people panic, health officials prioritize the wrong things, and social order fails. In the face of an epidemic disease, the effective and focused use of scientific progress represents the sole solution. However, as Contagion powerfully illustrates, humanity doesn’t necessarily tend toward the effective and focused, and sometimes it even subverts and corrupts technology in counterproductive and damaging ways.

“If you look at the history of science fiction film and literature, science is usually vilified,” Burns said. “The people representing science are greedy and malevolent in some way. I wanted to show science as the hero.”

In a way, science is the hero of all of Burns’s works, be they fictive or factual. Technological progress is carried forth by optimistic, insightful protagonists, who fear that the pre-formed, vested interests of people and institutions will corrupt the science, preventing it from achieving its true potential for improving mankind.

While the intentionality of such nefariousness haunts Burns’s films, he places a greater emphasis on dangers created unwittingly–the unintentional obstacles that the virtue of scientific progress must overcome. The accidental burden that Burns returns to most frequently is people’s reluctance to adapt their beliefs to account for new discoveries, to let go of ideas when they are proven obsolete by scientific revelations.

“We have an emotional attachment to our beliefs,” Burns said. “All of us–really smart people–take the facts and fit them into our beliefs. We make these magical thinking errors all the time.”

Burns aspires to pierce these comfy illusions by furnishing the cold hard truth with an emotionally resonant, educational vehicle: the story. Burns looks beyond the frame of the screen; he wants the public to care about and better understand its real-world health. To make his message convincing, he looks not to counteract irrationality, but embrace it. If stories can convince people that there is truth in fallacy, they can convince people that there is truth in fact, as well.

“You have to find a way of connecting science in a way that draws people in,” he explained. “If you describe the science without allowing it to live through a story, it doesn’t register. The story gives people a frame for those facts, and without that frame, people tune the facts out.”

Burns saw this most phenomenon most explicitly in his work producing An Inconvenient Truth, the Academy Award-winning documentary on Al Gore and his tireless campaign to educate citizens about climate change.

“People had a lot of bad ideas about Al, so we had to give him a makeover,” Burns said. Burns and his team structured the film as a redemption tale of sorts, buoyed by poignant flashbacks to moments that eventually spurred Gore’s decision to embark on his climate change project. Gore at first objected to the prominent inclusion of these personal moments, such as his sister’s death from lung cancer and his son’s near-fatal car accident; he found them manipulative and not related to what he was trying to do with the film.

But Burns recognized that the scientific facts would mean less to people without that emotionally resonant framing device; these little details about Gore’s family and his personal journey were not a distraction from the film’s guiding objective, but rather a necessary feature of it. As Burns clarifies: “With Al, as soon as we reframed the guy, people could absorb the argument.”

The inexplicable link that people form between the person telling the story and the story itself is part of what makes conveying scientific information objectively so difficult. But for Burns, it creates an opportunity. To weave scientific rationality into emotionally resonant stories is to make the oftentimes alienating pure logic of science accessible to the average viewer. Human irrationality is not then a limitation, but an opportunity to place fact and logic into a process driven primarily by emotion.

“I do think stories work,” he said. “I have to believe stories can change people. Sure, I’m frustrated by the speed of the response to climate change, but I recently marched in New York City with thousands of people who believe it’s real. I never thought that’d be possible.”

Burns has, in a sense, decided to beat our tendency toward irrationality at its own game. He creates the emotional space necessary for the science to tell its own story, and then he lets the story go, floating through the cloud, hoping that it resonates enough to stand out amidst what can become a high-tech echo chamber for our personal beliefs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *

Comment *