Scientists Should Consume More Science Fiction

If scientists consumed more science fiction, maybe they’d realize how easily hubris can kill us all. I understand to a degree why they probably don’t…I am a total geek and my teachers had to force me to read something from the fiction section when I was 9. I saw no point in reading something that was made up when I was much more interested in understanding the planets and stars and how the human body worked. I’m still not a big fiction reader, but I have learned the value of the literary arts and am thankful that my third grade teacher and the school librarian ganged up on me to get me out of my comfort zone.

Science Fiction Spurs Invention

My dad has always been interested in any sort of science fiction movie. I remember growing up watching all sorts of classics as well as extremely obscure old films. Science fiction has inspired all sorts of inventions. We all carry smartphones and tablets around that are just as small and probably more sophisticated than the PADDs used by Starfleet in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We can almost ask Siri and Alexa to locate our spouse…or Captain Picard…with voice recognition and crude artificial intelligence algorithms. Cellphones that flip open like Captain Kirk’s communicator are now regarded as passé. It would seem that many wonderful ideas dreamt up by science fiction writers and filmmakers have come to pass hundreds of years before we actually thought they’d be possible. Others, like warp drive, transporters, holodecks, and light sabers look like they have a long way yet to go.

But while all of that is fascinating, it’s not what bothers me. What irks me is the development of technology that sounds great on the surface, but sounds an awful lot (if not exactly) like technologies that threatened to destroy civilization or all of humanity in science fiction. Some technologies have been pushed into mainstream use by corporations eager to reap the rewards of successful research and development—without truly investigating the effects of their use. While science fiction may inspire many wonderful advancements, it also offers many precautionary tales about hubris destroying the very thing science sought to improve. Even science fact—simple history—offers tales of hubris that go ignored when lots of money sits on the table.

Historical Hubris

Thomas Midgley—Inventor of Not One, but TWO Disastrous Solutions

For a real-life example, let’s consider Thomas Midgley Jr., an American engineer and chemist who solved some tough technical problems for General Motors in the first half of the 20th Century.

First off, he solved the problem of knocking and pinging in automobile engines by adding tetraethyllead to gasoline. Lead poisoning was hardly a secret back then, and Midgley even suffered from it himself during research and development. But he pressed on, and incredible amounts of lead went into the atmosphere thanks to the proliferation of automobiles powered by leaded gasoline. By the middle of the 20th Century, scientists began to show the deleterious effects of this neurotoxin. Decades later, cars and fuel were redesigned to be unleaded. By the 21st Century most nations had banned lead from use in gasoline.

Midgley was also a key member of the team that invented Freon for General Motors’ Frigidaire unit. Before Freon, also known as R-12, toxic and sometimes explosive compounds like ammonia, propane, or sulfur dioxide were the only refrigerants available. When these compounds leaked, disaster often ensued. Freon made refrigeration and air conditioning safe enough for our homes and cars. It was banned from use in the 1990s however, after science in the 1970s showed that it was depleting Earth’s ozone layer. This was a big deal because the ozone layer blocks bad kinds of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which would kill everything alive.

Bald Eagles, Fireproofing, Shoe Salesmen & Cancer

There are other examples from history as well. How about DDT, the pesticide that prevented malaria by killing mosquitoes? Well, it also killed beneficial insects too—and the mosquitoes developed a resistance after about 6 or 7 years of use anyway. (“Life finds a way” pops into my head here.) It also killed marine life and birds, including the bald eagle. It’s also an endocrine disruptor in humans, and may cause cancer.

Maybe you’ve heard about asbestos? It’s fire resistant. But it also causes cancer and other negative health effects in humans. Yet it’s still used in things like brake pads, roofing, flooring, and even clothing in the United States…because money! Shoe salesmen at one time widely used fluoroscopes that instantly x-rayed customers to show how well their shoes fit. It was awesome until people started getting radiation burns and cancer (which especially included the salesmen, since they spent their days demonstrating it).

Does This Make Science & Technology Bad?

Now I’m not saying that science and technology are inherently bad…after all, I’m writing this from a computer connected by invisible radio waves to a giant network brought about by it…but I am saying that some high-tech inventions sound like great ideas until they get into more widespread use. And when someone profits from this widespread use, it makes them blind to concerns rightfully raised.  That profit supplies power that begets more hubris. Often that power and hubris subverts healthy inquiry and regulation. History proves useful in predicting and identifying problems, but so too does imagination.

Science Fiction—Warnings of Hubris from the Future

Advertising & Mass Surveillance

The reality came a little late, but 1984 seems to have accurately predicted the prevalence of mass surveillance. We now know that the NSA collects every bit of data and communications it can reasonably store. But it’s not just the government doing this…Facebook, Google, and your ISPs are only too happy to help you share every detail of your life and personality so that they can sell endless amounts of advertising. George Orwell may have gotten the surveillance aspect right, but it’s not just the government who wants to monitor and condition you—the capitalists want to do it too!

Only in science fiction has such mass surveillance been used to protect and serve the public while simultaneously oppressing individuals…or has it? Many anecdotes from the Vietnam War era show that the government isn’t above political use of its police forces, so it’s hardly science fiction to think that it could misuse mass surveillance. Furthermore, evidence points to social engineering via social media targeting being used not only to sell stuff, but to manipulate democratic systems as well.

Artificial Intelligence

The issue of mass surveillance segues nicely into a conversation about artificial intelligence… Hey Siri, open the pod bay doors! HAL 9000 got conflicting instructions and killed only a handful of people on a spaceship around Jupiter. What if HAL ran Chicago instead? Oh wait, that’s what happened in I, Robot and we were lucky to avoid enslavement to our creation. What if someone developed an AI and put it in charge of a nation’s nuclear arsenal? Wonder not, for the dangers have been predicted in Colossus: The Forbin Project in 1970 and by WarGames in 1983. If you are “of the body“, then you know plenty of Star Trek episodes that deal with similar concepts. It would be a shame if people who question the rightfulness of things like Captain Kirk aren’t around to save us because they got sucked up by a secret AI plugged into the NSA’s surveillance network. And what if I told you that certain aspects of The Matrix could happen in the real world?

Chemicals & Biotechnology

Now if AI and surveillance aren’t a little scary for you, then we have chemical companies selling massive quantities of weed killers used to grow much of our food. Some scientists have found links to cancer and other negative health effects studying some of these pesticides. Is it really a surprise to think that this could be after DDT left its trail of collateral damage? And what if we did kill off all of the weeds? (So far we haven’t because many of them develop resistance…which means more poison!) What if these weeds fed bugs or microbes we need to grow the crops? Science history and science fiction make that a real and genuine concern.

And then these same chemical companies have branched into biotechnology. They alter the genome of plants to make them resistant to pests and pesticides. Some of these plants are even modified to secrete their own pesticides. This isn’t unprecedented in nature, but do we eat from plants that have this sort of characteristic? Further, since DDT and other chemicals haven’t worked out too well, companies are now attempting to control mosquitoes through genetic modification.

It’s worth wondering—have these technologies been tested rigorously? Have all the negative possibilities been carefully considered and mitigated? In the United States, industry provides its own safety studies to regulators to get its products on the market. Do you think industry dares to ask the hard questions any good science fiction writer would ask? It stands to reason that they would keep the questions easy in order to get their long and expensive investment in research and development out to market.

But how much science fiction warns us that maybe all this genetic modification could wind up destroying something we need and cannot bring back? Could we be just one innovation away from curing cancer or human hostility while causing an even more dangerous mutation somewhere else? Oh wait, that happened in Serenity, a 2005 film that wraps up the story of the short-lived cult classic TV series, Firefly. And of course, there was a Star Trek episode where scientists created a virus to extend human life…but it only worked on prepubescent children and drove the adults to madness and death. And then there was that episode where a group of genetically enhanced humans from the 1990s took over the Enterprise. Then they took over another ship to hunt down Captain…I mean Admiral Kirk to exact revenge in my most favorite movie ever! Yeah…it made for a great movie…but I don’t want to see that happen in real life!

Nature May Save Us Where Technology Hurts Us

The good news is that microbes—and not technology—eventually thwarted the Martian holocaust in War of the Worlds. But how do we know that the real reason we haven’t been conquered by Martians is because mosquitoes are even more deadly to them than they are to us? Speaking of microbes, scientists are beginning to identify connections between agricultural and bio technologies that may be harming us more than they’re feeding us. Of course these findings are controversial because they call into question a very profitable technology. Either way, it readily demonstrates that too often reverence for scientific inquiry is trumped by reverence for private enrichment.

When Science Fiction Predicted Real-Life Disasters

If you think science fiction is so far-fetched we mighty humans needn’t fear, may I remind you of the historical examples above where imagination predicted beneficial inventions like the smartphone—it’s silly to think that science fiction hasn’t also predicted the bad stuff. Take The China Syndrome, a 1979 film where one of those new-fangled (at the time) nuclear reactors melts down in a disaster precipitated by scientific hubris and typical corporate and regulatory cost- and corner-cutting. Twelve days after the movie’s release, the real thing went down at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. And of course we’ve seen worse at Chernobyl and Fukushima since. Or how about an obscure spinoff of The X-Files TV series called The Lone Gunmen. The premier episode in March 2001 was a story of how airliners were hijacked to fly into the World Trade Center. I don’t think I need to tell you what that predicted.

Some of the reports I see in science and technology today sound like something straight out of science fiction (or The Onion) where things went catastrophically wrong. So whether you’re a scientist, an engineer, or in business, I really think you want to consider science fiction and I think you definitely need to understand history. If you don’t, you could be the next Thomas Midgley. You may make a lot of money. You may be honored with lots of awards. And your name could also become synonymous with technologies that had disastrous consequences for all of humanity.

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