Parrella, Jean Anne (2020-04). A Social Semiotic Discourse Analysis of Cinematic Portrayals of Science: Implications for Public Learning and Understanding. Master's Thesis. Thesis uri icon


  • Entertainment media play a significant role in the dissemination of science to the public. The persuasive ability of media texts, primarily film and televisions productions, can influence the public's understanding and retention of scientific information. Individuals who lack scientific literacy are defenseless to such influence because they often struggle to distinguish fact from fiction. Therefore, it is critical for science communication scholars to investigate the portrayal of science in cinema in an effort to better understand and prepare for interaction with diverse audiences. The study is one of the first of its kind to use a social semiotic discourse analysis, containing both qualitative and quantitative components, to examine the representation of science and scientists within fictional films. Using the Internet Movie Database, I identified 39 culturally significant films and television programs released between 1980 and 2019 that included science as an integral component to the production's plot or setting. I eliminated television programs, documentaries, and biographies from the eligible sample to focus my analysis on fictional films. Using a stratified random sample, I identified 16 culturally significant films--four released each decade beginning with 1980--to include in my final sample for analysis. Findings from a denotative analysis revealed nine themes: unusual behavior, egotistical scientist, unethical decision-making, public distrust, genetic modification danger, government involvement, working conditions, innovation, and comradery. Eight of the nine themes included sub-themes, supported by a variety of icons, indices, and symbols representing verbal and visual depictions of science and scientists. A quantitative analysis of signs within each theme revealed scientists are most represented as antisocial, egotistical, and unhealthily obsessed with their work. In addition, scientists are often shown making unethical decisions in their research and working with futuristic inventions and developments that they maintain through genius-level thinking. Findings indicate that science fiction film viewers are likely to interpret science and scientists as unsociable, unapproachable, and untrustworthy. Viewers might also harbor unrealistic expectations of scientists relating to their progression of scientific inquiries. Cinematic depictions of science have done a disservice to the American public by representing science and scientists poorly within science fiction films in all genres. To challenge these negative depictions and negate pre-existing beliefs, scientists should find relational elements to connect with their audience, approach discussing scientific awards or achievements carefully, and articulate the values and ethics they maintain when conducting research.

publication date

  • April 2020