With the end of this exceedingly hot summer soon coming to an end, it’s not a bad time to check in on the latest entertainment Hollywood has to offer. I was looking for something that would be a complete distraction from work: no wrestling with the academic pecking order, no assessment of journals and their publishers, no metrics, alternative or otherwise. I therefore happily stepped into the theater to watch the latest installment of the Ghostbusters franchise, but, lo and behold, I was back at work. This summer movie has as its subject academic peer review. Among the many improbabilities of Ghostbusters, from ghosts to supernatural goo, the most improbable of all is the tacit assumption that the workings of the academy and scholarly publishing would be familiar to the mass audience attending this summer blockbuster. Good lord! Have we gone mainstream?
For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Ghostbusters series, the conceit is that there are all sorts of bizarre behaviors that cannot be explained by conventional physics. These behaviors are wholly malevolent and embodied in strange creatures with designs on destroying some part of the world or, at a minimum, New York City. In that respect the series is original, as most earth-destroying movies take place in Los Angeles, where Hollywood screenwriters seek their revenge. In order to rid the world of these spirits, we need a new kind of police officer, though in Ghostbusters the heroes more closely resemble exterminators chasing cockroaches. You have a demon under your bed? Call in Ghostbusters and clean up the place.
The current instance of the franchise is in part about gender inversion, with the lead characters all played by women. Fans of the series will be pleased, however, by the cameos of Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd, who starred in the original movie. A particularly disturbing aspect of the movie’s reception is that Leslie Jones, who plays Ghostbuster Patty Tolan, has been subjected to racist and sexist abuse and has been forced to step back from some of her normal social media activity. And thus it is that even escapist entertainment gets thrust into the real world.
The plot of Ghostbusters is that Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a physicist at a prestigious university, apparently Columbia. She is up for tenure, has published a number of papers in important journals (a movie about Journal Impact Factor????), and is awaiting the verdict of the tenure committee. In a nice touch, her supervisor (department head? dean?) is played by Charles Dance, best known for his role as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, thus uniting in himself C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. But then Gilbert’s past leaks out. It seems that she once co-wrote a book about extra-physical phenomena, and the sudden reemergence of that book is bound to threaten her chances at tenure. And so it happens: her past is uncovered by the supervisor and we see her exiting the ivy halls. Now reconnected to her former colleague (Melissa McCarthy), she sets out to prove that ghosts are real. All hell breaks loose and the Ghostbusters ride to the rescue — in a hearse.
In comedies of this kind — nutty, over the top, crazy, broad, wonderful — the plot is simply scaffolding for the hijinks, and that is the case here. But surely the producers of this movie would not have used this scaffolding if they thought its premises would be obscure to the audience. So I have to ask: Is it really possible that the public at large is familiar with the notion of academic tenure and the reputation system built on publications that drives it? To keep this in perspective, the mass audience is the one that believes President Obama was born in Kenya.
It is no surprise that the plot of the movie seditiously undermines that system, as the “proof” of the supernatural makes it clear that Gilbert should have gotten tenure after all, making this story just another instance of a long tradition of making scientists and the scientific establishment look like idiots. And even as these portrayals undermine the authority systems that we depend on, the pleasure in showing that the emperor has no clothes is enormous. My personal favorite in this tradition is the portrait of the feckless paleontologist played by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, though it is more than a consolation prize for him to be paired off with Katherine Hepburn in the end. Even scientists are entitled to happy endings.
Meanwhile, when we stop chuckling, it may be time to ask if a broad and sustained education campaign about science and scientific publishing is in order. Popularization, derided by so many, may be an essential defensive strategy. Otherwise we may wake up someday to discover that the AAAS is a front for ISIS or that the Large Hadron Collider is proof that we can indeed build a wall between Texas and Mexico.