Daily Archives: July 19, 2009

Dissecting a Pet Peeve

I am a science fan. ‘Round about 40 years ago, it was easier to be a groupee. How many scientists were born from the dream-become-reality of walking on the moon? Our world is becoming what science fiction used to be, yet it’s harder to be a fan of science.

Eighty percent of my science related pet peeve is summed up with this cartoon:

Science News Cycle

The news industry does a grave injustice to science. It over-hypes the results of small preliminary studies. Headlines often use the most hysterical language to report things. A recent Salon article (Why America is flunking science) touches on Hollywood misrepresenting science, but more damage is done by reporters who don’t understand the scientific method writing to an audience that doesn’t understand the scientific method. When the results of some minor early study are over-exposed and demonized, the public loses confidence in science when a further study shows a reverse trend. It sometimes seems that even scientists forget that the most important part of science is retesting, refining, and reassessing when more data is available. Science is the search for how the world works and how to make the world work for us; not the search for a definitive answer based on a half-understood model of how the world works.

Hollywood is not free of fault. I understand Crichton’s argument in the Salon article. Science and scientists are good drama devices, though I’m not a fan of negative science fiction (which is fairly prominent in literature as well). But to some degree, science can still be a "villain" without sacrificing sense of wonder. While "Doctor Who" is pretty far from scientific rigor, it is optimistic science fiction despite the occasional killer robots. The Doctor and his companions see I’ve also been watching the BBC’s "Eleventh Hour" which has a big science villain every episode but also a protagonist that marvels at how far science can and will take us. (I haven’t seen the American version.)

Still, it’s extremely annoying when TV shows and movies (and books) ignore the basics of how the world works (which is the basis of science, after all). Octagonal paper is used, and all you need to interface with the alien spacecraft is a trusty Mac. Blood is often red and gooey weeks after a murder. Pistols are incredibly accurate at long range. Technologies aren’t developed through thousands of man-hours by a team of men and women, but by one rich super-genius. It all adds up to a very distorted view of how the world works and how science works. And sadly, in many cases, what movies and TV get wrong could easily be put right. I deal with this often in the fictional world that Eric and I are creating. The easy short-cut or the stylish detail is sometimes off the mark as far as reality is concerned. These things are a hassle to correct, but the fictional world I’m creating is much richer when the flaws are fixed and there is continuity in the way the universe works. Why wouldn’t I expect as much from depictions of our own reality?