Does silly science fiction hurt the public image of science?

I watch a lot of science fiction. I always did. I probably got most of that interest from my father, who always dreamt of going to the stars.

When I was a kid, I was absorbing it all. Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Aliens, you name it. I knew all of it was fiction, but I couldn’t write anything off as improbable, unrealistic or impossible. All that changed when I started studying science in school.

As I learned more and more about physics, biology, mathematics and chemistry, I started to realize how extensively Hollywood was bullshitting us. I cared for a while, and I turned my back on my favorite childhood movies and TV shows. I started to look for entertainment that actually cared about being scientifically accurate. I was glad for the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. They didn’t get everything right, but at least they made the effort of trying to feel real. I watched 2001: A space Odyssey again. Nope. I still couldn’t like the movie. I still think the storytelling in that movie was horrible, even if the effects were spectacular (I really did like the book though, and everything else from Arthur C. Clarke).

That’s when I realized I would never fall at the bottom of the pit of hate for everything inaccurate. There was one thing I cared more than accuracy of physics in my entertainment. I loved good storytelling. I like multi-dimensional characters, good acting, dangerous situations and problem-solving. Now, I actually care a lot about that last aspect. Does the TV show/movie feature good problem solving? Does the solution appear in someone’s head in a mystical Eureka moment or can you actually see how the protagonist pieced the puzzle together? Is the main character scientific in his approach? Is there an actual problem to be solved?

See, in the end I don’t care much if the show got the science facts right. I don’t even think they can commit to get the science facts right because they are in the business of fiction. Good scientists and good storytellers don’t overlap that much. Granted, some shows have science advisors, but advisors don’t have that much power in a film studio. All I care about now is how the characters come to the knowledge that they have. I think it is the only thing you have to care about if you do not want to hurt the public image of science.

I was inspired a lot by Star Wars when I was a kid, despite the fact that I really don’t appreciate the franchise that much nowadays. For me, the point was that they had all these cool gadgets and droids, and they were travelling in space! They were visiting all these exotic worlds, facing all these mysteries. Same thing for Star Trek, and same thing for Stargate. I now have a renewed love for these shows. I have to admit though that I have more trouble coming back to Star Wars because of the religious and slightly anti-intellectual aspects. I also cannot get out of my head how much an X-wing looks like a giant penis. With wings.

I have been watching Eureka these days, and it made me revisit all these questions. Is this show good for the public’s perception of science? They picture a town full of scientists, the brightest of America, fooling around with crazy advanced technologies. The concept is really cool, despite being completely unrealistic. The show doesn’t go too far in the stereotypes for scientists. It has the typical awkward geek-boy in the character of Douglas Fargo (who really blossoms into an awesome human being in the 4th season), but otherwise, all the main characters who are scientists are normal people.

I was wondering if the show conveyed the message that advanced technologies are dangerous and not to be messed with. Something goes wrong with somebody’s experiment in every episode. However, the way that the problems are investigated is pretty good. Also, in the last season, when they organize that mission to Titan, they pack in a lot of good lines about how humanity’s heart and soul is exploration. I have to approve of the show just for that.

In conclusion, I think it is rather hard to write science fiction that will hurt the public’s interest in science. I know quite a few people who are not interested in science fiction who also happen to have a very limited interest in science. I don’t know if there is anything to this observation. All I know is that the best way to hurt the public’s interest in science is to not talk about science at all. I guess my point is, if you are a science geek like me, stop raging at the scientific inaccuracies and enjoy the storytelling! There are things way more damaging to science than these.

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2 Responses to Does silly science fiction hurt the public image of science?

  1. suvayu says:

    What I hate is logical inconsistency; be it inconsistent science, character development or plots in the story line. Latest case in point, Terra Nova. It is also the same reason why I liked most of the individual BSG seasons/movies, but not the whole series/franchise. :-/

  2. L-C says:

    I don’t care if they aren’t accurate, because usually the show ends up being more interesting for the average viewer.

    But sometime, if you’re lucky, a great show will try to do things right like Joss Whedon’s Firefly. This is the only tv show, to my knowledge, where there’s no sound in the space scenes.

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