Science is under attack in America today. There are more anti-science people than scientists. And by scientists I mean anyone who accepts science as the best method for understanding reality, not just working Ph.D. scientists. I just finished a book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway and they carefully chronicle how fraud science is being used in politics to attack real science.
Most people have no idea how real science is conducted and communicated, thus it’s very easy to corrupt the general public about scientific knowledge. Real science is done in peer reviewed journals and is rather plodding. Popular science writing takes real science and tries to explain it. This is the first level where unscientific noise enters the equation. Most people do not read peer reviewed science journals so they must depend on textbook and popular science writers to explain science to them.
The third level down are writers (like me) who take what they’ve read in popular science writing and further spread the ideas or use the ideas in some applied political or practical fashion. This is were a lot of imprecise and unscientific noise gets spread to readers in general.
I’m a life-long science fiction reader. I spend a lot of time writing about science fiction and its history. I grew up thinking science fiction promoted the study of science. Now I’m not so sure.
Anyone can introduce a meme into the social network. And they can claim the meme is scientific. 99% of Ph.D. climate scientists say global warming is happening, and it’s caused by humans, but if one non-science person who is good at communicating can convince a large group of people that global warming is a fraud, it will be believed, even more so than by the Ph.D. scientists. The scientists have billions of dollars of the latest technology systematically researching the problem on a worldwide scale, and one person, with no expertise and equipment, but with good communications skills can destroy all their effort. Ideas are more powerful than science.
We live in a world of seven billion gullible people who’d rather believe what they want than the truth. People are self-delusional.
Science fiction is a powerful art form that generates non-scientific memes. Is that good or bad? Should we worry.
Thousands of years ago some human came up with the idea of angels and the meme has existed ever since. In more recent times science fiction promoted the idea of faster-the-light traveling spaceships. Is a warp drive any more real than an angel? Battlestar Galactica had warp drives and angels. I thought the show was a lot of fun, but I don’t believe in either, but many people do. Create an idea and the believers will come.
The innocence of science fiction corrupting minds with junk science depends on fans knowing that science fiction is just for fun. I’ve argued this point before and some of my friends exclaim that it’s obvious that people know that science fiction books and movies are just for fun. I don’t agree. I think some people want to believe that their favorite science fiction can come true. That the future of mankind includes galactic civilizations, time travel, downloading minds into clones and computers, and so on.
I think great science fiction takes real science and dramatizes it in ways that make readers speculate about the future. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is a good example. Wells used the idea of evolution to speculate about descendants of Homo Sapiens and the extinction of our race and the Earth. The time machine was merely a gimmick to let the reader visit these speculations, but it’s that gimmick that’s stuck with the popular mind.
Other science fiction throws out far out ideas just to see what people will say. There’s nothing wrong with fun speculation, unless people consider it science. Take for instance the current film Prometheus which I’ve already written about. What’s dangerous is if some people actual start believing that aliens visited the Earth and helped humans develop civilization. Prometheus is only a continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968 and that led to Chariots of the Gods type thinking.
Now this kind of fun pretending is fine as long as you don’t think it’s science. Science has a huge problem in America. Few want to study it, fewer still want to accept it, and many want to corrupt it. I have to ask if my favorite art form is contributing to undermining scientific thinking?
According to this recent Gallop Poll, 46% of Americans believe God created man in the last 10,000 years, according to Bible history. Science is competing with that kind of thinking. Does it help science to have science fiction generating all kinds of nonsense ideas too? If you understand science, science fiction is fun, but if you don’t, how can you tell if the ideas are real or crazy?
Follow the link to the Gallop Poll and read the statistics about Americans and their beliefs. They’re closer to fantasy and science fiction than science. In fact, people who pursue scientific thinking makes up only a tiny fraction of the population. We all depend on science for medicine, cars, airplanes, computers, weather prediction, etc., but few of us study how it works. Scientists are the magicians of our times, and few understand how their magic works.
I’ve read popular books and magazines about science all my life. I think of myself as an advocate for scientific thinking, but I’m far from a disciplined scientific thinker. Science is a very misused word. Our society is full of junk science, fraud science, pseudo science, fake science, and an emerging category I’m calling zombie science.
Some computer viruses take over personal computers and turn them into zombie computers to attack other computers and create massive denial of service attacks. Conservatives waging a war on science and environmentalism have developed fake and fraud science to inject into people’s minds to spread zombie science. They are taking over people’s minds to create a denial of science attack with their anti-science science. This is very diabolical, but impressive. Read Merchants of Doubt for the details.
What I’m asking is in this war on science, is science fiction helping or hurting?
Don’t just toss this idea off. Think about it for awhile. Everybody has a map of reality in their heads. How functional or accurate that map is depends on how well it corresponds to actual reality. That’s what science is about, validating the input of our senses. It’s extremely easy to program humans to believe anything. Not only can we be brainwashed but we all actively promote self-delusion. Scientific thinking is an extremely hard discipline to pursue, much harder than Zen.
Remember Cypher in the film The Matrix, when he sells out to Agent Smith? Cypher is willing to accept a delusional world because it gives him what he wants. Most humans do that. I wonder if our love of science fiction is like steak to Cypher?
People will dismiss this idea. They will say only an idiot will believe the stuff in science fiction, that science fiction is only books you read for fun. Well, how many people believe in the Bible? It’s only a book too. Don’t get infected by zombie science.
JWH – 6/23/12
15 thoughts on “Does Science Fiction Hurt Science?”
Correlation does not imply causality. Two events may occur together, but that does not mean that there is a cause-and-effect relationship.
That’s true. But I’m just wondering if there is. Let’s define the problem: Why aren’t more people scientific? We spend billions on education, so it’s not for a lack of trying. What’s combating scientific thinking? Well, religion for one. But there’s an awful lot of people out there that’s not religious but also not scientific. A lot of people get their ideas about reality from the media, both fiction and nonfiction. There are millions of people whose only source of information are movies and television shows. They don’t study religion or science, or even watch the news. Fiction is their education. Just like there is a good part of the population that their education about reality comes from Fox News.
If you grew up in the Amazon jungle then your education about reality would be based on what you saw in the jungle. In our society, people can grow up and their environment is computers, television and video games. Fantasy and science fiction is a big aspect of that reality. Don’t you think it could shape it?
Your premise that science fiction is responsible for the dismal state of the public’s scientific thinking requires too much scaffolding to support it. I suspect that William of Ockham would simply say that there are a lot of ignorant people and there always has been. They were executing witches in Salem back in 1692 and I have a sneaky feeling that more than a few people in this country are eager to start that business again.
I didn’t mean to imply that science fiction was the cause of anti-science in America, but only one of many causes that contribute to unscientific thinking in general, and probably a minor one at that. And it might be just another symptom. We’re so unscientific that we enjoy the rather far out science fiction to the down to earth science.
Spending billions on education is a misnomer. Billions are spent on conditioning people. The US education system is based on indoctrination and installing obedience, not in teaching people how to think critically. “Education” in the USA is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
As an atheist, I see religion as another core problem, since it pollutes and dilutes attempts at improving education beyond its indoctrination status. When atheists are the only thing that theists can agree on (that we’re amoral and evil), we who choose to think critically and engage our brains beyond stimulus-response activity will remain a powerless and stigmatized minority.
I think there is a big difference in what you are talking about. religious people may believe the Bible is true, but science fiction fans don’t believe science fiction books are true at least not in the same way. I mean I’ll be the first to admit that I wish humans were going to be a part of a huge community of aliens like in Star Trek. But I know it ain’t gonna happen. If science fiction fans believed as strongly as you’re implying then us fans would be a religion too, and we aren’t.
Read my answer to Mike John. The Bible provides a meaningful explanation of realty to many people. Some think it’s literal, and others think it’s symbolic. But they use the Bible to create a map of reality in the heads. In our modern society, science fiction and fantasy mythologies are like the Bible. They don’t have to be literally true, but they can still be used to map reality. Only crazy people think the Klingon home world exists, but how many people are learning the Klingon language? If you immerse yourself in a world of SF/F through television, movies, books, comics and computer games, those memes are bound to become the symbols your brains uses to map reality.
I’m not saying people literally believe in science fiction stories, but I’m asking if people are using SF memes symbolically to understand reality. How often have you heard someone rationalize the possibility of faster-the-light travel? How often have you heard people talk about alien invasion, zombies, vampires, etc. by referencing things going on around them? Have you never thought of someone as being as unemotional as Mr. Spock? Have you yourself never tried to explain something in reality by using a far out science fictional like plot?
Remember people talk about angels all the time, but they don’t exist. Have you never thought, “I wish I could time travel back then and change that.” Time travel doesn’t have to exist for you to accept the meme.
I would think you’d agree the symbolic use of SF is already happening in our language. What we’re arguing over are the literal believers. Like the people who think Earth was created in 7 days. I do think there are lots of people who absolutely believe that aliens walk among us, that there are time travelers, and that other ideas they got from reading SF is true.
Science fiction holds the power to both hurt and help people gain a scientific understanding of the world. The core of scientific understanding is critical thinking. If a work promotes critical thinking through its story, that can go a long way to changing the public’s internal reality map.
That’s always been my dream about science fiction, that it would promote critical thinking. But the question remains: Does science fiction promote critical thinking?
I think that depends on who’s work you read. As a whole, I think the genre promotes critical thinking because of its subject matter, especially considering all of the post-apocalyptic stories these days. Getting people to think about the future tends to get them to think on the present.
“Scientists are the magicians of our times, and few understand how their magic works.”
Ok you just made my day 🙂
I reached your blog by chance and read several entries. Particularly enjoyed the ones on waiting for linux, looting of modern libraries, war on science, and this one. I quite agree with you on the point that while SF helps to open your mind the F part makes me feel a bit uneasy, specially when people give it more attention (and amazingly sometimes truly believe it) than the S part.
I remember one time on a science fiction discussion forum that I objected to ESP and started a flame war. I think more people in America believe in UFOs than Darwin’s evolution, although that’s not hard since so few people here accept the idea of evolution. There’s more SF fans than scientific thinking people, so not all of them are very analytically when it comes to judging reality. Science fiction promotes miracle stories about science like religion does for Jesus, and in both cases, reality is far more down to Earth.
I’ve always though science fiction can be a substitute for religion. Fans of each want to go live up in the sky, both fans want to meet powerful beings, both seek immortality, prayer is a lot like ESP, etc.
I’m watching Fringe on Netflix right now and the show is appalling. It should have been broadcast with a content warning at the beginning if every episode. It’s horrific what the show’s writers consider science and logic. The worst part of it is that it is highly rated by viewers and therefore influential. The actors and visuals and all the other technical aspects are generally excellent, but it is otherwise utter pseudoscience garbage. I feel somewhat ashamed of myself for even watching it, but once a story piques my curiosity, I tend to stick around for the whole thing.
I love science fiction, but the older I get, the worse the junk is that gets called science fiction. I’m starting to fear that some of it is actually propaganda for blind delusional belief and religion. Fringe is a perfect example, since the lead “scientist” character has apparently decided that he has run afoul of “god” (with a capital G), which is notable because he’s the show’s “mad scientist” that has admitted to “crossing the line” of what “science” should and should not do.
I’ll try to make this my last unsolicited comment:
I think one of the problems with scifi in how it assists delusion is in the categorization of fiction and definition of science fiction. There are differing opinions on what constitutes scifi and some people get so specific as to argue “scifi vs science fiction” or “scifi vs speculative fiction”.
In my opinion, most of our scifi media is actually fantasy, yet the scifi tag gets applied by people who don’t know the difference between fantasy and science fiction and by people who think the scifi label has acquired some market value in selling programming. When a few science fantasy shows, mistakenly categorized as science fiction become highly regarded by the magical thinking majority populous, suddenly scifi becomes popular and financially desirable as a marketing label.
How do we fix this? There is no standards body for genre labeling of entertainment fiction, and no authority to answer to when things are wrongly classified (to say nothing of how to wrangle the competing opinions on the actual definitions themselves). Then, we would have to educate fiction writers on the differences (from what I can tell, there are plenty of script writers/editors, directors, and producers that think the scifi label is a label that means “anything goes”), and enforce their compliance with the definitions. How do we do that?
It seems we just plain can’t, right now.
But there’s a (largely failed) food and drug legal validation system called the FDA. There’s also the motion picture rating system. Maybe the scientific community should lobby for an extension to the motion picture rating system that includes validation or disclaimer of fiction as relating to actual science. Just like there are certifications for food labeling.
At this time in the world, I’m not expecting the government of my country to get involved. My nation (the USA) is full of delusional thinking, and any system in place to protect people from capitalism’s selfish excesses is long pirated by capitalist interests. I think we need to look toward other nations for this. And then there’s the people who will say it’s irrelevant compared to “real issues”.