By Annemarie Schimmel
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For Gould, Thomas’s need to see the evidence for himself perfectly encapsulate the primacy of witnessing in scientific thought: “A skeptical attitude toward appeals based only on authority, combined with a demand for direct evidence . . ” Individual scientists witness their own work but even scientists working in the same lab do not directly witness the experiments of their colleagues. As a scientist himself, Gould is assuming that everyone else—including other scientists—should believe these privileged scientists’ pronouncements about the natural world.
This problem is complicated by the fact that “accuracy” is an ambiguous concept in cinema. Although consultants can help filmmakers to portray more plausible science, this is not the same thing as creating scientific representations that correspond to natural law. Cinema’s naturalizing effect, in fact, makes it incredibly difficult for lay audiences to determine which depictions are correct and which result from filmmaking constraints or creative decisions. It may well be cinema’s naturalizing effect, and not scientific errors specifically, that motivates the scientific community’s numerous critiques of science in entertainment media.
Roving public lecturers and demonstrations in the nineteenth century allowed those outside of the scientific community to witness science, but these audiences were still spatially and temporally localized. The number of people who could directly witness an experiment or phenomenon was limited to those in attendance. Many thousands more were able to indirectly witness these experiments, however, by reading about them in periodicals and newspapers. Mass media like newspapers function as “virtual witnessing technologies” by allowing individuals to indirectly or virtually witness phenomena, demonstrations, and scientific events they are unable to witness directly.