Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Science and Science Fiction: What the scientists say: Using Science Fiction to Promote Science

This is a continuation of my overview of the responses of scientists to the questions Stephanie Svan and I asked about the relationship between science and science fiction. You can find links to all the contributors' complete answers and our summaries at the ScienceOnline09 Wiki.

Below I've highlighted snippets from some of the responses to the question:

What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?

Many of the respondents thought science fiction could indeed play a role in stimulating the public's interest in science.
Schadwen @ Elemental Home : "I think good science fiction can interest children and adults into following a science education and career. The best example I can think of is "How William Shatner Changed the World". [...] The combination of imagination and science can only help fields grow."

kcsphil of DC Dispatches "I think SF has to help promote good science. We scientists are a bit . . . . dry . . . . so good sound science, perhaps stretched a bit, in SF is a real boon."
Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India : "At least in India sf could play a pivotal role in popularizing sf but for this we have to look for many new innovative formats and procedures [...] An ingenious mix of mythology and sf could also be tried to attract the common masses. [...] If you rationally mix something very familiar like myths of a country with something very unfamiliar like sf ,things get going very well to carry and communicate the intended message to masses."

Chad Orzel @ Uncertain Principles : "Plenty of young people are pushed toward physics by stories that riff off various odd quantum phenomena, or talk about black holes and curved space-time, and all that astrophysical stuff."

Ken @ GeoSlice: "[... ] the answer to the first question is that science fiction has both no role in promoting science and that it often serves as a de facto introduction to science for the general public."

Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0): "One of the things I think is most important about Sci-fi is that it makes people excited about science. It gives you the "wow" factor that you may never get in science class, and it encourages people to imagine beyond the limits of human possibility."

Mike Brotherton : "People learn from story, too easily. Anecdote trumps science all too often in the minds of many. Why not put out some stories that get the science right? People who are not in a position to take a class, or who won’t pick up a textbook, still turn on their TV. There’s a real opportunity that hasn’t been exploited. [...] It’s both a matter of achieving a base level of scientific literacy in the public, and making people care about it. "

Eva Amsen @ Expression Patterns: "I don’t think science fiction needs to actively promote science, but just by being more realistic it can undo some misunderstandings."
Some thought that SF is better at promoting a scientific attitude and making scientists looks interesting than actually teaching science.
Peter Watts @ No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Reloaded) : "I believe the genre can slip a little real science under the reader's guard, but more importantly I think it can help instill scientific attitudes. The best science fiction carries the subtext that the universe works according to consistent rules, dammit, and if you're smart enough you can pop the hood and figure them out. "
Chad Orzel @ Uncertain Principles : "The real power of SF, it seems to me, is to show people, particularly younger kids, a world in which science really matters, and Knowing Stuff is cool. The occasional disaster novel aside, the heroes of most science fiction books and movies succeed because they know things, and more importantly, they remain calm and think their way through the problems that get in their way."
Greg Laden : "The other angle is a little less obvious, and this is about making science and scientists sexy, or at least, interesting. Or at least, not total dickheads or hopeless nerds."

Lee Kottner @ Cocktail Party Physics : "What science fiction can do that science journalism can't (or just doesn't, often) is not just elide the boring stuff, the drudgery of lab work, the negative results, the scratching for grants, but gussy up that process. [...] Fiction is great at communicating the sense of possibility and the excitement of discovery. It humanizes the scientific process. "
Science fiction can inspire scientists and engineers to both develop new technologies and think about the possible consequences of their research.
Z @ It's The Thought that Counts : "I think science fiction’s role with respect to science is primarily to give it context, to help us hypothesize about science ethics or to help us recognize benefits and drawbacks to thinking scientifically. Occasionally a sci-fi author’s message may be to discourage a certain path of R&D, or to discourage a certain style of scientific inquiry, but if that attempt at supposedly stifling science is based on a belief that such work would be unethical, I think it would be aiding the cause of science rather than harming it."

Janet Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science:"I think science fiction has the potential to help us make better science. I don't mean that works of science fiction should create the wish-list of technologies for scientists and engineers to bring into existence (although I'd like a rocket-pack as well as the next guy). Rather, I'm interested in science fiction's ability to paint a picture of everyday human relations in worlds that did not follow precisely the same course that ours has. "
Greg Laden : "Not only does science fiction potentially inspire science and technology, it also gauges science and technology. If you don't know what I mean, just sit down and watch three or four episodes of the original Star Trek and pay special attention to the technology itself, and its use in day to day life (on a Starship) and see how that washes in relation to day to day technology today. "

Lee Kottner @ Cocktail Party Physics "What stories like, say, A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Road or even Dr. Strangelove do is make us think about the possible consequences of new or old technologies. That's never a bad thing. [...] Even if it's not entirely factual or absolutely correct in every detail, SF is serving science. Ask those engineering geeks who went around WorldCon chanting "The Ringworld is unstable!" at Larry Niven. Asked to derive those same equations for some other unstable system, they'd have been bored stiff. Sometimes those mistakes are just as important as the absolutely correct science facts."

Nina Munteanu @ The Alien Next Door: "The SF writer is both herald and conscience of science. It is a responsibility that some don’t realize they have when writing in this unique of genres. They are—we are—commentators of the present and reporters of the future."

Some thought that the science in science fiction is just too inaccurate to use it to teach science:
John S. Wilkins @ Evolving Thoughts "[...] I had to unlearn much of the "science" I had picked up by reading SF (scifi is for latercomers). I recall one book, well before the film Altered States in which an astronaut travelling at faster than the speed of light "de-evolved" through a chimps stage, a monkey stages and then a lemur stage, thereby doing great harm to both physics and evolutionary biology. "
Chad Orzel @ Uncertain Principles : "Science fiction, for the most part, does a really lousy job of teaching science. I'm sure that I'll get a couple of comments from people who learned everything there is to know about orbital mechanics from reading old Hal Clement stories, but the science in most science fiction tends to be pretty shaky. It's often dated, almost always distorted, and frequently warped to serve dramatic purposes. "

Miriam Goldstein @ The Oyster's Garter : "Right now, I don’t see scifi as having much to do with real science. Most of the science in science fiction is so bad that it is either neutral (not associated with real science at all) or harmful to science. I stopped watching Farscape over some nonsense about Aeryn Sun being cold-blooded and how that meant she couldn’t get hot. Hadn’t anyone in LA been to the desert and seen all the lizards scuttling around?"
Several argued that the depiction of science as dangerous and frightening in science fiction can harm public perception of science:
David Brin : "Silly movie sci fi can be harmful. It often goes for the simplistic tale, and cares little about how people would really react to new technologies. The standard Idiot Plot is lazy and assumes that people and society will be stupid, because that drives a simpleminded plot easiest. Viewers come away convinced that progress is bad, society is helpless and we will always misuse technology. A dumb notion to propagandize!"
Peter Watts @ No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Reloaded): "Can it harm the cause of science? Sure, especially if it's anti-science polemic tarted up in sf tropes. Did Michael Crichton ever write a novel in which there weren't Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know?"

Kim @ All My Faults are Stress Related "I don't think science fiction is particularly good at promoting science. (One word: Frankenstein.) An awful lot of science fiction seems to reveal a fear of the unknown, a fear of tampering with nature or with going too far in trying to understand something. It's not true of all science fiction (or fantasy), but I've seen it in places as different as Tolkien and the new Dr. Who."

John S. Wilkins @ Evolving Thoughts : "Few novels are accurate, but even fewer show science in a good light. Frankenstein is the model of the SF scientist, meddling where he (usually a he - SF was very masculine for a long time) had no right to meddle. Arthur Clarke, despite the woodenness of his characters and dialogues, at least stood out in that respect - scientists were the good guys for him (and for a number of Eastern Bloc SF writers like Lem). But most SF showed science in a very apocalyptic and dangerous aspect, as befitted the post A-bomb era."

Z @ It's The Thought that Counts : "It can harm the cause of science if it’s unnecessarily alarmist."
And even the glorification of science in SF can have a negative impact if it sets up unrealistic expectations that modern science simply can't live up to:
Mike Brotherton : "As for the harm, well, there has been a lot of discussion about that, too, following Buzz Aldrin’s comments that unrealistic and unscientific science fiction has dampened interest in the space program. I don’t think his case is overwhelming, but I agree that science fiction has an effect and it isn’t always positive, at least to the public at large that isn’t already a fan of science and discovery."

Miriam Goldstein @ The Oyster's Garter : "[...] the science portrayed is so far away from what is possible now. For example, somebody who became a computer programmer to be like Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash would be sadly disappointed."

Ken @ GeoSlice : "In the case of science fiction movies and TV, I think that harm often results. Most of the general public wouldn’t consider the various CSI shows as science fiction, but that’s exactly what they are. One consequence is that people serving on juries often expect more than is actually possible from prosecutors and have little understanding of important details and caveats of scientific evidence – so, our legal system is suffering due to missunderstandings that often originate from TV shows."

Eva Amsen @ Expression Patterns: "I think that the kind of science fiction that portrays a type of future that is unrealistic doesn’t so much harm science in general, but it does leave people with some unrealistic expectations. Sure, it’s fiction, but by labeling something as 200 years in the future, it suggests that the fictional scenarios are maybe possible some day. "

Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0): "Of course, Sci-fi (and medical shows and things) can harm people's perceptions of scientists and doctors. [...] I think some of these problems arise from issues such as simplifying what we DO know, and how that comes across in books and on-screen. Most people who watch or read sci-fi don't actually know that much about science, and the simplification can get them confused. We do know a LOT, but a lot of what we know is so intricately detailed that it doesn't come across. And what does come across is often over-simplified and results in people thinking that scientists are gods, and then being horribly disillusioned when they realize they aren't. "
But a couple of respondents think doubt that SF can do any harm:
Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India : "No, there seems to be no damage to the science itself, instead it serves the very purpose of sci communication. Its helpful to bring out the science out of our iron walled laboratories to the public."

Lee Kottner @ Cocktail Party Physics : "If the cause of science is to discover how everything works, to advance human knowledge, I doubt that much said about it in science fiction would stop or harm that. Humans are too curious to let much stop them from asking "Why?" and "How?" If the questions aren't asked now, they will be eventually. The mad scientist has been an archetype in the culture at least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, if not Prometheus, and that hasn't stopped or hindered anything. Politics and ignorance do far more damage in that area than sketchy science in SF ever will."
The excerpts I picked out don't really do justice to the thoughtful answers people gave, so if you are interested in the topic, I'd urge you to read the full responses.

Personally, I think that science fiction can and does influence the public's perception of science, both positively and negatively.

In my teenage years SF novels both stimulated my interest in science and taught me a few interesting tidbits about astrophysics and cosmology. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it also reinforced my view that the universe operates on physical laws that are knowable. It's hard to know, though, if the SF I read shaped my interests, or if I read SF because my interests already leaned in the direction of science and technology. I suspect it's more the latter than the former, since the other kids I knew who read SF were also big ole science nerds too. Honestly, I don't think that SF novels have that much impact on how most people view science.

On the other hand, almost everyone watches the occasional SF movie or TV show. That means visual media can have a much greater influence on the perception of science and scientists. I think that can be both positive and negative. On the positive side, popular SF movies can generate interest in scientific research. I've had a number of conversations with people who saw movies like Gattaca or Jurassic Park and were interested in learning more about the science behind the scenes.

It does concern me, though, that there is so much bad science on screen. In the absence of other sources of scientific information I don't think it's a surprise that people start believing in the reality of Hollywood science, where every mutation causes either a gross deformity or bestows a superpower, clones grow to adulthood in a few days, and new diseases are cured within an hour by the efforts of a lone doctor/scientist. It can make real science seem dull and disappointing in comparison. And worse, it means that people have serious misconceptions about both how the natural world works and what it is possible for present-day science to achieve, which can have a harmful effect on public policy relating to science.

That's one of the reasons why I started this blog. I'd like to think that having an easily Googled discussion about the science behind the SF people are reading and watching is a useful resource for those who are inspired to learn more about the science. But since many people who simply absorb what they watch without seeking additional information, I'd really love to see programs like the Science and Entertainment Exchange improve the accuracy level of on-screen science.

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