Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

14 August 2019

Despite concerns about using stories in policy, science fiction has a deep impact on policy debates and public understanding, Lindy Orthia writes.

In 2017, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel proposed all leaders be required to read science fiction to help them understand the past and future of science and technology as well as how new innovations might affect human society.

Similarly, in 2015, his predecessor Ian Chubb said science teachers could learn a thing or two from the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory about making science fun.

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This isn’t just Australian contrarianism. Britain’s former science minister Malcolm Wicks suggested in 2007 that teachers use scenes from Doctor Who and Star Wars to kickstart discussion in science classrooms.

Just last year American vulcanologist Jess Phoenix ran for Congress on a platform of linking science-based environmental action to the values of the Star Trek universe.

It may seem outlandish to talk about real science and popular fiction in the same sentence, and doing so frequently creates clickbait headlines, but there’s surprising depth to this connection.

What all these people have in common is that they recognise fiction’s power. It can inspire interest in science topics that would otherwise intimidate us.

This explains the role of the many ‘Science of…’ events, books, and websites science communicators create these days, including ‘The Science of Star Wars’ featuring in National Science Week 2019.

More than that, fiction can garner support for public science institutions, as television shows and films like Star Trek, Mission to Mars, Space Cowboys, and The Martian have done for NASA’s space program over the years.

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Those who understand the power of fiction may also recognise that science-based fiction often has a grain of truth behind the jokes and fantasy.

That grain can set agendas for how we think about science’s place in society and its ethical dilemmas. It can prompt us to find out more about current issues – as The Day After Tomorrow did for climate change.

Fiction can even educate us directly if it’s relevant to our lives on public health issues like HIV/AIDS and safe sex or the importance of getting regular pap smears.

Fiction’s power can be a potent public policy tool.

Of course, advocates often wring their hands over fiction’s potential educational role, worrying that the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ will win out while polluting scientific ideas by diluting the facts.

The Royal Society of London and the US National Science Foundation have both fretted at various times about the inaccuracy of science in popular fiction, anxious it would distort people’s understandings of matters and corrupt their potential for reasoned participation in public policy debates.

Research indicates both were wrong.

Fiction enhances, rather than undermines, democratic involvement in debates about science because it gives people diverse resources to draw upon in discussion. It helps us think, feel, imagine, and speak about science. It helps us figure out where science sits in relation to our human values.

That is futurism. The line between scientific speculation about potential futures and fiction is extremely blurry. What’s the difference between a Senate Inquiry noting nanotechnology could create wrinkle-free and stain-free clothes, and the 1951 movie The Man in the White Suit about fabric with the same properties?

Citizens may reference fiction texts in science debates – like mentioning Frankenstein, Brave New World, or Gattaca in public discussions about eugenics, human cloning, and other biotechnology – but that doesn’t mean fiction told them what to think.

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Rather, it helps people articulate concerns that are based on science’s litany of real-world failures and disasters as well as its successes.

It’s not only science-wary citizens that use this rhetorical strategy. In 1990s debates about human embryo research, scientists and pro-science politicians were more likely than their opponents to invoke the spectre of Frankenstein or Brave New World as a way to reassure people of what they weren’t doing.

In fact, the entire field of near-earth object research and the government policies that accompany it were built on novels and films about asteroids and comets hurtling towards the Earth and being destroyed by humans’ space-based weapons.

We may have our reservations, but one thing is clear. Science fiction not only has a deep impact on the way we think about science but on policy and on society as well.

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One Response

  1. Vince Biancomano says:

    Every science student should be required to see the movie “Forbidden Planet” (c. 1955) to grasp the dangers of societies that become too technological.

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