Just a few weeks ago, I had my first thesis committee meeting. This means that I passed my qualifying exams (yay). And it means that I now have a thesis committee made of several professors with whom I will meet at least once a year, to check the progress on my project. They’re there to advise graduate students and make sure we’re on track.
So in honor of that, I’m going to highlight some positive examples of scientific portrayal in media, as opposed to my usual rants. (Though I don’t promise to be completely rant free, just to highlight some positive examples.)
Thalia’s Musings by Amethyst Marie is a (really fun) series of novels based on Greek mythology, narrated by the Muse of Comedy. In the last scene of chapter twelve in volume three , there’s a small discussion of scientific stringency that touches upon controls, sample size, and double-blinds. It’s the kind of basic, overlooked stuff that I wish was included in fiction more often. Particularly when it comes to controls. Controls are fundamental.
The point is, that I was really happy to see it included.
So you can check out how these concepts are incorporated in the context of a story, or read the brief explanation I’m providing below. Or both.
Controls: A control is what you compare your experiment to. To pick a famous science fair example, imagine you want to test how sugar water or salt water affects plants. You don’t just take a plant and water it with sugar water, then check back to see how it’s doing. You have no idea if it’s any different than it would have been with regular water, because you have nothing to compare it to. So instead you take two of the same plant, which you keep in the same conditions. And you water one with sugar water, and the other with just water. The plant you water with just water is your control. Now when you check back on them, you can compare the two of them to see if watering with sugar water makes any difference.
Sample size: If the plant watered with sugar water in the experiment above grows better than the other plant, does that necessarily mean all plants of this species grow better in sugar water? Will the experiment repeat with other plants? Also, those two plants were not exactly the same. Which means there could be variables you can’t control for between the two of them. So how do you know one is growing better because of your sugar water, and not, for example, genetic differences? Maybe it would have grown better without the sugar water, too.
You can’t duplicate a moment in time so that the same exact plant gets both treatments. But you can increase the sample size–so, take more plants, half of which get each treatment. They all have differences you can’t control for, but it’s less likely that all four plants treated with sugar water will have growth advantages by random chance, then that just one would. And you can do statistics to determine what the likelihood is that you would get your results by random chance, which is used to determine whether or not your results are significant.
Blinds: We wouldn’t do double-blinds for this experiment, because we don’t generally worry about the placebo effect in plants. But if plants were conscious the way people were and could interpret our communication, then a single-blind would refer to each plant not knowing what they were being watered with (just go with it). This is to prevent an effect from happening or being perceived because the plants expect to grow better or worse. A double-blind experiment means the person watering the plants is also unaware of which plant is being watered with what. This is so the person watering the plants doesn’t unconsciously give the plants expectations for whether they should do better or not, even by body-language.
One of the things I come across now and again in SFF is the concept that this reality is different from ours and contradicts science. Which is often stated by a character in that world, or by the narration–as in, stated by someone in that reality who should have absolutely no knowledge of our reality. (As opposed to being stated by the author, who does have knowledge of our reality). So, no. In a world where our world doesn’t exist, the understanding of science will not be based on our world’s understanding of science. That’s not how it works.
The whole point of science is to systematically use logic to understand the world. It’s not a collection facts that will magically apply to any imaginary world. It’s an evidence-based understanding of what exists and happens around us, applicable only to the reality from which the evidence came from. In a fictional reality, the evidence that led to the scientific understanding of that world would be different, therefore the scientific understanding itself would be different.
To put it in other terms, in a world where the laws of physics functioned differently, science would work to explain those laws–it would not explain our laws, because they wouldn’t exist in this fictional universe. And if a new phenomenon was discovered which contradicted the established scientific consensus, then science would adapt to incorporate the new knowledge.
So I guess I get tired of hearing characters talk about how science is contradicted by this or that phenomenon, because in a reality where that phenomenon exists, science wouldn’t stand apart from it. It would look for a way to understand it. (Note this is not as bad when referring to a new phenomenon that hasn’t yet had time to be incorporated–but I still think even that kind of situation is often misrepresented/misinterpreted.)
Legend of Korra does a better job with this, because at the end of season two, Korra literally changes the world by letting spirits out of their world into hers. So now there are spirits going around, following different rules and such. And Varrick, a (somewhat unstable) scientist in that universe, studies ways to utilize this new element to their existence. Now granted, he skips several steps of understanding a new thing and jumps straight to applications. Which basically means he has no idea what he’s doing (practically or ethically) and might possibly account for why his lab suffers so many accidents–I assume that happens for fiction purposes, because anything else wouldn’t be plot related or as dramatic.
But even this still shows an understanding that progress happens. We don’t just encounter a new thing, realize it isn’t in our established scientific literature, then shrug our shoulders and not know what to do with ourselves. Oh, we’ve never encountered anything like this before. If only we had a method for logically understanding the world around us, so we could fix that. We could call it the scientific method.
Orphan Black, Cloning and Patents
The sci-fi thriller Orphan Black already has several write-ups of its scientific content, so I’ll reference a few I browsed through. Or you can Google Orphan Black and science or genetics. Since the show explores ethics in genetics in a way that’s becoming increasingly relevant, people have been talking about it.
Nerdist has Orphan Black Teaches You More About Genetics Than Any Other Show On TV, a fairly accessible discussion of the use of cloning in the show, including a (perhaps shockingly frank) explanation of why our evil corporation is so interested in human cloning in the first place. io9’s The Real-Life Science Behind Orphan Black goes into more technical aspects of cloning and genome-editing, in addition to the history of cloning and legal concerns. The Mary Sue’s Clones Are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black touches on the human and legal aspects behind the science of cloning. Think Progress’ The Crazy Science Of Orphan Black interviews Orphan Black’s science consultant, Cosima Herter.