Science in my Science Fiction: Literacy?

I’d intended to follow-up this month on last month’s entry on dark matter, and do something similar about dark energy. I will do that in the future, either here or on my own website, but I left it a little late (blame a friend of mine for distracting me, and she knows who she is). It’s an easier topic than dark matter, because we know less, but I do want to do it properly.

What I want to talk about is the general issue of scientific literacy. Why is it when people go to see a mediocre drama, they complain about the acting or the unrealistic characters, but when they go see a mediocre science fiction film (“sci-fi”), with bad science, they forgive criticisms with “it’s just a movie!”

Does this bother anyone else?

The only reason I can see that there’s a difference between the two situations is that people are trained on a daily basis about how people behave, but have no expectation or understanding of basic physics/biology/geology, or at least no concern about it.

I think that sucks.

Our expectations are too low. Our understanding is too low. I’m not talking about individuals here necessarily, but as a people. It’s like how at a party it’s forgivable when people admit to math phobia, but admire high culture. I think that’s bullshit, and we should call people on it.

We live in a technological civilization. You’re reading this on a system using the most advanced technology available to our species. Without modern science, we would all begin to starve and start fighting massive wars. To deny this, in even as simple a way as saying “It’s just a movie” is to deny the reality of our world.

There is no modern reality, no existence, without our science and technology. It can be denied locally, but without global acceptance (as demanded by economics), you die. So please, accept it culturally as well. To do otherwise is to deny reality and the intellectual integrity that must accompany the perception of our reality.

Please, think about this when it comes up, where it comes up. And it comes up everywhere, daily, for everyone living on this planet. Certainly anyone reading this. There is not any real literacy anymore without scientific literacy. It’s a part of our existence, a necessary part, essential to our future. Eating, working, loving, are all just as important as they were before, but we now live in a world where the continued existence of humankind depends on technology. Without it, and a continuing commitment to maintaining it, everything falls apart and we descend into chaos and misery.

OK, there’s one scenario where that doesn’t happen. H.G. Wells’s THE TIME MACHINE posits two cultures, one of basement-dwelling IT specialists called “Morlocks” and one of beautiful-people know-nothing “Eloi.” The former eat the latter in his story, so I don’t consider that an acceptable solution.

What do you want to happen to us in the end? It may not look like a major trend today, but let evolution and time pile on and it isn’t so unreasonable.

I know a lot of this post has been abstract and general, but my concern is specific. Math and science are every bit as important as English and history. Ignore them at your peril. Go embrace a nerd today, and pick up a book or a movie that seems too technically challenging. It’s good for all of us.

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  1. 1. SMD

    Well, to put it simply, it has to do with expectation. When you go to see a drama, or a comedy, or an action film, you have an expectation. In drama you expect real, believable characters in believable situations that you don’t have to question. It’s just real. In comedy you expect to laugh, and in action you expect fighting or explosions or guns, or something that registers with you as ‘action’.

    Science fiction also has an expectation. People go to an SF movie knowing that it isn’t real by a long shot. We don’t have faster than light spaceships, there are no aliens, and certainly no androids or robots running around talking to people as if they were alive. So, we have to dispel belief in the same way that we do for fantasy. People don’t go to an SF movie expecting it to be 100% realistic because it’s all speculation anyway. We can say we know what the future is going to be like, but in reality, we don’t. We haven’t a clue.

    So yeah, that’s my explanation.

  2. 2. Mike

    Well, I think that expectation is crippling to society and leads to low science literacy, fewer scientists and engineers, and a ghetto for science fiction. It may be “all speculation” but it should be informed speculation at a minumum. There’s a difference between that and getting basic physics obviously wrong.

  3. 3. Mike

    And just to beat the dead horse a little more, people forgive bad physics in movies other than science fiction all the time. It isn’t just about the suspension of disbelief.

  4. 4. Kate Elliott

    I agree with you completely. We do not teach science well enough, and furthermore we don’t emphasize its importance enough.

    However, I would note that Americans, taken as a general whole, are not particularly historically literate either.

    I could likely give numerous instances of this but here’s a recent anecdotal case: my spouse works at a lab with many young and not so young MAs and PhDs (forensic anthropologists). He had a ten dollar bill he had to mention in a report, and the person peer-reviewing the report inserted the word “presidential” before the word “portrait” (in reference to Hamilton’s image on the bill). So the spouse went around and asked everyone which number president Hamilton was. Not one of the admittedly non scientific sample said “he wasn’t a president.”

    And now that I think of it, members of my extended family kind of hate watching movies with me because if I dislike the writing or logic of the story, I complain, and often the other viewers will have seen nothing wrong with it. So perhaps it’s a larger issue of lack of critical thinking.

  5. 5. Mike

    Yeah, I’m biased to see bad science in movies and bemoan the state of scientific literacy given my focus and background. It’s totally true that education levels could be higher in all areas. Here’s my story that really bothered me since it was coupled to American arrogance.

    I’m on a flight from Chile to Los Angeles on a Chilean airline. We get delayed at the gate in LA, and as we’re sitting there waiting, this woman in the seat in front of me is complaining about it. She’s suggesting that we’re having to wait because it’s a foreign airline. Then she looks out the window and sees a container labelled “Potable Water” they’re hauling up to the plane. She says, “And look at that. They can’t even spell right.”

    And we should try to hold movies to higher standards across the board. I’m told by those with experience in drilling that ARMAGEDDON gets that as wrong as they get the science.

  6. 6. Kate Elliott

    Aiyee! That’s a good (bad) story.

    It’s like CSI and Bones and that other “forensic” stuff they show on tv. Folks at the lab got together at lunch once or twice to watch early eps of “Bones,” and laughed themselves silly because it was so inaccurate and often just plain stupid.

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Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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