Science vs Science Fiction

In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher takes a very hard line against the arts in general and the poets in particular, even going so far as stating that Homer should be banned by the philosopher kings ruling over the ideal state. Plato’s main objection to poets was that they are just imitators and imitation is devoid of knowledge. More specifically, the arts engage the emotions and not the higher rational faculties. They throw the Platonic psyche out of balance at the individual and the societal level. Were he to be transported to 2021, Plato would be horrified by the sheer volume of “poetry” we consume via television and the internet in modern society. Even if all our storytellers were as good as Homer and accurately imitated life in their art, we would be out of balance in Plato’s eyes by constantly stimulating our emotional and imaginative faculties without subsequent stimulation of the reasoning faculties. As it turns out, our society provides quite a lot of evidence to suggest that Plato was right. Our public discourse runs very much on emotions and very little on reason these days and it’s entirely possible that this tendency is in direct proportion to our proclivity to watch movies and tv shows rather than engage the rational faculties. It doesn’t help that the propaganda machine formerly known as the news media also indulges in the blatant fabrication of reality. If imitation was bad enough in Plato’s eyes, what would he make of the fabrication and distortion that is now business as usual?

As somebody who enjoys both writing and reading stories, I would disagree with Plato’s objections to the artform primarily on grounds that stories and art in general are a bridge to the unconscious mind and the unconscious mind can reveal truth. Of course, the unconscious mind does not exist in Platonic psychology. His psyche has reason, spirit and emotion and in The Republic he extrapolates this structure at the individual level to society at large. Thus, the philosopher kings represent reason and should rule. The armed forces represent spirit and should be subordinate to reason. The rest of society represents emotion and this should be subordinate to both spirit and reason. If we were to introduce the unconscious, and in particular the collective unconscious, into the psychic equation and give it a prominence of equal weight to reason, then the poets, storytellers, priests and others who were concerned with it would have a great responsibility to ensure that the symbolic representations of their craft were faithful to whatever truths were to be had through the unconscious. As a storyteller, I believe that to be true. It’s the duty of storytellers to make sure a story is accurate and this goes for the plot, the psychological and biographical accuracy of the characters and even the symbolic meanings of the story. When all these are taken care of, the story resonates at multiple levels at once in much the same way that harmony functions in music.

It’s for this same reason that I tend to be very critical of stories and movies where the author or screenwriter gets it wrong. Let me give one example that’s always annoyed me from the movie Gladiator. Those who have seen it will remember the scene where Maximus is arrested and taken by a troop of praetorian guards to be killed in the forest. He manages to break free and kill the first few guards. There are a couple of others who are on watch at a distance and don’t know what has happened. He kills the first by throwing a sword from behind, a very low risk technique. Then he kills another. There’s one guard left; one man standing between Maximus and freedom. This guard has managed to remain blissfully unaware of everything that has happened. His attention is off in the distance. Maximus is standing behind him with sword in hand. We’ve already seen Maximus kill one guard by throwing a sword from behind. He could easily do the same with this one. Alternatively, he could get the horse of one of the other guards and ride away without even bothering to kill the man. Both are zero risk options which get him what he wants. Instead, he challenges the guard to a duel where he is at a significant disadvantage by not being on a horse. He kills the guard buts gets injured in the process and the rest of the movie unfolds from there. This scene makes sense as a plot device. It gets the story where it needs to go. But it doesn’t make sense in terms of characterisation. Are we really to believe that Maximus, Rome’s greatest general, who has just shown great discipline and fortitude leading his troops into battle, is going to take a completely unnecessary risk that leaves him at a significant disadvantage in a fight? I don’t think so. He would have thrown the sword, killed the last praetorian guard and ridden away on his horse. Nevertheless, the error is minor and I’m sure most people watching the film didn’t even pick up on it. Gladiator is an action movie, after all. People are not watching it for an in-depth psychological analysis. Sometimes, however, errors like this are revealing about the culture. I find science fiction to be a rich source of such errors which are interesting to the extent that they reveal something about our culture’s understanding of science.

Robert Heinlein defined science fiction as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” In other words, science fiction should be accurate in its depiction of science in the same way that a story’s plot should be accurate in relation to its characters. In Plato’s language, it should imitate reality. We’ve all had the impression while watching a movie or reading a book that the character “would never do that”. In that case, the storyteller has failed to marry the plot and the characterisation. In the same way, we might have the impression while watching a science fiction move that “science doesn’t work like that” or “that could never happen [because it breaks the laws of physics]”. An example of this is The Matrix. In the movie, we are told that humans are being farmed for energy because the sky was blacked out and the sun blocked. This makes no sense from a thermodynamics point of view. Even assuming you could keep humans alive in such a world, how are you going to feed them? What sort of plants are growing when there is no sunlight to photosynthesise? And how much energy does The Matrix itself use up just keeping the humans distracted? If you were a smart AI, you’d be better off capturing whatever energy is still coming from the sun directly rather than running it through human beings. That would be more energy efficient and, let’s face it, humans are a pain. They have a nasty habit of not doing what they’re told, even when they’re stuck in little pods in the sky. Better off to get rid of them and do whatever it is that AIs like to do with their time. So, this plot device doesn’t work within scientific theory. Another common problem in science fiction is the portrayal of scientists in movies.

Let’s take just one example that bugged me so much I stopped watching the movie: the film Sunshine released in 2007. The story is set in the year 2057. The sun is dying and the earth is getting too cold to live on. Humans come up with a plan to nuclear bomb the sun back to life. They have already sent one spaceship to do the job but communication with it was lost. They send a second ship and that is where the movie begins. While en route to the sun, the second ship establishes communication with the first. They have a choice to carry out the mission as planned or deviate and unite with the first ship. They decide to try the latter. The ship has a supercomputer on board which handles the calculations but, for reasons not explained in the story, they have the ship’s mathematician override it and do the calculations himself. The story makes a big fuss about how difficult the calculations are and how much pressure the mathematician is under to get the done before it’s too late. He makes a mistake and the story goes from there. What is the error here? The error is that you would never let a human calculate by hand when you have a computer there to do the job instead. One things computers undoubtedly do better than humans is calculation especially when there is a time constraint and high pressure situation. Within the plot of Sunshine, it is no surprise that the mathematician made the error. The problem is that nobody on the ship should have allowed it to happen. This is supposed to be a team of scientists and smart people. They should have known better.

So, this is an error just like the one above in Gladiator. Something happens in the story that would not happen in real life. But I think this error reveals something about our cultural understanding of science. We have the stereotype of the genius scientist or mathematician and we think the genius lies in calculation. This ties in with the whole issue of IQ testing where it is assumed that ability to manipulate symbols quickly and accurately is the sine qua non of intelligence. Ask the average person why Einstein or Newton were so smart and chances are they will say they were better at maths than others where “better at maths” means able to calculate things that other people were not. That’s kind of true except the real difference lies not in the calculation ability but the ability to re-define a problem so that it can be calculated or invent new techniques that enable calculation. It does not lie in the ability to do the calculations but that’s what the mathematician in Sunshine was doing; pretending to be a computer. That’s the first problem.

The second problem with the stereotype in Sunshine is the idea of the solitary genius. The ship has just one mathematician aboard and he has to work alone to solve the calculations. In reality, the whole point of science is that others are there to help check your work. You have to explain your methodology and your results and let others reproduce them. The Apollo space program had an estimated four hundred thousand engineers and technicians working on it and a huge part of that effort was in checking and re-checking each other’s work to find mistakes. Even Newton said he was standing on the shoulders of giants. But in our culture, we have the idea of the solitary scientific hero. The solitary hero was already common in western culture and specifically US culture prior to science fiction. This is the lone rider motif. What we have done with much of science fiction is map that motif onto science where it does not belong.

Most scientific breakthroughs are based not on calculations by super high IQ individuals but by one of two primary methods: 1) an imaginative/intuitive re-definition of a problem or theoretical framework; 2) a stochastic process (read: blind luck) that leads to a re-definition of a problem or theoretical framework. These are not mutually exclusive and in fact one almost certainly leads to the other by opening up new areas of exploration which then force a re-defining of theoretical frameworks. In real life stories of science, we find both of these elements. Let’s take a couple of examples that are very topical right now as they relate to vaccines.

Louis Pasteur is credited with the invention of the attenuated vaccine. At that time, trying to prevent mass death by viral disease among livestock herds was the main driver for vaccine research. Pasteur had been working away for years on the problem and making no headway. On the last day before the traditional August summer holiday in France, one of Pasteur’s lab assistants was supposed to do the processing on the latest batch of trial vaccines but forgot. When he returned from holiday he realised his omission but, rather than own up to it, simply injected the chickens with the batch he had left untreated expecting them to die like all the other lab animals previously. But they didn’t die. They got better. For the first time, the test seemed to work. The lab assistant told Pasteur what had happened, they investigated and did more tests and eventually came to the attenuated vaccine. That kind of luck is common throughout the history of real science but is absent in our science fiction. Note that Pasteur is credited with the invention of the vaccine when, in reality, you could argue that it was his lab assistant who was at least partly responsible.

Teamwork is also not emphasised in our cultural depictions of science though it is crucial to real life science. Take the story of the invention of the mRNA vaccine as told by Robert Malone. It features a little bit of a luck and also teamwork as it was one of the scientists on the team who insisted on doing a negative control test when everybody else was thinking of other things that helped the evolution of the process along. Malone is very happy to point those facts out as any real scientist would. That is how science works in real life. As Woody Allen said, showing up is 80% of success. Show up each day and do the work and “luck” falls into your lap. That’s how vaccines came into being: luck and teamwork. Of course, that doesn’t make for a dramatic movie or a good story. Neither does the other process by which scientific breakthroughs are made. These are the Eureka moments where a scientist has a sudden intuition that reveals the solution to a problem. One minute you’re taking a bath and the next moment you have the answer. That doesn’t make for good film either. Almost by definition, storytellers must fabricate the truth in relation to science in order to make it fit into the structure of good fiction.

I could go on with my list of gripes about science fiction. One day I might do a whole post about the movie Interstellar which actually made me angry to watch. It takes some of the tropes I have mentioned here and added others which reveal something about modern culture that is directly relevant to current events. In any case, the problem is that such art is not even a good imitation of reality. To return to Plato, our poets do not even imitate. They fabricate and distort. In doing so, they are creating and re-creating the underlying mythology of the culture but what we now know is that the mythology, through the collective unconscious, has a real effect in the world especially in a society which consumes such a huge amount of myth and fiction relative to reality. It’s tempting to agree with Plato that banning it all would be the best idea. Imagine the current world if somebody flicked a switch and there was no more television, cinema or Netflix. It’s hard to see that as being anything other than a godsend right now. How many of the current social neuroses are fed through that apparatus and would promptly disappear if the apparatus went away? Maybe Plato was onto something.

16 thoughts on “Science vs Science Fiction”

  1. While I would love to see a world without modern entertainment, I honestly doubt it would actually change much. The unconscious would still rule and arise in unexpected ways, as it has done historically. The original witch hunts do not appear to have been hindered by a lack of television.

    The ironic thing about the Matrix battery plot device is that the the Wachowskis were well aware it was stupid, but the studio thought the original idea – that the humans were what the AI was built upon, ie the people were the computers or ‘minds’ for the AI society – was too complex for the audience to understand. Making the AI truly dependent on the humans fixes a host of other plot holes in the film too, like why the humans must be distracted and can’t just be released or simply kept sedated.

    PS. Your last sentence in the first paragraph is missing some words.

  2. Daniel – you’re probably right. Maybe all that has changed is the scale. Although, from a Jungian perspective there is a question whether witch hunts are psychic epidemics in the same way corona is. That’s interesting about the Wachawski knowing the problem. That makes sense to me because their films prior to the Matrix were airtight in terms of storytelling. Any ideas what happened with the Matrix sequels? They were unbelievably bad, almost like they were trying to make awful movies.

  3. Definitely agree on the scale change, and perhaps it is also as much a visibility difference too – modern media and communications makes the breadth of the insanity that much more apparent.

    From what I understand the sequels’ multitude of problems all basically stemmed from the same issue as the battery plot device – the studios ended up in control – and the Wachowskis appeared to give up in response. I am doubtful that any other result than what we got was possible once that happened. The ‘battery’ kerfuffle also backed them into a corner plot wise as it eliminated many of the philosophical possibilities around what constitutes mind, life and death that could have been explored instead of the boring resource/slavery dispute it ended up as.

  4. Makes sense. You got the feeling from the sequels that they were too busy counting their pay packets to bother making the movie.

  5. I know someone who worked on the Matrix who said that what happened with the sequels was that the Wachawski pitched a trilogy, but then were told they’d only get a single movie, and so caved on what was, in that movie, a relatively minor point: the batteries vs. processors. The studio then decided after the success to go ahead with the sequels, but the batteries vs. processors meant that nearly everything the Wachawski’s had planned for the sequels didn’t work anymore.

  6. Interesting. That explains a lot. Another reason why management should never get involved in the creative process (just like government shouldn’t get involved in medical matters).

  7. Hi Simon,

    To be candid, I probably wouldn’t trust philosopher Kings, if only because they might do something rather ideological and stupid like disbanding the armed forces when there are fierce opponents in the surrounding lands. The long dead dude Sun Tzu, warned against this specifically in his millennia and an awful lot old treatise: The Art of War. Apparently he was recounting what happened to another kingdom, and it didn’t end well.

    It always comes back to The Matrix… I thought the sequels were rubbish.

    The other day whilst surfing the interweb I spotted this article on dogs: Does Your Dog Make the List of the Dumbest Dog Breeds? It sounds like click bait for sure, but who really knows? Anyway there was a great quote in there which suggested that: “How smart you appear to be depends on the test.”

    The number one breed was apparently Border Collies, and yet earlier this year I just happened to be at a farm expo when a crusty old timer who trains and breeds Kelpie working dogs just happened to mention that Border Collies: “can’t think for themselves”. And there you have it, obedience is favoured over problem solving skills (which is inherent in the ability to be able to think for themselves). And look at where we all are now. 🙂

    Mate, I keep coming across references to the Gladiator film, and I haven’t seen it…



  8. Chris – was there a breed of dog that ate the test and ran off to play with its mates? Maybe we need more of that kind of dog 🙂

  9. Helen – thanks for that. It’s very long but I have a feeling from the first several paragraphs that I’m going to be in furious agreement with it 🙂

    By the way, I wrote a (very) short story on exactly this subject in July last year –

    Hopefully, I’m proven wrong although we are already on the pathway to exactly that kind of dystopia and South Australia is at the forefront with your wonderful quarantine app which has made headlines around the world.

  10. I only saw the headlines for it. It’s for the home quarantine system. The government sends you a message at random times and you have to upload a photo to prove you are at home. Sounds pretty dumb to me. I can instantly think of several ways to break the system but, hey, it’s hi-tech so it must be good.

  11. Oh, sounds lovely. I’m so proud we thought of it ?
    Re breaking the system, I’m seeing images of Macaulay Culkin in home alone.
    I have no apps on my phone apart from what was on it when I got it and I plan on keeping it that way.
    In fact I think a few have been deleted.
    Some light entertainment…

  12. I still remember the app that ScoMo was spruiking right at the start which was supposed to solve all the problems. Whatever happened to that? Never heard about it again. That video is very clever. I’m old enough to remember Berejiklian saying you didn’t need lockdowns to get on top of corona. That will go down as one of the great own goals of Australian politics.

  13. Yeah, what was that called?
    It pretty much did a belly flop upon entry.
    I’d imagine that one that caused the “pingdemic” in the UK has been ditched too.
    What a colossal waist of time to energy and resources this has all been.
    That saying, the past is a different country, seems really relevant these days…
    I had to go to the dentist on Thursday, two cracked teeth, (agony) one the wisdom removed, the other, a root canal, which requires two more visits, a month apart.
    I really hope I’m able to get it done as scheduled, but these days, really, who can say?

  14. Ouch. Sorry to hear that. Hopefully dentists aren’t doing what a lot of GPs are doing now and just refusing to see people :/

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