Thursday, March 21, 2013

Science fiction should be mandatory in schools.


I just read an article where an American politician, Ray Canterbury, wants to make reading science fiction mandatory in schools. My first response was how the hell did he ever get elected as a republican: aren’t they all creationialists and global warming deniers? My second response was what a great idea. Reading science fiction is school should be mandatory in Australia too.

The Republican goes on to say he doesn’t want students reading fantasy, but hard science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hard science fiction is science fiction where real science is central to the plot. Mr Canterbury thinks reading hard science fiction will get more students interested in maths and science.

If this policy was world-wide, I imagine there would be a shift in the general populations attitude towards science and scientists, especially in countries like Australia and the US. At the moment a lot of the population seem to view scientists with scepticism, that they are all just trying to get government grants by scaring us with their crackpot theories.

Many people no longer seem to respect the scientific process of creating a theory, and then testing the theory with data. If the data supports the theory, keep the theory. If the data does not support theory, change the theory. A lot of people seem to have the attitude of “its only a theory, and I prefer this other theory presented by a media personality because it suits my life style.”

Take me for example. In my younger years I preferred to read adventure stories, Enid Blyton when very young and then westerns and Wilbur Smith at high school. I had no interest in science and avoided science subjects as school. I then read a lot of fantasy. But when I moved to Albion in Queensland there was a fantastic second hand book shop with a huge collection of science fiction. I quickly was hooked on the stuff.

I read hard science fiction by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, Gregory Benford, Greg Egan and Kim Stanley Robinson.  My interest in hard science fiction lead me to read non-fiction science books like The Spike by Damien Broderick, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Reading hard science fiction lead me to doing year 11 and 12 VCE physics by correspondence.

I would love a survey to be done of science fiction readers and their attitudes to things like global warming and nanotechnology. I think a lot more science fiction readers would have researched global warming and found the overwhelming scientific consensus is that it is happening, humanity is a major factor causing it, and unless something is done to halt greenhouse gases civilisation is really going to struggle, beginning in the next few decades.

If everyone read hard science fiction, I would hope we would live in a lot more enlightened world. For years campaigns against genetically modified crops have been run, despite there being little evidence that genetically modified crops have caused harm to people. There is some evidence of cross pollenisation causing problems. But the main argument at the moment seems to be that people don’t want genetically modified products in their food because they are scared about what it might do to them. They are scared because they have been told to be scared. They are a bit like people who are too scared to get their kids vaccinated or think fluoride is being used to control the minds of the general population.

There seems to be a similar scare campaign developing against nanotechnology, particularly in regard to sun screens, even though there appears to be no scientific data to prove that nanoparticles will penetrate the skin and/or harm cells.

In a world where everyone reads hard science fiction, I think scare campaigns based on ignorance would have much less traction. That is because I think the hard science fiction reader would have a greater interest in science and therefore be less ignorant of the science around issues such as global warming, GM crops and nanotechnology.

But at the moment we have a world full of disrespect for science. A disrespect that can only slow down scientific advances, slow down the spike, or the technological singularity,  that is coming. I want to experience the wonders of science post spike, but instead I think I will be experiencing the start of a new Dark Ages.

Rather than getting an enlightened pollie like Ray Canterbury, we have Julia Gillard, a woman who wanted to do nothing about climate change until her hand was forced by the Greens. And we’re going to end up with Tony Abbott, a man who will do nothing about climate change because he believes the science is crap. I bet neither of them read hard science fiction as a kid.


graywave said...

I'm glad you qualified that as "hard" science fiction - otherwise a great deal of fantasy would be on the curriculum! I was shocked to see this year's Aurealis Awards Science Fiction Novels shortlist. Seven books and only one of them seems to be science fiction at all! The rest are fantasy (although most have some kind of science fictiony gloss). Since there is a Fantasy Novels section in the awards, this seems grossly unfair to real sci-fi authors. (I didn't have a book that qualifies, so it's not sour grapes!)

Anyway, start teaching sci-fi in schools and you open up a massive definitional can of worms my friend.

Graham Clements said...

Hi Graham,

A bit like the Hugos last year. I know that they allow fantasy, but the movies in particularly annoyed me for their lack of science fiction, especially since The Rise of the Apes, didn't get nominated. I would put that in the hard science fiction category too.

I can imagine if hard science fiction was mandatory that some schools would try to sneak the Star Wars books onto their lists. Ugg. And then the students wouldn't have to bother with science, because they will know that a Jedi Knight or Doctor Who will turn up and fix everything.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Nice segue.

I don't think it would hurt an iota to mix it up. Never really understood why Shakespeare had to be studied. We should be looking forward.

At least a couple of books a year wouldn't go astray, but then, as much as we like to think otherwise, the powers that be keep us nice and conservative - the education system, their ultimate controlling ground.

Probably a story in there somewhere.

Science fiction today, fact tomorrow.

Graham Clements said...

Anthony, the only science fiction novel I had to read at high school was 1984. I very much identified with it. I wonder if they still get year 10's to read it. I would not call it hard science fiction though. No science it it at all. But 1984 sought of sums up the ideas in your comment, about the controlling of young minds.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Pretty certain I read that in school too though I read so much sci-fi at the time its hard to discern.

Guarantee they wouldn't include it now, too liberal.