Anti-Science Fiction

It comes as no surprise to anyone that science fiction is fictitious. It’s make-believe—speculative entertainment for our over-active imaginations, whisking us away to far flung worlds and allowing us to consider “What if?” But what happens when fiction transcends the page and enters popular culture? What influence does it have?

In this blog post I’d like to put forward the proposition that popular scifi that’s inherently anti-scientific has unjustly eroded our confidence in science.

Anti-science is popular, and not just in the absurd form of Flat Earthers. From creationists to anti-vaxxers and those that deny climate change, we’re surrounded by skeptics, but this isn’t healthy skepticism, where one challenges ideas to learn, but rather is based in stubborn ignorance, often to the detriment of those that hold these beliefs. And this isn’t hyperbole on my part. Those that chase “alternative” or “complimentary” medicine have TWICE the mortality rate. Why? Because there is no alternative or complimentary medicine. There’s just medicine—evidence-based and scientifically researched, and then there’s feel good guesswork. Which do you trust? Choose wisely, as your life literally depends on it.

Where do these notions come from? Why are we so ready to accept the latest craze and yet doubt hard-fought scientific research?

It’s really quite counterintuitive. Think about the times in which we live and the prevalence of science in everyday life. From smart phones to airplanes, we’re surrounded with the rewards of science. No longer plagued by Smallpox or Polio, we have significant proportions of the population questioning the need for vaccines. Why?

Consider this quote from James Henry Robinson’s The Mind in the Making.

We sometimes fine ourselves changing our minds without any resistance or heavy emotion, but if we are told we are wrong we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but fine ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem which is threatened.

Ego is the great enemy.

I often hear people say “science is just commonsense.” Nope. No it isn’t. If it was, the world would be very different. It wouldn’t have taken us thousands of years to figure out a few basic steps. Our natural “sense” is inherently biased by a whole raft of prejudices. Science is the discipline of removing those influences so we can see clearly, which makes it all the more galling when uninformed and ignorant people challenge it without any reason beyond their feelings.

Is science perfect? No, but it is self-correcting.

Science is a particularly human affair and is subject to the same foibles as any other endeavor, including cultural biases like racism and sexism, ala #metoo, the difference is, it ACCEPTS rather than defends these challenges (or it should and will given time). All these fearful conspiracies theories that scientists are some how in cohorts over climate change couldn’t be more wrong. There’s not a scientist alive that wouldn’t love to discover something that overturned their field. That’s what science is all about—challenging norms, seeing if they continue to hold. If they do, wonderful. If they don’t, change. Einstein did that to Newton.

Why is our ego so pernicious?

The little word my is the most important word in human affairs, and properly to reckon with it is the beginning of wisdom. It has the same force whether it is my dinner, my dog, my house or my faith, my country or my God. We not only resent the imputation that our watch has the wrong time or that our car is shabby, but that our conception of the canals of Mars is in error, or our pronunciation of Epictetus is subject to revision.

It’s me.

You can tell everyone else they’re wrong, but not me—that’s our nature. Ironically, that’s something that’s systematically challenged by university professors teaching the next generation of scientists. There are no absolutes in science. Everything is subject to revision if the evidence demands it.

We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to it. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists of finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.

And that brings us back to our proposition: science fiction that is inherently anti-scientific erodes our confidence in science.

It’s an unpopular opinion, I know, but Michael Crichton was a luddite. More often than not, in his novels science was the enemy. Science was elitist, arrogant. And this isn’t just a writer’s ploy of building different characters, in several of his novels including Jurassic Park and State of Fear Crichton undertakes MAJOR information dumps shitting on science. For me, it’s no surprise to see the modern aversion to science as it was born out of the attitudes he fomented in the 90s. His perspective was unthinkingly accepted as true, and has been difficult to displace in popular culture.

Consider these sections from Jurassic Park.

…science is a belief system that is hundreds of years old. And like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world anymore.

Decades later, this is still a common retort. Science (apparently) is just another belief system. That’s a proposition that is so absurd as to defy reason. Belief is anathema to science. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Science doesn’t care what you believe.”

Oh, and it’s hundred’s of years old. Nope. Science is NOTHING like it was in the time of either Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein, and it continues to be refined further. The advent of professional scientists as we know them today is less than a hundred years old.

How about this section?

Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but it cannot tell us not to use it… [the challenges we face are] because of ungovernable science.

As pious and self-righteous as this section is, it’s utterly wrong and yet these attitudes are still perpetuated in our culture today.

Scientists were the FIRST ones to speak out against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. It’s the military and government that pressed their use, but who’s going to criticise them? No, let’s take cheap shots at science. Science quickly settled on the use of molten salt reactors, which are astonishingly safe and practical, but don’t produce weapons grade by-products. It wasn’t science that stopped the adoption of these.

As for pesticides, I do believe they’re made by corporations. Scientists were the one’s that raised alarm bells about the use of DDT. Why? Because they study these things! That’s what science does.

The phrase “ungovernable science” is laughable. Governments and corporations have been suppressing good science for decades, doing everything they can to bury genuine science from the harm of tobacco to the dangers of climate change.

Ironically, what’s needed is ungovernable science. Science shouldn’t be answerable to any political ideology. Doh!

Science… [is as] foolish and misguided as the child who jumps off a building because he believes he can fly.

Yep, Michael Crichton wrote that.

Oh, and how about this one? Everyone knows this one…

Try substituting “politicians, generals and entrepreneurs” and you’ll get far closer to the truth.

Then there’s this pearl of wisdom.

We are witnessing the end of the scientific era. Science, like other outmoded systems, is destroying itself. As it gains in power, it proves itself incapable of handling the power.

If we’re witnessing the end of the scientific era, it’s because Michael helped usher in an era of ignorance and distrust. It won’t be science that destroys itself, but we’re on the verge of destroying ourselves.

These quotes aren’t isolated quips, they’re constant themes throughout Michael Crichton’s works. State of Fear is a manifesto for climate change denial, loosely wrapped in a story about the laughable concept of “eco-terrorism.” While Next, Timeline and Prey are all science-gone-mad novels.

Fiction is, by it’s nature, untrue, and yet it’s still influential in ways few people recognize, shaping culture and attitudes. Popularity breeds acceptance, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

Of course, you’re free to disagree with me, but please remember the words of James Henry Robinson, and his warning about how heedless we are in our beliefs, and yet strident in their defense.

The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists of finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.

Think for yourself. I did. It’s refreshing.

Sorry, Michael. You’re a dinosaur.

6 thoughts on “Anti-Science Fiction

  1. Before you decide to cross a river by stepping on boulders, you have to decide on a series of tentative commitments. If the one you choose wobbles or is slippery, you obviously choose another if you want to stay dry on your journey. Science is similar.
    Michael Crichton can navigate boulders much more skillfully than most and if he decides he doesn’t care if he gets wet along the way, who of us, perched on our safe, stable rocks, can take issue with his technique? Does he lampoon science? You bet. Does he believe science is evil? No. I believe he is being realistic about human weaknesses just as you are in your article. The difference is, he doesn’t restrict them to corporations, entrepreneurs or other safe targets. He calls “science” out for what it is, not some pristine ultimate truth, but that truth wielded by scientists who are too often taking no responsibility for releasing the genie from the bottle before finding a safe way to put him back when necessary.
    Weird science is not the enemy, true, but weird scientists? Maybe

    • I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.

      In his novel, State of Fear, in particular, Michael was on a recruitment drive, pushing an ideological agenda that worked all too well (I fell for it for the best part of a decade after reading that book). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Crichton. I rate Sphere as the greatest work of science fiction in the last fifty years, but to me it’s no surprise to see his sentiments in Jurassic Park echoed back by luddites today as that was by design.

      My proposition here was that popular anti-science fiction unjustly erodes confidence in science—not that science is perfect and Crichton is bad, but rather that the effect of popularising anti-science is real, unlike fiction.

      Ask yourself this… Does the public judged science by its own standards or by inflammatory rhetoric? The answer (as seen over the past several decades) is that our appreciation of science is NOT impartial, but swayed by ideologies, religion, etc. So I think the point stands.

      Thanks for dropping by

  2. An excellent post. It appears that overall our world’s population is becoming increasingly illiterate about, and even opposed to, the fundamental concepts of science–as you point out so well.

    Your quotes from James Henry Robinson’s The Mind in the Making bring to mind all the scholarly research on the human resistance to changing one’s mind about things despite evidence. Popularization of such research (cf. books on Amazon) is increasing in reaction to blatant anti-science pronouncements and political actions from the current U.S. executive branch.

    • I can’t believe I missed your message for several years. Sorry. Yes, the James Henry Robinson quote seems to be proven correct time and again in our post-truth world where misinformation is considered on par with facts 😦

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