Can you really believe everything you hear? What if the person telling you plays a doctor on a television show? Seemingly, we are more prone to believe something when it’s been portrayed confidently, rather than caring about the accuracy. So when it comes to popular television, can we really trust that scientific fact is being accurately portrayed? To discuss the friction between science and fiction, as well as its possible outcomes in a world where scientific thought dominates the landscape, Peter Goldstein, John Downey Benedict professor of English, as well as David Widman, associate professor of psychology shed light on the topic from two different perspectives.
What is the primary function of science fiction?
G: To comment on today’s world by giving us a view of another world. It is also to expand our sense of wonder, by giving us a vision of something we may not have thought of otherwise.
W: To talk about what could be. Good science fiction takes what we think might be true and assumes it is, to see the implications of that.
Shows like “Fringe” make no real attempt to display that it they are science fiction; should these shows be a little more truthful?
G: No, I don’t think so. The last thing you want to do is to rein in the imagination of the writer or particularly of the viewer/reader. It is one of the joys of science fiction that allows you to expand your imagination.
W: No. I think that would ruin it. I think it is interesting to see if the viewer decides if it could really be. That’s also true of written fiction; let the reader decide.
What is the best way to present works of science fiction?
G: It’s best to present it as something that could happen in a setting that makes you believe it, with believable characters and a believable world
W: Good science fiction is one that recognizes what we know now and doesn’t mess with it, but instead takes what could be and makes it real
Do you think these “new-age” works have the potential to mislead the layperson?
G: I think they do in the sense that any show that deals with science has that potential. I’m thinking of “House;” it’s not science fiction, it is a medical show. Practically every minute is taken up by diagnoses, which we as the layperson have to believe as fact. Doctors will know, but we have to believe that they are telling the truth.
W: Yeah. I’m sure there were people who watched “Fringe” assuming you could do the things they were doing. It’s almost in vogue to be dumb, to sort of ignore stuff.
Is it worth misleading for a good story?
G: It can be, if the story is made more entertaining by it, or if it allows the audience to come away with a different view. Fictional works are not designed to advance scientific knowledge. They are used to tell a story.
W: If it is a fundamental error to how we perceive science, then it’s not. But if it advances the story for the sake of entertainment, then maybe it’s ok.
Do you think that people have a need to believe science fiction? Or is it simply a subliminal assumption that it is true?
G: I think it largely depends on the presentation. I think subliminally we tend to believe things that are presented to us as long as the person presenting does so with such authority.
W: I think it’s a need, and I think that is a really good thing. If you look at science fiction and the history of science, they are lockstep. Jules Verne was talking about submarines before they existed. Now that is common technology. There are so many things that can be traced back to science fiction.
–Christopher Bender ’10, Juniata Online Journalist