Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On "Arrival," Sapir-Whorf, and "Bad Science"

So, let's just get this one out of the way: there are probably spoilers in here for Arrival. So if you haven't seen it and you're planning on it, you've been properly warned.



Now that's done, let's get right into it – Dumbledore dies at the end. I know, I didn't see it coming either. It was a really weird change of pace from the aliens and science and spaceships and shit, but who am I to question someone else's artistic vision?

But really, Arrival was one that I was initially very unenthused about (Jesus, that word looks weird. I don't think I've ever seen "unenthused" written down before…). It looked like one more first contact movie, and one that was going to be taking itself a little bit too seriously to really hit any of the magic that it could have had. So of course, I didn't see it in theaters (Also because I don't watch movies in theaters. I think the last one I saw on the big screen was The Force Awakens.).

Then I found out the main character was a linguist. As a writer and as a general nerd, that really got my attention. I think we need more sci-fi with actual scientists as main characters. People doing science in science fiction shouldn't be as hard to find as it currently is. So that convinced me to watch it. Plus, at two bucks, it was more than worth the rental price (Bless those little DVD machines that sit in grocery stores, and bless whoever decided they wanted to put one in Podunk-ville, BFE Washington.).

Now, this is where we get into real spoilers, so your last warning. I won't tell you again. Flee now.

Okay, so the actual premise for Arrival is something known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. There's lots of articles online and lots of information about it, so I won't go into great detail on the specifics or the history. You need to know two things about it for this article to really make sense.

1: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, in a nutshell, states that language shapes human perception of the world. A person who learned about the world in Chinese will have not just different words, but a different experience of life.

2: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is, at best, heavily disputed and, at worst, a crock of shit. It all depends on which linguist you ask, but the linguists who subscribe to Sapir-Whorf are few and far between.



Why didn't they know about this? How could their science be so bad? That ruins the entire movie! God damn you Hollywood, stop contributing to the dumbing down of America!

I'm sure some people out there would have that reaction learning this information. It did initially strike me as odd when I looked into it, I admit, but I had to stop and question why… and hence, we have this entire post.

I'll get this out of the way now, then explain it: I don't think using Sapir-Whorf as the basis of the movie in any way devalues the film.

Now yes, you could argue that we should be following modern trends in linguistics if we're going to make a movie about linguistics (Also: let's just stop and appreciate the fact that there's a big-budget, popular film about linguistics out there now.). But again, I have two points to make.

1: Science fiction has always, at its core, been an exploration of possibility. What if you traveled 10,000 years into the future of Earth? What if dragons were genetically created? What if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was not only valid, but correct?

2: Sapir-Whorf has to be correct for Arrival to get its message across. It's about determinism, and Sapir-Whorf provided an opening for them to explore that (I'm skipping steps in there, obviously, but that's the simplified version.).

Some people will posit that, because it's not realistic enough, it's just no good. But really, did any of us expect a realistic movie about first contact? No. But what we got was, if questionably possible, very intellectually stimulating. There aren't many movies out there anymore that exist entirely to make you question things, to make you think about the world in-depth. They tend to be considered "too risky" for big production companies, I would imagine. They can make much more money by pumping out Fast­2(Furious + 47X) or whatever naming convention they go with this time around (Seriously, those movies are a mess and a half. I enjoy them… but what ever happened to 1-2-3-4-5-6-7?).

My hypothesis that I'm sure will be proven wrong? Arrival opened a door that we can start to get some more intellectual works through. We can start to have stimulating thought experiments and breakdowns of science in the two hours we spend glued to the screen watching the next big-name flick.

But even though that's almost definitely not correct and almost certainly won't happen, I think Arrival is an important movie, both for its daring and for me personally. It dared to be smart. And it made me think. It got me thinking. I hope it gets everyone else thinking, too, but it sent me down this particular rabbit-hole.

Being smart is fun. Learning is fun. Knowing things is fun. Sometimes we just need a bit of a reminder of that, and I think Arrival—in large part thanks to its use of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis—can be that. It can do that.

To me, that's worth more than all the correct hypotheses in the world.


Voss

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