Is Science Fiction Good for Public Debate?

A review of the recent Douglas Adams Memorial Debate, in which CASE’s Professor Mark Brake and Reverend Neil Hook took part can be found here at Culture Wars.



    May 16, 2007

    Marvellous pic of Kubrick from the 2001 archives. Sorry, not a particularly profound comment. Just thought I’d post quick opinion!

    The Administrator

    May 16, 2007

    Science fiction beats real debate

    17 February 2006

    Science fiction and popular culture beat real debate in media treatment of science, according to research carried out at the University of Plymouth. The study has highlighted the impact of celebrity comment and focus on politics over science.

    Research led by the University of Plymouth and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council has shown the news media??????s attitude to nanotechnology, which is set to become one of the most fiercely debated science topics in coming years may potentially contribute to public confusion and sparse knowledge. The research team found that the media??????s simplification of complex technologies and the public??????s subsequent perception of what needs to be discussed may lead to uncertainty about what is science fact versus science fiction.

    Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology, University of Plymouth, Politics & Law, Alan Petersen, says: ??????Actual public knowledge surrounding the issues of nanotechnology may be blurred in part due to the intervention of personalities such as Prince Charles and the preference for media to emphasise the dangers of sciences such as nanotechnology.

    ??????Our research highlights how science stories are regularly written by non-specialist journalists who have scant knowledge of the subject ??????? during the crucial first two days when the GM story broke it was found that no articles were written by science journalists and 45 per cent were written by political journalists. These factors may combine to leave the public confused as to what the issues at stake are and may serve to increase their mistrust of what new technology has to offer.??????

    Painful lessons have been learnt from the media panics surrounding crises such as BSE or ??????mad cow disease?????? and GM crops where language of ??????Frankenfoods?????? and ??????killer tomatoes?????? permeated public culture. For some stakeholders, the emergence of nanotechnology is regarded as the ideal context in which to introduce more effective strategies for a more cohesive and informed communications strategy.

    The research findings suggest that the press coverage during the period under scrutiny was concentrated in a relatively small number of elite newspapers culminating in 74 per cent of the coverage in papers with relatively low circulation figures. The rest, at 26 per cent, appeared in the more popular newspapers with the higher circulations.

    The early framing of issues during the period from April 1 to June 30, 2003 was dominated by Prince Charles??????s alleged public comments on nanotechnology, characterised by some newspapers as a forthcoming ??????grey goo?????? crisis (it is worth noting that Prince Charles did not use the phrase, however). This period during the initial framing of nanotech is significant since early coverage can potentially set the agenda for later discussion. From the outset it was framed as a ??????political?????? rather than ??????science?????? story.

    Professor Alan Petersen says: ??????Public understanding of the issues surrounding nanotechnology remains limited. The media??????s tendency to simplify and individualise complex scientific debate leads discussion down a path of science fiction ??????? such as the ??????grey goo?????? debate initiated by Prince Charles?????? intervention. That said, his intervention did add to the newsworthiness of nanotechnology and at least brought about a good level of debate into the public domain.

    ??????The single most prevalent news source referred to in the sample period was Michael Crichton??????s novel Prey. Given that certain metaphors and images in news reporting can sometimes blur the distinction between science fiction and science fact, the frequency of references to this novel and its associated imagery of deadly nano-swarms were striking.

    ??????Newspaper coverage tends to simplify and individualise complex scientific debates by aligning news sources representing different positions. This means coverage tends to concentrate on the conflict between the personalities rather than focussing on the issues at hand. We also found that the media??????s fascination with science fiction means that in order to move the nanotech debate ??????upstream?????? we need to better understand journalists?????? desire to draw upon fictional images and how this merging of fact and fiction influences how serious topics are debated in the public eye.??????

    The Administrator

    May 16, 2007

    Debate: Is science fiction destroying the future of spaceflight?

    from TechRepublic (

    Science fiction authors Geoffrey A. Landis, M.M. Buckner and Adam Roberts discuss Project Constellation, NASA’s planned successor to the space shuttle which will also be used as the base platform for planned trips back to the moon and, eventually, Mars. Landis has a couple of Hugos to his name, but he was also an engineer on the Mars Pathfinder team. Buckner is Philip K. Dick Award-winner and noted environmental activist. Roberts is British and occasionally makes fun of Tolkien. It’s a fun group. (This article brought to you via SFSignal.)

    There’s a lot of great debate in the article: about privatization versus public funding, political will versus realistic technology, and the usual points that get brought up when lamenting the fact that we don’t have vacation moonbases and a rocketplane in every driveway. However, there was another point made that I think is worth investigating:

    Landis: “In many ways, science fiction may actually be real spaceflight’s worst enemy, because in science fiction, it’s always so easy. Funding is never a problem, because there’s always some maverick trillionaire with an unlimited budget, and one who always knows what’s going to work, too. And every reckless expedient always turns out to work – maybe the engineer says ‘the engines can’na take any more,’ but somehow by good fortune the engines do manage to take it, and the ship doesn’t explode and kill everybody.”

    Now, we’ve had the education is killing science fiction debate, so let’s try the inverse: Is science fiction doing more harm than good for actual science? Me, I fall into the “dreams are good” camp and believe that SF, even crummy SF, is good for the mind, if only to remind us not to settle for what’s been done, what’s standard, the world as it exists right now. Still, I can understand the “truth is harder than fiction” angle here. What’s your take? Leave a comment and let me know.

    The Administrator

    May 16, 2007

    Science fiction authors participate in Mars Terraforming Debate

    A group of science fiction writers, academic luminaries and NASA scientists will debate terraforming Mars at NASA Ames Research Center on March 30, 2004.

    The debate is the first in a new series of discussions entitled “Science Fiction Meets Science Fact,” and is the result of a shared vision between NASA, Breakpoint Media and the upcoming Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. The free, open-to-the-public debate will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. PST in the main tent on the Moffett Field parade grounds at NASA Ames.

    The first debate, “Transforming Mars” will feature:

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke – Award-winning author of “2001, A Space Odyssey”
    Kim Stanley Robinson – Hugo & Nebula award-winning author of the “Mars Trilogy”
    Greg Bear – Hugo & Nebula award-winning author of “Moving Mars”
    Dr. James Kasting – professor of geoscience at Pennsylvania State University
    Dr. Christopher McKay – planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center
    Dr. John Rummel – planetary protection officer, NASA
    Dr. Lisa Pratt – NASA Astrobiology Institute subsurface group, Indiana University

    Clarke will take part via teleconference from his home in Sri Lanka.

    The debate moderator will be Dr. Donna Shirley, director of the new Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Shirley is the former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and the original leader of the team that built the highly acclaimed Mars Pathfinder rover.

    The debate is part of the Astrobiology Science Conference, which will be held at NASA Ames from March 28 through April 1. For further information about the conference, visit

    Posted March 26, 2004

    The Administrator

    May 16, 2007

    Paying Homage to Science Fiction

    If you believe that Captain Kirk’s command chair or the costumes from The Planet of the Apes belong in a museum, to be revered by all for perpetuity, then you may want to book a flight for Seattle in June.

    That’s when a group of science and science-fiction luminaries will open the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (previously called the Experience Science Fiction museum), in a futuristic building in the heart of Seattle. Many of those famous figures, such as Harlan Ellison, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, are lending their names to the project. Some will donate valuable editions of their books and manuscripts to the museum.

    Attendees at the Nebula Awards 2004 in April will get a hard-hat tour of the site of the new museum, which will be in the Experience Music Project building designed by architect Frank Gehry.

    The Science Fiction Museum, which is being co-founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will house artifacts from films and television programs of the past half-century, and will feature immersive, multimedia “hypermuseum” exhibits of imaginary worlds. (Allen is also the co-founder of the Experience Music Project.) The museum will also exhibit drawings and paintings of imagined futures from artists dating back to the late 19th century.

    The museum will demonstrate the influence that science-fiction literature has had on science and popular culture, an influence that is often overlooked, said Sheila Williams, executive editor of the magazines Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

    “Everyone knows about science-fiction movies, which are often about the action,” she said. “But many don’t know about the stories behind them, which are written by great authors. That’s where the big ideas come from.”

    Few people realize how science-fiction author Leigh Brackett influenced the makers of the Star Wars movies, for example. (Brackett did write the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.) But like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Science Fiction Museum will be a place “where you can see the influences on the influences,” said Williams.

    Analog Science Fiction and Fact editor Stanley Schmidt is on the board of advisers for the Science Fiction Museum.

    An announcement from the Science Fiction Museum will also answer a question many Star Trek fans have been asking for two years, after Kirk’s command chair from the USS Enterprise was auctioned off for $250,000: “Who bought it, and where is it now?”

    It now seems probable that Paul Allen was the buyer of Kirk’s chair in the 2002 auction. The chair, from which Kirk led his crew for three seasons of exploration and battle, will be on display when the Science Fiction Museum opens. (A museum spokesman could not confirm that Allen owns the chair.)

    The Science Fiction Museum will be a forum for discussions about how science and science fiction influence each other. In fact, Donna Shirley, the new museum’s director, this week will moderate a debate among scientists and science-fiction writers about “terraforming” Mars – changing the planet’s environment to support human life – at the NASA Ames Research Center.

    Shirley is the former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the original leader of the team that built the Mars Pathfinder rover.

    NASA scientists and writers including Arthur C. Clarke and Greg Bear are participating in the debate this week.

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