Sunday, May 1, 2011

Speculative Fiction Is Science's Medicine Man



When I was taking my upper level sociology courses, I remember a story my professor told about a Native American divination practice.***  When game was scarce, the medicine man would throw a deer's scapula in the fire until it cracked.  The medicine man would then read the cracks, interpret them, and then tell the hunters where to find game.

The funny thing about this method of divination is that it actually worked, and not because the medicine man was a charlatan that already knew where the game had gone.  Humans are creatures of habit, mostly due to operant conditioning.  If we find a great little fishing hole and catch a large number of fish, we tend to return to the same area over and over, even if the fishing's never that good again.

When the medicine man read the cracks and sent the hunters to different areas, it introduced variety into the hunters' search patterns and thus broke the hold operant conditioning had on them.  Did they always find new game?  No, but it did increase their chances by a long shot.

Before you read on, please realize I'm not running around with a tin foil hat.  I don't think that science should be eliminated.  In face, I think science is pretty cool.  The scientific method has done some pretty kick-ass stuff.  None of my close relatives would be alive without the miracle of modern medicine, but that doesn't mean that science doesn't have some weak points.

I feel that speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy, serves as a medicine man of sorts for actual science.  I see a pattern when I look back at erroneous scientific conclusions.  Because the scientific method has to be implemented by humans, it is prone to human failings despite preventative measures being built into research.  First, it's easy for humans to believe they know all the variables involved and draw invalid conclusions.  (Think about the constant merry-go-round of diet fads.)

Probably the biggest failing of science is the method by which scientific funding is distributed.  Funding goes to those with the most sensational conclusions, NOT to those with sound experiments and methodology.  I can't find the article to cite (I read it in October and failed to bookmark it,) but a think tank at a Greek university has found over 60% of published medical research has moderate to major methodological problems that could possibly invalidate results.  That is, of course, after the study's findings have been plastered across every headline available.  (Think about the autism vaccine scare.)  My anthropology professor complained of the same problem in his discipline.

Finally, scientists, just like tribal hunters, can believe that the answers to humankind's most vexing questions simply cannot be found, and that certain ideas just aren't possible.  That's where I think we speculative fiction writers step in to save the day.

We stretch the public's and scientists' ideas of what is possible.  Our collective attitude is not, "That's not possible," but is instead, "That's not possible, unless we make a ray gun and bring in a mage from the planet Zardon."

I'm not the only one who has noticed.  In Discovery Canada's "How William Shatner Changed the World," scientists talk about how technology on the Starship Enterprise inspired them to explore new possibilities, though I think credit to changing the world should be given to Gene Roddenberry.

Not only are we vastly entertaining to geeks and normals alike, but we make a difference.  I don't know about you, but that makes me feel pretty awesome.

***(I have tried to go back and find references to support my story.  Alas, I have found the practice in China, but not North America, so I relate my story as I remember it to keep it in context with my blog post's point.  I think one of two things may have happened.  Either my professor knew of some obscure research to which I have no access, or it was on a large amount of pain killers at the time may have caused him to mix up some details.)

3 comments:

  1. I think you've definitely hit on something, Scooter. I've seen a number of anecdotes online about scientists and engineers who wouldn't be in their fields, or wouldn't have discovered/built what they did, if they hadn't grown up with science fiction. They're generally used as examples for Why All Kids Should Read SF and Why SF Needs To Be Better Quality. I have issues with the latter, but heartily support the former, so hear, hear!

    The medicine man's a very apt metaphor too. It covers the predictive nature of SF as well as the boundary pushing aspects. :)

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  2. I have been teaching a multi-national student body for many, many years. Often I tell them that they are all, for one reason or another, different. It may be race, religion, colour, education, economic situation.... the list is all but endless.

    When you say "I have looked at all the variables you are almost certainly wrong." And then I write this on the board:

    8, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6, 3, 2. Where does the '0' fit?

    Only one person in ten thousand will get it right. Why? Because it is too easy.

    SSF could, possibly, solve it!

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  3. Sci-fi keeps us looking up!

    I'm also starting to see more and more fantasy that incorporates scientific principles. The way Jim Butcher's watercrafters in his "Furies of Calderon" series heal their patients follows basic medical tenants.

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