It’s science fiction, not science class

A few days ago, Peggy over at Biology in Science Fiction posted a series of questions about the relationship between science and science fiction, particularly relating to the promotion of the former by the latter, and invited scientists and sf writers to respond. This was in conjunction with ScienceOnline09, a conference on promoting public understanding of science. Since then there have been a number of responses, and io9 has taken an interest in the issue, casting it in starkly controversial terms:

Is science fiction keeping ordinary people from understanding real science? Many science writers seem to think so. Science blogging conference Science09 decided to survey science bloggers about their feelings on science fiction, and the results were surprisingly negative. At the very least, science experts don’t seem to think scifi is promoting scientific literacy — and it may actually be making people more clueless, rather than less.

Come on, science fiction is keeping people from understanding science? It’s making people more clueless? Wow, those are strong words. I didn’t know the genre had that kind of muscle; I wonder, is this insidious anti-science agenda carried out with hired thugs, or by some kind of mind-control device? Now I realize this may simply be a case of exaggerating to make a point (by both io9 and myself), but the underlying sentiment is still there, and also echoed in other blog posts linked in that article.

My question is: when did it become science fiction’s responsibility to teach science to the public at large? Sure, sf has always had a close and special relationship with science. And sure, sf fans can be very critical of sf that gets the science wrong — I know I am. And I know plenty of sf fans who, like me, grew up with a strong interest in both science fiction and science (two of the prime manifestations of geekdom, I suppose). But I never, at any age, made the mistake of confusing the two. If there was ever any kind of relation between them for me, it was this: my experience with science fiction has always been informed by my knowledge of science, not the other way around. My opinion of a science fiction story that uses science is always filtered through my understanding of real science, not vice versa. It should be glaringly obvious to anyone that science fiction is, first and foremost, a form of fiction. Science fiction, of course, deals heavily in the possibilities of science, in extrapolations of science into the future, of the consequences of science. And it often uses real science as a starting point, to give the story a feeling of reality. But sf never claimed to be a replacement for science textbooks, teachers, or classes. And if some people take it as such, they have only themselves to blame. To put it as bluntly as I can: anyone who thinks science fiction promises them a science education, and uses it as their sole or primary source for science instruction, and refuses to crack open a science book, and then feels confused by their inadequate understanding, is simply an idiot.

At the risk of further violence to an already-deceased equine, let me pull in another comment on this subject. This one comes from scientist and science fiction writer Mike Brotherton, one of those responding to the ScienceOnline09 questions. I really don’t mean to pick on Mike (he runs a really fantastic blog and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already), but this seems so relevant to what I was just saying above:

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.

[....]

Right now people read stories or watch shows that are supposed to be realistic, and what we’ve learned from science about how things work has no relationship to what happens.

I may sound cruel and heartless and a downright bastard, but I have little to no sympathy for someone who “won’t” pick up a textbook, or at least a popular science book. If someone has no interest in science, then fine for them, that’s their own business, but then I’m not going to worry overly much about whether or not their grasp of science is being warped by science fiction. And, at least in the developed countries of the world (which are the main consumers of sf anyway), who doesn’t have an opportunity to take a class? I seem to remember some science somewhere in there between starting kindergarten and graduating high school. As for people turning on their tv’s, well, there’s more on tv than just science fiction. They could, for instance, check out PBS, the Discovery channel, the Learning Channel, National Geographic Channel, and so forth…. hey, I’ve even seen some science programs on the History Channel.

And where does this assumption come from that science fiction tv shows are “supposed to be” realistic? Says who? Is there a statement at the start of the show that promises no laws of physics will be violated? Never seen one, myself.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying science fiction shouldn’t make an effort to portray science as realistically as it can, within the needs and constraints of the story. That’s definitely a good thing, and something I expect from a good sf author (and there is sf out there with solid science — consider Clarke, as just one example). I guess what I’m doing is making a point about individual knowledge, responsibility, and judgement. As a reader or viewer, I see it as MY responsibility to judge a work of fiction against what I know of the real world. And it’s ultimately MY responsibility to learn something about that world, whether via my education or from picking up a book on whatever interests me — biology, physics, history, or whatever. There’s something very distasteful to me about people who are too lazy to do that, people who passively accept whatever flows into their brains from their entertainment sources and expect it to reflect reality, without utilizing their minds at least a little bit to try to analyze the matter for themselves.

Bottom line: it’s great for science fiction to help people get interested in science and to help develop their appreciation for the possibilities of science; but sf should not feel like it’s shackled to a podium in a lecture hall, compelled to educate the masses in a subject for which there are other, more suitable avenues of instruction. And people should realize that fiction is not necessarily the best place to gain scientific knowledge.

6 responses to “It’s science fiction, not science class

  1. Pingback: More Mish Mash | The Crotchety Old Fan

  2. I’m reading The Canon by Natalie Angier, and she tries to explain why society in general doesn’t embrace science. It’s a good book you might like to check out. I also agree that there’s an explosion of science shows on television in recent years. I have no idea how popular they are.

    But back to the question: Does science fiction detract from the learning of science? I can go both ways with this one. I think SF often inspires some readers to get involved with science, but I also think many readers are happy enough to accept the kooky ideas in SF, and not go further. I know an awful lot of SF readers that actively believe in UFOs, ESP, New Age occult concepts, faster-than-light travel, time travel, and many other unscientific concepts.

    I’m starting to believe that science fiction exists between religion and science. It’s a phase you may pass through, or get stuck in. Personally I love science fiction, but I don’t think it’s any more valid than religion. I find religion to be a fascinating subject, but I don’t believe in it. Science fiction is like science on training wheels.

    Jim

  3. Pingback: Science in Science Fiction | Mike Brotherton: SF Writer

  4. It’s too bad, James, that I have found Natalie Angier’s “science” writing very, very weak. Anecdotes, straw men, biases, and a general lack of understanding.

  5. I’ve just discovered this post, so the comment is late.

    The panel had possibly not stepped back enough to see the forest. There has been a steady decline in the quality of science education in the US since the ending of Apollo. It is very difficult to find young people that can do math and have good deduction powers amoung the general populace.

    We’ve developed an instant society with short attention spans. The vast number of people get their information from TV and movies. The Internet is both a blessing and curse since people sometimes take what they see as fact without checking the facts out.

    I don’t believe that Science Fiction has really had any negative effects on the general populace. If it has had any effect, it has been to stimulate over the years.

  6. It seems rather silly that people are complaining about this sort of thing. Do they pick up books from other fiction genre, expecting it to teach factual information? These things are just stories, after all. I do like my sci-fis to have a bit of actual science behind them, but I don’t expect them to teach me about it. People really need to learn what is fact and what is fiction, and it is their own fault if they don’t take the time to do it on their own.

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