Science Fiction Run Amuck

I pose a question: what role can media have on science popularization?

One of the major goals of skepticism is to popularize science. Unfortunately as skeptics know, that’s not an easy thing to do. Making the problem even tougher is that skeptics also have to counter all the bad publicity science gets. Sadly, skeptics can’t be everywhere it’s a fact of reality that one of the major sources of information to the public comes from the media. And often times that means Science Fiction.

Now science fiction can have a huge impact on how the public perceives science. A perfect example is the classic Star Trek series, how many times have you heard a scientist or astronaut mention Star Trek as a positive influence on their choosing science? Not only was Star Trek a rather utopian vision of the future; a multicultural team of astronauts who have maintained their humanity despite all the technology that purveyed their lives. But it was also about optimism. The humans in Star Trek did not destroy themselves in nuclear war, they did not build robots that enslaved humanity and they did not become a massive imperialist dictatorship.

That’s a pretty darn optimistic vision of the future.

But what about all the other pieces of science fiction art out there?

Science fiction can be a mixed bag. For all the Star Trek’s there will be even more Frankensteins. During the 19th century the world was engulfed in the Industrial Revolution. Technology was becoming a major force in the world. For many intellectuals they couldn’t help but ask themselves was humanity flying high on wax wings? Was it only a matter of time before those wings melted?

Frankenstein was a reflection of these fears. A cautionary tale of science runs amuck. It was a representation of the fears and concerns of many people in the western world that their lives were changing too fast and too drastically. Frankenstein wanted to conquer death; he wanted to break the boundaries of what was considered natural and normal. His result was a monster.

Keep in mind that at this time in philosophers were debating just what made a human — human. As science and reason were becoming more popular, the educated were rejecting notions of old values based on the church or religion. The Enlightenment was in full swing and in many ways humanism was as well. But, not everyone was on board for this new way of thinking. What if science and reason led humanity awry?

This concept was not abandoned in literature or art. It’s repeated itself many times. In fact, many literary experts make a convincing argument that all our science fiction is based on Frankenstein in some form or another. If this is the case, it does make some sense as to why science might be viewed with distrust and apprehension by more conservative people in the public.

Consider some of the dominate themes and visuals of modern and classic science fiction.

The Mad Scientist, arguably based on Frankenstein himself, but what does this imply? An unchecked, potentially insane, weirdo doing god knows what and creating some horror for his own perverse needs.

The “project”, whether it’s a new virus or weapon, a bunch of robots bound to enslave humanity, or just some horrible monster like the blog…frequently scientists are portrayed creating terrible things. Rarely are they attempting to cure cancer or invent new longer lasting batteries, no, instead they bring dinosaurs back to life and put them in a zoo…

But that’s another common theme, the “wrongness” of their project. What I mean by that is scientists are often doing something that go against the “laws of nature.” Perhaps they’re brining dinosaurs back, or trying to reanimate the dead, create a race of immortals or genetically alter our genes to create supermen, scientists become these amoral radicals, playing god and upsetting the natural order of the universe.

This can have a very damaging impact on how the public perceives science, especially with such modern day controversies like stem cell research, genetic engineering, and nuclear power.

The problem, as I see it, is that people have trouble telling fiction from non-fiction. If every time we turn on a science fiction TV show and all we see are monsters and robots attacking people, that’s going to give us a negative impression of science as a whole. And when you take a look at some of the science fiction out there, you do have to wonder what people are getting from it.

The Terminator movies and short lived TV series frequently lambasted technology. In the show Eureka, a town full of scientists constantly creates experiments that threaten to destroy the world forcing a salt of the earth type sheriff to save the day.
There are plenty of people and organizations that are ideologically opposed to science and are perfectly happy to have its mass appeal remain low and negative. As skeptics we need to promote more positive images of science and skepticism if we are to encourage science literacy and acceptance.

So what’s to be done about this? Perhaps with stronger, more positive role models in science fiction who transcend the normal mad scientist archetype we would see a better reaction by the public. For example consider the character of Major Samantha Carter on the Vancouver filmed Stargate SG1, a brilliant scientist who can also kick butt with guns and explosives. Sticking with Stargate, what about the uncharacteristically rude and arrogant Canadian Dr. Rodney McKay on Stargate Atlantis? Both characters are in their own way different molds from the nerdy annoying skeptic scientist who only contributes monsters or negativity in science fiction.

The long answer is we’re not really going to solve the problem with a few fun scientist characters on a science fiction show. Media awareness has to come into play at some point. And perhaps its just a theme of our culture and times, maybe people aren’t interested in positive, optimistic science fiction like Star Trek anymore. However it is worth considering. There is the perceived notion that science crosses too many lines today, that scientists are playing god. Consider how often does science run amuck in real life? Is that perceived notion justified? Now think about how often does science run amuck in science fiction?

Ethan Clow

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.