Issue 1.1. “Why We Should Take Fiction Seriously,” by Brett Jiro Fujioka

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on March 1, 2016

Human­i­ties schol­ar­ship on the cul­ture of sci­en­tif­ic and engi­neer­ing com­mu­ni­ties can often appear as con­tentious as it is fas­ci­nat­ing.

With the pos­si­ble excep­tion of busi­ness research, there is per­haps no oth­er dis­ci­pline that many human­i­ties schol­ars seem to loathe more. For many cul­tur­al crit­ics, engi­neers like Elon Musk and sci­en­tists like Richard Dawkins – social icons both – can make for tempt­ing tar­gets. Any­thing and every­thing that a human­i­ties pro­fes­sor detests can be pro­ject­ed onto the gen­er­al­ized and often demo­nized STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, math) fields, and vice-ver­sa.

But lost in the melee is an inescapable truth: that sci­ence and the human­i­ties are in many respects sym­bi­ot­ic, and each can be clar­i­fy­ing forces for the oth­er. Joshua Foust’s “Blood Moon” not only depicts the apogee of the tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven, tech­no­crat­ic utopia — laid low by rogue code borne of quite lit­er­al­ly out­dat­ed human antag­o­nisms — but illu­mi­nates the way fic­tion can serve as a bridge between the cold equa­tions of sci­ence and the human­i­ties’ pon­der­ous pur­suit of truth.

So what gives? STEM-human­i­ties ten­sions have flared up amid a 21st cen­tu­ry renais­sance in pop­u­lar sci­ence (and sci­ence fic­tion as a lit­er­ary genre). It also comes at a time when the human­i­ties field is fac­ing harsh crit­i­cism from the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. Despite impas­sioned essays about the val­ue of lib­er­al arts and the human­i­ties (a sta­ple of major news pub­li­ca­tions), there remains major push­back from promi­nent fig­ures in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty that such an edu­ca­tion is worth­less in today’s econ­o­my. Tech entre­pre­neur Peter Thiel famous­ly called a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion worth­less, but none of the response pieces ade­quate­ly explained why sci­en­tists should care what the human­i­ties have to say about our world.

Yet before scientists criticize the humanities, they ought to try to better understand the field.

Yet before sci­en­tists crit­i­cize the human­i­ties, they ought to try to bet­ter under­stand the field. Astro­physi­cist and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al Neil deGrasse Tyson is harsh­ly crit­i­cal of the util­i­ty of a human­i­ties edu­ca­tion, but his crit­i­cism can often appear sil­ly, and even wrong. For exam­ple, in his acclaimed Fox series Cos­mos, Tyson was sim­ply incor­rect about the some of the ideas and even­tu­al fates of a few of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures he pro­filed.

For a cri­tique to make sense, it should be based on some­thing real. Anoth­er physi­cist, Alan Sokal, thought he had found the best way to prove the human­i­ties worth­less. In 1996 Sokal pub­lished an arti­cle in The Social Text titled “Trans­gress­ing the Bound­aries: Towards a Trans­for­ma­tive Hermeneu­tics of Quan­tum Grav­i­ty.” If the title sounds non­sen­si­cal, that’s because it was. Sokal designed it as a prank to expose the gulli­bil­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary human­i­ties schol­ar­ship. Sokal, along with the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Jean Bric­mont, accused some human­i­ties schol­ars of pro­mot­ing pseu­do­science through mean­ing­less metaphors. Sokal and Bric­mont lev­eled choice barbs lib­er­al­ly, with tar­gets rang­ing from psy­cho­an­a­lyst Jacques Lacan to the philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da.

Yet the sci­ences can be just as prone to fits of inco­her­ence. In 2002, a pair of French media per­son­al­i­ties named Igor and Gricha Bog­danov came under fire for pub­lish­ing physics arti­cles in aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals that seemed to be most­ly gib­ber­ish. The Bog­danov broth­ers com­pound­ed sus­pi­cion about their work by using fraud­u­lent online iden­ti­ties to defend them­selves in dis­cus­sion forums. The Bog­danov Affair, as it’s now known, is often held up along­side the Sokal Affair as evi­dence of errant pub­lish­ing stan­dards even in the hard sci­ences.

One com­mon thread between the two inci­dents was the way jar­gon set the pace for both debates. While Sokal meant for his paper to mock the human­i­ties, he demon­strat­ed a poor under­stand­ing of what the human­i­ties actu­al­ly study – just as some physi­cists crit­i­cized the Bog­danov broth­ers for mere­ly string­ing togeth­er buzz­words with­out the depth of mean­ing­ful con­tent. The real­i­ty is that the sci­ences and the human­i­ties can and often do over­lap. To wit: the phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence, which con­sid­ers the ideas that dri­ve sci­ence as a field, is a sub­set of the human­i­ties.

Regard­less, the ten­sion between sci­ence and the human­i­ties is not a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non; it has deep roots in the Enlight­en­ment, and specif­i­cal­ly the Roman­tic Move­ment. Roman­ti­cism cri­tiqued the Enlight­en­ment as cor­rupt­ing humanity’s propen­si­ty for won­der and affin­i­ty with nature. And it is from that cul­tur­al cri­tique of the Enlightenment’s emphases on rea­son and sci­en­tif­ic process­es that the mod­ern idea of Sci­ence Fic­tion first came into being: not a cel­e­bra­tion of sci­ence, which it often is now, but as a cri­tique. Mary Shel­ley, the god­moth­er of the genre, ani­mat­ed this notion in her 1818 nov­el Franken­stein. It was sci­ence ad absur­dum, after all, that cre­at­ed Vik­tor Frankenstein’s mon­ster.

More recent­ly, sci­ence fic­tion has evolved to include both an affir­ma­tion of human­i­ty and a cel­e­bra­tion of sci­ence. Mod­ern sci­ence fic­tion seems to view sci­ence and human­i­ties as com­ple­men­tary. The Japan­ese nov­el­ist Abe Kobo saw sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries as a “hypoth­e­sis with which to plumb real­i­ty.” While Abe is known pri­mar­i­ly for his nov­els, he had an abid­ing inter­est in tech­nol­o­gy. He was edu­cat­ed in med­i­cine at Tokyo Impe­r­i­al Uni­ver­si­ty and was alleged­ly able to hold tech­ni­cal con­ver­sa­tions with physi­cists. Abe was also a pro­lif­ic lit­er­ary crit­ic and essay­ist; his ideas and lan­guage are infused with the cul­ture of cri­tique, and he was influ­enced by Japan­ese and inter­na­tion­al avant-garde move­ments. It would be a tall claim to accuse Abe of know­ing noth­ing about the sci­ences.

A sim­i­lar cross-dis­ci­pli­nary skill set is ide­al in Amer­i­can fic­tion. The late Michael Crich­ton might be the clos­est ana­logue to Abe. Instead of avant-garde lit­er­a­ture, Crich­ton strict­ly wrote pop­u­lar fic­tion. He grad­u­at­ed from Har­vard Med­ical School after briefly flirt­ing with an under­grad­u­ate degree in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture. Crich­ton had a strong grasp of sci­ence that was reflect­ed in his fic­tion. As an exam­ple, his nov­el Juras­sic Park was focused as an explo­ration of Chaos The­o­ry and why John Hammond’s effort to sub­due nature would ulti­mate­ly fail. Crich­ton used his sto­ry as a vehi­cle to apply sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries based on physics to real-life sce­nar­ios.

Even so, pro-sci­ence nov­el­ists are not with­out their flaws. Crichton’s views on cli­mate change and glob­al warm­ing were con­tro­ver­sial, to say the least. His nov­el, The Ris­ing Sun, was firm­ly plant­ed in the Japan bash­ing of the ear­ly 1990s. Even Abe Kobo was seduced by wrong-head­ed ideas. Don­ald Keene recount­ed that Abe believed in a debunked lin­guis­tic the­o­ry on the excep­tion­al­ism of the Japan­ese lan­guage to account for why Abe found learn­ing for­eign lan­guages so dif­fi­cult. More con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly, there are even peo­ple with back­grounds in sci­ence that oppose vac­ci­na­tions and GMOs as mat­ters of lifestyle. Some­thing like sci­ence should instruct them to be skep­ti­cal of rather unsci­en­tif­ic super­sti­tions, but for what­ev­er rea­son it does not.

This mind­set is, in some ways, an evo­lu­tion of the so-called Cal­i­forn­ian Ide­ol­o­gy — a mix of tech­no-lib­er­tar­i­an ideals that under­pin much of Sil­i­con Val­ley entre­pre­neuri­al­ism, and promise eco­nom­ic and social utopia through, essen­tial­ly, gad­getry. As this ide­ol­o­gy has grown over the past two decades, it has inspired its own push­back from cul­tur­al crit­ics, who accuse it of dehu­man­iz­ing peo­ple through neolib­er­al eco­nom­ics. And, just as the long­stand­ing ten­sions between sci­ence and the human­i­ties have occa­sion­al­ly pro­duced out­ra­geous­ness, in this cen­tu­ry it has result­ed in a counter-move­ment called the Dark Enlight­en­ment, which rejects both Roman­tic appeals to human­i­ty and Enlight­en­ment appeals to rea­son.

The worship of science and engineering sounds suspiciously like a theological scenario from a subculture that largely (and hypocritically) tend to hate theology.

It is telling that many mem­bers of the Dark Enlight­en­ment are soft­ware engi­neers who have tak­en the Cal­i­forn­ian Ide­ol­o­gy to an extreme. Adher­ents of the Dark Enlight­en­ment claim sci­en­tists are the only mem­bers of soci­ety fit to rule, and that non-sci­en­tists should have no say in how soci­ety is ordered and run. The Dark Enlight­en­ment is tight­ly asso­ci­at­ed with some­thing called the sin­gu­lar­i­ty: a spec­u­la­tive point where arti­fi­cial intelligence’s com­put­ing poten­tial increas­es expo­nen­tial­ly and sur­pass­es humanity’s. It’s the point where humankind reach­es a not-at-all fig­u­ra­tive man-machine inter­face, become true cyborgs, and attain immor­tal­i­ty through tech­no­log­i­cal means. If this sounds like sci­ence fic­tion, that is because it prob­a­bly is. It reads sus­pi­cious­ly like a the­o­log­i­cal sce­nario from a sub­cul­ture that large­ly (and hyp­o­crit­i­cal­ly) tend to hate the­ol­o­gy.

These beliefs, born of a nar­row idea of what sci­ence is and spread by tech­nol­o­gists, can have a pow­er­ful effect on soci­ety. Whether peo­ple like it or not, the tech­nol­o­gy industry’s stature has grown immense­ly over the past few decades. Its own evo­lu­tion and progress has become inter­twined with the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. As a result, there is a glam­or­iza­tion of its scions, often mixed with vary­ing dos­es of fear and para­noia towards its promis­ing future. One exam­ple of the way this ide­ol­o­gy has seeped into pub­lic pol­i­cy is the Oba­ma administration’s goal to encour­age STEM edu­ca­tion at an ear­ly age – a laud­able enough goal, one might think. Who wouldn’t want young Amer­i­can chil­dren to learn Man­darin when they’re five or uni­vari­ate cal­cu­lus in ele­men­tary school? But that won’t change the fact that such an edu­ca­tion­al goal is sim­ply unre­al­is­tic. It is an idea being advo­cat­ed by peo­ple who under­es­ti­mate the dif­fi­cul­ty employ­ing such a cur­ricu­lum is (and have prob­a­bly nev­er writ­ten a line of code them­selves).

Yet even as tech­nol­o­gy exec­u­tives are court­ed by the gov­ern­ment, they reject the idea of exist­ing as a part of Amer­i­can soci­ety. Mod­ern day tech­nol­o­gy lead­ers, from genomics exec­u­tive Bal­a­ji S. Srini­vasan to Elon Musk, are plain­spo­ken about the appeal of form­ing a new soci­ety “gov­erned by tech­nol­o­gy.” This is where Joshua Foust’s short sto­ry has its roots: the foun­da­tion of an “opt-in” eco­nom­ic colony away from gov­ern­ments, reg­u­la­tions, and doubters.

There is a clear fan­tas­ti­cal edge to these eco­nom­i­cal­ly utopi­an fan­tasies, found­ed in the Cal­i­forn­ian Ide­o­log­i­cal belief that if only gov­ern­ment would get out of the way then tech­nol­o­gy could make every­one hap­py and pros­per­ous. Much like the Roman­tic rejec­tion of the Enlight­en­ment, and now the Dark Enlightenment’s rejec­tion of both, the Cal­i­forn­ian Ide­ol­o­gy requires ignor­ing copi­ous his­to­ry and schol­ar­ship that shows how vital a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment is to cre­at­ing a just and fair soci­ety. Thus, while Musk wants to build a space colony to gen­er­ate wealth and save human­i­ty, it remains broad­ly unclear how or why col­o­niz­ing space would lead to direct eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits. It is an idea moti­vat­ed pure­ly by achieve­ment with­out any atten­tion brought to some of the oth­er neces­si­ties for life in space.

In con­trast to Sil­i­con Val­ley dreams of build­ing a new world, sci­ence fic­tion requires dili­gence in its world-build­ing. Thus, sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers have detect­ed things that Elon Musk has prob­a­bly missed in dream­ing up his hypo­thet­i­cal space soci­ety. For exam­ple, Hideo Koji­ma, the cre­ator of the Met­al Gear Sol­id videogame series, under­stood that a space colony would have to be a high­ly med­ical­ized soci­ety to sur­vive. He cre­at­ed one such med­ical soci­ety in Poli­ce­nauts, where char­ac­ters liv­ing on a space colony are pre-occu­pied with health to an almost obses­sive degree. A lot can go wrong in space, where a stray pathogen in an enclosed envi­ron­ment can quick­ly become a plague that kills every­one.

Foust does not take his moon soci­ety in that direc­tion, but you can see the same threads being pulled. In his moon soci­ety, the moon col­o­niz­ers are so depen­dent on their com­put­ers that they strug­gle to sur­vive as their gad­gets fail, one by one. More­over, some of the cur­rent cul­tur­al para­noia about Chi­nese hack­ing fea­tures promi­nent­ly. The colonists were fix­at­ed on the Chi­nese colony’s spec­u­la­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty for a com­put­er virus, while the actu­al cause of the mal­func­tion was not near­ly so high pro­file. In a lot of ways this was rem­i­nis­cent of the alleged hack against Sony Pic­tures over its film The Inter­view, a satir­i­cal movie about an attempt­ed assas­si­na­tion of North Kore­an dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-Un. Many in the media and pol­i­cy com­men­tari­at were quick to pin the blame on North Korea, though the case was nev­er pub­licly resolved. There are many rea­sons to be skep­ti­cal that Pyongyang was the cul­prit, and the like­li­er sce­nario is much more mun­dane: a dis­grun­tled ex-employ­ee, per­haps, or some oth­er hack­ing col­lec­tive.

So we can see how it comes full cir­cle: sci­ence finds lit­er­a­ture sil­ly; lit­er­a­ture high­lights the absur­di­ty of sci­en­tif­ic peo­ple; and peo­ple in the real world get upset and lash out. That’s the thing with fic­tion — it risks upset­ting peo­ple. Nov­el­ist Salman Rushdie still has a price on his head from Iran over The Satan­ic Vers­es. The Japan­ese trans­la­tor for the nov­el was even stabbed to death. And, if we’re hon­est, cer­tain writ­ers would be unem­ploy­able in some east coast cul­tur­al hubs for crit­i­ciz­ing the wrong peo­ple. But if fic­tion is sub­tle enough, how­ev­er, it can cri­tique cer­tain insti­tu­tions with­out fear of polit­i­cal retal­i­a­tion. In a way, they can serve the same pur­pose as the jesters in William Shakespeare’s plays. It was the Fool, after all, who was allowed to tell King Lear the truth.

There is a clear risk in tak­ing fic­tion too seri­ous­ly, but there is an even big­ger risk in not tak­ing it seri­ous­ly enough. “Sci­ence,” as a thing, does not stand in oppo­si­tion to “human­i­ties,” as anoth­er thing. The strengths of each field help to shore up the weak­ness­es of the oth­er, forc­ing more sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy on lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy and mak­ing sci­ence more human. The pop cul­ture ascen­den­cy of both sci­ence and sci­ence fic­tion as a crit­i­cal force sug­gest that nei­ther is nec­es­sar­i­ly dom­i­nant over the oth­er. Instead, both are nec­es­sary.


Brett Jiro Fujio­ka grad­u­at­ed from Occi­den­tal Col­lege with Bachelor’s in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­ary Stud­ies. His writ­ing has been fea­tured on Giant Robot Mag­a­zine, The Rafu Shim­po News­pa­per,  Tiny Mixed Tapes, and Gama­su­tra. He is cur­rent­ly a Grad­u­ate Stu­dent in Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Cham­paign-Urbana.