Date
18 December 2017
Science and tech fiction, when well researched and written, should be considered as an additional way of teaching those who have not been served by traditional science education techniques.
Science and tech fiction, when well researched and written, should be considered as an additional way of teaching those who have not been served by traditional science education techniques.

How fiction can be useful for public science education

Despite decades of initiatives in various countries to educate their citizens on science and technology topics, we still see a lot of myths and lack of awareness in certain key areas.

Take for example climate change and renewable energy, topics that have pretty much hogged the headlines in recent years. If you go out and ask someone on the street what the carbon cycle is, chances are you won’t get an answer.

The carbon cycle is of course the natural flow of carbon from various sources from the ground and into the atmosphere and back, which has been disturbed by the burning of fossil fuels that were originally sequestered in the ground for millions of years. Coupled with the increased heat trapping capacity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is one of the main arguments why we say burning fossil fuels causes climate change. But apparently very few people understand the concept.

Aside from the fact that scientists, policymakers and those in the know often speak in jargon, the method of straightforward information dissemination that experts think will work doesn’t always do so. This is because humans are not data transfer machines. We get bored, we have other interests, and even if we think something is important, often responding to that Facebook post takes precedence over everything else.

Terms like “anthropogenic” (instead of man-made) or “myocardial infarction” (instead of heart attack), even if the former are the technically correct terms, simply do not facilitate lay communication, and are often unfortunately viewed by the public as cues for dry and boring information.

Science educators, policymakers, scientists, and everyone who feels science education is important ought to take a second look at fiction, whether in novels, short stories, film, radio drama, and the like, as vehicles to impart knowledge. This is because we humans are hardwired for stories. There is a reason why Aesop’s fables are still with us even after many hundreds of years.

In millions of households across Asia for example, it is common to see radios blaring at full volume, to allow the whole household and even closely crowded neighbors to listen in to the news. In the afternoons, when some do their household chores such as ironing, these people love to listen to afternoon radio drama. Instead of the usual fare of mistresses, murder, mayhem and massacre, why not use this as a means to reach this audience for science education purposes?

The late Michael Crichton, a Harvard trained science researcher in his own right, made a career out of writing technically accurate science fiction. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said that what he hoped for was to tell a story so that even a scientist would say that the premise was at least scientifically feasible. Many of Crichton’s novels have been made into film (e.g. Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, etc.), and have led to discussions that would have otherwise not have happened without his fictional novels and films.

Andrew Weir, the author of The Martian, really did his homework on the technical aspects of a Mars rescue mission, and even got his novel editorially reviewed by a crowd audience of scientists before it got picked up by Ridley Scott and made into an Academy Award nominated film.

Weir initially published his novel online, and then his friends requested him to load it up on the Amazon store as it would be easier for them to read it on their Kindle e-readers. Eventually, several scientists wrote to him with their technical suggestions, which allowed Weir to make improvements to the manuscript before it was picked up by a New York publisher (Crown), became a NYT bestseller, and eventually an Academy Award nominated film.

NASA officials have praised the film, and said that in general, the film has portrayed the difficulties and challenges of a Mars mission, and has actually catalyzed public interest in it.

Science and tech fiction should not simply be dismissed as a form of escapist entertainment, especially if the writer takes care in checking the validity of the science behind the story. Fiction, when well researched and written, should be considered as an additional way of teaching those who have not been served by traditional science education techniques, so that we lessen public ignorance in key science issues.

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RC

 

Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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