I got to thinking about this after Epidemiology class, or, literally, the “study of that which befalls people” where, for the first class, we discussed how to read scientific papers, looking for bias, and with a critical eye. She showed us a couple of videos, and although she was joking that the first one was warming us up for the second one, where the guy is speaking very fast with a strong British accent, it was also very apt in our discussion of where science knowledge comes from.
I don’t know about you, but this Monty Python sketch resonates strongly with many news programs I’ve seen over the years, and as she went on to show us Ben Goldacre’s TED talk on bad science, I started thinking about this in relation to writing science fiction.
We use our genre to stretch our understandings of humanity, and the consequences of the current scientific knowledge and practices, extrapolating outward to extremes, sometimes, although there are stories where what seemed absurd then, is not far enough, now. From Star Trek’s communicators to today’s cell phones, for instance.
But how to make sure we avoid bad science? First of all, I suspect most of our readers here at MGC are ornery enough not to take what’s presented on the news, or even most science journals and magazines, at face value. Staying tapped into the superficial sources is important, though, because there is where most of your readers are getting their information. Knowing what misconceptions people have can make adding science to your fiction interesting, as you could, say, work into the story a character who was getting it all wrong… and having them set straight by the right stuff.
Evaluating papers and articles is an art unto itself. Here’s an article Amanda sent me last night: “In so far as heeding the call for more research, the scientific community is beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Last spring, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized Caffeine Use Disorder as a health concern in need of additional research in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders — the standard classification of mental disorders, now in its fifth edition (DSM-5), used by mental health professionals in the United States.” Which made me scratch my head. Caffeine dependence is a disorder, now? If you follow the link at the bottom to the paper the article is built around, you find that there is a whole Journal of Caffeine Research. Who knew?
Suddenly I picture a world where caffeine is outlawed, and only outlaws own Mr. Coffee’s, and Some Dude on the Corner whispers, “hey, man, Earl Grey, or Chai?” And there you are, hard science… or soft science, depending on how you feel about the DSM-5 and all it’s related controversies. But it’s easy to do this with any number of articles and papers, this just happened to hit my funny bone.
However, when you are trying to do serious research, make sure the institution the paper comes from is reputable. Check to see if it is a research paper, a review paper, or what. Read carefully, looking for the big question the researchers are trying to answer, this will sometimes reveal a bias whether they were conscious of it, or not. Make notes, and if you have time, try to find more than one point of data, rather than relying on a single paper. Yes, we may be writing fiction, not a school paper, but if we are to avoid bad science, we need to be serious about our research.
I’m gearing up for plunging back into a world where the entire galactic civilization was brought low by a plague. More specifically, a fungal parasite. So I am reading about epidemiology and pandemics, outside of class, and tucking all sorts of odd data into my brain. I never know what I will need, as I am constructing the story, and it’s a fascinating topic for me, personally. So it’s not exactly a painful experience.
Have fun with it. Enjoy your research, and that will spill into your work. And remember, don’t commit message fiction. A basis of solid science is important, but the only people who read screeds are people who already agree with them. Story comes first, and character, and the science is like the bones to give it structure. No one wants to see your bones hanging out, skin and hair and eyes are much more attractive, and that is the story.
So build a beautiful story.