Science vs. Fantasy: A False Dichotomy

There have been a number of books, movies, and tv shows presenting apparent conflicts between the scientific world view and that of the believers in the fantastic. Characterize this dichotomy on a science vs. fantasy spectrum, if you will.

I submit that many of these stories, with a few notable exceptions, have been unfair.

Science is a methodology for developing reliable knowledge about the world, and all it depends upon is that there is an objective reality that behaves consistently. Science works in our world. We have a world of technology that demonstrates this in no uncertain terms. It should work in any consistent world, particularly worlds resembling our own. Any world with magic, assuming the magic system is consistent, should be understandable through science.

A conflict under these situations, pitting a logical scientific type against a wild-eyed believer, reason against belief, is a false conflict. Scientists are not dogmatic and their measurements, experiments, and observations can and do change their minds. Or not, in too many cases. How many times have you seen the skeptical scientist character in a story with fantastic elements mutter something like, “There must be a logical explanation,” and then go on to offer something feeble and likely stupid in face of the reality of the story? Let me illustrate this with some TV series that regularly pitted science against the fantastic. The first never really played fair, the second is currently running and there’s hope, and a final case where the appropriate character change finally did come to the skeptical scientist (thanks to smart writers and a long run).

I recall watching Northern Exposure on TV some 15 years ago, more or less. It was an interesting show about a doctor with a fellowship compelled to serve in Alaska for several years to pay off the debt. What was stupid was that he represented a scientific point of view, while the locals provided a new age, fantasy-based point of view, and he never took into account the data of his experiences there in adjusting his outlook. The show didn’t play fair. They cheated. Science takes into account information from the environment, experiments and observations, in reaching conclusions, having an objective fantastic reality. For the majority of the show, Joel just looked like an ass denying the events that occurred based on his past experience rather than the physical evidence he was presented with week after week. It wasn’t science. It was a believer’s version of science.

This is happening on Battlestar Galactica to a certain extent. Baltar is our scientist there. He’s making the rationalist argument, but he’s also being swayed. I’m okay with that, because on the show the faith-based perspective has numerous facts in support of it, with rather unambiguous visions regularly coming true on a regular basis. It isn’t really religion as we know it when the writers can make the visions and prophecies clear and true every week. We call that fantasy. I’m very sympathetic toward Baltar. He’s a smart guy, like me. He has a weakness for women, like me. He just wants to survive, like me, and probably you, too. He’s too often made to be the bad guy. I hope he’s redeemed in the end. He hasn’t been immoral as I’ve seen it. He’s been rationally human. The final verdict hasn’t quite come in yet.

Perhaps one of the best cases, in the end, of how science can tackle the fantastic occurred on the X-Files. In the beginning we had the classic and poor false dichotomy: Mulder the believer against Scully the skeptical scientist. Her job in the early seasons was to disbelieve Mulder’s wild ideas with a more “scientific” explanation, which she did dutifully even in the face of compelling evidence. Eventually, however, her character and the show grew, although it took a very long time for them to move away from the false dichotomy at the heart of the original formula. The data started leading her to agree with Mulder’s notions. The scientific evidence supported them, in the show’s reality, and science got her there.

Look. In a piece of fiction I’ll buy into the realities of that fiction. Just make them clear and honest. Too often we have idiocy. Characters like Joel Fleishmann who keep on with a modern, scientific worldview despite events that he sees and experiences, repeatedly, regularly, and can collect evidence about. Change the rules, and science will figure it out. Stories that fail in this respect represent stories that fail to properly portray science.

I’m not claiming that science is the be all and end all on all matters. Life is about much more than that. But if you want facts to cling to, rules to understand, and live in a consistent world (fantastic elements or not), stick with science.

Where science conflicts with other paradigms, the other paradigms are probably wrong. This is just based on how science works. Science doesn’t work everywhere, but where it works, pay attention. And it should work in any self-consistent fantasy, too. If it doesn’t, someone isn’t playing fair.

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  1. 1. Chris

    One of the nice things about Terry Pratchett’s writing is that he tend to make stories about traditionally Fantastic characters – witches, trolls, demons etc. – feel like they are Sci-Fi. It’s very clean, he explains things as if he’s writing about a Science.
    Fantasy can so often be used as an excuse to sweep inconsistencies under the carpet: “Oh, it’s MAGIC,” they tell us. Laziness! say I.

  2. 2. Eliza

    I always figured that if a scientist met something that landed outside of his experience (magic), that after the shock wore off he’d grow obsessive about trying to duplicate the effect. I could even see them getting excited. Something new! Of anyone, I could see scientists delving into a reoccurring, stable magic to map out its particulars. That’s why they are scientists.

  3. 3. Mike Brotherton

    As long as the magic has consistent rules, oh yeah, scientists would love it. And nearly every fantasy writer I know goes on and on about how important it is to construct consistent magic systems. TV scriptwriters tend to worry less about it, I think.

    Oh, FYI, Fantasy Magazine is running this post, too, today, as part of a contest. Best comment wins a prize ($10 I think?). Here:

  4. 4. John Markley

    Good post. The whole “skeptical in the face of overwhelming evidence” trope is a pet peeve of mine. Horror movies seem to be a frequent offender in that regard.

    It’s especially annoying if the character lives in a fantastical world and has been frequently exposed to supernatural events in the past, yet once again becomes a mindlessly dogmatic materialist every time another clearly supernatural phenomenon comes along. “Look, I know we’ve previously encountered ghosts, werewolves, nymphs, Goetic demons, leprechauns, Merlin, valkyries, the prophet Elijah, tengu, nephilim, the Spear of Longinus, Satan, our own time-traveling past life incarnations, and the entire Aztec pantheon. But the idea that vampires might be real is just absurd!”

  5. 5. Chris (The Book Swede)

    Great post :) It’s always annoyed me when scientists are presented in the mainstream media as being possessed of some arcane — but ultimately useless — knowledge, and as being ignoring* of the overwhelming evidence for something supernatural.

    *I prefer ignoring, even though it’s a bit stilted, to “skeptical”, since I expect they would be “skeptical”, but in a good way. Damn these words with nuances and alternate meanings!

    Nice post.



  1. Science vs. Fantasy False Dichotomy Redux at Fantasy Magazine
  2. Split Legend » Blog Archive » The dichotomy
  3. Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic » Blog Archive » Science and fantasy

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Mike Brotherton

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



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