Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bad Science & Literature

I didn't think I was one of those people for whom a book (fiction or non-science non-fiction) was ruined because of 'bad science' in it, but maybe I am. My husband is definitely one of those people. He will throw down a novel upon encountering a sentence -- or even a phrase -- that shows ignorance of some scientific principle or event. It ruins the book for him completely, and he loses all faith in the author as someone with worthwhile things to say, even in a novel. I am more accepting of 'bad science' in literature, but have encountered a few recent examples that gave me pause.

There is a lot of goofy science in "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (Marisha Pessl), but I didn't mind that. The whole book is an over-the-top crazy jumble of analogies, scientific and otherwise. On the other hand, I recently stopped reading an award-winning biography of a non-scientist because the author had a section on an ancillary scientific issue, and it was so wrong it was absurd. I stopped reading the book after that section, even though it wasn't important to the overall content of the book. Perhaps I had a negative reaction because it was a non-fiction book -- if the author got that part wrong, what about the rest of it? Didn't the author show that part of the text to a scientist for checking?

On a few occasions in the past decade, I have been contacted by fiction-writers asking me questions about my field of science so that they could get a particular scene, concept, or scientific character 'right'. I enjoy doing this, especially if it increases the visibility of science and scientists in an accessible and fun way. Alas, most of these books have been thrillers, and the scientists have been evil men using their brilliant brains to acquire power and/or money, not caring if they destroyed some or all of the world in the process.

By chance, a few years after one of these books was published, I visited a particular university that was mentioned by name in the book, and asked people there about the book. They hastened to assure me that their department chair was not actually a homicidal maniac out to destroy the world, nor did he manipulate grad students or prey on women students. I wasn't sure whether to admit having seen this novel in manuscript form, in case people thought I had approved of the ghastly depiction of science and scientists. In fact, the author ignored essentially all of my advice, and fortunately I am not acknowledged by name in that book, although I read and commented on several chapters .. which makes me wonder if other examples of 'bad science' or misconceptions about academia in books are there despite advice to the contrary.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your advice please?: I am soon visiting a lab for a postdoc interview. On the lab's website, there are perhaps a dozen grad students and postdocs - all of whom are male, in a field where women are usually represented between a third and a half at that level. I am tempted to ask the PI about it. Should I? If so, how to phrase it?

Doug Natelson said...

I may be like this, too. I could not read Angels and Demons by Dan Brown because the bad science annoyed me so much. Da Vinci Code I could deal with, even though all the characters sounded the same and it had the stock female love interest who must be smart because she wears glasses. As a nano person, the science in Prey by Michael Crichton didn't frustrate me nearly as much as the giant plot loophole(s) or his pontificating in public as if he's a real expert in the field.

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous - I have been thinking of writing about this issue. Maybe tomorrow, once I have collected my thoughts a bit. This issue just came up in my own department with one particular lab.

Female Science Professor said...

Doug - maybe it also depends on where we are when we read the book. I didn't mind the Da Vinci Code on a trans-Atlantic flight, but I wonder if I could have gotten through it in a less confined place. Thanks for mentioning Crichton. I considered it, but decided not to this time, as he raises a whole host of other issues. His recent pontificating goes beyond bad-science-in-novels.

retired chemist said...

The Da Vinci code made me real mad because so much energy and effort was wasted in writing fiction about real characters. It was made to sound true but when you ask for proof you are told that it was fiction! To be sure, the author had his eye on his bank account and made sure that he didnt have to write another book in his life. Anyway, thank God for that..

elianara said...

I'm really good at getting annoyed at authors for different reasons, so I have developed this really useful "trait". If a characters name annoy me, I change the name in my head, same goes with appearance and habits. It is a bit more difficult to do if some facts are wrong, or there is bad science, but you can "re-write" that in your head, too.

bsci said...

I was surprised when I saw Crichton start to go off the deep end in his writing, but then I thought back and realized he was always extremely anti-science.

For a smart person who is capable of understanding a lot of science, all his scifi novels take possible science and distort them into worst case scenarios. The fact that he doesn't tend to use "evil scientist" characters and uses people who innocently don't realize the dangers of their own research makes it all the more anti science.

This style goes back to Andromeda Strain and Terminal Man and has only gotten worse over time.

Kate said...

what's unfortunate is that pop-science books (which i'll categorize crichton as for the sake of this post) are immediately accessible to the public, and the not-so science-savvy. it bugs me as a scientist, but i know better and can take inaccuracies, misinterpretations, etc with a grain of salt. but the effect these authors have on non science-literate readers worries me.

everyone can comprehend a science-based book if it's reader-friendly; it's whether the author can manipulate that naivete for the sexiness of the book is when things get a bit controversial...

Hugh said...

Writers who spew bad science annoy me. Many times I have been disgusted to read "It was just after midnight and a thin crescent moon hung low in the west." Right. I once read a novel, Contact, by Carl Sagan, in which he had a character seeing the star Alpha Centauri from New Mexico. Sorry, Carl, can't be done. At that point, although Mr. Sagan is a fairly competent writer, I decided that when it comes to astronomy, he is a complete ignoramus, only exceeded by writers who try to use modern physics to justify their spiritual beliefs. You know who they are.