Science in my Science Fiction: Literacy

October 12th, 2007

I’d intended to follow-up this month on last month’s entry on dark matter, and do something similar about dark energy. I will do that in the future, either here or on my own website, but I left it a little late (blame a friend of mine for distracting me, and she knows who she is). It’s an easier topic than dark matter, because we know less, but I do want to do it properly.

What I want to talk about is the general issue of scientific literacy. Why is it when people go to see a mediocre drama, they complain about the acting or the unrealistic characters, but when they go see a mediocre science fiction film (”sci-fi”), with bad science, they forgive criticisms with “it’s just a movie!”

Does this bother anyone else?

The only reason I can see that there’s a difference between the two situations is that people are trained on a daily basis about how people behave, but have no expectation or understanding of basic physics/biology/geology, or at least no concern about it.

I think that sucks.

Our expectations are too low. Our understanding is too low. I’m not talking about individuals here necessarily, but as a people. It’s like how at a party it’s forgivable when people admit to math phobia, but admire high culture. I think that’s bullshit, and we should call people on it.

We live in a technological civilization. You’re reading this on a system using the most advanced technology available to our species. Without modern science, we would all begin to starve and start fighting massive wars. To deny this, in even as simple a way as saying “It’s just a movie” is to deny the reality of our world.

There is no modern reality, no existence, without our science and technology. It can be denied locally, but without global acceptance (as demanded by economics), you die. So please, accept it culturally as well. To do otherwise is to deny reality and the intellectual integrity that must accompany the perception of our reality.

Please, think about this when it comes up, where it comes up. And it comes up everywhere, daily, for everyone living on this planet. Certainly anyone reading this. There is not any real literacy anymore without scientific literacy. It’s a part of our existence, a necessary part, essential to our future. Eating, working, loving, are all just as important as they were before, but we now live in a world where the continued existence of humankind depends on technology. Without it, and a continuing commitment to maintaining it, everything falls apart and we descend into chaos and misery.

OK, there’s one scenario where that doesn’t happen. H.G. Wells’s THE TIME MACHINE posits two cultures, one of basement-dwelling IT specialists called “Morlocks” and one of beautiful-people know-nothing “Eloi.” The former eat the latter in his story, so I don’t consider that an acceptable solution.

What do you want to happen to us in the end? It may not look like a major trend today, but let evolution and time pile on and it isn’t so unreasonable.

I know a lot of this post has been abstract and general, but my concern is specific. Math and science are every bit as important as English and history. Ignore them at your peril. Go embrace a nerd today, and pick up a book or a movie that seems too technically challenging. It’s good for all of us.


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