The Honest Broker meets Dan Brown’s Inferno
The unlikely connections between Dan Brown’s film Inferno, gain of function research, immoral logic, and science-advocacy. From Films from…
The unlikely connections between Dan Brown’s film Inferno, gain of function research, immoral logic, and science-advocacy. From Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.
Inferno may seem like an odd choice of movie in a book about science fiction films and the future. It bombed with the critics, getting a measly 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, it doesn’t have strong sci-fi-credentials, and it definitely doesn’t let sophisticated writing stand in the way of a thrill-a-minute cliffhanger of a story that gleefully throws reality out of the window. And yet, for all it’s silliness, the film provides a surprisingly good backdrop for exploring gain of function research, science advocacy, and the dangers of extrapolating science-justified beliefs to their seemingly-logical conclusions. It even provides an unlikely backdrop for discussing Roger Pilke Jr.’s idea of the “honest broker”–who’d have thought that Dan Brown and Roger Pielke Jr. would end up sharing the same pages!
This excerpt is from the very beginning of chapter 11 in Films from the Future, where I begin to set things up for what’s to come.
In 1969, the celebrated environmentalist Paul Ehrlich made a stark prediction. In a meeting held by the British Institute of Biology, he claimed that, “By the year 2000, the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some seventy million hungry people, of little concern to the other five to seven billion inhabitants of a sick world.”
It’s tempting to quip that Ehrlich was predicting the fallout from Brexit and the UK’s departure from Europe, and his crystal ball was simply off by a few years. But what kept him up at night, and motivated the steady stream of dire warnings flowing from him, was his certainty that human overpopulation would lead to unmitigated disaster as we shot past the Earth’s carrying capacity.
I left the UK in 2000 to move to the US, and I’m glad to say that, at the time, the United Kingdom was still some way from becoming that “small group of impoverished islands.” Yet despite the nation’s refusal to bow to Ehrlich’s predictions, his writings on population crashes and control have continued to capture the imaginations of people over the years, including, I suspect, that of author and the brains behind the movie Inferno, Dan Brown.
I don’t know if Brown and Ehrlich have ever met. I’d like to think that they’d get on well. Both have a knack for a turn of phrase that transforms hyperbole into an art form. And both have an interest in taking drastic action to curb an out-of-control global human population.
The movie Inferno is based on the book of the same name by Dan Brown. It’s perhaps not the deepest movie here, but if you’re willing to crack open the popcorn and suspend disbelief, it successfully keeps you on the edge of your seat, as any good mindless thriller should. And it does provide a rather good starting point for examining the darker side of technological innovation — biotechnology in particular — when good intentions lead to seemingly logical, but not necessarily moral, actions…
Originally published at 2020science.org on October 18, 2018.