Our character is a scientist of some kind. He’s a mathematician if you’re watching a drama. He’s a physicist, usually, if you’re watching a sci-fi movie. He is a biologist in a zombie movie or a coder in a techno-thriller (and he is almost invariably a man, which in and of itself is an annoyance). Our scientist character delivers a brief, relatively reasonable paragraph of technical dialogue. He explains some plot point to the other characters in the scene, which serves to explain it to the audience as well. He throws in a few obscure, jargon-y scientific words for verisimilitude, but the basic point he makes is quite clear and comprehensible. Something along the lines of: “We’re going to need to modify the warp thrusters to go through a wormhole of that size,” or, “The terrorists are using an unhackable 512-bit key to encrypt the location of the plutonium,” or even, “By traveling into the past you’ve created an alternate universe timeline in which you were never born.” Something along those lines. He describes a scientific concept that is both readily explicable and quite literally has just been explained.
But then, after our scientist has finished, the camera turns to a second character. This would be our scientist’s normal-dude buddy. He’s just a regular Joe. He is the audience’s stand-in during the scene, and the character with whom the audience most identifies. This guy makes an incredulous face in response to the scientist’s technical language. And then he says the following line:
“WHOA, Doc. Say that again in English!”
You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve seen this moment on screen, you’ve seen it on TV, you’ve read it in novels. I find this moment to be extremely condescending to its audience. The moment essentially signals to the viewer that all of that mumbo-jumbo that this smarty pants has been blathering on about, well, we filmmakers do not understand a word of it. Moreover, we don’t care to. And we have no interest in your understanding it either.
It’s a moment of casually cynical anti-intellectualism. It’s a joke predicated on the idea that only some geeky sex-less egghead would ever bother to care about what some dotty scientist says. The moment treats neither its characters nor its audience with respect.
–Graham Moore on anti-intellectualism.
Sorry for the long quote, but… guh. Yes. This. Moore was a scriptwriter for The Imitation Game, so he goes on to talk a little bit more about how he approached the technical jargon in that film. He also mentions something I find interesting, which is the difference between having a character spout off technobabble to sound intelligent to the audience, and having them explain complex concepts as simply as possible, so that the audience can get into Smart Character’s head and feel intelligent. The point is that the former approach, which is the “usual” approach in fiction (ref. quote above) is inherently anti-intellectual. It implicitly marks “smart people”–almost always a white man in some STEM field–as being Other and incomprehensible. Worse, it tells the audience not to worry their pretty heads about maths, or science, or engineering, or really anything about the mechanics of the way things work. Instead, it’s implying a kind of blind respect for authority; the commands the (white, male) Expert is uttering don’t need to be understood or even to make sense, you just need to act on them.
I’m sure y’all are smart enough to see why this might be a bit of a problem. Or at least symptomatic of a problem in wider culture, particularly when it starts showing up in. Every. Single. Thing…