While some deny any obligation of our fiction to reality, the inspiration traveling back and forth between the two worlds is undeniable (and of course at times, wrenching).   As trends emerge from common experience, artists can end up showing us more about our world through metaphor than we could ever realize while busy dealing with it day to day.



Some trends become too familiar, or so Kyle Buchanan laments on Vulture.com in his review of recent superhero installments. The films are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, while becoming darker and more deeply rooted in reality.  Science has replaced the supernatural in almost all recent (super)hero films, and fear of its misuse has become a major plot and character motivation.



“In The AvengersThe Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man, the good guys are in possession of a scientific device, introduced early in the movie in a very conspicuous way, that the bad guys then co-opt to turn against the entire city,” Buchanan writes.


One instance could be attributed to a science-nerd screenwriter, but three big-budget studio films released within months of each other warrant a closer look.  Buchanan goes on:

“In The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, the device is a clean-energy breakthrough … that can be used to destroy (or help destroy, in the case of Stark Tower) the world, if tweaked fairly easily. Whoops!


“And in both The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, the good guys haven’t even been using the device (too dangerous!), but still, they kept it around for years instead of dismantling it because … well, just because.”


All three films present technology with dual-use ethical dilemmas of the kind that is increasingly demanding attention in the real world.  Worry over new science is compounded by the fact that it has the potential to effect enormous good and horrendous damage – dual use.  A prime example that has been vexing the scientific community for some time and has recently spilled over into the (interested) popular consciousness is research on the H5N1 influenza virus – bird flu.


Two independent research teams were able to artificially create a strain of H5N1 that is transmissible between mammals, through the air like a seasonal cold.  That this type of transmissibility was possible had been debated, and is particularly fearsome even to seasoned epidemiologists, due to the extremely high mortality rates that have been associated with human H5N1 infections (which, it should be noted, has come under scrutiny, with skeptics – hopefuls? – pointing out that less severe cases may have gone unreported).  Even if the 60% mortality rate is inflated, scientists and physicians are thinking of the 1918 flu pandemic, which claimed 50 million lives at a 2.5% mortality rate.  The researchers’ hope is that studying mutations in the lab will assist in early detection of actual H5N1 viral mutations in nature, and in the timely development of vaccines.


Dual-use is a factor because, in addition to a naturally occurring pandemic, there is fear that these experiments could be replicated and weaponized by terrorists.  Sound like the far-fetched plot of the next Batman movie?  Unfortunately, the concern was real enough that the United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took the unprecedented step of asking that details of the research not be published.  Though the decision was later reversed, controversy over the research and its publication erupted.


Ruth Faden, PhD, MPH, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and a member of the national committee that called for the establishment of the NSABB in the wake of 9/11, worked to cut through the fear on both sides of the science vs. public safety debate.


“In the end, we’re talking about the same thing, reducing the probability that we’ll be facing a killer pandemic,” she told Diane Rehm while a guest panelist on her NPR program in late December 2011, just after the NSABB’s call for redaction.  By taking the means out of the equation, Faden put the focus back on avoiding the “end” of global pandemic, which, rather than something unprecedented, was manageable through a more familiar process of risk assessment. Daunting, but possible.


“The challenge is to implement effective practices to properly assess and manage these risks that allow for the vigilant stewardship of both the institution of science and public safety,” Faden wrote with colleague Ruth A. Karron in a commentary for the journal Science.  Rather than waiting until research is completed and ready for publication, Faden and Karron asserted the obligation to prevent the next dual-use controversy with prospective review, by an international oversight body.  “There is no doubt that there are formidable obstacles to developing such a global oversight body. But that the challenge is hard is no excuse,” they wrote.  While the international body has yet to be established, the NIH has established new policy for “for Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern.”  First on the list: H5N1.


From an ethical standpoint, Faden and Karron assert that “all scientists have an affirmative ethical obligation to avoid contributing to the advancement of biowarfare and bioterrorism,” a quandary scientist characters in film wrestle with increasingly, hence the unused ‘devices’ Buchanan notes.


Of course, our stories mirror our worst fears, and our hope that someone will save us from them.  However, as recent events have underscored, in reality there’s no “someone,” only us, and our hope must be redirected into thoughtful action if those worst-case scenarios are to be prevented.  Many eyes are on the meeting of leading influenza researchers in New York City this week, where that plan of action is likely to be laid out.

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Leah Ramsay

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