While I’ve finished my degree, one of the benefits of meandering around in the same town without directions is that you still know the professors and can get an invite to attend their classes because you’re bored and have not a lot better to do than contribute usefully to a class. The class itself is focused on medicine and literature. The focus of the first class was to define what exactly literature and medicine have to do with each other. The discussion of the class turned my attention to the interaction between science, not so much scientists, and the population at large. There’s a plethora of mediums this interaction takes place, from the awful scientific journalistic community, to the Carl Sagan of the moment, to science fiction. Of this myriad of methods, science fiction might actually be the best at communicating science to the public.
One premise needing elaboration to fully grasp my point is that we construct ourselves and the world around us through narratives. Storytelling is how we make sense of what happens and who we are. We learn about others through the stories they tell us and then we reconstruct those stories into the identity we place upon that person. Thus, the world for each individual person at once different from every other person’s, but also equally valid. How I construct, say, President Obama’s identity, and how you might construct his identity are likely different despite having been told relatively the same narratives.
Science also needs defining, as I don’t use it to mean, in this post, scientists or people who engage in science. I use science to mean strictly the impersonal, concrete, evidence-based results. What I mean to get at is that there is a difference between the people who practice science and the science itself.
In a narrow example, more related to the class, and what is apparently a field of study, patients tell one narrative while doctors here a different narrative. Patients aren’t trained to tell narratives and doctors are trained to listen to narratives in a particular way and to fit parts of the narrative they hear into another narrative of illness. They’re trained to pull out empirical evidence from the patient narrative; however, the quality of the evidence they can determine from a narrative is only as good as their ability to analyze the narrative. Thus, training doctors in analysis of narratives makes sense, as it will help with their ability to understand the narratives patients tell them.
However, in the United States, there is a clear problem in the scientific narrative. Some of the problems, if not most, are ideological constructs that distance people from science for political/religious reasons. Others are cultural perceptions of whom it is that does science and of the difficulty in understanding science. Yet, there is also the inability to understand the narrative of science being told. If you’ve ever had the absolute lack of joy of reading scientific journalism, then you probably already know of the sordid state that field is in. If I didn’t know better, there was a cabal that threatened death upon any journalist who managed to accurately convey what a scientific discovery or study found. There’s a handful of predetermined narratives journalists try to fit these studies into based on what one assumes the public is most interested in reading about: cancer cures and anti-senescence discoveries for example. There’s also the Carl Sagans of science. Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, that other British guy, and many more contribute to a more humanized translation of science into narrative. Even then, these figures are often politicized, often male, often white, and often talking to a particular audience that understands their form of narrative.
Since we make sense of our world through narratives, then the presupposition that science fiction is the best form to relate science to the public has a bit of a priori support. Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson are good examples for this point. They both construct futuristic worlds built upon the advancement of science, often times based on actual science, but even authors whose science is generally unlikely to ever to exist still place their science as an integral part of the world. Science fiction positions science within the narrative of a world. The impetus of the story is not what the science is, but rather how the people in the world interact with the science and include the science within their narratives of being. Science fiction presents an alternative narrative to our own, whereas journalism and the Carl Sagans attempt to place science within our own narratives.