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