The Science and Entertainment Exchange (or SEEX) has consulted on over 1300 films and TV shows in less than 10 years, but outside of Hollywood few people know who they are and what they do. This week we pull back the curtain to look at their activities and their agenda. Are they merely concerned with promoting science and encouraging young people to take up scientific careers, or is there a weirder and darker side to their Hollywood operations?
The Science and Entertainment Exchange are the entertainment liaison office of the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS describe themselves as a private, non-profit, non-partisan, non-advocacy organisation. The only part of that description which is true is that they’re a non-profit. The NAS were brought into existence by an act of Congress spearheaded by Abraham Lincoln. They were set up to provide impartial scientific advice to the President and Congress to help make for better, more informed policy. While they do get private donations, mostly from foundations and big corporations, most of their funding comes from the government. As such they are part of the state, whether they admit that or not.
While they are technically non-partisan there is a pretty obvious distinction in the US between the two major parties when it comes to scientifically-informed public policy, namely, the Republicans are mostly opposed to that while the Democrats make hay by paying lip service to it. While they are supposed to simply provide objective scientific information that is relevant to policies and public issues, they do advocate specific solutions. And it isn’t just me saying that, these are the words of Ann Merchant, Deputy Executive Director, Office of Communications at the National Academies, who manages SEEX.
Approx 02:20 – 03:00
If the parent organisation of SEEX aren’t who they say they are then SEEX probably aren’t who they say they are. By the end of this episode you will hopefully understand what I mean by that.
But let’s get down to brass tacks – who are the Science and Entertainment Exchange and what do they do? In essence the NAS wanted to do something about how science and scientists were portrayed in media, in the hope of fighting back against the perceived attacks on science. They want to encourage more heroic pro-science stories and inspire more kids to become scientists when they grow up. Not in itself a problematic aim, except that it makes the NAS a political organisation, not merely an advisory one.
So among the initiatives they came up with was the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which formally launched in 2008 at a ‘coming out party’ in Los Angeles with hundreds of Hollywood luminaries in attendance. SEEX announced that they are a free service to film, TV and video game producers, basically a 1-800 I NEED A SCIENTIST office. You phone them up and explain what you need help with and they set you up with an expert in the relevant scientific fields, whether it be biometrics, astrophysics, artificial intelligence and so on. They apparently maintain a database of close to 3000 experts and have provided consultations on over 1300 films, TV shows and video games since 2008.
I don’t know what most of these projects are but according to their webzone and the presentations given by Ann Merchant and Rick Loverd, who is the program director at the Science and Entertainment Exchange, it includes Covert Affairs, House, The Big Bang Theory, Bones, Heroes, Fringe and loads of Marvel movies alongside Contagion, Prometheus, Tron: Legacy, Battleship and my personal favourite in their catalogue, Apollo 18. That the conspiracy mockumentary about the secret rock monsters on the moon.
So we’re talking about some hugely popular and well-known films and TV series, and while they don’t have any control over what goes into the scripts they are working on far more projects than the CIA or FBI, on a scale more like that of the DOD. Despite this, very few people know who they are, and aside from a small flurry of media articles about them in 2016 there isn’t much journalism devoted to them.
I think there are several reasons for this – not least that they mostly move in elite Hollywood circles. Friendly producers like Seth McFarlane and Jerry Zucker have hosted ‘salons’ where a bunch of people go round to their house and SEEX provide some expert guest who does a presentation and a Q and A. Apparently these have been very successful – sometimes going on for several hours. But you’d only know about this if you watched video presentations about the Science and Entertainment Exchange by their employees. Likewise they’ve been involved with a number of live events – conferences of varying kinds – but the only guests were Hollywood bigwigs and scientists. Again, I only know about these events because I watch SEEX’s not-very-popular youtube channel.
But another reason is that SEEX present themselves in such a benign way. They’re just trying to get more people interested in science through the ‘accidental curriculum’ of movies and TV. For example, the popularity of the Natalie Portman character in the Thor movies – which the Science and Entertainment Exchange consulted on – saw them run a little follow-up project.
Approx 13:50 – 16:40
So you get the idea – they suggested making Natalie Portman’s character a scientist, which proved popular. After the second film they did a nice little inspirational-sounding promo project with Disney which probably did more to promote Thor, Disney and the Science and Entertainment Exchange than it promoted STEM careers. The success of this led them to do a similar promotional competition around the release of Captain America: Civil War. They launched the Girls Reforming the Future competition which saw over 1000 young ladies compete to be one of the lucky few who got to go to the red carpet premiere of Captain America: Civil War. Which is a film where a retro white straight male stereotype fights with a futuristic white straight male stereotype while the white straight males in the audience spend most of the time looking at Scarlett Johannsson. Who – spoilers – is not a scientist. Though to be fair, who’d be a scientist when you could be a kickass Russian spy and assassin?
One more point – the winner of the grand prize got an internship at Marvel Studios. So not money towards thethe education necessary for a STEM career, which is the biggest stumbling block for a lot of kids, but an internship at Marvel so they can learn first hand how all this technological progress ends up in the service of yet another Iron Man film. One question – do they get paid for this internship? Because otherwise the grand prize for one lucky young lady is to be exploited by Disney. Surely they aren’t that cynical? I actually don’t know the answer to that.
The Science and Entertainment Exchange’s Influence on Scripts
There is not a huge amount of information available on SEEX’s script impact – when asked about it Ann Merchant always uses the excuses of confidentiality and having signed NDAs so they can’t talk about this stuff. But once the film comes out they can talk about this stuff, so I think that’s just her trying to avoid the question.
Nonetheless both she and Rick Loverd have talked about how they changed Natalie Portman’s character in Thor from a nurse to an astrophysicist. I’m sure a lot of neoliberals would argue this is a good thing, after all the Science and Entertainment Exchange especially want to inspire more young girls and young people of colour to consider careers in science. And while I think that is a self-imposed political mission which goes beyond what the NAS are supposed to do, ultimately I have no problem with that, as such.
However, one can argue that nurses are more important to society than astrophysicists, I certainly think they are. It is mostly women who do that difficult, stressful job so I might argue that SEEX’s politics here are disrespectful, elitist and regressive, however much they might think they’re being the opposite. They’re saying ‘don’t become a nurse, become an astrophysicist to satisfy our vainglorious claims about making the world a better place’.
In case you think I’m being a bit hard on the Science and Entertainment Exchange, let’s explore two other examples of how SEEX have influenced scripts. One of their more general aims is to have better representation of scientists in general – less of the Frankenstein psychopaths and the nerdy weirdos and more cool young women like Natalie Portman. But comments made by both Rick Loverd and Ann Merchant betray their misguided elitism.
Approx 06:00 – 07:40
We’ll look at SEEX’s relationship with the military in the next section but notice how Loverd speaks about getting ideas they want to see expressed out into the world. Again, this goes way beyond providing impartial advice – this is very much a political organisation trying to shape the world through cinema, i.e. a propaganda operation. He also fumbles around over how they get writers ‘to write for us’, I mean ‘write about an idea we’re excited about’. There’s this frequent doublespeak about whether this is about promoting science, or promoting scientists. Is this about embedding accurate factual information in entertainment, or about glamourising science to recruit young people into those careers?
Approx 21:30 – 22:40
Honestly, I don’t think Ann Merchant is a very nice person. And ultimately, what is the purpose of this? She seems to be saying that they want more young women and more people of colour to consider STEM careers, but not if they’re anti-social or have Aspergers syndrome? She seems to be getting confused between the Hollywood portrayal of science and how cool that is, and real life scientists and whether they are cool.
Because, and I’m not sure if Ann Merchant has noticed this, but SEEX works on pretty much every Marvel film. Who goes to see comic book superhero films? Nerds. Are nerds sometimes put off from doing things because it seems you have to be cool in order to be that person? Is that partly why they’re drawn to unrealistic fantasies about having superpowers – because they’re not sure where they fit in in the real world? And as such, maybe insisting that scientists in films be portrayed as being just as cool as the superheroes kinda makes a science career seem like a less realistic proposition to a lot of the exact kids they should be trying to engage.
But because Ann Merchant doesn’t like people with Aspergers for some fuckwit bigoted reason, and because she seems to have got sucked into the Hollywood bubble and lost her grip on reality, this whole thing goes from a noble-sounding endeavour to a rather nasty, misguided, elitist venture.
To further illustrate this, at the end of her presentation Merchant was asked about other examples of script input, and listen to how she replied.
Approx 41:17 – end
Firstly, notice with the Watchmen example that this isn’t about scientific accuracy. It’s about rewriting the scientific rules to match up to Hollywood’s expectations. This whole office involves a kind of doublethink where they are not promoting accurate science, but promoting science itself. But what is science if it’s inaccurate? It’s not good science any more. The whole thing is self-contradictory, on top of requiring a confusion between reality and fantasy, i.e. hyperreality.
Then she refers to the little shout-out in Contagion where the scientist who develops a vaccine and saves the world is inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Merchant’s joke about scientists being willing to kill millions of people just so they could find a cure and get famous shows that the way the people working for the Science and Entertainment Exchange think about these things is quite, quite ugly.
SEEX’s Connections to other Entertainment Liaison Offices
Given that SEEX is supposed to be the entertainment liaison office for a private NGO non-profit advisory body, they do seem to be quite happy working with the military, and with the liaison offices of government agencies. I mentioned in the FBI episode that some of the writers workshops run by the Bureau’s liaison office have involved SEEX. It seems their success at building a community in Hollywood by offering a free service has enabled SEEX to quickly become an indispensable tool.
As Rick Loverd says, they work a lot with the military. Even though he gave that speech in 2015 the older ELO reports do not mention him or the Science and Entertainment Exchange. However, the newer ones do. The 2016-17 reports from the Army note how the Undersecretary of the Army visited Los Angeles for a few days in June 2016. He provided the Army’s liaison office with a list of organisations he wanted them to coordinate with, including SEEX.
Meanwhile, the 2016 CLT – Civic Leader Tour – of an Air Force facility was reported a big success thanks to Rick Loverd who generated ‘massive entertainment industry interest’ in the tour. This is the one that took place just before the presidential election where the participants were told not to discuss politics during the trip.
Loverd also provided a list of 70 industry types for the Air Force to approach for the 2017 tour, which I believe took place very recently. This is where they get a bunch of writers, producers and so on and take them on a two-day tour of an Air Force base, usually in an unusual location like Alaska. This is all designed to help the creatives get inspiration and access so they can develop better military-themed storylines, but also gave the Air Force a chance to emphasise the sorts of stories they wanted to see told.
Loverd and the rest of the Science and Entertainment Exchange are evidently quite adept at fostering relationships and getting writers to write for them – I mean, write about ideas they’re interested in. It seems that the Undersecretary of the Army realised this and pressed the Army ELO to work with them. The Air Force have already been working with SEEX to get people interested in behind-the-scenes tours of military facilities, which provides the Air Force with an opportunity to get writers to write for them – I mean, get them to write about stories the Air Force are interested in. SEEX are working alongside the FBI and military ELOs to help them achieve their goals.
Then there’s this story, which both Loverd and Merchant have told:
Approx 13:05 – 14:00
I took Loverd’s advice and watched the episode of Covert Affairs that he mentioned, and I wish I didn’t because it’s terrible. It’s actually season 4 episode 6, where a federal agent is murdered and the CIA and FBI team up to try to figure out what happened. So let’s listen to a couple of scenes, both to give you a flavour of what Covert Affairs is like and also how they managed to get a little promo for ESRI into the episode.
As you can surely see, Covert Affairs is a low-rent knock-off of Homeland which involves a series of relatively generic storylines about bureaucratic struggles and little mysteries that have to be solved. One of the investigators gives a little shout out to ESRI for helping him narrow down the likely place where the federal agent died using their complex mapping software.
In sum, we have the Science and Entertainment Exchange working with a producer at Covert Affairs, a CIA-sponsored show, putting them together with ESRI, who work with In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm for tech companies. What has teaming up a CIA-affiliated tech company with a CIA-sponsored TV show got to do with promoting science and encouraging people to pursue scientific careers? They’re not just helping government ELOs achieve their objectives, they’re also helping to promote the hi-tech surveillance state run by the CIA, NSA and the rest. But the Science and Entertainment Exchange are still just some innocent little NGO who are interested in getting more Hispanic girls to become botanists. That’s all that’s going on here.
Promotion of Transhuman Autocracy
Bringing this all together – the hyperreality, the involvement with the government, the worrying values underlying all of this – is the Science of the Marvel Universe event in late 2016. This was hosted by The Great Company in downtown LA, though the hosts and guests kept referring to it as the HQ of Stark Industries. It was co-produced by The Great Company and SEEX, and funded by Google, Honor and The Alfred P Sloan foundation.
Google need no introduction, but Honor are a brand created by Huawei, the Chinese electronics company. They make smartphones but their website’s slogan is ‘For the Brave: Honor believes the world would be a better place if each of us knew and nurtured our own greatest strength.’ The Alfred P Sloan foundation is a nearly century-old organisation originally set up by Alfred P Sloan, the chairman of General Motors. They support various science-based educational projects.
This was an all-day event with speakers and panels and you could wander round an exhibit and look at props and artefacts from the Marvel Universe. Hundreds of Marvel fans were invited, alongside scientists and people from the entertainment industry. To give you a sense of what it was like I’m going to play you a presentation by Alicia Jackson, the CTO of Drawbridge Health.
This is a former DARPA employee talking about creating our own superpowers through genetic manipulation, who seems to think the whole thing is really cool but also scary but also exciting. Notice the name of the company – Drawbridge Health. A drawbridge is something you pull up to prevent access to your town or castle – in short it’s a way to keep out the plebs and the bandits. That’s not a reassuring image for a company engaged in the transhumanist science of creating superpowers. Though I guess that depends which side of the drawbridge you’re on.
Putting this all together I ask you: Are the Science and Entertainment Exchange a benign, non-profit NGO just trying to get more accurate information into entertainment and encourage people into STEM careers? Or are they, in effect, a state-sponsored propaganda unit with an ugly agenda? I’m sure by now you know what I think.