Things Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Should Know About Science
Science is commonly misportrayed in fiction, most likely because the vast majority of writers are exceedingly scientifically illiterate and are too lazy to actually look up how any of it works. So to help you from committing the same common blunders, here's a list of things you should know about science.
How the scientific method actually works
This one's a biggie. Many people don't really know how science works beyond performing experiments to see what happens. Falsification? Double-blind tests? Peer-review? Null hypotheses? What are those?
To get a basic idea of what the scientific method is and what it entails, go here.
Science is a method of discovery, not a philosophy or belief system.
The only thing you have to believe in order to do science is that there is an objective reality, and that it can be measured. In and of itself, science does not say that things like magic or ghosts do not exist in some form. The actual reason scientists will tell you there's probably no such thing as magic or ghosts is because every time people actually try to test them using the proper methodology, they fail to produce any significant or meaningful results.
Theories do not become laws.
In lay terms, "theory" means a hunch, guess, or idea. But in scientific terms, "theory" means something extremely different - a theory is essentially the sum of what we know about a given subject. Theories do not become laws - laws are part of theories. For example, Newton's law of universal gravitation is part of the theory of gravity. If you want to describe a scientist's hunch or guess, the correct word is hypothesis.
Science does not happen in a vacuum.
Science is very much a team sport, and for good reason: a single person working in solitude is likely to make errors without even realizing it and end up with a lot of garbage data. Part of the scientific process involves having other scientists perform the same experiment you performed and seeing if they can get the same results in order to confirm that what you thought or claimed happened is really what happened.
If someone gets laughed out of the scientific community, it's probably for a very good reason.
Reasons usually being:
- The person kept making ridiculously outlandish claims, but failed to provide any kind of evidence to back them up when asked for it.
- The person failed to provide any way to test the claims while insisting that they should be taken seriously.
- The person tested the claims, but failed to adhere to correct procedure - and insisted that the results should be taken seriously anyway.
- The person insisted that they're true despite the evidence constantly and continually stacking against it.
In general, those who complain about being treated unfairly by other scientists are entitled whiners who think that the rigorous standards that apply to other scientists don't apply to them for one reason or another.
Unironically pulling the Galileo card makes your character look like a crank.
Very often, people will have their characters cite the "fact" that Galileo was persecuted a reason why those who don't listen to their characters (usually, other scientists) are just wrongheaded bullies. However, here's the deal: It wasn't other scientists whom Galileo got into trouble with, but the Catholic Church, which believed at that point believed in a geocentric universe. (Incidentally, Galileo was himself Catholic.) Secondly, Galileo didn't really have the greatest of evidence to back up his claims with at the time. Thirdly, loads of goofballs with strange ideas about the nature of the universe pop up, and the vast majority of the time, they're completely and totally wrong.
No matter what their reasoning, people are well within their rights to remain skeptical of a claim that has no particularly compelling evidence for it, because any old crank can pull a wild claim out of thin air.
Evolution does not work that way.
For the love of Lucy (the ape, not the Scarlett Johansson character):
- Evolution does not produce "bigger and better" lifeforms; it simply means that the lifeforms that are most adapted to circumstances and environment will be more likely to produce offspring.
- Evolution is not on a goal toward producing psychic energy beings; it simply produces what is best able to thrive and reproduce in the environment and situation at hand.
- Chimpanzees are not "less" evolved than humans; they simply evolved differently.
- "Survival of the fittest" applies to entire species as much as individual organisms, and a species that learns to cooperate with each other to perform more complex tasks can be much fitter for survival than one that doesn't.
- Species do not "expire" after a set period of time, nor would the discovery of a prehistoric animal being alive today upset the theory of evolution in the slightest - creatures like sharks, dragonflies, worms, and jellyfish have been here since long before the dinosaurs.
- Evolution does not happen to individuals organisms - it happens to populations the as physical traits that give them an edge in survival, sex appeal, or successful reproduction allow them to have more offspring than the others, ensuring that it's their traits that get passed along in the greatest numbers to the next generation.
If you plan to write anything involving evolution, please make sure you get the basics right. You can start by visiting the University of Berkeley's page on misconceptions about evolution.
Quantum physics do not work that way.
Many people seem to be under the impression that quantum physics is practically magic. In fact, there are many people who insist that quantum physics is magic. But to quote quantum physicist Richard Feynman, if you think you understand quantum physics, you don't understand quantum physics.
This PDF explores and refutes some of the misconceptions about quantum physics.
Energy does not work that way.
Another problem is that many people think that energy is some kind of incorporeal cloud of stuff. In fact, in the scientific sense the term "energy" merely means "the potential to do work." The very notion of something being "made of energy" makes about as much sense as an object being "made of shove."
Maybe you've heard people say that the soul must be immortal because it's made of energy, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed (per the first law of thermodynamics). The trouble is that their definition of "energy" is something entirely different than the scientific definition of "energy." From a scientific point of view, it makes about as much sense as saying that you can use feathers in place of lightbulbs because feathers are light. Whatever a soul would be made of, it ain't "energy."
New discoveries typically don't overturn what we know so much as refine it.
If newspaper headlines are to be believed, science is always overturning and rewriting everything we ever thought we knew on a daily basis. A common complaint I've heard among people is "How can we believe anything scientists tell us when they're always changing their minds?"
It's not that scientists are "changing their minds" about things as much as new discoveries give us further insight into something. What we knew before still stands, for the most part. For example, if we observe that gravity behaves differently in different parts of space, then yeah, we'll have to rewrite the laws of gravity, but it doesn't overturn what we know about how gravity behaves here on Earth.
"Shocking" new discoveries are being made every day, and it's no big deal.
There are people who think that the government is "hiding" Bigfoot because it would somehow just be too shocking for the world to handle - never mind that we somehow survived the discovery of the blobfish. Over the past few years, we've found that vast numbers of dinosaurs actually had feathers, and that birds are in fact a type of dinosaur. Every time I turn around, I'm seeing some headline or other about a new discovery that forces us to rethink what pre-agricultural life was like. If academia was really fit to be tied every time something jostled the apple cart of established knowledge, they'd have all died of heart attacks by now.
To be a good scientist, you have to get real comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and being honest when you don't know something for sure.
Contrary to the popular belief that "science claims to have the answer for everything," scientists have to resign themselves to the fact that there are a lot of things they'll never be certain about, let alone even know in their entire lives. They also have to resign themselves to the fact that even though they personally believe in something (eg, fairies, psychic powers), they cannot expect anyone else to simply take what they believe in on faith.
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