Science Fiction — Inspirational or Setting Unreal Expectations?

By Guest Work 11/05/2010 19

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:

rodney mackayThe 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.

sheldon big bang theoryThe 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?

iron man 2’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.

heliotronCertainty 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.

19 Responses to “Science Fiction — Inspirational or Setting Unreal Expectations?”

  • I agree with what you say … but, really, can you name a realistic blockbuster in any genre? Did your love-life ever resemble a romantic comedy? Do real spies lives resemble James Bond? Would a typical WW2 soldier have found war movies realistic? Plus martial arts movies, action flicks, etc etc.

    Ultimately, practically all holywood movies are fantasy..

    (also: )

  • I’d also argue that many people involved in science and technical fields are probably ASD – certainly, Sheldon is perhaps a fairly extreme example of this. However, the show’s also reached out to a large audience of people who wouldn’t self-describe as ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’, and in that way has helped to humanise science and scientists.
    The thing with comedy, and comedy shows, is that much of the humour is based on stereotypes anyway. There was a great debate a few months back about TBBT, actually (here on sciblogs, I believe) where the humour got discussed. Worth having a look at, potentially.

  • I don’t think I would agree with the statement that “many people involved in science and technical fields are probably ASD”, yes, possibly more than in your average population but surely not “many”? I guess science and technical people are also on average probably a little more geekier, but to have almost every scientist featured on TBBT as geeky (think about all the people we see at Sheldon and Leonard’s workplace) is a little annoying.
    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the show, it’s just that I have this nagging feeling that for people who are unfamiliar with scientists it might be reinforcing stereotpyes that we are trying to overcome with efforts such as “the secret lifes of scientists” produced by PBS.
    Also, I’ve had the experience of people assuming that because I have a PhD (in chemistry) that I also understand other areas in detail including medicine, particle physics, astronomy and engineering. Courtesy of the polymath scientific stereotype.
    And boy does it drive me nuts when they can cobble together some complex piece of equipment along with suitable technobabble and then flick a switch and it works first time. I don’t know of any scientist who is that lucky.
    Sorry to see I missed a previous discussion re TBBT, will have to see if I can track it down.

  • stephenr
    aah, the joy of xkcd :)
    I used ‘many’ in the sense of ‘more than probably found in the general population. I didn’t use ‘majority’ or anything :)
    As for stereotypes of scientists – I don’t think I quite agree. There’s an interesting range of characterisation in the main characters, and, frankly, the stereotypes many people have of scientists couldn’t possibly be made any worse. Again, most comedy is based on stereotypes anyway – I’m certain that most American families are not, for example, barking mad and comprised entirely of incredibly witty people able to form a pithy rejoinder at a second’s notice.

  • repton
    Completely agreed. TV series and films are just that – entertainment. And I think most people are aware of the levels of distortion that occur in all the genres. From here, should we start asking that all fanciful science fiction (books) also be made more accurate?
    Having said that, though, the relatively accurate TV series are a joy to watch. I’d recommend ReGenesis to anyone – it was wonderful hearing proper terminology etc. (It also features Ellen Page, which is always fun).

  • “From here, should we start asking that all fanciful science fiction (books) also be made more accurate?”

    It’s actually not too hard to find books that are quite scientifically accurate — or at least, that were accurate when they were written. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, for example, both made real efforts to follow scientific development. Their juvenile novels were often written in part to teach kids (boys) about the universe.

    (of course, this means they both suffered badly from what tvtropes calls “Science Marches On” ( ): stuff that was thought to be true at the time is now known to be false or different…)

    To be honest, from your post I think works that are obviously science fiction are not a problem, because people generally have no trouble identifying them as fake. It’s programmes like CSI that purport to be real that do more to distort people’s notions of how the world works.

  • Aimee, Repton you make make good points but what do you think of the polymath characterisation of scientists?

  • repton
    Re. your comment – yup, some books are relatively accurate, while others aren’t. Much like moving picture representations of science 😉

    I also agree that it’s not the ridiculously over-the-top sci-fi works which can lead to issues. Shows like CSI have certainly had a deleterious effect (one of the Sciblogs contributors, Anna Sandiford, has written about this). And I’m definitely not a fan. Still, that’s one end of a very wide spectrum…
    I wonder, is dumbing down science to that extent necessary due to the poor levels of knowledge and education suffered by many people? (A whole different argument, admittedly).


    The polymath thing is ridiculous, yes. I find myself laughing, though, at the thought of the SGA cast being doubled or tripled by the need for all the various types of scientists they’d have needed. Of course, the rest of the series is also so very plausible 😛

  • Forgive me for not having time to read it all (I know it’s terrible practice to reply without reading it all, but I’m short on time). [Written earlier & not posted, too. Sorry, things are a bit hectic here.]

    I’ve written little scraps on this theme over time and I guess I have a few thoughts on the subject like most scientists do :-)

    There’s an article linked in my recent Lab lit post that might be relevant if anyone wants to read further (it explores if sci fi could, in cases, represent science accurately enough to be considered lablit).

    I’ve commented about the ASD perception previously to a commenter (I forget who and where it is and I don’t believe that we can search comments), pointing out the way of reasoning used in research science includes introspecting your own “actions” on the subject you are reasoning about. If this written directly (or presented) directly without “mapping” it to an explanatory or narrative style it will give the impression of an ASD-type personality, but really it’s just that rigorous introspective thinking is needed to try eliminate your own biases. Put another way, consider the reasons for symptoms too! :-)

    Another example of the polymath thing is ‘Eleventh hour’ (on tonight at 11pm, TV One). The science itself on the series can be fairly good (if wildly dramatised), but this one guy does it all… Bones is better in that respect, they at least have a team that passes different aspects around and pulls the bits together (although it falls down in other ways as you say).

    As a practical matter I have some sympathies with the script writers (and those who choose which scripts get the nod):

    – Most plots will want a limited number of heroes; viewers/readers can’t follow too big a cast and it loses focus if too many people are thrown up in succession. Bones does pretty well in this respect, with a key figure, but shifting emphasis for individual shows.

    – Entertainment struggles to present long periods of exacting/tedious work, for obvious and I think fairly understandable reasons :-) I wonder if this aspect is best limited to the more serious dramas that can take a long narrative approach about one (or a few) persons’ lives.

  • While I agree with some of the comments that for entertainment’s sake producers often have to gloss over the normally long experimentation required to get something to work, surely they could work in the occasional difficult problem that takes several episodes to solve?
    And, personally, I find fiction that tries to maintain as much real science in it as possible, more satisying than fiction in which the “science” is just impossible. The TV series Babylon 5 impressed me in the way the spacecraft actually used jets to manuover according to the laws of physics, enabling various rolls etc that I thought were actually more impressive than the “gliding” motions of other tv series
    an example can be seen at:
    Of course posting a sci fi link probably does nothing to reduce my GQ (geek quotient) – lol

  • drmike – Have a look at ReGenesis.
    Again, though, this raises the point that there’s a continuum of realism in this sort of entertainment, from the sublime to the bizarre.
    And never be afeared of your GQ, either.

  • Aimee, enjoyed the link, I agree with the authors sentiments. I’ve been thinking about the unrealistic expectations of science we form and another culprit is some of the “perfect” labs carried out in undergraduate labs that make undergraduates think that science always works, and it’s not until hons/PhD that we truely discover how slow/difficult progress in science can be.

  • Yes, that ‘perfect’ labs thing has bugged me for a long time. The tutor & I call them ‘cookbook’ labs – follow the recipe properly & you’ll get a nice cake every time :-)

    We’ve done our best to move away from that with our first-year bio labs, so the kids get the opportunity to design some of their own experiments & there’s no ‘right’ answer for what they’re doing. Personally I think the ‘perfect’ labs of most science classes are doing science a real disservice because the students get such an unrealistic idea of how science works. (Or they’re bright enough to see through it, & then of course think we’re all hypocrits for telling them one thing & practising another…

  • […] This is going to be a somewhat self indulgent post coupling my love of science fiction and TV themes. Growing up I was always captivated by science fiction programmes on television and I’m sure this lead to me pursuing a career in science, even if most such programmes presented unreal expectations of what science can do. […]

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