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Science and fiction

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Science and fiction. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, May:6–8.

The purpose of this article is to clarify some common misperceptions as to what science is, what science does, how science relates to technology, and how the activities of science and technology differ from the areas of informed and uninformed speculation, and how the three areas complement each other. As we all work at a scientific research institute [the Great Lakes Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forestry Service], these would seem to be appropriate distinctions to make.

The first criterion of what constitutes science relates to the task of the scientist. Science, in essence, is an occupation in which the work of the practitioners is to ask and attempt to answer questions about the natural world. The classical scientist is someone who observes some phenomenon, be it Newton's legendary falling apple or the evolved differences among Galapagos finches, and seeks to come up with an explanation (a "hypothesis") for the phenomenon. The act of forming and testing a hypothesis is integral to science, but there is far more to this: a hypothesis must be supported by all the facts that have been collected to date, or must explain any disagreements in a reasonable manner, and these explanations must then be tested and confirmed. In modern science, this verification of hypotheses is greatly assisted by the peer review process, in which a scientist submits his findings to a jury of his peers for review and criticism before the findings are published. The job of the reviewers is to consider the findings in light of the existing body of knowledge that relates to the subject area. Inconsistencies will be challenged unless supported by strong evidence, weak evidence will be criticized, and errors of logic will be pointed out. In the event that the findings are truly revolutionary, the experiment will be  repeated by other scientists to see whether the results can be verified.

Peer review is a seriously flawed procedure (ask any scientist who works here for details), but by requiring that scientific publications undergo peer review, it is hoped that the possibility of reaching an incorrect conclusion is greatly reduced. Any published conclusion, when it is supported by additional experimental evidence and hopefully cleansed of errors by further hypothesis-forming and peer review, becomes an accepted "theory". It should be noted that this probably conflicts with the impression you may have gained from the popular press and news media; the common definition of "theory", which is quite incorrect, is that of a first guess at an explanation. As I have already explained, this definition is more properly what scientists would call a hypothesis. Theories that persist for long enough without modification (i.e., as a result of new discoveries or the discovery of errors in the original science) eventually become known as "laws".

Nonetheless, as the tools of science (mathematics, new theories, improved equipment such as computers and scanning tunneling microscopes) improve, even the most reasonable theory or law often proves vulnerable. This is the second important criterion of science: as new evidence comes along, old theories are discarded (if wholly in error) or modified (if the basic truth of the theory remains intact). Newton's mathematical laws of motion, Einstein's relativity, Darwin's evolution, Mendel's genetics, and the theory of continental drift are all examples of theories that have been modified extensively since they were first formulated, but without losing any of their essential underlying truth. Other theories, such as the old idea that dinosaurs provided no nurture to their young, have been largely discarded in light of new discoveries (see recent issues of Discover magazine for details on the dinosaurs).

Technology is an offshoot of science, rather than a function of science itself. The technologist (e.g., most engineers) is one who takes the results of science and applies them to situations of concern to non-scientists. The modern jargon of "technology-transfer specialist" offers a different example of the technologist, and carries with it the implication that technology includes application of knowledge (transfer to some audience who will use the knowledge). Technology is not just development of nifty new machinery, which is what is typically associated with the word. It should be noted that there can be considerable overlap between the roles of scientist and technologist, and the two roles are not necessarily as distinct as I have perhaps indicated. Many scientists engage in technology transfer, just as many technologists engage in scientific research. Perhaps it is more fair to say that the role of the technologist is to form a bridge between pure scientific research and the end use of the research, which is often far removed from the original science.

Finally, there is the area of informed speculation, into which most of my essays fall. Informed speculation relies on the work of others, whether the reported observations themselves or the theories and hypotheses that have been published based on those observations. It does not rely on blind application of dogma, interpreting the information in such a way as to make it fit with one's preconceived notions; neither does it work from ignorance, attempting to analyze the science without the benefit of any background knowledge of the area. Uninformed speculation and pseudoscience commonly adopt both strategies. The relationship between speculation and science is that speculation fulfills a part of the first role of science (posing questions) without necessarily proceeding to the next step (doing an experiment to answer those questions). In an important sense, speculation is also a function of the technologist, who uses the results of science to speculate about what the possible implications and uses of the results are. Thus, informed speculation is integral to both science and technology, neither of which could function without it; on the other hand, speculation in the absence of science or technology (i.e., without some basis in fact) has little or no relevance to the real world. It may make for entertaining reading, or a pleasant waste of time if you happen to be a compulsive reader, but it should not be confused with anything more useful or correct.

Interestingly, the field of science fiction literature encompasses all three  areas. The common view of science fiction is that of bug-eyed monsters from Mars that, for some inexplicable or unlikely reason, lust for the tender bodies of Earthlings. (In some cases, there are explicit and unsavory reasons.) This is a great pity, as science fiction is not taken seriously by most people because of this perception. Indeed, a small but significant proportion of the best literature of the 20th century has been written by science fiction authors. Many science fiction authors are practising scientists, and the number of modern scientific discoveries that were predicted in science fiction or developed by the same scientists who wrote the fiction is truly astonishing. Consider the following examples: undersea travel (Jules Verne), space travel (Verne and Robert Heinlein), electron microscopes, radar (Arthur Clarke), water beds and remote manipulators (both by Heinlein), robots and computers (Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke), microwave ovens, instant food (e.g., minute rice, Tang and freeze-dried food), telephones and radios, television, nuclear power... the list is endless. As just one isolated but dramatic example of the predictive power of science fiction, consider the fictional story that appeared in the early 1940s that predicted (and explained) the principles behind a functional nuclear bomb. Understandably, there was much consternation among the American national security establishment when this story appeared, months before the first working atom bombs had been tested.

As with any genre of literature, science fiction has its notorious bad examples. Consider the current version of War of the Worlds and you'll see what I mean. (Although the original radio play and the first movie were both excellent, the newer incarnation isn't even entertaining as bad comedy.) There are also examples of some very average fare, such as the new Star Trek (not to mention the old one). Then there is the fare that is very good indeed, exemplified by 2001 (and its sequel, 2010) and [Fritz Lang's] Metropolis. But the very good science fiction very rarely makes the jump to the movies or to television, probably because of the Hollywood perception that the North American audience isn't interested in anything that requires a degree of intellectual effort. This perception is so widespread among TV producers that it virtually guarantees that good science fiction will never be seen on a consistent basis: science fiction has been called "the literature of ideas", and ideas demand a certain amount of thought.

To me, a long-time reader of science fiction (mostly of the "good" variety), this is a great shame. The nicest thing about science fiction is that it helps to stretch the mental muscles and make them a little more flexible and receptive to the changes that science and technology create in our lives. I do not recommend the practise of "believing in half a dozen impossible things  before breakfast" (and an autographed copy of this essay to anyone who can identify the source of this misquote), but if you're at all interested in the process and progress of science and technology, I do recommend taking a good look at some of what is being produced by the modern science fiction writer. Mental muscles, like the other kind, require periodic exercise to remain flexible and strong.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved