Facts in fiction: what are you learning?

How accurate should the science in fiction be?

This is a question that has been debated since the dawn of sci-fi. Does it matter if an explosion in space makes a sound? Should we get angry when spaceships travel faster than the speed of light? Should we care if a superhero can warp reality with her mind?

In some instances these scientific inaccuracies may seem harmless, but in some cases they can have serious consequences. Inaccurate science may impact the public’s judgement in response to real world science issues, and can affect the flow of attention and funding for scientific advancements. Inaccurate health information presented in medical dramas even has the potential to endanger lives.

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Few methods of communication can reach as wide an audience with as little resistance as fictional books, television and film. The field of narrative persuasion explores how fiction can affect an audience’s perception of the real world. It is important to understand what types of scientific information audiences learn from fiction, and new research is exploring just that.

A recent study at the Australian National University (ANU) has developed a new classification system which could be used to understand the types of science information audiences learn from fiction. The research has given an exciting insight into…

Categorising science in fiction

Previous studies into facts in fiction have shown that audiences are most likely to remember science facts which are important to the plot, presented in a realistic context and presented slowly and repeatedly.

The recent ANU study incorporated these variables into a new system which classifies the science in fiction based on its purpose in the story. This new system classifies fictional facts as establishing, speculative, aesthetic or enabling.

Establishing facts are the “accurate” scientific details in stories used to add plausibility to the fictional world. They are often realistic and widely accepted as “real science”. Examples include the speech on diseases spreading at the beginning of Contagion and the explanation of black holes in Interstellar.

Speculative facts are the scientific details used to imagine futuristic advancements in scientific or technological progress. They are the examples of science and technology used to encourage audiences to consider the benefits or consequences of progress. Examples include the Mars exploration in The Martian and the “precog” crime detection unit in The Minority Report.

Aesthetic facts are examples of science used solely for description or imagery, to enhance atmosphere or add to the narrative landscape. Examples include the distinctive cityscape in Blade Runner and the portrayals of space travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Enabling facts are those used solely for the purpose of ‘enabling’ plot progression. They are generally not scientifically accurate, but they serve to fiction make the impossible possible. Examples include the time-travelling ‘TARDIS’ in Doctor Who and the abilities of superheroes in The Avengers.

Plot - Recall

The types of facts that audiences most readily remember from fiction.

Which facts do audiences believe?

To investigate how audiences respond to these different categories of science facts-in-fiction, a study was conducted to analyse responses to a range of these different facts presented in two fictional texts.

The results found that audiences believed establishing and aesthetic facts the most readily out of all the categories. Although these fact categories were not as immediately memorable as speculative facts, they were much more readily assimilated with real-world knowledge. In contrast, enabling facts were almost never believed.

It was found that speculative facts were the most memorable category by a long margin, remembered by 61% of participants and found to be the most interesting category by 87%. Their believability sparked fierce debate, with strong arguments from both sides.

Of all of the categories, audiences found enabling and aesthetic facts the least interesting. This is primarily because these facts are the least “surprising” – they exist entirely within the realm of plausibility, so they do not surprise audiences like speculative and enabling facts do.

Surprisingly, it was found that audiences assimilate establishing, aesthetic and speculative facts on a subconscious level as well as on a conscious one. Audiences learn these facts, even if they didn’t realise it.

The results of this study are exciting because they show that not only do audiences learn science from fiction, but they’re extremely fastidious about which facts they believe – even if not always on a conscious level.

This is good news for science communicators and science fiction authors everywhere. This research provides a solid foundation for science communicators to use narratives as a communication tool, and it means that fiction authors can be as creative as they like with speculative and establishing facts without worrying about damaging the public’s understanding of science.

So it turns out that it’s okay if facts in fiction aren’t correct. It just matters how they’re presented.

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