Ruminations from Ad Astra: The Accuracy of Science

I attended a panel at Ad Astra about the use of ‘old science’ in science fiction. Discussion centred on the use of outdated scientific concepts in popular media and how the science fiction literature might contribute to this or remedy it, assuming it needs remedying.

An example of an outdated science is that humans only use ten percent of their brain capacity. Another – right brain functions deliver creative outputs while the left brain is analytical¹. Alpha wolves, faster than light speed travel – these are themes that crop up on a regular basis.²

A parallel topic, the understanding of science by a general audience, is factor that motives me. It intrigues me, plagues me, makes me want to write and renders me powerless all at once. I’m concerned about newer ideas that I find floating around in the social media clouds:

  • vaccines causing disease,
  • the perils of GMO’s,canstockphoto2945220
  • the nutritional value of foods,
  • animal cloning and breeding,
  • allergens,
  • bubbling beakers full of multi-coloured liquids in the lab
  • the exploitation of science by big business.

My pet peeve is the word TOXIN. I often see it used in a vague and sinister manner, all the more horrible because it isn’t defined, as some insidious, painful, abusive, disfiguring, and debilitating thing. This is an accurate definition. A toxin is something that causes some kind of harm. However, there are few universal toxins. Most are very specific. Air, water, oxygen, sunlight are all toxic to something if administered in too great a dose or the wrong way. (Fish can’t breath in air, animals drown if they’re inhale water, oxygen is explosive and will radicalize and damage metal and DNA etc., sunlight causes cancers but is essential for the survival of most things on the planet.) It’s all in the details of dose, method of administration, and biological compatibility.

This could be a war between entertainment and reality. We don’t want to turn all forms of media into infomercials. Maybe I do. But infomercials in their purest sense – no agenda other than increasing knowledge. Okay, I do have an agenda – to help people understand. Misunderstanding of the topics on my list may cause stress and uncertainty.

Take vaccinations – as an example. If we accept that vaccinations help prevent disease, then avoiding vaccinations puts people at risk for pain and suffering. If the people who are concerned about the safety and efficacy of vaccinations could be certain they were beneficial, they could (a) stop worrying if they were doing the right thing, (b) be protected from whatever disease the vaccination prevented and (c) help prevent the spread of disease, if the vaccine protected against something infectious.

Sounds good. All that remains is the small task of creating engaging science fiction stories that accurately portray emerging scientific findings. I’d better get busy writing. And pulling together a list of stories by other authors that I think do science justice. (Coming soon.)

Thanks to the panelists and the audience for stimulating thoughts about the challenge of telling entertaining tales with science fact. Often, there are no simple answers or explanations of how humans function and interact with our environment. Explaining the complexity, the more than fifty shade of grey, is this writer’s challenge.

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1. Mapping of brain activity and function is complex and new knowledge is constantly added. As I understand it, at any given time, there are neurons firing in many parts of the brain. At another time, in different parts. Any complex function, like playing Cards against Humanity, will use many parts of the brain, on the right side, left side and connections between. Certain simple functions, like receiving visual information and limb movement, are associated with specific areas of the brain but mostly, it’s more complicated than that. I’ve always viewed the 10% and right/left ideas as metaphorical. All of us could think more, and there are those of us who are more analytical and those more creative, especially in how they initially approach problems. What I do know, and this may be key – is that I don’t know it all. And wouldn’t pretend to without a great deal of research.

2. Some shows, considered a sub-genre of science fiction called space opera, are not in this category. Shows like Dr. Who and Star Trek don’t pretend to be based on hard science. They are either pure fantasy or based so far in the future that the writers have poetic license to postulate what looks like impossible technology based on today’s standards.

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