By Dr Michael Edmonds
My fascination with science is closely mirrored by an enjoyment of science fiction. This is possibly because I see a lot of truth in physicist Edward Teller’s idea that ’the science fiction of today is the technology of tomorrow.’ However, having recently watched Iron Man 2 where Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) synthesises a new element in what looks like less than a week , I do wonder if such an optimistic portrayal of science and technology creates unreal expectations of what science can do in the real world.
Common inaccurate portrayals of science in fiction:
The scientific polymath — whether it’s Rodney McKay from Stargate: Atlantis or Spock from Star Trek, fictional scientists are often portrayed as not just being experts in a single area of science but as knowledgeable across all areas of science. While this may have been possible two or three centuries ago, the sheer bulk of current scientific knowledge makes it impossible for a single scientist to have an in depth knowledge of more than a few, typically related fields. It may be convenient for television and movie producers to concentrate scientific knowledge into one character, however in real life it can be a challenge just keeping up to date with all of the advances in a single field.
The socially inept scientist — Perhaps carrying around all that knowledge in one’s brain leaves no room for storing the simple rules about social conduct, or the desire to play nice with others, however in the ’real world’ most scientists work effectively in teams and have completely normal social lives. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon and friends may provide us with laughs, but is desirable to have the stereotype of scientists as arrogant and geeky reinforced at a time in history when public understanding and acceptance of science is vital?
’Instant’ science — Cures to life threatening diseases found within a week, disasters averted by with ’Macgyver-ish’ modifications of available equipment, unfamiliar computers understood and reprogrammed within minutes. Science fiction is filled with instant solutions to impossible tasks. Even the ’more realistic’ science based shows such CSI and Bones show scientific analyses as being much faster and more conclusive than most real world scientists would experience. Not to mention the technology they have available. Many forensic scientists can only dream of (and drool over) the expensive and/or imaginative technology displayed on some of these shows. Furthermore, no-one ever seems to refer to the literature — somehow everything they need to know is already in their heads.
Certainty in science — in fiction even the riskiest plans and most improbable theories work the first time they are put into practice. Fictional scientists put together complicated pieces of equipment and they work first time (or occasionally second time if a bit of suspense is required). Gone are the real life experiences involving weeks and months spent tweaking experimental conditions, ordering and waiting for pieces of equipment to arrive and/or trying to interface incompatible pieces of equipment.
Fictional science can serve to inspire those with an interest in science, but is it possible that erroneous fictional representations of science can result in unrealistic expectations of science from the general public? It’s an interesting thought. Science has provided us with so many advances — in health, communications, space travel — yet its progress can still seem slow to those waiting for their flying car or a ’cure’ to cancer.
Dr Michael Edmonds is an educator, researcher and manager at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He has strong interests in the communication and promotion of science.