The best science fiction movie of the year has a contradictory message

December 6, 2015
A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie, "The Martian is seen in an image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken May 17, 2015.  This area is in the Acidalia Planitia region and in the novel and the movie, it is the landing site of a crewed mission named Ares 3.  REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Handout via Reuters  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - RTS39QM

A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie, “The Martian is seen in an image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken May 17, 2015. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Handout via Reuters

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi smash-hit, “The Martian,” which led the box office for almost a month, let loose a blazing rocket of American can-do spirit. At a time when troubles like terrorism, climate change and economic malaise often seem intractable, the movie sends a hopeful message: Never fear, America! If the problem is going to be solved, science and technology can solve it.

Astronaut Mark Watney, portrayed winningly by Matt Damon, looks like the poster boy for STEM education — shorthand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Stranded on Mars, he must survive on meager resources until the next humans arrive, possibly years away. Far away on earth, NASA and a team of crack scientists work frantically to bring him home, while his crewmates, who are now headed for home, buck orders from the top to undertake a daring rescue mission.

Fortunately, Watney has a weapon more powerful than a forbidding alien climate. Whatever the challenge — dwindling food supplies, lack of water, inadequate transport — Watney moves boldly to “science the shit out of it,” as he memorably quips. He is able to leap steep mathematical hurdles in a single bound and hack any predicament with his dazzlingly clever skills. This MacGyver of Mars can do it all — equally handy with duct tape or decaying plutonium.

Throughout the movie, Watney, his crewmates and the scientists back home display wondrous ingenuity, insight and innovation to conquer seemingly impossible odds. But is a STEM education really all you need to attain such inspiring and extraordinary success?

Politicians and policy-makers have lately made a sport of dismissing the value of a liberal arts education. Remarks by Republican politicians, notably in a recent presidential debate, make it sound as if studying the humanities is a threat to national prosperity.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio asserted (ungrammatically), “We need more welders, less philosophers.” Ohio Governor John Kasich piled on, insisting that “philosophy doesn’t work when you run something.” It sounded like the GOP might prefer it if all philosophers immediately drank hemlock.

Watney looks like just the kind of scientist a GOP candidate could love, with plenty of brawn and chutzpah to go with the brains. He is a botanist-explorer, a man of action, not just ivory tower ideas. But this avatar of badass science is also given to philosophical musings on truth and goodness: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars,” reflects Watney. “Why bother? …Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.”

Understanding the truth of our interconnectivity as human beings, it turns out, is as critical to survival as oxygen generation on Mars.

This kind of philosophical reflection is not so surprising when you look back at the history of the world’s great botanist-explorers. Alexander von Humboldt, the famed Prussian scientist who brought the world quantitative botanical geography, was an influential proponent of Romantic philosophy. John Bartram, the daring explorer and founder of U.S. botany, was one co-founder, with Benjamin Franklin, of the American Philosophical Society.

Perhaps the greatest naturalist-explorer of all was Charles Darwin, who grew up despising rote learning at school, preferring to forage in the fields collecting minerals and insects that he did not kill out of ethical qualms. In college, he read novels and joined naturalist societies where religious and moral questions were hotly debated. His best subject was theology.

As a scientist, Darwin excelled in gathering field data, but the great insights necessary to see grand patterns in his observations required a free-ranging mind. He had a splendid pedigree for this: His grandfather Erasmus Darwin was not only influential in physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology and biology, but also a philosopher and celebrated poet.

Not one of these men would understand America’s current philosophobia and disdain for the humanities. They knew the link between the practice of science and the quest to examine big, universal questions dates back to Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE), usually regarded as not only the first physicist, but the first philosopher of the Western tradition.

To meet the competing demands of great crises or complex intellectual challenges, we actually need what developmental psychologist Howard Gardner refers to as “multiple intelligences.” Watney clearly needs his mathematical, technical and spatial abilities on Mars, for example, but his plight also requires a high degree of intra-and interpersonal skill, linguistic flexibility and ethical insight.

His decision-making involves more than just facts because science does not solve issues of right and wrong. The head of NASA, Teddy Sanders, played by Jeff Daniels, is often at odds with his fellow scientists because he can be short-sighted and fuzzy on ethics, focusing instead on the bottom line and the next PR cycle.

In “The Martian,” scientists toss around questions that can’t be answered by science alone. Do you believe in God? Do you try to save a single life when many may die in the effort? When is it right to disobey orders? When does moral duty trump professional commitment? Characters in the movie don’t just sit around in armchairs having arcane discussions. They apply their fundamental moral and philosophical insights to problems of profound urgency.

A chemistry lab alone, the movie shows, can’t foster all the qualities needed for the future. Progress requires people with critical minds, unhampered by prejudice and open to new ideas. To work effectively with the Chinese in bringing Watney home, the NASA scientists in “The Martian” must have knowledge of other cultures. To decide to disobey orders and rescue Watney, his crewmates must understand ethical concepts like conscientious objection and inalienable human rights, which have to be taught and cultivated.

More than ever, the movie shows that we need the kind of high-tech wizards who develop humane values. If not, science itself will lead us off course.

So how to explain the ubiquitous drumbeat for more STEM and less humanities? President Barack Obama has pledged $240 million to encourage STEM education, and both Democrats and Republicans are putting forth proposals on how to emphasize STEM over other educational paths. Many cite widespread shortages in the U.S. science and engineering labor force — a claim which has been widely disputed in research that shows that only one in three people trained in STEM actually have a job in those areas.

Perhaps what we really need are not more high-tech workers, but broadly educated citizens flexible enough to adapt their learning to a variety of jobs and occupations — along with policies that ensure that American jobs will be decently paid. In a Washington Post op-ed, Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, argues that society requires more scientists with a liberal arts education. “Our culture,” she warns, “has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.”

Young people limited strictly to high-tech pursuits will not have the opportunity to soar as high as these legendary innovators — or as high as Mark Watney, the botanist-explorer-philosopher of Mars.

They also won’t have the chance to make great sci-fi movies — the fruit of the collaboration, if there ever was one, between the artistic and scientific imaginations.


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Haven’t found the “missing link” because there never was one. Just God-haters who worship themselves.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

By tossing in Darwin as an analogy there is a section of the public who will stop reading and start a rant on evolution. He’s a loaded subject that will detract readers from your article and your point.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

That has nothing to do with the article; you just read “Darwin” and stopped reading didn’t you. You might want to be concerned about STEM as exclusion of the humanities also indirectly excludes religion.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

The Enlightenment created systems of education rooted in a study of the Classics (and classical languages), of Philosophy; of mathematics and calculus and algebra, and the natural sciences. The majority of those persons who became scientists, inventors, or creative artists, made their contributions because of that educational system.

“Need more welders”? Sure. America so desperately needs the narrow, the bigoted and the chauvinistic. We must have those who think less and “do” more.

Right. Unfortunately, that appears to be where we’re headed.

Posted by Commentor4 | Report as abusive

The continuously degraded ability for critical introspection and contemplation is bad for the soul, unless you want to remove that aspect for the further, more complete synthesis of mankind the technological animal, nurturing unchecked the instinctive qualities of the species we all love dearly such as greed, vanity, jealousy, fear and etc…
STEM education translates to exploited working stiff the same as other occupations have through the generations. May as well also have the know-how to amuse yourself with real thought.

Posted by socialhermit | Report as abusive

I think the reason that there is a significant push towards STEM education is that we have been going through a period where the liberal arts were the priority, now the U.S. has to import technology workers to meet industry demand. Yes, I think philosophy, literature, and other liberal arts topics are invaluable to producing balanced thinkers. At the same time, we still need more people who are technologically minded, especially as our world becomes more and more digitized.

Posted by gleverance | Report as abusive

I agree with the need to have a basic understanding o multiple fields of study, but trying to master more than one field is risky. For example, I have a basic to intermediate knowledge of computer science, but focus more on networking and security. If I tried to master all the fields first, I would probably forget most of what I learned. the human brain can only retain a limited amount of data that can be recalled in the short term.

Posted by skellogg05 | Report as abusive

I disagree with the premise that science fiction is supposed to have a message or “show” what is needed. Originally, science fiction would attempt to raise questions, explore what-ifs, spark the imagination, and maybe disturb us along the way. Let’s try, in this polarized world, not to forget the value of those things.

Posted by zyanna | Report as abusive


The following line in your [noted] article triggered my memory of a quote from another science fiction book…

“Perhaps what we really need are not more high-tech workers, but broadly educated citizens flexible enough to adapt their learning to a variety of jobs and occupations…”

Robert A Heinlein, spoken by Lazarus Long in the Book “Time Enough For Love: Lives of Lazarus Long”…

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Regards, WKTaylor

Posted by WKTaylor | Report as abusive

I think the real point of STEM is that native born Americans are losing interest in the hard path of science education. Thus STEM’s real goal is to limit the loss of technically educated Americans and has nothing to do with the relative merits of a technical versus liberal educations.

Posted by DPM9 | Report as abusive

The article main subject is based on false dichotomy.

There is no actual reason why a welder cannot be a philosopher too.
There is no reason why a philosopher wouldn’t know how to weld.

There is no reason whatsoever why any of these or other groups of knowledge cannot be combined.

There is no reason whatsoever why any of these types of knowledge need to be pushed into extremes.

Obviously nobody can combine dozens or hundreds of different types of knowledge. especially if they are not complimentary. Obviously you need specialists too to deeply study and advance specific scientific or other branches of knowledge.

It is absolutely false that learning welding or any mechanical or technical knowledge would make anyone unable to learn anything else – if they have natural abilities and desire to learn.

You can have welder poets just like you can have warrior poets, regardless of how “less cool” that looks. (Being a warrior is not actually cool, btw. Its back breaking, soul crushing difficult.)

Posted by SurfaceRl | Report as abusive

It is not true that “every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out”. Tell that to the Tutsi of Rwanda who were butchered by their neighbours. Or the White farmers of South African who are being murdered on a literally daily basis by gangs of Black thugs. Or the Christians and Yezidis in ISIL who are being crucified and murdered for not being Sunni Muslim.

Posted by royalist | Report as abusive

Expect software to improve over the next generation, to the point where a STEM education will be pointless. The Humanities will be vastly more important.

We should be pushing industrial design, expanding each person’s knowledge base, and using creative skills to improve our ability to innovate.

That’s what a technology driven society will need in an increasingly complex and changeable world.

Posted by BruceTutty | Report as abusive