Advertise Your Half-Baked Science Here!
    By David Sloan | December 29th 2012 09:03 PM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David is a neuroscientist in the field of sensory-limbic circuitry. He published his debut novel, [Brackets], in October 2012. He is a member of...

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    The relationship between the work of science and works of fiction has gone on for a long time. It's time to put a ring on that finger.

    It's no secret that fiction writers have been pilfering ideas from science for generations. Verne did it. Wells, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Matheson, and of course Crichton, had a lot of success by finding out what was hot in science, taking an imaginary leap to the next step (or next hundred steps), and then turning it into a story, and a profit.

    This trend has continued with movies, which routinely feature scientific factoids that have been Googled, copied and pasted from dubious or legitimate sites. Let's face it. Fiction needs Science in order to thrive.

    But what does Science get out of it?

    One could argue that having science in stories makes it more accessible to people, so therefore, stories serve a role in communicating science to the public in a way that scientists aren't capable of on their own. That's true, to an extent, but a lot of times the facts aren't communicated very faithfully. If you don't believe me, ask a kid what happens to someone who gets hit with gamma radiation. And yet, it is likely that the public perception of the current state of scientific knowledge is defined not by the journals, but by the science portrayed in entertainment, and that doesn't seem fair.

    The point is, fiction writers have been mooching off of scientists for a long time. And who pays the scientist for that? No one. You think Stephen Hawking gets a check every time a black hole is used to explain a plot point in a Star Trek movie? Nope.

    So, scientists, how can you turn around this one-way food chain and make it go both ways? The next time you have a big idea that won't be immediately and readily accepted, be proactive. Pay a producer to put it in a movie as a form of product placement.

    Why? Because research is funded by taxes (at least, for a few more days). The more public opinion is behind something, the more likely it is to get funded. And the best way to sway public opinion is to make sure that a cinema hero believes in your idea, too. So put your idea out to the public and let the debate about the veracity of your claim take place place on Rotten Tomatoes before it occurs between your peer reviewers and grant study groups, and if you're lucky, then your peers will have seen the movie and unconsciously think, "How can I reject this? Matt Damon believed in it, and it saved the world!"

    The truth is, fictional media is the perfect place to put half-baked scientific ideas because there is no other place for them. Science is too competitive. Most academics, and a good deal of industrial scientists, won't state an idea publicly unless it's a sure thing, because if they put out an idea that ends up being false, it could hurt their careers. Public speculation is a dangerous, dangerous thing in the academic science system, and to be fair, there's a good reason for it. Scientists who have put out unproven and irresponsible theories have done a lot of damage (see for example, people who believe that vaccines cause autism or that women have innate defenses against pregnancies incurred from rape). 

    But ideas placed in media fiction overcome that risk, because true things in fictional stories can be observed with some cautious objectivity.  You can put out a crazy notion and it won't have to be defended. When you report that what was in the movie actually is the truth, it makes the truth seem that much cooler, and that much more fundable. The movie gets the money, and the scientist who wisely inserted the idea into the movie gets to write papers that reference the movie in order to back up the hipness of his/her claim. That's a win-win.

    So why wouldn't scientists pay to have their ideas put into theaters before they are put into journals? There are four arguments against it. One, and this bears repeating, scientists might not have money. Two, the movie could be bad. You could find out that the line of dialogue containing your ingenious idea will not be delivered with gravitas by Morgan Freeman, but will instead be shouted by a supermodel in a lab coat in a movie by Michael Bay (not that supermodels aren't perfectly capable of understanding science- I'm just saying that, well, you know what I'm saying.)  Third, the strategy could backfire. Just ask people who think it would be cool to try and clone prehistoric creatures. The odds are that someone who looks at that possibility and thinks, "That can't be allowed to happen! Jeff Goldblum is never wrong." (that's actually true.) And fourth, once the idea is out there, there's always the possibility that another scientist will see the idea's potential and steal it, and all scientists are paranoid about getting scooped.

    Those risks aside, the upside for certain fields can't be ignored. A prime example of people who should jump on this idea are those in the field of neuroethics. Neuroethicists routinely point to movies as a way of introducing their ideas to the public. Why? Because it's harder to have a real discussion about the ethical implications of cognitive enhancement than it is to engage in a debate about whether it's worse to make a chimpanzee smarter or Bradley Cooper smarter. (And who's hotter?)  A neuroethicist could make a solid living writing about the real-world implications of movies that the neuroethicist pitched. Additionally, the upside for theoretical physicists is obvious. And the upside for zoologists? I'm not sure, but what does a zoologist have to lose?
    Had this system been in place a long time ago, it might have helped a few idea releases go more smoothly. Maybe people would have been quicker to accept the risk of concussions in football if Rudy had had one. Maybe the Higgs-Boson would have been discovered a lot sooner if Spock had used to blast a few Romulons. And seriously people, why don't we have clones dinosaurs yet?

    So listen up, bold-thinking scientists with edgy ideas. Your work may receive scathing reviews by the intellectual establishment until you're proven right, but ticket buyers may give it two thumbs up right away! Advertising companies, make this option available. And you might want to hurry-- wallets are tough to open if they're falling off cliffs.


    Stephen Hawking gets a check every time a black hole is used to explain a plot point in a Star Trek movie?
    Why would he? For much too late admitting that he was wrong on information loss in black holes?

    You could equally argue that science gets more out of fiction than vice versa, e.g. the public being willing to fund science which is not immediately or perhaps never useful.

    Apart from that I have no funds to take your advice, novel fundamental ideas are opposed to what makes "a good" movie.  "Many worlds" for example makes people question their responsible agency (I decided differently in a parallel world anyway).  Hollywood stuff like "Sliders" has distorted the concept so much (to get a story) that people are of course against it now, because the concept as portrayed to them is indeed ridiculous.

    I thought about putting my many-world EPR resolution and QRC into a movie or video game about the fall of realism (should be a hit), so I am with you on that idea, but if the people involved are not already also understanding the stuff somewhat, the outcome will be utter nonsense, like most science fiction.
    Ah, but the reality of science should be more interesting than the fiction. The reason science gets distorted in fiction is, in part, because snippets of ideas are taken out of their most realistic context. The science is made to serve characters, and not the other way around, even though fictional characters are made to serve most other rules of reality in order to be believable. But what if scientists had an even greater ownership in how their science is communicated to the public through fiction? If the science is made more accurate, would the stories be even more compelling in addition to being more accurate? Maybe, and better stories are more profitable. And maybe we would be smarter, even to the point that Stephen Hawking isn't the only physicist besides Einstein who comes to the mind of people who don't know anything about physics.
    Lettings scientists have control of the story is a recipe for disaster, especially since so many people outside of movies and videogames ignore how powerful storytelling is for communication, and thus are not as skilled at it.

    In other words, there's a limit of increasing accuracy after which it won't matter because it will be cut out of the story unless the scientist is an expert storyteller and has woven it into the plot and character development and dialogue.
    Surely your articles are already science fiction? You just need to improve the story-lines a bit and you could be the next JKR! :)
    As much as I'd like to make JKR-level cash, I must take issue with the idea that my articles are all fiction. You'll notice, for example, that my articles correctly state my name at least 80% of the time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry David, but I expect that Derek was tweaking Sascha a bit. :)

    That does, however, open the question about who you are the remaining 20% of the time?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Tweaking? TWEAKING ???!!! Big White Hats always so polite!

    Gerhard Adam
    What is all this "science" that is worth putting into movies?  There are already far too many movies, docu-dramas, etc. that capitalize on goofy ideas and even flimsier excuses for presenting "scientific" ideas that aren't even close to being possible.  This is all under the guise of being optimistic and open-minded, as if speculation is somehow a new method of approaching research.

    There are certainly moments where speculation can provide a free-ranging exploration of possible research avenues, but most of the time, science is presented as merely another type of religious miracle.  Difficulties are glossed over, and it is almost forbidden to suggest that there are any areas of knowledge that may be fundamentally unknowable.

    Instead we get all manner of silly predictions whether it be the transhumanist hubris, or the recent National Geographic "Evacuate Earth" docu-drama.  It seems that everyone simply wants to make predictions about how many decades it will be before humans become the masters of the universe.

    We have little information that addresses and portrays the more realistic elements of science, so its little wonder that most people are becoming increasingly skeptical about claims, because in the public mind science has become about marketing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    True enough but there isn't much one can do about the rubbish documentaries and in any case, David's point is not about reforming the public face of science, but the modest aim of exploiting the nonsense industry for one's own benefit.

    More interestingly - and perhaps this is why he wrote it? - it raises the question of how far one should go in using cheap tricks to make one's ideas acceptable? One is reminded of Sascha's use of gut-wrenchingly horrible scenarios to bring home the implications of Many Worlds as a fundamental principle. Perhaps putting such ideas into a movie - one which can legally be shown, that is -  would be more effective than alienating squeamish science bloggers? 

    it's little wonder that most people are becoming increasingly skeptical about claims, because in the public mind science has become about marketing.
    From what I hear, this perception is quite correct. I do not like being forced to take a post-modern approach to understanding how scientific ideas develop - whilst one may disagree with Popper over many things, his assumption that ideas advance on their own merits appeared to be self-evident until quite recently. However, if this is not so any more (if it ever was) then there is nothing left but a relativism that outshines New Age. And nothing to oppose it except, perhaps, the most authoritarian repressive religion. Happy days ahead for science then.

    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps putting such ideas into a movie - one which can legally be shown, that is -  would be more effective than alienating squeamish science bloggers?
    Isn't that what "Back to the Future" did?  :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Back to the Future"
    Now,  Gerhard, *that* was a bit below the belt :( 
    Although, now you come to mention it...
    Okay, Time Travel. Good example. As you know but maybe David doesn't, I once blogged about the Grandfather Paradox, showing that
    a) you would not succeed in changing the past
    b) you would not create a paradox
    c) far from having no resolution, time-travel "paradoxes" give you so many solutions that the real problem would be how nature would choose between them
    d) alternative time-lines are simply not required
    e) the GP exists only in the wording
    Interesting, even Sascha's little dig at time-travel over there in a parallel world blog missed the point entirely and failed to mention Novikov consistency as the key to resolving time-travel paradoxes but instead asserted that time-travel was inherently many-worlds, presumably (given the context of a bloke chatting up a hot but nerdy bird) referring to the alternative time-lines (d) rather than the surfeit of consistent solutions (c)!
    Alternative (past) time-lines are the cheap, unthinking way that science fiction writers deal with the Grandfather Paradox. Whilst I would not for a moment suggest that resolution of the GP brings us any nearer to creating a time machine, mindless acceptance that there is a paradox and the use of ad-hoc dramatic devices to resolve it can only reinforce the idea that it's all fantasy. Unfortunately alternative pasts is such an extravagent idea that people dismiss it and, with it, the very idea of time travel. 
    So I guess I have to say, No:  unless your idea is so simple that even movie-writers cannot get it wrong, if you have a choice, keep it out of the media!

    Sascha's little dig at time-travel over there in a parallel world blog missed the point entirely and failed to mention Novikov consistency as the key to resolving time-travel paradoxes
    I didn't miss nada.  There simply are no time traveling paradoxes in the first place, so there is nothing to resolve!  I don't remember having had older versions of me visit me in the past, so wherever I happen to end up with your contraption that you label "time machine" that lets me meet what seems like a younger me in 1990, it is simply not my past, period, end of discussion.
    I expect your future self was silly enough not to lock its spatial coordinates to the CMB and you materialized, naked, in deep space.

    Your argument, at best, militates against human-scale time machines. It does not say anything about, for instance, an interaction which creates a causal loop in a system of one or two particles. The difficulty of sending anything into the past might very well increase exponentially or faster with the amount of information or mass. The paradox remains until TT is proven to be absolutely impossible on any scale.
    An interesting exchange between Gerhard and Derek on marketing, public perception and the merit-based progress of science. I agree that most of what is portrayed as science in popular fiction is ridiculous, rarely dangerous but often unhelpful, and it certainly doesn't have to be that way. But there are two separate issues that I've combined in this article in which I am more interested. First, I think that there have been useful scientific ideas held by individuals that required great leaps in imagination and trust that peers were not equipped to accept (though that's never happened to me.) In those cases, it would be (perceived as) incredibly risky professionally to explore those ideas, either through a financial investment in a lab or in print. Historically, the best way to deal with that divide is through open discussion with people who allow for trains of thought to occasionally drift into the ridiculous. But perhaps another way is to use fiction as a tool to raise the imaginations of others to the level of the thinker. And if you think that's a stupid idea, maybe you need more imagination. Second, we live in a society that is driven by marketing. Interviewing for a faculty position is marketing. Getting grants requires marketing. Getting good students in the lab requires marketing. The power of progress lies in the hands of those that control the marketing. I don't want to sound cynical about it because I believe that good science and good personality are good marketing. But I think that the scientific community (speaking as broadly as possible) bemoans the poor and inaccurate presentation of scientific principles to the public as if the marketing was out of their hands. And why is that? Could it be that those with the most lucid views of scientists just aren't tapped into those modes of communication with the most effective reach?
    Gerhard Adam
    But perhaps another way is to use fiction as a tool to raise the imaginations of others to the level of the thinker.
    Maybe so, but unless the originator of the idea is prepared to write this work of fiction, almost all other forms require a reasonable means of being able to translate this idea to others that will produce the entertainment vehicle.  At which point do we begin to lose the original idea?  A significant number of scientific ideas don't actually translate into other mediums, and even those that do may be dull and boring in presentation.
    Second, we live in a society that is driven by marketing.
    That's also our choice, and when scientists are more concerned about pursuing careers than they are about science, that speaks to it's own set of problems.  While alternatives may sound idealistic, then scientists also need to be aware that the translation of their ideas into public policy are also marketing.  This is precisely the problem we see around issues like GM foods, or climate change.  If "everything" is marketing, then scientists also need to stop being so naive and bad at PR.
    But I think that the scientific community (speaking as broadly as possible) bemoans the poor and inaccurate presentation of scientific principles to the public as if the marketing was out of their hands.
    Again, to what end?  What was the primary purpose of the Star Trek series?  Was it to teach physics or to explore social issues?  Would the program have been materially improved by better physics?

    Certainly some movies have been ruined by ignoring the science, because they became silly.  In addition, some movies may actually help refine the science by asking artists/etc to translate ideas into real visual presentable characters [i.e. dinosaurs in Jurassic Park]. 

    Part of the problem here is to ask what the purpose of a particular story is, and if the science isn't the primary message, then it is difficult to see how worrying about the science changes or improves the story.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Marketing is not just added onto the message but shapes and thus alters it.  Your topic here is important, but needs a new approach that on one hand is able to transport a new paradigm uncorrupted and on the other speaks to the audience that is ready for a new paradigm, by which I mean the new generation of highly skeptical (trusting no information because they are swamped by it), mobile (lacking traditional connections) young people that already integrate with information technology, having their eyes and minds more on computer/phone interfaces (virtual reality) than interacting socially in what people traditionally call "real world".
    Your main suggestion, namely basically to go to Hollywood and try convince an established guy or group to make 1) a piece of information that can be consumed (movie) that 2) is acceptable to the usual marketing to attach their messages, is incompatible with the very core of my message.  Mature postmodern relativity and transparency should be transported in transparent structures that the audience finds useful to alter and pass on in whatever way they feel necessary, thereby actively re-constructing the message in a way that makes sense in their own perspective on or construction of "reality".  If you think that this will completely corrupt the results, well guess what, that is precisely what I just wrote, only that the first consumer who alters the message and passes it on altered is a certain marketing now, so the message is corrupted in that particular way, forcing a poor perspective on reality!
    Does "vaccines don't cause autism" mean the same thing as "injecting infants with mercury is safe"? Because a lot of people like to interpret that one supports the other. Anyway, which group is the unscientific one, the one that says mercury is toxic or the pro-vaccers who says it's not?

    Gerhard Adam
    Define which infant shots contain mercury.  Also, what specific form of mercury are you referring to?  Also, while you're at it, let's identify how the body deals with mercury [in its various forms]. 

    Also, let's identify what the effects are based on dosage.  After all, merely expressing something as toxic is irrelevant since it is the dosage that matters.  Oxygen is toxic too.

    Your simplistic statement doesn't tell us anything.

    However, it is useful to keep in mind this quote regarding your particular hypothesis:
    "The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."
    Thomas Huxley.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Already been done at least once. Ken Keeler wrote an episode of Futurama, 'The Prisoner of Benda', for which he produced an original proof ( which was integral to the plot.

    Presuming this is a serious article and not tongue-in cheek:

    Before considering trying to popularize your idea in a sci-fi movie, novel, short story, or other medium, you should first become literate. Science fiction writers like Carl Sagan and Michael Crichton had a strong background in literature, history, philosophy, and even understood a little something about religion and culture. They had a talent for taking complex ideas, forming them in the context of literature/history/philosophy/religion/culture and simplifying them to be consumed by the average layperson. Literati like Sagan and Chrichton address the human condition (and the meaning of life or lack thereof) in their science fiction stories. Few would argue that Stephen Hawking, Brian Green, or Michio Kaku are among the literati.

    Can your idea be used in the plot of the story or movie? To wit, a scientist makes a discovery (your idea) but the antagonist wants to weaponize it for the military or use it to rob banks or achieve world domination or otherwise abuse your idea for evil rather than good. Naturally, the hero and/or heroine have to stop them and in the process gain some insight into the human condition (and the meaning of life or lack thereof).

    It’s ok if the experiment to test your idea is jaw-dropping expensive like landing an astronaut on the moon or building the Large Hadron Collider. Make sure, however, that your idea is scientifically testable/achievable within a foreseeable future. For example, if time travel is possible, where are all the gawking tourists from the future? If interstellar travel is possible, where are all the gawking Tau Cetian tourists?

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