Your Favorite SF Author Is Making The World A Safer Place

Illustration for article titled Your Favorite SF Author Is Making The World A Safer Place

Sci-fi writers shaping US national security policy may sound like the stuff of comics, but it turns out that it's also happening in real life, as well. Be very afraid.

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The Washington Post reported on the recent 2009 Homeland Security Science & Technology Stakeholders Conference, where sci-fi authors like Greg Bear and Catherine Asaro discussed their ideas in front of security experts:

The cost to taxpayers is minimal. The writers call this "science fiction in the national interest," and they consult pro bono. They've been exploring the future, and "we owe it to mankind to come back and report what we've found," said writer Arlan Andrews, who also is an engineer with the Navy in Corpus Christi, Tex.

Andrews founded an organization of sci-fi writers to offer imaginative services in return for travel expenses only. Called Sigma, the group has about 40 writers. Over the years, members have addressed meetings organized by the Department of Energy, the Army, Air Force, NATO and other agencies they care not to name. At first, "to pass the Beltway giggle-factor test," Andrews recruited only sci-fi writers who had conventional science or engineering chops on their résumés. Now about a third of the writers have PhDs.

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The benefit of talking to the SF authors, according to the attendees? Their fresh take on situations:

"We're stuck in a paradigm of databases," [Chief information officer for Homeland Security's Office of Operations Coordination & Planning, Harry] McDavid said later. "How do we jump out of our infrastructure and start conceptualizing those threats? That's very cool." ...The department can't point to a gadget on the drawing board that was inspired by one of the novelists. But Rolf Dietrich, Homeland Security's deputy director of research, says the writers help managers think more broadly about projects, especially about potential reactions and unintended consequences. "They have a different way of looking at things," Dietrich said.

I have to admit loving the idea of using SF authors to shape US government policy. Well, as long as they don't include Orson Scott Card in any future policy discussions, of course.

U.S. Mission for Sci-Fi Writers: Imagine That [Washington Post]

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DISCUSSION

coverclock
Chip Overclock®

Greg Bear has written about this in the afterwards of some of his novels, and I've heard both he and Joe Haldeman talk about it on panels. Two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling once said something to the effect of "To have a good idea you've got to have lots of ideas", acknowledging the fact that you've got to try lots of stuff and expect most of it to fail. So it makes sense to recruit folks who have a skill at "thinking out of the box", understanding that most of the ideas will turn out to be rubbish in hindsight. DARPA (in the military) and venture capitalists (in industry) are both all about pursing lots of hairbrained ideas in the expectation that on a very small number will pan out, but may pan out in a big way. For every Internet there's a bunch of ESP research projects. For every Google there's dozens of Pets.com.

That's the "in-flight magazine" problem - history, and popular science and business articles and books, tend to be written by the victors. You only hear the success stories, which amount to a tiny fraction of the total attempts. There was even a study recently pointing out that medical journals tend to publish only papers with positive results, even though there is probably a lot more research yielding negative results which would be just as valuable. Definitely a "success bias" in publishing.

Or, as my thesis advisor said eons ago: "Negative results are still results."

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