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John Scalzi – Education Is Not the Answer for Star Trek‘s Bad Science

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Here’s an interesting question, sent along in e-mail, which I’ve trimmed down to the bare bones:

“Do you think science in science fiction movies would be better if science education were better in the United States?”

This is of particular relevance to me since the home video release of Star Trek was this last Tuesday, and while watching with my wife I alternated my enjoyment of seeing the franchise revived with the aggravation of the science of the movie being aggressively bad, even for Star Trek. I’ve noted before with the Trek franchise that at this point one has to just let that go, but then I see “red matter” again and I want to hit something. Clearly, I have issues.

Let me be the first to say I’m a huge proponent of more and better science education in our schools. In the tech-oriented world of today, a firm grounding in science will make our kids economically competitive and also better able to understand the changes in the world around them. I think science education more than any other is subject to the whims of people who have social, religious or political goals, which can limit what and how much science kids learn. This is stupid and short-sighted. More bad things will happen because people don’t understand science than will happen because they do. So yes: More science education, please.

That said, no I don’t really think the science in science fiction movies would be better if suddenly everyone’s baseline of science education here in the U.S. went up a notch or two. Why?

First, people don’t care much about accuracy in movies. This has little to do with education and everything to do with entertainment, and it’s not just in science. Gladiator and Braveheart are two recent Best Picture Oscar-winning movies featuring historical events and characters that are wildly historically inaccurate. At the end of the day, people don’t go to the movies to get a history or science lesson. To the extent people think of this stuff at all, they group it into the same category as stage magic: We’re well aware you can’t make a white tiger disappear into a puff of smoke, but we enjoy being fooled all the same.

People’s willingness to let stuff slide is even more pronounced when it comes to science fiction, because the word “fiction” is right there in the genre title. This doesn’t mean that scifi screenwriters and directors can’t put in the almost negligible extra effort to give their fiction a more reasonable scientific grounding — the myriad new science problems of the most recent Star Trek flick, for example, could have been easily fixed with a few minutes of re-writing, at no additional cost to the production, and have made the final picture better — but it doesn’t kill them when they don’t.

Indeed, the people making movies almost certainly know they’re getting it wrong. The screenwriters of Star Trek, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, are not what you would call uneducated: The former went to the University of Texas at Austin, a fine public university, and the latter attended Wesleyan University, consistently ranked as one of the best private colleges in the country. Director J.J. Abrams went to Sarah Lawrence College, also one of the most prestigious private colleges out there. The chance that these three don’t have a better-than-average grounding in basic science, both in high school and then in college, seems pretty slim. It didn’t stopped them from flubbing it.

There is a final point here, which is that even movies with bad science can still inspire the science-minded. Aside from James Kirk, the main characters in Star Trek are a science officer, a linguist, a mathematical wiz kid, a doctor, an engineer and a starship pilot who’s good at fencing. Which is to say they’re all geeks. If you think real world geeks don’t look at that, say I want to live there, and then work to make it happen, you’ve not been paying attention to all the technical progress of the last few decades.

So ultimately, no, I don’t think science education (or the lack thereof) is the problem. I’d like for the science grounding in movies to be better; it’s often not that hard to do. But you know what, most of super-educated and science-positive folks I know love their Star Trek and Star Wars and Matrix and what have you, even when they know the “science” is complete nonsense. If they’re willing to go with it, you can’t fault everyone else.

Your thoughts?

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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