Thursday, April 29, 2010

Science fiction scenarios and public engagement with science

Science fiction has been a popular genre at least since Jules Verne’s 19th century work, and arguably longer still. But can it have practical value as well as be a form of escapist entertainment? Clark Miller and Ira Bennett of ASU suggest that it has potential for use in improving the capacity of the general public “to imagine and reason critically about technological futures” and for being integrated into technology assessment processes (“Thinking longer term about technology: is there value in science fiction-inspired approaches to constructing futures?" Science and Public Policy 35(8), October 2008, pp. 597-606).

Miller and Bennett argue that science fiction can provide a way to stimulate people to wake from “technological somnambulism” (Langdon Winner’s term for taking for granted or being oblivious to sociotechnical changes), in order to recognize such changes, realize that there may be alternative possibilities and that particular changes need not be determined, and to engage with deliberative processes and institutions that choose directions of change. Where most political planning is short-term and based on projections that simply extend current trends incrementally into the future, science fiction provides scenarios which exhibit “non-linearity” by involving multiple, major, and complex changes from current reality. While these scenarios “likely provide...little technical accuracy” about how technology and society will actually interact, they may still provide ideas about alternative possibilities, and in particular to provide “clear visions of desirable--and not so desirable--futures.”

The article begins with a quote from Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute recommending that “hard science fiction” be used to aid in “long-term” (20+ year) prediction scenarios; she advises, “Don’t think of it as literature,” and focus on the technologies rather than the people. Miller and Bennett, however, argue otherwise--that not only is science fiction useful for thinking about longer-term consequences, but that the parts about the people--how technologies actually fit into society--are just as, if not more important than the ideas about the technologies themselves.

It ends with some examples of use of science fiction in workshops for nanotechnology researchers which have been conducted by Bennett and suggested uses in science education and in “society’s practices and institutions for public engagement and technology assessment.” About the former suggested use, the authors write that “The National Science Foundation, which has by and large not been in the business of supporting science fiction, might be encouraged to fund training and/or networking exercises that would foster greater interaction among scientists and fiction writers.”

While some steps have been taken to promote interaction between scientists and fiction writers--most notably the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange project headed by executive director Jennifer Ouellette who spoke at last year’s The Amazing Meeting 7--this interaction is mostly one-way. The project is conceived of as a way for science to be accurately communicated to the general public through entertainment, rather than facilitating the generation of ideas for technological innovation and scientific development from the general public or the entertainment stories that are created. The SEE promotes the idea of collaboration between scientists and entertainment producers on the creative works of entertainment, but not necessarily directing creative feedback into science or building new capacities in science and technology, except indirectly by providing the general public with inspiration about science. Similarly, the Skeptrack and Science Track at the annual Dragon*Con science fiction convention in Atlanta provide ways for scientists and skeptics to interact with science fiction fans (and creators of science fiction works), but the communication is primarily in one direction via speakers and panels, with an opportunity for Q&A. (Unlike the notion of a SkeptiCamp, where all participants are potentially on an equal basis, with everyone given the opportunity to be a presenter.)

[P.S. The Long Now Foundation is an organization that makes the Foresight Institute’s time horizon look short--their time frame is the next 10,000 years, with a focus on how to make extremely long-term projects work and how to create an institutional framework that can persist for extremely long periods of time. (The obligatory science fiction references are Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.)]

[A slightly different version of the above was written for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Judd A. for his  comments--he raised the concern that SkeptiCamp is connected to a rationalist form of skepticism that is concerned to "narrow the range of 'acceptable' beliefs" rather than widen it.  While this may be true, depending on what the class of "acceptable" beliefs is prior to applying a skeptical filter, it need not be--applying scientific methodology and critical thinking can also open up possibilities for individuals.  And if the initial set of beliefs includes all possibilities, converting that set to knowledge must necessarily involve narrowing rather than expanding the range, as there are many more ways to go wrong than to go right.  But this criticism points out something that I've observed in my comparison of skepticism to Forteanism--skepticism is more concerned about avoiding Type I errors than Type II errors, while Forteans are more concerned about avoiding Type II errors than Type I errors, and these are complementary positions that both need representation in society.]

1 comment:

Neural Gourmet said...

I've long argued* that science fiction's value, apart from literature, is that it enables us to imagine what impact social and technological changes have on humanity. The best science fiction often portrays how ordinary people react in extraordinary situations. Of course, there's no small measure of extraordinary people in extraordinary situations either. Pretty much every Heinlein story ever written relies upon the latter.

*Since high school in fact. One of my English teachers and I would regularly duel over whether or not science fiction was "real" literature. She claimed it wasn't because most science fiction became dated within a very short time of being published as science and technology progressed; i.e. "real" literature was timeless.