Why giving science a blanket approach doesn’t work

Posted March 22, 2013 by Renae // 18 Comments

There’s a very interesting trend in fiction, particularly dystopian, that has to do with science and how it’s presented to readers. More specifically, the fact that authors, when in need of something to blame the world’s problems on, turn to science as the most likely culprit. And while I don’t deny that science (and scientists) can be evil, I take issue when ALL science and ALL scientists are lumped together and given the same “EVIL” brand.

Recently, Celidh of The Book Lantern made a wonderful post on anti-intellectualism in Origin and Divergent, both of which I intended to discuss in this post (I’ve been ruminating on this topic since I first read Lauren DeStefano in 2011 and have been attempting to find the words).

Here’s what Celidh had to say:

The issue here, in relation to “Divergent” and “Origin” is that there are absolutely no nuances present in their worlds. It’s very obvious that science and intellect are not to be trusted. Science is cold, emotionless, obsessive, and ultimately destructive. If it doesn’t make you want to take over the world, it’ll at least drive you to innocently kill a few cute kittens just to prove a point. In the world of “Origin”, scientist equals sociopath, while the Erudite of “Divergent” are arrogance personified, with the depth of a latter Moore era Bond villain (but not Raoul Silva because he’s amazing). Anyone who’s ever worked or interacted with a scientist or science student will be very aware that they’re not ice-cold and emotionally vapid. They’re just as warm, complex, interesting and hard-working as anyone else, and certainly don’t deserve to be tarred with such a broad brush.

Obviously, Celidh pretty much hit the nail on the head with her post.

I would also like to bring up a third example, the one that speaks most strongly to me and what first brought my attention to trend of demonizing science in YA fiction. That example is Wither by Lauren DeStefano. Without going into too much detail as to the plot, I’ll just say it’s about scientists who get too cocky and create a virus that spells the end of humanity. And I think that, in general, the “viral apocalypse” plot is just fine and doesn’t have anything inherently wrong with it.

But what DeStefano did in her novel was give science a blanket approach. According to Wither, ALL science was bad; humanity was better off in the dark ages (something we all know isn’t true). So while maybe a handful of scientists did some bad things, saying ALL scientists are evil is a bit of stretch. Because do you honestly believe that a scientist who works on finding a cure for cancer is the same thing and can be put in the same group as a scientist developing new means of biological warfare? Nope. A marine biologist and a chemical engineer aren’t interchangeable, so when an author acts like they are, I start to shake my head.

On the other hand, there are authors who appear to contradict the rampant anti-intellectualism that seems to be dominating fiction. I’m not sure if it was her intent or not, but in For Darkness Shows the Stars, Diana Peterfreund seems to outright mock people who think along the lines of Origin and Wither. In her novel, the anti-intellectual group (aka “Luddites”) end up looking like ignorant fools, too busy lumping ALL science together to realize that SOME science is actually okay. It’s a very interesting contrast.

For myself, when a book claims that loss of humanity is the cost of scientific advancement, I want to smash things. Authors who write like that end up looking like Peterfreund’s small-minded Luddites—juvenile and ignorant. When you lump every single scientist in the world together and announce that all scientific achievement is evil, you set yourself up from problems. The author ends up looking lazy and foolish—it was too hard to find a real antagonist, so you just fell back on science, perpetuating anti-intellectual sentiments that really have no foundation or merit.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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18 responses to “Why giving science a blanket approach doesn’t work

  1. Hmmmm…interesting. I’m an author and a scientist and I write science fiction. And, I have some “evil” science in my books, but I hope I didn’t lump us all together. I’m pretty sure my books have no good guys, so whew…I think I’m safe.

    I do see this and yes, it puts me off when authors (or anyone, really) take this approach. But mostly, I think they are ignorant if they really believe that. I”m not talking as a figure of speech either, I mean seriously, ignorant. Anyone who believes we are better off dying horrible deaths because we can’t treat diseases has never lived in a third world country. They should go to one and ask how many people would like access to good health care.

    I think most people, even the authors who fall into this trap of blaming science, still think science is good. And really, you can switch it around and make religion the target instead of science and I’ll feel the same way. And it’s not even because I have strong feelings one way or another on either topic, it’s just that I find the whole concept boring.

    Blaming the evil scientist is just boring. Blaming the evil Church, also boring. But I know why they do it…because it sells books. People like to blame science and religion and those people buy lots of books.

    Good article though, thought provoking. 🙂
    J. A. Huss (@JAHuss) recently posted…GIVEAWAY: Kick Butt Characters HopMy Profile

    • I’m not opposed to “evil science” in books at all. I just don’t care for oversimplification that, in the end, makes authors look ignorant, as you said.

      But, as you said, it does sell books. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is so hugely popular, in spite of its demonizing of ALL science/logic/intelligence and it’s emphasis on the brute strength, impulsiveness, and violence.

  2. So. Please forgive me, but because this is a discussion post, I feel as if I can speak my thoughts. That’s what these posts are for, yeah? =)

    So I definitely agree about how sometimes lumping scientists in to the group labeled “Bad” is a negative thing. I think lumping things together in general is a bad thing to do, because no matter how evil an institution may be, there is always the good guys in it, whom think differently from the majority of the group. Taking Divergent, since you used Erudite as an example, Tris and Four are different from a ton of the corruption going on in the Dauntless faction. I’m sure there are plenty of scientists that are still focused on the good in a sci-fi/dystopian world.

    But my disagreement comes in when you say you don’t like how science is always labeled as ‘bad and evil’. For me, this isn’t a negative thing. More of the opposite, actually. Because in today’s modern society, go up to anybody, and they will be pro-technology and pro-science. I’m sure there are those hippies out there that are against the growing technology age, but I think we can agree on the fact that almost everybody is pro-technology and pro-science these days. This is precisely the reason why I so thoroughly enjoy these sci-fi novels that have science as a negative thing, but I actually think this is so different from society’s mentality and it forces us to think about something we’re all for in a negative light. While I do think that sometimes these ‘science are bad’ novels get to be too much, I don’t think there’s such a plethora of them out there that I’d get sick of reading these. I enjoy seeing too much technology in a negative light. But you know, that’s just my opinion.

    Seriously Renae, I really loved reading your thoughts about this!! Such a fantastic post, thanks for sharing. <3

    • In regards to Divergent, I think the point that I (and Celidh) was trying to make is that all members of the Erudite faction are portrayed as villains to one degree or another. Yes, Tris and Four are free of the corruption that pervades the Dauntless faction, but Dauntless do not value science at all. By typecasting the “heroes” as warriors who rely on brute strength and the “villains” as those who value intelligence and logic, Roth automatically put ALL science in a bad light. Erudite members were, as a group, cold and unfeeling, lacking in a basic moral compass. Never in Divergent or Insurgent were scientific advancements or intelligence shown to be of value. Tris earned her label as a “kickass” heroine through her dependence on strength and ferocity. The message being sent out? Brute strength is more “pure” (and therefore “good”) than science, which causes people to lose their humanity and manipulate those around them for their own profit.

      And while I agree with you that seeing science portrayed in a bad light is a useful teaching tool and thought-provoking, that was not my main argument in this post. My point was that while SOME science is bad, the trend of authors who portray ALL science as bad is ignorant and lazy. I’m all for a book that portrays technology/science in a negative light—Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series is an excellent example of that. However, Grant did not lump all scientific advancement together and give it the blanket approach I speak out against in this post.

      I think that there is merit in an author using the dangers of technology and science as sort of cautionary tale. I certainly believe that there is a line at some point, and that the human race is in danger of crossing it. However, that was never in question and was not what I spoke against in this post.

      Yes, technology can be bad. However, technology that has the power to control the minds of thousands and manipulate them for nefarious purposes is NOT the same as technology that saves the lives of those in third world countries and increases simple quality of life. That’s what I was saying here.

  3. I’m with you on this, not so much because I think there’s anything wrong with setting science and technology up as largely a negative force, but because these novels in your examples, and many others I could probably find if I thought about it hard enough (like Dualed perhaps) oversimplify things.

    Technology is one of the most likely causes of humanity’s somewhat inevitable destruction of the planet as we know yet. Presumably the planet and life in some shape or form will continue to exist, but at some point we might take ourselves out of the equation, due either to our stupid weapons or, more likely, our lack of respect for the environment. So, on some level, I have no issue with plots that play up the negative aspects of technology.

    However, there are so many examples where that’s ALL there is to technology. Nothing complex is so black and white. You can highlight the good things accomplished by technology and science as well as the bad. All of those novels listed fail utterly at world building, because they don’t take the time to look deeper or really explain anything that’s going on. Origin is probably the best from a world building perspective, which is pretty damn sad, and only because it takes place in a closed environment. The portrayal of science suffers alongside the rest of the world as far as depth is concerned.

    It’s not so much that the portrayal of science and technology is lacking, but that the novels lack the nuance to make them powerful, thought-provoking reads. They’re all popular with readers, but fail on a more critical level.
    Christina (A Reader of Fictions) recently posted…Review: A Tale for the Time BeingMy Profile

    • Exactly, Christina. This is precisely what I was attempting to say.

      I’m personally ALL FOR books that challenge science/technology and call into question its legitimacy and worth, as well as its potential harm. I can think of a few books that do this, do it well, and in doing so broadened my worldview.

      What I take exception to is strict blanket approach to science. ALL science is bad. ALL scientific advancement spells the destruction of humankind. ALL scientists have lost their humanity in their search for knowledge. As you said, it oversimplifies things.

      • ALL risking of your life is bravery. ALL romantic feelings are true love forever and ever.

        Books like this make me sad. I disliked all of these. Well, I kind of liked Wither, but hoped it would expand on the world building. It did the opposite and I now hate the series with a fiery passion. I also liked Dualed, because I thought the characters were well done, even if the world wasn’t. But, for the most part, I hate all of the dystopian/post-apocalyptic/science fiction in this vein.
        Christina (A Reader of Fictions) recently posted…Review: A Tale for the Time BeingMy Profile

        • “ALL risking of your life is bravery.” —> Haha. Like Tris! Not sure how you feel about Divergent, though, so you may disagree there.

          Haven’t read Dualed, since the reviews are so mixed/mostly negative. I’ll wait until the verdict on the sequel comes out, I think.

          • I did NOT like Divergent. Might have been a 3 star had it not been for the hype, but the fact that a book with terrible characters, juvenile writing, and no world building to speak of is considered one of the best dystopian novels EVAR really pisses me off.

            I doubt you’d like Dualed. I really connected with West, but I’m like the only person who got what Chapman was going for with a particular element of the plot that really bothered a bunch of people. It basically all comes down to how you feel about West, because the characterization either saves it from the world building or doesn’t. I would say read a few pages and see if you like her, but I think if you pick a book up, you read it, so waiting sounds like a good plan.
            Christina (A Reader of Fictions) recently posted…Review: A Tale for the Time BeingMy Profile

  4. This is definitely a really annoying trend. It shows a simplification of basically the entire universe and the way humanity WORKS, in my opinion. There are definitely some scientific advances that scare me, but there are also scientific advances that I don’t think anyone would call “evil”(like, remember when our ancestors didn’t have penicillin and would die of infections some of us don’t even bother going to the doctor for anymore? Or like the time smallpox was eradicated?)
    I think in many of the scifi/ Dystopian books, there’s not really a thorough understanding of the complexity of how scientific advancements are integrated into society. Yes, science without ethics is bad and can lead to some very, very, very evil things, but so can other forms of study, yet there never seem to be any books dealing with that. I’m pretty sure unethical pyschological advances could lead to a terrible world just as much as unethical biology/chemistry/etc. advances.
    Stormy recently posted…My Top 25 Songs + Book Pairings {4}My Profile

    • Exactly, Stormy—I couldn’t agree more. I think there’s a definite line, and that today’s science and technology is toeing it. But dismissing all science (including unquestionably great things like penicillin) is a bit ignorant and heavy-handed. It gives readers the wrong impression, and provides an oversimplified view of the world.

  5. This is one of the reasons I loved For Darkness Shows the Stars so much. There is no black and white big bad science/happy lovely cave people dichotomy. The grey area is fascinating and it makes for a more intelligent, less simplistic story and world. Frankly I am less critical of dystopian/sci-fi worlds destroyed by corporate greed and multinational conglomerates, because I don’t see any upside to that side of the future, and I can better believe them as a source of unadulterated destruction. No book will ever convince me that scientific advancement is destined to destroy the world or make human lives worse as a rule. Great discussion!
    Lauren Elizabeth recently posted…Book Review: Pretty Girl-13 by Liz ColeyMy Profile

    • “No book will ever convince me that scientific advancement is destined to destroy the world or make human lives worse as a rule.” <—— I feel exactly the same, Lauren. I can totally see how SOME advancements could cause some sort of apocalypse, but when a book lumps ALL advancement into that category, I keep frustrated. Another commenter brought up the development of penicillin, a truly helpful advancement that saved millions of lives over the years, without which (I’m willing to bet), some of these authors would have suffered greatly. Oversimplification just cause problems, I guess.

  6. This was one of my major problems with Divergent. I really liked the book overall, but considering that if I were in that world I would almost certainly end up in the Erudite faction, the fact that they were portrayed as the Slytherin of the factions (just as good as all the other factions in theory, but all their members who show up in the book just happen to be evil) left a bad taste in my mouth and left me feeling a bit disconnected from the book. It seemed like we were supposed to accept without question the assumption that seeking knowledge makes you a cold and immoral person, and it made no sense to me.

    I think this tend in dystopian books is part of the larger idea that we need to return to some idealized simpler and “purer” time. I’m not sure why that idea is so prevalent (although it probably has a lot to do with the rampant destruction of the environment in modern times), but it sets my teeth on edge. Moving forward is almost certainly a better solution to any problems we might face in the present than trying to return to some mythical paradise.
    Zoe Cannon recently posted…Cover Reveal: Adriana Ryan – Secret for a SongMy Profile

    • “It seemed like we were supposed to accept without question the assumption that seeking knowledge makes you a cold and immoral person” <--- Exactly this. And since I was already having problems anyway, that just about ruined things for me. And, not sure if you've read Insurgent, but that book had the same problems, x10.

  7. I know I’m late to this conversation, but I couldn’t resist. You bring up such a GREAT discussion here! This is one of the things that really turned me off about Origin, and made me slightly uncomfortable with Divergent (although I have to admit that it somehow wasn’t as blatant to me in Divergent. Guess I was just caught up in the plot!). Now you’ve made me REALLY want to read For the Darkness Shows the Stars – so thank you for that!

    • Hey, you’re always welcome to stop by! 🙂

      On it’s own, For Darkness Showed the Stars was a fantastic counter-example to a lot of YA dystopian fiction that gets tossed about. It is a retelling of Persuasion by Jane Austen, though, and in that capacity it was a bit disappointing. I still recommend it, though!