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?

5 thoughts on “Dissecting a Pet Peeve

  1. Anonymous

    Oh, it’s worse than that…

    Once you realize that the scientific method and re-testing hypotheses and many other classic “this is what science is” type characterizations are also themselves fictional idealizations, things get really hairy. For one example among a billion, it’s extraordinarily difficult to mimic, retest and compare the results of multi-billion dollar super-colliders with the original work, for all kinds of reasons – propriety, trade secrets, frank cost, etc. Not even real science is real science – the practice in many cases is vastly different from the lessons we get in third grade about the scientific method. So that idealized notion of science that would at least be a step in the right direction as far as public education is concerned is itself a sort of pedagogical device, not a description of reality. Science is a dynamic social process, each branch of it with its own context and standards of evidence / practice, and all of this is, sure enough, probably too nuanced for TV or media or reporters to convey to a largely illiterate public.

    I’m with you on the annoying factor of tv shows and a fast and loose handling of realism – see large fiery explosions in oxygen-less outer space – but as a general rule, given that fiction is “false” in some basic way, I think it’s hard to put definitive boundaries around what has to be real and what can be stretched. The gratuitous errors are annoying, sure, but what about fictional modes like magical realism (or even, say, escapist summer blockbuster – maybe it’s just okay that you can use a Mac (TM) to kill alien ships, because hey, we’re already blowing up the world with aliens)? Case in point – my wife gets mad at Battlestar Galactica routinely for things like the octagonal cards because it’s so unrealistic, but it makes me want to say, “Yeah, and ALL these people are speaking English!!! So unrealistic!” Why, really, one and not the other?

    1. najud

      Re: Oh, it’s worse than that…

      The answer to situations where the reality is different because of place, technological advancement or laws of nature is to maintain a semblance of self-consistency. If you have routine space travel, then weapons, sensors(personal or otherwise) and personal gadgets need to advance as well. If your manufactured humans that are indistinguishable from the garden variety, they can’t be walking tanks or communicate with a computer through a fiber-optic cable. There has to be a system that drives your reality. It can’t just be a bunch of random ideas, or it will show. It is abundantly clear in most science fiction that the writer had no idea what was going on and much of the audience will see that.

      As for communication in fiction, it is never realistic for good reason. This is because a story told in the incomprehensible babble most of us issue on a regular basis would be a waste of time. Further, it can be presumed that you are reading or listening to a translation. This still leaves the question of whether everyone in the colonies should speak the same language. It is certainly possible that they speak a common trade/scientific language from Earth(English or English-Chinese?), though it might have been a good idea to put that sort of detail in.

      As for the “social” aspect to science, this is the case to some degree. However, it is mostly a flaw rather than a feature. Many advances have been set back a considerable period of time due to an influential individual condemning the theory that turned out to be better. To some extent, this problem arises from the need to be able to pick out the good work with a minimum of effort since each individual can’t read everything. Fortunately, so long as there is a rigorous review environment, the better theory will likely pop back up at some point many years later.

      I wouldn’t use particle physics as the standard example for how science is done because it has become so expensive that there are really only two viable programs, CERN and Fermilab. Both of these projects have many of the same people working on them, which is undoubtedly leading to a profound case of group-think. I also wouldn’t classify psychology (psychiatry is a little harder to nail down) as very scientific, and this shows in the poor results. At the end of the day, the science is proven in the engineering. If it produces results in the real world, the science is good.

      1. Anonymous

        Re: Oh, it’s worse than that…

        Right on regarding internal consistency. I think the initial complaint was the matching of the movie’s reality to the external reality, though. It would be internally consistent if, say, exploding space ships always went up in flames in a movie, even though the lack of oxygen in reality would disallow that. Of course, it’s internally inconsistent when the movie takes pains to show you that people in space can’t breathe or hear sounds… anyways, sure, movies/books should have a sort of system in place, otherwise they’ll be annoying and haphazard. And it takes some skill / effort to put that system in place. I’m still interested in the need for fiction to match reality – its external consistency. I don’t really know how / where we draw lines.

        I’m not sure I understand what “it’s more of a flaw than a feature” comment means. It’s a completely pervasive flaw/feature, and my entire point was that the idealist version of science that is constantly proffered is impossible in real practice, so science as practiced does not line up with science as theorized. I guess I’m just saying of course it’s a flaw if you are comparing the real world to a sort of Platonic science ideal, but it’s a reality, unfortunate or not, that is characteristic of science in the real world. Furthermore, that “rigorous review environment” to which you refer is another ideal construct that is subject to a ton of very non-perfect social influence. There money involved, there’s who knows whom politics involved in being part of the editing process, there’s non-transparency in author submissions… what constitutes the “best theory” is often something seemingly external to the theory. I don’t know to what extent you can count on the current system to ensure that the best theory will pop back up, given its overt and entrenched feature-flaws.

        I needn’t use particle physics: climate modeling, genetics, you name it, all engage in their own evidence systems that make it hard to pin down a sort of capital S Scientific method that would encompass them all. Which is sort of the point, I guess, that there is no ideal Science, and that all the individual sciences have more going on than the scientific method. Which makes it additionally difficult to declare that something isn’t scientific – on what metric? The Human Genome Project, e.g., has spent millions of dollars with a paucity of “good results” – so that’s bad science now?

    2. Katherine Nabity Post author

      Re: Oh, it’s worse than that…

      I’ll absolutely cop to being an idealist in this (and many other things). I would love it if science was infinitely funded and free of politics, both national and personal. Still, if you count me as only quarter-educated in these subjects, it’s sad that half the science articles I read in the popular press cause me to wince. Then again, maybe I only know enough to get me into trouble.

      1. Anonymous

        Re: Oh, it’s worse than that…

        You’re absolutely right – general media coverage of science is wince-inducing. I agree with you on that 1000%; it’s just that in addition to the media being wildly off from being able to effectively report on the idealized version, the “true story” of much science is even farther from what gets reported. Or even could be reported, given science literacy levels, etc. The FOTM is that it’s horrendously complicated and defies easy encapsulation, so it’s easier to write “Gene for Depression FOUND!” than to give nuanced details about the actual findings (or challenges to them).

        And power to the idealists! No name-calling intended; the difference between “Science” and sciences is just a huge topic in my parts.

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