Things Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Should Know About Science

Science is commonly misportrayed in fiction, most likely because the vast majority of writers are exceedingly scientifically illiterate and are too lazy to actually look up how any of it works. So to help you from committing the same common blunders, here's a list of things you should know about science.

How the scientific method actually works

This one's a biggie. Many people don't really know how science works beyond performing experiments to see what happens. Falsification? Double-blind tests? Peer-review? Null hypotheses? What are those?

To get a basic idea of what the scientific method is and what it entails, go here.

Science is a method of discovery, not a philosophy or belief system.

The only thing you have to believe in order to do science is that there is an objective reality, and that it can be measured. In and of itself, science does not say that things like magic or ghosts do not exist in some form. The actual reason scientists will tell you there's probably no such thing as magic or ghosts is because every time people actually try to test them using the proper methodology, they fail to produce any significant or meaningful results.

Theories do not become laws.

In lay terms, "theory" means a hunch, guess, or idea. But in scientific terms, "theory" means something extremely different - a theory is essentially the sum of what we know about a given subject. Theories do not become laws - laws are part of theories. For example, Newton's law of universal gravitation is part of the theory of gravity. If you want to describe a scientist's hunch or guess, the correct word is hypothesis.

Science does not happen in a vacuum.

Science is very much a team sport, and for good reason: a single person working in solitude is likely to make errors without even realizing it and end up with a lot of garbage data. Part of the scientific process involves having other scientists perform the same experiment you performed and seeing if they can get the same results in order to confirm that what you thought or claimed happened is really what happened.

If the majority of scientists don't take a fringe opinion seriously, it's probably for a very good reason.

When you start looking into fringe beliefs or "alternative" science, you'll find many proponents claiming that the only reason nobody takes them seriously is because other scientists are too closed-minded to consider ideas that challenge common knowledge. In reality, what's usually going on is:

Many people who complain that their ideas are unfairly dismissed by other scientists are entitled whiners who think that the rigorous standards that apply to other scientists just don't apply to them for some reason.

Of course, it's still possible for good science and sound hypothesis to be unfairly dismissed and go ignored. When this does happen, what you're usually looking at is:

But ideas with validity behind them are rarely totally suppressed. Instead, what you usually get is controversy. At least some scientists will find the idea compelling enough to do their own research on it. As the evidence continues to stack in their favor, it'll usually gain more and more supporters. Progress might be slow, but the truth will usually win out in the end so long as people are willing to follow legitimate scientific protocol and question anything that doesn't follow it.

Unironically pulling the Galileo card makes your character look like a crank.

Very often, people will have their characters cite the "fact" that Galileo was persecuted a reason why those who don't listen to their characters (usually, other scientists) are just wrongheaded bullies. However, here's the deal: Galileo didn't get in trouble with other scientists, but with the Catholic Church. (Incidentally, Galileo himself was Catholic.) He also didn't have a lot of compelling evidence to back up his claims, but tried to teach his hypothesis as absolute fact anyway - which is what the Catholic Church took exception to.

The reality is that loads of goofballs with strange ideas about the nature of the universe come and go, and most of them are wrong. People are always well within their rights to remain skeptical of a claim that has no particularly compelling evidence for it, because any old crank can pull a wild claim out of thin air.

Evolution does not work that way.

Evolution is poorly understood by many people, and many stories

If you plan to write anything involving evolution, please make sure you get the basics right. You can start by visiting the University of Berkeley's page on misconceptions about evolution.

Quantum physics does not work that way.

Many people seem to be under the impression that quantum physics is practically magic. In fact, there are many people who insist that quantum physics is literally magic and can do anything you can think of. But in reality, quantum physics doesn't work that way. Many of the weird phenomena scientists observe on the quantum level are only observed on the quantum level. So while particles can mysteriously pop in and out of existence, pizzas and teddy bears can't and don't.

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

Energy does not work that way.

Another problem is that many people think that energy is some kind of incorporeal cloud of stuff. In fact, in the scientific sense the term "energy" merely means "the potential to do work." The very notion of something being "made of energy" makes about as much sense as an object being "made of shove."

Maybe you've heard people say that the soul must be immortal because it's made of energy, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed (per the first law of thermodynamics). The trouble is that their definition of "energy" is something entirely different than the scientific definition of "energy." From a scientific point of view, it makes about as much sense as saying that you can use feathers in place of lightbulbs because feathers are light. Whatever a soul would be made of, it ain't "energy."

New discoveries typically don't overturn what we know so much as refine it.

If newspaper headlines are to be believed, science is always overturning and rewriting everything we ever thought we knew on a daily basis. A common complaint I've heard among people is "How can we believe anything scientists tell us when they're always changing their minds?"

It's not that scientists are "changing their minds" about things as much as new discoveries give us further insight into something. What we knew before still stands, for the most part. For example, if we observe that gravity behaves differently in different parts of space, then yeah, we'll have to rewrite the laws of gravity, but it doesn't overturn what we know about how gravity behaves here on Earth.

"Shocking" new discoveries are being made every day, and it's no big deal.

There are people who think that the government is "hiding" Bigfoot because it would somehow just be too shocking for the world to handle - never mind that we somehow survived the discovery of the blobfish. Over the past few years, we've found that vast numbers of dinosaurs actually had feathers, and that birds are in fact a type of dinosaur. Every time I turn around, I'm seeing some headline or other about a new discovery that forces us to rethink what pre-agricultural life was like. If academia was really fit to be tied every time something jostled the apple cart of established knowledge, they'd have all died of heart attacks by now.

To be a good scientist, you have to get real comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and being honest when you don't know something for sure.

Contrary to the popular belief that "science claims to have the answer for everything," scientists have to resign themselves to the fact that there are a lot of things they'll never be certain about, let alone even know in their entire lives. They also have to resign themselves to the fact that even though they personally believe in something (eg, fairies, psychic powers), they cannot expect anyone else to simply take what they believe in on faith.

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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