Science Fiction Myths

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Mark’s previous posting “Mugged by the Science Mafia” raised some interesting points about the nature of science fiction. Last year we acted as consultants to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle prior to the opening of this world’s first museum. The Americans had carried out some very expensive and effective market research on the relationship between science and science fiction, much of which is very interesting since it lays to rest some of the less thoughful cliches on the nature of the genre:

Science fiction can motivate interest in science

As a popular and accessible literature, visual art, film and multi-media genre, science fiction attracts many people to the consideration of science, prepares them to learn more about science topics, and is a stimulus to science as a career. Many scientists include science fiction as a motivating and sustaining influence for their choice of career

Science fiction can help teach science

The history of science fiction is laced with popular science exposition, and major components of current science fiction are based on a careful and accurate presentation of present and future science. The speculative elements of hard science fiction are carefully limited, precisely so that the story will remain believable. Such science fiction depends upon an audience that understands the writer’s intentions, and appreciates where the science stops and the speculation begins. As science progresses, so does the science content of science fiction. On the other hand, less ‘hard’ science fiction can be used to demonstrate the boundaries between what we know and what we don’t know and to spark interest in understanding the differences

Science fiction has a vital place in the classroom

Science fiction has the power to motivate students, mobilize creative thinking, and provide a societal context for studying science

Science fiction can humanize and demystify scientists

The majority of depictions of scientists in literature occur within the genre of science fiction. To the extent that science fiction literature, film, and television present scientists in a thoughtful and sensitive way, these media can create a more realistic appreciation of scientists and how they do their work. As with any genre, there is risk of stereotyping and of superficial treatment. Good writing, good teaching and good interpretation of powerful stories are the best antidotes

The public needs to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic claims for science

One of the major problems of public understanding of science is the public’s naive belief that science can solve all problems, neatly, at low cost, with no painful tradeoffs. A familiar saying begins, ‘If they can put a man on the moon, surely they can . . .’ The public trusts science too much, and risks asking too much of science in return. Scientists and science fiction creators are both more skeptical about the future. They know, and want the public to know, that difficult choices are needed to manage that future

Science fiction both heralds and warns the public about technological change

Scientists have long been concerned about the impact of their discoveries and their applications on society. Much science fiction explores this theme, both as a source of dramatic tension and as a consequence of the writer or film maker’s interest in asking important questions about the future. A major function of science fiction is not to predict the future, but to speculate about it. The theme ‘what if?’ enables discussion to transcend arguments about ‘true/false’ and deal instead with ‘what might be?’

Perceptual Barriers I – Stereotyping

Science fiction is seen to stereotype science & scientists – the popular image of the ‘mad scientist’ is the principal example. This occurs as an interaction between creative, popular culture elements, not primarily as a product of science fiction itself. Some scientists themselves stereotype science fiction , attributing to the genre popular attitudes and beliefs that SF is not responsible for. It seems likely that a significant portion of scientists’ criticism is overstated and off the mark. There is a need to replace these stereotyped views with more sophisticated, nuanced understanding informed by popular culture theory, actual opinion research, etc

Perceptual Barriers II – Bad Science

Some scientists and educators identify popular and student misconceptions as ‘bad science’, and claim that the popularity of science fiction engenders or reinforces these misconceptions. This ‘explanation’ seems to have little support in the science education literature, and often seems more rhetorical, as a way of introducing alternate ‘scientific’ explanations than a serious attribution of cause and effect. In addition, there is substantial literature about the depth and significance of pre-existing belief systems in science teaching that suggests that all students retain personal theories of science that do not match the science that is taught. In its most extreme form, popular fascination with and belief in ‘pseudoscience’ – alien presences, flying saucers, extrasensory perception, spiritualism and channeling – is (wrongly) attributed to science fiction

Perceptual Barriers III – Confusing Fact and Fiction

Some scientists, educators and popularizers believe that any science instruction that includes fictional, imaginative elements blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, especially among children. These beliefs seem to be on theoretical grounds, rather than established educational research. Audience research on educational television series with fictional premises, for example, indicates that viewers correctly separate factual elements from fictional ones



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