Speculating about future science isn't irresponsible — if anything, it's the reverse

Illustration for article titled Speculating about future science isn't irresponsible — if anything, it's the reverse

We tend to think there's a hard-line division between science (which is based on hard evidence and empiricism) and science fiction (which is more speculative and often somewhat fanciful.) But over in Wales Online, Cardiff University's Joan Haran argues that the boundary between science and science fiction is always changing.


Top image: Charles Sturt University

Based on her research about science in popular culture, Haran believes that speculating about science that doesn't exist yet is actually the responsible thing to do, and scientists should support it. Writes Haran:

Science does not just happen in laboratories; it is woven through the way we work, play and consume every day.

For example, in Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined reproductive technology being used to create a society in which people were bred to take up particular social roles and there was no freedom of choice in how to live.

However, in Woman On The Edge Of Time, Marge Piercy imagined very similar technology helping to create a future society that is much more democratic and egalitarian than the one we currently inhabit. From our perspective today, both novels clearly fail as prophecy. Today we take In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) for granted as just one of the ways that people who want children get pregnant.

What both novels have in common, however, is that they imagined the social and cultural impacts of science and technology before the scientific and technological facts of the matter were fully established. The birth of the first "test tube baby" was 45 years in the future when Huxley wrote his novel. So they made it possible for their readers – and for viewers of film and TV adaptations of Brave New World – to reflect on what reproductive technology might make possible in different social contexts.

Some scientists express concern that this kind of speculation is scaremongering, but research suggests that readers and viewers do distinguish between the kind of thought experiments that take place in science fiction and communications from recognised scientists. It is important to note, however, that when scientists explain how their research will benefit us in the future, that this is speculation too.

Her whole essay is worth checking out. [Wales Online]



Fantastic essay, great article. I've often thought that with all the various scientific fields getting ever more specialized, we've lost an entire, vital, segment of the human thing - the generalists.

People are getting so specialized in their one field that they loose the ability to fit their work into the greater scheme of things - and because every field is advancing so quickly, there are fewer and fewer people who can truly bridge the gap.

Science fiction and speculation are, aside from just being awesome, modern stop gaps for this situation, at least until we can scale up our own intelligence in some way. (SEE! Now I'M doing it!)