I recently watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on DVD [note: plot descriptions and spoilers about the film lay ahead]. I’m a big Indiana Jones fan. That character represented my first exposure to a professor and likely served as some unconscious motivator for me to get my PhD even if I don’t carry a bullwhip or find buried treasure. However, in this last installment of the movie, the real treasure as Dr. Jones puts it isn’t the ornaments that they find in the temples, but the knowledge that are embodied within the cultures where those objects emerge from.
Included with the DVD was a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary on the making of the movie where George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and some of the people who developed the movie are interviewed. At some point they spoke about the title of the movie and how drafts included things akin to “Indiana Jones and the Giant Fire Ants” or “Indiana Jones and the Aliens“. As a fan who enjoys the franchise for the historical references and creative use of real facts blended with fiction I found the whole alien thing more than a little concerning, but as an ardent follower of George Lucas’ films my entire life I have come to learn what makes him tick. George wanted to recreate the B-movie experiences of his youth as I found him speaking about this I started to think about the role of the artist vs. the audience and its parallels with knowledge translation.
Although Lucas, Spielberg, Harrison Ford and the writers acknowledged the importance of creating something for the fans, it was evident that the creative team behind this were having fun doing something that pleased them and met their needs. As a fan, I didn’t like Crystal Skull much and the reviews online suggest that there were quite a few (but still a few) that felt the same way. The reason I didn’t like it was that it didn’t feel true to the other movies, the ones I enjoyed as a fan. Yet, as filmmakers, Lucas and Spielberg seemed to have a great time.
In health sciences, we have a similar situation with artists (scientists/researchers) listening a little to the audience and then creating knowledge that they think the audience (health professionals, the public, policy makers) will like, but also doing it for themselves. They take feedback from the audience such as the number of articles downloaded or references as part of an impact factor and make the assumption that past endorsement equals permission to use the same process to envision further research. My question is whether the audience is buying this knowledge (metaphorically speaking) because its the closest thing to what they wanted that they could find, but that still might not be what they would have produced had they the creative abilities to generate that knowledge for themselves.
Would Crystal Skull have been a better movie had the fans designed it? Were those that liked it happy with it only because it was Indiana Jones, the character they love, and the fact that they hadn’t had a movie with him in it for more than 15 years. It might be said the same of some of George Lucas’ other franchise: Star Wars. Fans of the first three movies have been very vocal in their dislike of the “new” movies that began screening in 1999, but that didn’t stop millions of them (myself included) from seeing the movies multiple times, buying the DVDs and supporting the work.
Do we have the same thing in knowledge translation, where people are willing to tolerate knowledge that is incomplete, doesn’t fit, isn’t always appropriate, but is the only thing they have because that’s the only thing that scientists are willing to produce in favour of their art?
If George Lucas listened to the fans exclusively, would he have generated something better? Folks like Jaron Lanier might argue no, because that hive mind that comes from mass opinion is what dilutes creativity. We don’t know, because George is an artist and he wants to create what he wants to create, giving some, but just some, credence to what the fans want.
(Interestingly, a new documentary (The People vs. George Lucas) will be showing at the upcoming Hot Docs film fest in Toronto looking at whether Lucas’ Star Wars franchise is so part of popular culture that it should be considered a common good.)
Should this same position be taken with knowledge translation or should scientists pay more attention to the needs of the public and end users? Would that improve things?