21 Jul 2014 Would you like some “sci” with that “fi”?
If you know anything about basic science, it’s likely you’ve yelled at a television show for flagrantly making things up when it would seemingly be just as easy to ask an expert. Or a graduate of grade 8, for that matter. The people who go through the most pain are those in frequently represented fields: forensic scientists, lawyers, that sort of thing. I can only assume drug dealers and superspies have just as much trouble watching their fictional counterparts. This is all very understandable, I think. The story may be fictional, but as long as it’s grounded somewhere in the real world, some of us will at least want the internal mechanisms of the narrative to cohere—we want the moving parts to be there, even if they can’t really work.
This attitude becomes harder to justify when the world of the narrative bears less resemblance to our own. How pedantic can you really be about the invented science of Star Trek? Very pedantic, it turns out. It turns out things like space combat aren’t pure speculation at this stage; there are some basic physical constraints that will probably apply no matter how technologically advanced we get. But really, there’s no limit. (Even Harry Potter got (dreadfully) re-written by someone who thought the system of magic in the stories wasn’t logical enough.)
I don’t think it’s totally silly, though. It’s fairly acceptable in most genres to criticise characterization, motivation and basic plot holes (like the hilariously long runway that I’m told appears in Vin Diesel’s latest movie). These are fictional people, and it’s a fictional runway, so why not just have people do things for no discernible reason at all? Why not toggle indiscriminately between day and night? Well, because it messes people up. We need our fake reality to be shaped enough like the usual one so that we can relate.
Now, there is at least one reason to take these things a little more seriously. The much-publicized “CSI effect” may be overblown, but there’s plenty of scholarly support for the idea that people really do learn things from fiction that they later take as fact. Take this list of evolution-related blunders in popular media. If you’ve ever spoken to a non-scientist (or even a non-biologist) about evolution, you’ve probably heard more than one of these. And if you are a non-biologist like me, you’ve probably made more than one. Granted, it could be the case that TV writers are simply prone to making the same errors as their audiences. I think that all of the working parts are there, though. And in any event, tearing apart bad science in popular shows is a fine opportunity to talk about good science.