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Science Fiction in Pseudoscience

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ESP, PSYCHIC POWERS; PSIONICS

Two themes became so immensely popular in the 1950s that they almost completely dominated science fiction for more than a decade. The first theme was the aftermath of a global thermonuclear war, with a world sunk back into savagery and inhabited by weird, dangerous mutants. The second theme was the awakening of fantastic, generally godlike human mental powers. This latter theme has been so popular that fiction writers, movie scripters, pseudoscientists and newspaper reporters tend to forget that no such powers have ever been demonstrated in any real laboratory inhabited by real scientists. Popular fiction from the very first has been full of mysterious individuals with godlike powers -- the same powers possessed by the gods themselves in the various mythologies associated with the world's popular religions. In the 19th century, two new religions, Spiritualism and Theosophy, summarized conveniently, and named or renamed, the powers that the gods would have -- but that we poor humans never seem to possess. These powers include the ability to read minds, telepathy; the ability to foresee the future, precognition; the ability to "see" what is behind windowless walls and within locked drawers, clairvoyance; the ability to move or alter objects without touching them, by sheer "mental force," psychokinesis; the ability to cause oneself to vanish at one spot and instantaneously appear at another, teleportation; the ability to "take over" another's body, animating it and "looking out of" its eyes and other senses, possession; and so on. As has been pointed out many times, the only thing these imaginary powers have in common is their tendency to recur in the daydreams of frustrated adolescents. "If I could only …. " "I wish I could … " "Boy, if I could … " Pretending that such powers "really do" exist, although we of course don't have them yet … or rather we aren't trained … is merely wish fulfillment, of a rather pathetic kind. In the 1930s, the catchall term ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception) was adopted for all these powers, a rather poor name since many of them don't involve perception. Thus science fiction writers introduced another term, psi powers. The imaginary science of such powers was then called "Psionics." People with ESP were called "esp-ers" and so on.

The two themes of post-nuclear war and psi powers sometimes blended, as in stories where imaginary mutants created by peacetime or wartime radiation developed such powers. Or the human race was depicted as evolving toward such powers. Indeed, a standard science fiction picture of a highly advanced or highly evolved race, since the 1930s, give them not only the physical but also the mental powers attributed in mythology to the gods themselves. This saves any necessity for the science fiction writer to exercise any imagination or originality, regarding what an "advanced race" would really be like.

IN CONCLUSION: the great danger of all the things we have discussed here is that some people tend to accept everything that appears in works of fiction, no matter how far fetched, as somehow "real," as if the authors of the stories have no imaginations, no tradition of fantasy and religious theme to draw on, and no ability to invent things of their own. Science fiction is in no way science fact; it is a literature of entertainment, not of instruction. There is little or no science involved in the usual science fiction story, which since the 1950s ha anyway turned increasingly on political and social issues. Even the handful of writers who do know a little about science -- such as Hal Clement, Poul Anderson, and Arthur C. Clarke -- will always ignore unpleasant facts if they get in the way of the plot or the characters. Any fiction writer is out to interest you, then to entertain you and amuse you. He does not try to function as a scientist or as a teacher; he does not feel any obligation to depict the actual universe in which we live, and generally he does not depict such a universe.

Sadly, pseudoscientists regularly take advantage of public familiarity with the common themes of science fiction, just as they regularly take advantage of the public's ignorance of most real scientific facts and authentic science discoveries.

 

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets: Resources to Promote Critical Thinking are produced by the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (with the assistance of AFF).

The complete collection of Pseudoscience Fact Sheets is available from AFF Electronic Bookstore. 43 pp.

 

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