Beam Me Up, Scotty: Is Science Fiction Destroying Science?

As a genre, science fiction could potentially wield more influence over its followers than any other cultural force. Through film, television, and comics, it has inspired countless socially-awkward young people to think outside the realms of objective reality, even compelling them to congregate en masse in bizarre costumes. Sure, science fiction has been known to attract all kinds of hyper-intellectuals and leaders of tomorrow, but people in the science and sci-fi communities are arguing over how it positively or negatively affects education.

While it’s known primarily for its contribution to popular culture, science fiction has influenced countless minds. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman was influenced by the genre, as was most of the current brain trust at NASA. But when it comes to a sense of real-world educational value, science fiction could be more fiction than science.

A lot of science fiction is heavily politicized, something we’ve dwelled on with the success of “Avatar.” But when it comes to actual science, some scientists are crying foul. One in particular, Emory physics prof Sidney Perkowitz, has established a set of guidelines for Hollywood producers to help them observe the laws of science and not mislead their fanboy following. These guidelines were in direct response to some of the scientific implausibilities presented in science fiction films. Interestingly enough, science fiction as an educational asset has been a divisive topic for some time.

Advocates have been championing science fiction as a teaching tool for decades. The idea gained traction after Jurassic Park became a cultural phenomenon in the 1990s. With the success of science fiction in the past year or two, particularly “Avatar,” that topic is once again heating up. There are even selected reading lists of novels and short stories that provide accurate portrayals of science. And don’t forget a readily-available selection of Cuban science fiction. But not everyone is thrilled with the influence of sci-fi on education.

Writer John Scalzi blames this divide between science fiction and science education primarily on the wild inaccuracies of the historic “Star Trek” series. Conversely, science fiction author Norman Spinrad claims that a decline in the quality of American education is actually hurting the quality of sci-fi.  But while large parts of science fiction might be more fiction than science, other people find that a basic interest in science fiction can in turn generate greater interest in the real sciences down the road, regardless of sci-fi’s inherent flaws. And now science fiction is standing on its own as an academic field.

Countless schools offer sci-fi-based courses, the University of Kansas taking a strong lead in the field with a variety of science fiction studies. The University of Glamorgan in Wales even once offered a degree in science fiction, a program that no longer appears on the school’s web site. And even if much of the science in science fiction is inaccurate, there is a precedent for fantastical science fiction predicting future scientific discoveries. After all, in 1914 HG Wells published “The World Set Free,” a novel that imagined a bomb built around radioactive and atomic elements that would go off for the first time in 1956. The rest, as they say, is history.

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