Home > Media, Science > NASA names best and worst sci-fi movies of all time – or not?

NASA names best and worst sci-fi movies of all time – or not?


A front page article in this week’s Sunday Times stated that NASA had named 2012 the most absurd science-fiction film of all time. In a follow-up article on page nine, the Sunday Times stated that NASA had recently held a conference at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to highlight the good and bad scientific practices of Hollywood. According to the Sunday Times, NASA and the Science and Entertainment Exchange produced the following lists:

Worst sci-fi movies:
1. 2012 (2009)
2. The Core (2003)
3. Armageddon (1998)
4. Volcano (1997)
5. Chain Reaction (1996)
6. The 6th Day (2000)
7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

Most realistic films:
1. Gattaca (1997)
2. Contact (1997)
3. Metropolis (1927)
4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
5. Woman in the Moon (1929)
6. The Thing from Another World (1951)
7. Jurassic Park (1993)

I was curious about the reasons for some of the choices, so I thought I’d look this up on the NASA website. But I couldn’t find any mention of these films on NASA web site, the JPL web site, or the Science and Entertainment Exchange web site. There were plenty of articles reporting NASA’s choice of films, but none of them I looked at had links back to a primary source at NASA. Many had links to articles in other newspapers. And curiously, none of the articles were in American newspapers.

Then, today (Jan 4, 2011), The Science and Entertainment Exchange issued a statement on its blog:

The article in the London Sunday Times on January 2, 2011 “To Absurdity and Beyond: NASA damns flaws in sci-fi films” incorrectly attributed a top-ten worst sci-fi films list to the Science & Entertainment Exchange. We were not involved in creating the list.

This raises some interesting questions:

  • Did NASA, in fact, publish a list of best and worst sci-fi films?
  • Where did the lists published by the Sunday Times originate?
  • Did NASA have a conference about sci-fi films?
  • Why did so many newspapers publish a story about this without bothering to check the primary source?

The newspapers and journals that re-hashed this story include:

Update, 6th Jan 2011

Dave Kellam, at eightface.com, also wrote a blog post on this subject: NASA and bad science movies. Kellam emailed Donald Yeomans, the manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, who was quoted in John Harlow’s Sunday Times article. In his reply Yeomans stated:

There is no list and there was no meeting to put together such a list. NASA would never put together a list of “worst sci-fi films.” We are not movie critics.

According to Kellam, Yeomans stated that he was interviewed by a British journalist, but was subject to misquotes and manufactured quotes.

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  1. Laelya
    Jan 5, 2011 at 05:54

    Muito bem observado… Também procurei a “lista” no site da Nasa e não achei. By the way, em nenhum outro lugar tb… ;-)

    [Rough translation: Very well observed ... Also tried the "list"at the NASA Web site and have not found. By the way, in no other ...]

  2. Jan 5, 2011 at 12:13

    Hello, my Geek Files blog at the Coventry Telegraph did report this, as you say. The Sunday Times article appeared to be a report of what was said at the conference that was mentioned. We did not attend (popping over to California is not really feasible for me) so we relied on the Sunday Times’ own report of the event and wrote about it in good faith, using it as a springboard for further discussion, and assuming such an extensive article to be accurate. It seemed to me that the list of good and bad films must have been unveiled at this conference.

    A few things to make clear. The internet rarely bothers to check primary sources – such is the fast and transitory nature of online news: waiting days for replies just isn’t a viable option, it has to be reported there and then while it’s still news. Even the big news agencies don’t check, they report on what others say and take it as accurate. Secondly, as you have begun looking into this, why did YOU not email NASA or the Science and Entertainment Exchange to answer the questions you are asking about the Sunday Times article. It seeems a little hypocritical asking why other sites didn’t do any checking when you have done little more than look at the websites for the organisations. That’s not meant to sound rude but it seems odd to be accusing sites of not doing any research when you have done very little beyond click on the sites for NASA and SEE. Thirdly, it does seem rather odd that the Sunday Times reported this without it being obtained from somewhere – it was a detailed piece and I don’t think it would have been fabricated.

    • Martin Budden
      Jan 5, 2011 at 17:01

      While I understand you may be somewhat miffed that I pointed out an error in your blog, the gracious response is to correct the error not to attack the messenger. Your accusation of hypocrisy is unwarranted and should be withdrawn. A check of a primary source does not require attendance at the event, or emailing the source – in this case a search of the relevant web sites was and is sufficient. I’m not asking newspapers to do anything I didn’t do. (Even if I was, it would not be hypocritical – articles written by professional reporters and award winning bloggers should be held to a higher standard than those written by a blogger who writes occasionally in their spare time.)

      To answer some of your points:
      “waiting days for replies just isn’t a viable option, it has to be reported there and then while it’s still news” – agreed, but I never suggested you should email NASA and wait for a reply – as I said before, a simple search of the relevant web sites would have been sufficient. Speed is important, but speed without accuracy is meaningless.

      “Even the big news agencies don’t check” – I somewhat doubt this.

      “we relied on the Sunday Times’ own report of the event and wrote about it in good faith” – this was one of the things I was getting at in my post – relying on newspaper articles in good faith and reiterating their content is not journalism. Often articles in newspapers contain inaccuracies.

      “it does seem rather odd that the Sunday Times reported this without it being obtained from somewhere” – it is indeed odd. I agree with you that I don’t think this was fabricated. I think it’s more likely that the journalist took the unofficial pronouncement of a NASA scientist and inflated it into an official statement from NASA and the Science & Entertainment Exchange. Still it would be interesting to know the original source.

  3. David Bentley
    Jan 5, 2011 at 17:34

    I’m not at all miffed at your pointing out an error in my blog. There was no error in my report. I attributed the report to The Sunday Times and reported it in good faith, so there was no error whatsoever. Thus there is nothing that needs correcting. The Sunday Times is required to do the correcting, not any other site. Other sites – such as mine – that reported on the Sunday Times article might update their reports but they made no mistake in relying on another article in good faith.

    I’m more miffed at the fact you have suddenly woken up to the fact that online blogs source material from other sites without further checking or researching or clarifying. It happens thousands of times a day all over the internet. While my blog may well have higher standards than more amateur sites existing out there, I still follow the blog tradition of aggregrating material, commenting on the material of others, and reporting on the reports of others, for instance saying ‘Actor X is up for playing Superman in the new movie, according to a report on Z. The site claims that X has held secret talks with studio executives over the role.’ This is also the approach taken by agencies such as the Press Association, Reuters and others, contrary to whatever doubts you may have. We get news feeds from those agencies and they follow that approach regularly, as they are given limited time (some say 30 minutes) in which to complete every article.

    You appear to show a total unawareness of how online news works and how journalism works. That is incredibly worrying.

    Blogs – whether on newspaper sites or existing independently – often aggregrate material from other sites and say ‘According to…’ etc. b(Digital Spy runs entirely in this way, for instance). How have you not managed to notice this? Sometimes they run updates or second articles if the original report turns out to be incorrect and they become aware of this.

    I don’t intend to do anything else with the report I wrote because it is, as it stands, without error. It is an accurate report of what The Sunday Times claimed, and attributes the material to The Sunday Times. It serves no purpose for me to revisit the article; that responsibility is up to The Sunday Times. If I’m directly contacted by any of the parties mentioned in the article, then I may write a follow-up but it is not up to me to correct the mistakes of others. It’s the standards and reporting of The Sunday Times that are at issue here.

  4. David Bentley
    Jan 5, 2011 at 17:49

    I further wanted to add that I did quickly look at the SEE website around the time I wrote my blog and saw no mention of what The Sunday Times reported, but thought perhaps that they hadn’t got round to writing something for their own site at the time. (I’m glad I went there because I found something of interest regarding a recent sci-fi film I had seen.) But, still, an absence of similar information on the SEE website didn’t bother me too much at that point. I had no reason to believe The Sunday Times had made up that entire article.

    As I said, I don’t intend at this time to do anything more with my own article, as The Sunday Timee clearly got those lists from somewhere. If further information comes to light, then I may add an update.

    But such things are all part and parcel of online reporting. Where reports seem obviously spurious, then I avoid them (or treat them derisively), but it’s simply impossible to spend time delving into every report, especially with the blog being nothing more than an unpaid personal hobby corner hosted by my newspaper.

    I do think, though, that you need to get off the high horse and open your eyes to the world of online reporting, even though some of it may seem unpalatable.

    • Martin Budden
      Jan 7, 2011 at 01:54

      Of course reporting other peoples’ stories or comments is not itself erroneous even if those stories or comments are incorrect. The statement “X said Y” remains true even if the statement Y is itself false. However your article makes direct statements about scientists at NASA and the Science and Education Exchange without qualifying them as “according to the Sunday Times”. Indeed, the only thing you qualify in this way are the statements about Donald Yeoman’s involvement in the film The Core.

      I also note that, instead of withdrawing your accusation of hypocrisy, you have compounded it with one of haughtiness. Explanations about how online news and journalism works are appreciated; personal insults are not.

  5. David Bentley
    Jan 7, 2011 at 03:16

    I saw no reason to attribute every supposed fact and statement in my piece with an ‘according to’, just one instance of crediting the source is enough, in my view. I find it neater to weave it into a sentence, though you appear to have been thrown by that. (A lot of what I wrote was my own analysis, such as the discussion of 2012′s performance, which did not come from the Sunday Times at all).

    It all does seem rather strange, especially since The Sunday Times ran a top SEVEN best/worst and the SEE comment mentions not being involved with a ‘top 10 worst’ (no mention of a best), so even their own disclaimer isn’t accurate. In the light of NASA also commenting, I added a small update at the bottom of my piece, but that’s all I’m doing with it. It’s all water under the bridge now, the internet has moved on (did you know a tweet has a life of only one hour? That is how fast the web moves). And I’m not withdrawing any ‘accusation’ – in my opinion, you are being a little hypocritical (for the reasons mentioned), not to mention worryingly unaware of how the online world works. I responded because you seemed bizarrely unaware of how the net works and also appeared to be labouring under a misapprehension over my blogging role (the facts are that I do it in my free time, unpaid, and always in a hurry trying to keep up with the online flow, so I often – but not always – do what other sites do, which is to bash out a bit of commentary in a few minutes). As I said, though, it’s all water under the bridge, or over the dam, or any other metaphor you wish to choose. But if I can help with any other information on journalism or online reporting, then feel free to ask.

  6. Jerry Dominguez
    Jan 18, 2011 at 18:31

    I had heard on the news anout the NASA list and have just Googled it find out:
    a) The names of the best and worst films for scientific accuracy (note not sci-fi films as a genre, and
    b) A scientific explanation of what was so good or bad about the films portrayal.

    What I got was instead pages and pages of individuals views of the films, many critising NASA because they dare to have a viewpoint. I too, tried to find the raw source data, with similar lack of results. I stumbled across Martin´s blog and at least now I know why my search attempts were futile and that I am not completely useless when it comes to finding information.

    Thanks for getting attempting to get to the truth Martin, that is what a blogger should always attempt to do. Keep up the good work.

    PS I actually enjoyed 2012 and thought that it was a cracking film, but I´m relieved to here that someone, i.e. NASA, is prepared to question the science rather than just letting us ignorant soles panic. I thought Contact was too long winded but then neither I, or NASA, are pretending to be film critics.

    Regards Jerry

  1. Jan 6, 2011 at 20:10

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