Monday, January 12, 2009

Science and Science Fiction: What the scientists say: SF to discuss science

This is part three 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.

Also, be sure to check out the compilation of recommended science, science fiction, and related web sites.

Below I've highlighted snippets from some of the responses to the question:
Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
There were a number of respondents who said they have used SF as a starting point for discussing science:
Nina Munteanu @ The Alien Next Door : "Yes, I have, particularly to do with my own work. My SF thriller, Darwin’s Paradox, examines—and even challenges— many scientific premises and theories within the context of “what would you do?” SF provides an excellent platform for scientific discussion and the deeper social and ethical questions that follow."
Peter Watts : "All the time."
Lee Kottner @ Cocktail Party Physics "Absolutely. Not only here at CPP and on my own blogs, but in the classroom. For a couple of years, I taught a freshman composition course based on writing about science. We used one of Stephen Jay Gould's essay collections and a couple of science fiction novels each semester to both illustrate the difference between writing factually and writing about science and to ask questions about science itself. [...] The lesson I learned from this is that most people don't notice whether the science is wrong or right when it's a good story. They suspend disbelief, which is what writers want. What matters is that the plot seems plausible."

Arvind Mishra @ Science Fiction in India : "Quite often. To begin a lecture on science or technology stories act as attracting contrivances /devices for the audience and thus could be used in various medium of imparting knowledge from class room to open theater as par the need and demand."

Schadwen @ Elemental Home "Every now and then I have been talking to people about science fiction books or stories, and we've segued into science discussions. Or I've used science fiction examples to expand on a point in a scientific discussion. Sometimes to extreme thoughts of science fiction can help set an upper bound for what people see as possible."

kcsphil of DC Dispatches : "I had a general chemistry professor who did years ago - he taught us equation balancing using the breakdown of Tri-Lithium."
Several pointed out that using science fiction is a way to spark enthusiasm and make science memorable:
Mike Brotherton : "I’ve developed and taught an entire course about physical science starting from science fiction. Even good, motivated science students react enthusiastically when science fiction is used to introduce particular topics. "
Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0) : "When I am teaching, I'd like to make people excited about real science, not just Sci-fi. I want them to realize that that same "wow" factor is in real life as well as in fiction. This is part of why I write, trying to express real science in an interesting and exciting way to hold people's interest. And some real science IS just as 'out there' as Sci-fi. Think of string theory. Heck, think of neural networks and things like memory formation! I hope that for many people, Sci-fi provides the "wow" that gets them started looking at our earth-bound science, and making their own science-nonfiction."
Blake Stacey @ Science After Sunclipse : "Arrogant popularizers of science like myself will seize on anything to make a bit of science memorable. If that means joshing a silly mistake in a screenplay, well, that's the price we have to pay."
Some scientific fields aren't very well represented in science fiction, making it difficult to use SF to discuss those topics:
Miriam Goldstein @ The Oyster's Garter "I really haven’t. This is probably because I’m a marine ecologist and not too much science fiction is about that type of thing. (Except for the horrible abundance of “dolphins with mystical knowledge” books. I would never use these book as examples because a) people do not need to be encouraged to harass poor cetaceans for Mystical Truths; and b) they are BAD books.)"
Kim @ All My Faults are Stress Related : "Geology is rarely explicitly part of science fiction. (Any time a different world is imagined, geology could be used to build a world that makes sense. I've rarely seen an imaginary world that makes geologic sense, unfortunately.) Off the top of my head, I can think of only one set of books that does geology well (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson), and I have yet to run across a student who is familiar with them."
Bad science fiction can be an easy way to start discussion about science:
Mike Brotherton : "On my blog, my most popular posts tend to be science fiction I love or hate because of the quality, or lack thereof, of the science."
Z @ It's The Thought that Counts : "It’s certainly easier to strike up a conversation with my fellow physics grad students by talking about people doing it wrong; the movie The Core is a classic in this regard. As a starting point for some more educational endeavor, I think the standard wouldn’t be so much whether the science was accurate or inaccurate, but rather whether the underlying science stuck out as strange to a viewer or reader. Often this would be blatantly inaccurate science, but I could easily imagine it being something verifiably true that happens not to match our real-world intuition. In either case, it’s a good hook to get people interested in the lesson to come."
Blake Stacey @ Science After Sunclipse : "Yes, Virginia, a lot of science on TV is rather silly. Pointing out these mistakes, whether they are due to carelessness or otherwise, is a way to make scientific discoveries memorable, and is therefore a valuable tool of science education. We can, in principle, work together to get things right so that everybody wins, if everybody holds on to their sense of humour."
Eva Amsen @ Expression Patterns : "It is easier to talk (and laugh) about the obvious mistakes, simply because you notice the silly stuff, but you tend not to notice when it’s not wrong. And you can use the unrealistic scenarios to say “This is not possible, because…” [...] Things that are clearly impossible are a lot easier to point out, and probably easier to use as a teaching tool than things that are just on the edge of being possible."
Scicurious @ Neurotopia (version 2.0) : "I've found in general it's easier to start with what people are getting wrong. Shows like "Bones" are always good starting points. "
But sometimes the bad science in SF makes discussion more difficult:
Eva Amsen @ Expression Patterns : "But when I was writing the fact sheets for ReGenesis I much preferred the episodes that were based on things that really happened, because at least I could find references for it and explain what was going on. The ones that were really stretching it were so difficult. Is it not possible? Why not? Is it really not possible? I ended up saying a lot of “probably not” and “maybe” because there is a big area of things that we simply don’t know enough about. "

Kim @ All My Faults are Stress Related : "I guess The Core could count as a science fiction movie (as well as a bad disaster movie). I've encouraged students to watch it and criticize the geology, but it's so goofy that it's difficult to get much science from it. I haven't seen the new Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I've watched the old version with geology students. Again, it was fun to laugh at it, but it was so wrong that it was hard to know where to start with a critique. "

Peter Watts: "That first thing ["it's easier to talk about people doing it right"]. There's far, far fewer examples to keep track of."
It was also pointed out that SF is not necessarily a good introduction to science:
Ken @ GeoSlice : "Simply put – no. I think that there are much easier and more applicable ways to introduce science than from science fiction. In an ideal world I think that it should be the other way around – science should be the introduction for science fiction."

Lee Kottner @ Cocktail Party Physics : "I think worrying about "wrong science" or "bad science" in science fiction is something of a red herring, truthfully. I don't think it has that much influence, even on TV. [. . . ] I don't think the non-geeky public at large pays much attention to SF, or, sadly, to science. And it's the non-geeky public that science needs to reach most."
Personally, I use SF as a starting point to discuss science all the time. I started this blog for that very reason. But that's a sort of formal discussion. More informally, SF movies and TV shows have often inspired me to complain about discuss the poor way that genetics, evolution and other bioscience is often depicted. Sometimes it's just me pointing out the flaws, but it has occasionally led to actual discussions about what the science should have been. When Jurassic Park was at the peak of its popularity it seemed like every other person wanted to know if dinosaurs could really be cloned from insects trapped in amber.

Sometimes I get annoyed when the main stream media frames a science story in terms of SF. But they do that for a reason. "Jurassic Park" headlines catch people's attention, for one. But it also becomes a cultural shorthand for certain scientific ideas that would otherwise be completely foreign to most people. You say "cloning" and the average person may not have a clear picture of what you mean, but you mention those dinosaurs being brought to life and there is immediate recognition. Of course there is the problem that popular SF with bad science can actually give people false ideas about science. An example of that is all the comics and movies where a "mutation" always creates a drastic change of some sort - usually depicted as bestowing a superpower or a causing a gross change in form. You'd never know from SF that mutations are often neutral. I do think there's an upside, though: people are at least familiar with the idea of a "mutation" causing heritable changes in DNA, even if they don't really understand how it works.

So does writing about the science behind SF make a difference in people's understanding or perception of science? From the stats about how people arrive here at Biology in Science Fiction, it looks like a lot of people search for information about their favorite TV shows, movies and books. I'd like to think that at least some people who visit here end up knowing a bit more about the biosciences than they did before. Does the information reach everyone? No. But it does reach people who wouldn't necessarily have been otherwise exposed to discussions about science.

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  1. Thanks for putting all this together! I'm excited for the discussion.

  2. Intellectually invigorating discussion ....Kudos ! Plese keep it up !!

  3. G,day I love science fiction writing and enjoy such artists as Walter Williams. It is very intellectually stimulating to immerse yourself in the new science fields that the genre has created. From Jules Verne writing for the first time about submarines to the floating micro-chip anti-matter drives in space ships written by Walter Williams.
    I write sci-fi horror and have a new novel called Doom Of The Shem.
    Doom Of The Shem is a science fiction novel that incorporates the horror of military action with the unavoidable hostilities that occur when an alien species invade a planet in search of food. The barbarity of war is brought to light by the work achieved by the nurses and medical personnel of the planets inhabitants. While a full blown military action story emerges from an ensuing war that involves the whole planet. It is especially centered on a squad of the planets army forces, who fight the alien invaders.


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