Things Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Should Know About Science

Fiction often portrays science in ways that are extremely misleading, occasionally harmful, and sometimes even downright sinister. (Remember, fascism, totalitarianism, etc. are consistently anti-science.) To help you avoid committing the same mistakes, here's a list of essentials to know.

Last revision: November 15, 2020

Table of Contents

Science is a process, not a belief system.

Fiction often portrays science as a kind of quasi-religious belief system that presupposes the total nonexistence of things we typically deem supernatural or magical. In reality, scientific philosophy actually says that your explanations should not involve phenomena that cannot be demonstrated to exist, nor involve extraneous phenomena. The question of why apples eventually fall from trees is suitably answered with gravity and biochemical processes. The concept of invisible fairies whispering to the apples that it's time to fall might be a cute idea, but it just doesn't work from a scientific standpoint.

What scientists are supposed to do is follow the scientific method. In the simplest terms, the scientific method involves formulating a hypothesis and trying to find ways to disprove it. For an example hypothesis, let's go with "heat makes water evaporate faster." You might test and attempt to falsify this by setting out two trays of water, one heated (the test sample) and one not (the control sample). If the heated tray evaporates first, then in all probability heat does make water evaporate faster. A more thorough explanation of the scientific method can be found here.

Once a scientist publishes a paper detailing their methods and results, their work is subjected to peer review - in effect, other scientists check their work for possible errors and see if they can get the same results from following the methods they used. And this is where pseudoscientists often get tripped up. If nobody else can get the same results following the same methods the first scientist described, then something's up. Either the first scientist overlooked something in their experiment, or simply isn't being honest.

Now, individual scientists can be very irrational, and some absolutely do cling to hateful or self-serving beliefs out of a fragile ego. Some are even deliberately deceptive, and very carefully and deliberately cherry-pick their data to make it seem as if their claims are supported by evidence. (See: So-called "race science.") Quacks often appropriate scientific terminology and/or the aesthetic of science to make their baloney sound more credible to the average person. In all cases, none of these people are actually practicing science.

It should also be obvious by now that there is simply no reason why the scientific method wouldn't work or wouldn't be useful in a magical setting. Pretty much any practitioner could use it to figure out how to get better, more reliable results. If magic is a demonstrable force or phenomena in your setting, then denying its existence would be completely unscientific, akin to flat earth theory and climate change denialism.

Theories do not become laws.

Laypeople often incorrectly believe that a scientific theory is the same as a hunch, guess, or idea. In fact, the scientific term for that is "hypothesis." An actual scientific theory is essentially the sum of scientifically-acquired knowledge on any given topic.

Therefore, theories never become laws. Instead, laws are part of theories. For example, Newton's law of universal gravitation is part of the theory of gravity.

This is why the old chestnut that "evolution is just a theory" is so incredibly silly. Yes, evolution is "just" a theory, in that there's scads of evidence and data to support it, whether it's changes observed in the fossil record, the positions of endogenous retroviruses in simian genomes, or mutations observed in nature.

New discoveries rarely completely overturn what we know, but instead generally refine it.

If newspaper headlines are to be believed, scientists are constantly discovering new information that completely overturns everything they thought they knew before. Because of this, many people are under the impression that scientists on the whole are prone to drawing too strong of conclusions from too little evidence, or that they're all wishy-washy and can't make up their minds.

Scientists, of course, are people, and people do occasionally get a little too attached to their pet hypotheses. But science is practiced by many people, which reduces the odds that something's commonly accepted simply because somebody's just a little too emotionally attached to it considerably - not entirely, but considerably.

Secondly, different studies can suggest different conclusions, particularly when you're dealing with anything as complicated as the human mind or body, where there's an extraordinary amount of variables that are easy to overlook. So let's say that Scientific Study A apparently contradicts Scientific Study B, despite both of them being performed with equal scientific rigor. This doesn't necessarily mean that one of them or the other is completely and totally wrong, but more likely that there might be more variables at play than previously thought. So the question then becomes, "which variables did one or both studies fail to account for?"

The theory of evolution is another one of those things where new discoveries are constantly modifying our conjectures about when and where certain species developed and diverged from one another, but the matter of whether they did develop and diverge from one another has never come under serious question. At one point we believed H. Sapiens evolved from a single point in Africa; now we know our species arose all over Africa due to swapping genes across a large area. We used to believe that different species of humans evolved and remained separate and distinct, but now we know that modern humans have Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA as well. Thus we've moved from an evolutionary tree model to a sort of braided stream.

Evolution doesn't work that way.

Many writers severely misunderstand evolution and what drives it. Many of these ideas are based in a social Darwinist - and therefore implicitly white supremacist - worldview. So let's go over some things people tend to get wrong about evolution.

"Survival of the fittest" applies to to the entire species as much as to individual members of that species. A species that develops the ability to cooperate with each other and coordinate complex tasks (such as humans and ants) often have an advantage over those that don't.

Evolution does not inherently produce "bigger and better" lifeforms. Rather, organisms that are most adapted to the circumstances and environments they find themselves are more likely to reproduce, and thus pass on whatever genetic traits gave them their advantage.

Evolution is not working toward any particular goal. Shrimp are not on a path toward evolving a more humanlike shape, and humans are not on a path toward becoming psychic energy beings.

A mutation can give an individual creature a reproductive advantage, but evolution is something that happens to populations. An individual creature never evolves; the species evolves as certain genetic traits become more or less prevalent within it through the generations.

Animals such as chimpanzees are not "less" evolved than humans; they simply evolved differently. There's no particular reason to think they should (let alone ought) end up more like us.

Finally, organisms do not have some kind of natural expiration date, where it's fated to die out and be replaced by a "superior" life form. No organism has any kind of natural expiration date, nor is fated to be replaced by a "superior" one at any point. Creatures like sharks, dragonflies, worms, and jellyfish have been here since long before the dinosaurs. (Worth noting, racists often claimed that non-white people were genetically inferior, and therefore were destined to be replaced by white people, so this one is really pernicious.)

Quantum physics don't work that way.

For awhile now, quantum physics have been a favorite go-to for explaining supernatural (or seemingly supernatural) phenomena. On the surface it makes sense; some pretty weird things have been observed on the quantum level that defy everything we thought we knew about reality.

The problem is, these weird effects don't necessarily scale up. While particles can mysteriously pop in and out of existence, pizzas and teddy bears can't and don't. Quantum teleportation works for single particles, but not for anything larger. Quantum physics also hasn't produced any explanation for apparent psychic phenomena, either.

This PDF and Seven common myths about quantum physics explores and refutes some of the misconceptions about quantum physics. This article debunks even more.

The fact is, people often jump on new and poorly-understood fields of research to try and explain supernatural phenomena. It's no different than when spiritualists in the early 20th century proposed that ghosts were made of electricity. (If that's really the case, one must wonder why ghosts aren't affected by magnets, or why all of the electricity in our gadgets and devices don't create weird ghostly effects.) If you ever see anyone trying to use any relatively poorly understood field of study (EG, dark matter) to explain their magical or mystical beliefs, they're just doing this kind of thing and you should ignore them.

Energy doesn't work that way.

Many people envision energy as a floaty cloud of mysterious stuff. In the scientific sense, the word "energy" effectively means "the potential to do work." If you hook a rubber band on the end your thumb and pull on the other end until it's tight, the rubber band is now full of potential energy because the moment you let go, it will snap and fly across the room.

Unfortunately, the public perception of energy as a cloud of mysterious floaty stuff has resulted in a lot of misunderstandings. When scientists say that energy cannot be destroyed, they don't mean it in a sense that proves the human body contains an indestructible animus. Instead, it means that once you stretch your rubber band out, its potential energy will either have to stay right where it is or go somewhere. Let the rubber band go, release all of its energy at once. Let it go slowly, release all of its energy slowly. Place it someplace it can stay stretched out until it decays, release its energy very very slowly.

Energy is not itself a distinct substance; it does not exist as some sort of mysterious gas or vapor. Instead, it's better imagined as a process of interactions and reactions that make things happen and change. Ultimately, saying that something is "made of energy" makes as much sense as saying that something is "made of shove."

If you need a magical term to use instead, "spirit essence" or "aether" might work. If you're going for sci-fi, you might make up a fictional particle and refer to it as a "[particle name] cloud" or something.

Fringe ideas are usually rejected for a good reason.

When you start looking into fringe beliefs or so-called "alternative sciences," you'll find many of their proponents claiming they're being unfairly excluded from scientific circles. In fact, it's usually just the opposite. What's generally going on is:

See Also:

Basic Tips To Write Better Geniuses, Scientists, & Intellectuals
Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science (Offsite)
Getting Science Right In Film: It's Not The Facts, Folks (Offsite)

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