Taking the fiction out of science's portrayal

March 5, 2004

Far from dumbing down, sci-fi studies boldly goes into the dark space that lies between science and society, say Rosi Thornton and Mark Brake.

Whenever the latest derisory list of "dumbing down" degrees comes out, we imagine tutors across the UK snarling at the radio or television wishing that presenters would find out what is taught before panning it in front of the nation. We do the same every time Glamorgan's BSc in science and science fiction is the victim.

The idea of students glued to Star Trek or hunting for unidentified flying objects may be entertaining, but it is an uninformed and misrepresentative portrayal of the degree content. Science fiction is a component of degrees throughout the world in many different disciplines.

The genre has always been used as a way of imagining the relationship between science, technology and society, and as a way of popularising and disseminating issues surrounding science. Nasa dedicates part of its website to science fiction, and the European Space Agency has turned to authors for ideas to develop and implement. It was Copernicus who set in train the development of modern cosmology and its attendant possibility of inhabited worlds. This, coupled with Darwin's demotion of man to mere mortal among the microbes, saw the development of a myth that has captured the imagination - that of extraterrestrial life.

In 1998, we ran our first module on "life in the universe". The module examined the field of astrobiology and the discovery of exoplanetary systems. An understanding of the origins of life, as well as the nature of the universe, were taught alongside discussions of the religious, philosophical and sociological implications of contact.

The following year, Glamorgan became the first university in the world to offer a degree in science and science fiction. Two-thirds of the degree is science, specifically astronomy. At each stage, we look at the seminal revolutions of science, including a triumph of modern physics: the understanding of the life cycles of stars. We also consider the creation of the atom and hydrogen bombs, finding that the same physicists were involved in both events. This leads to an examination of the relationship between science and society.

Scientism haunts conventional science curricula. No other subject is taught in such a vacuum. It would be considered ridiculous to learn history, literature or art history, for example, without considering the cultural context. But science is taught as though it were apolitical and ahistorical and scientists are seen as automatons with no agenda, bias or outside influence. Traditional textbooks on the evolution of science tend not to look at links with other disciplines and their influence on its growth. Our curriculum makes clear the tortuous history of science: its discoveries and the misapprehensions and regular stubborn refusals by its practitioners to change course. It is a course about science as much as it is a course in science.

Given that many people's exposure to science is through science fiction, the portrayal of the scientist and the nature of scientific activity is crucial in changing public attitudes to science. We have worked with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on ways of incorporating critical approaches to science into the GCSE syllabus. The results were piloted in schools from September 2003.

We are now running a week of one-day conferences for year-nine pupils to tackle the decline in young people's interest in science with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. We ask pupils to ponder a series of "What if...?" questions, such as: "If a comet had not hit the Earth so many millions years ago, would dinosaurs still be alive today?" These questions lead to a discussion about what it takes for life and planets to evolve, and what a difference the slightest change could have had.

We live in a society utterly dependent on science and technology. Knowledge of science is essential in a participatory democracy. How can a citizen with little or no understanding of science be an informed decision-maker in such a society?

It is time for a new type of degree that challenges science's alleged impartiality and objectivity - one that understands that, in the genome era, we must all have an informed opinion about the social, ethical and political questions posed by science. The science and science fiction degree attempts to do just that.

Rosi Thornton is director, Welsh Centre for Science Fiction Studies, and Mark Brake is professor of science communication at the Centre for Astronomy and Science Education, University of Glamorgan.

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